Why you shouldn't (or should) work on an Australian farm

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From Mildura it was a short drive on a few long roads passing barren land. Sheree, a lovely lady, had picked me up and made sure I had the appropriate licenses before taking me to the quaint village under the name Wentworth. Entering the petite area, it felt almost as if we traversed back in time. The townhall and post-office, fire department, the few smaller shops and pubs, even a functioning phonecell, all living and operating in a different era. The style of residences and accommodations had been a lot different than what I was used to. It reminded me of American shows that I had seen. The motel was situated on the village’s main road, across from the grocery store and the pharmacy. It had a main building, where Sheree and her two sons lived, about five rooms attached to it and then two rooms parallel to the main building. At the beginning, I stayed with two others in the room closest to the main building. The way this worked, as do most regional farm jobs for foreigners, the farmers would reach out to Sheree and other backpacker havens letting them know there is work. Then, you will be picked up or dropped off, which tends to be in groups – meaning you will often return at the same time as the others.

Before I got to strap on my working outfit, I was given a day to explore the close area and I found there was a fair bit to see and learn within this tiny dot on a map. First, I randomly wandered about and came upon what is called the Darling-Murray junction. It is where the petty 1472 kilometres long river melts into the 2508 long Murray. The latter also holding the title of the longest river in Australia. Whilst I read the sign giving me a brief history lesson, a picturesque sunset was happening. The sky there had always amazed me, how it at all times could be so clear and bright blue at any point of the day. Then, when the moon had replaced the sun and it was stars covering the sky, it would feel similarly bright. I could always watch it in awe for hours and now with the setting of the sun painting the sky in many colours, it was especially breathtaking. On the way back, walking parallel to the river, I had seen a couple of old paddle streamers that are nowadays used for short cruises. If the lovely junction’s town isn’t enough to steer you if you happen to be near, then perhaps the mini-Sahara near here is worth it. Perry Sand Hills, a must for a sunset. But, alas, before I got to that point, the time for working had come.

Before the sun had dawned, a small group stood at the edge of the town awaiting pick-up. Dazed, with a hint of excitement, I joined the bunch. We all wore our mandatory, bright hi-vis shirt with long sleeves and an old pair of rugged jeans. It was advised that you’d cover the entirety of your body, as it would be harmful to let the merciless Australian sun beam for too long without proper protection. That was the same reason we worked before daybreak and finished beginning noon, departing when the sun becomes too fierce to work under. Once we were picked up, the French supervisor drove us on a long, vacant road to the orange fields where more people waited. After a quick introduction, we were off in pairs. I had been paired with the oldest son of Sheree. Since the pay isn’t hourly, but per bin, and it is also per pair, praise to heavens the other person is sweating their ass of just as hard. Although plenty of the oranges from my partner were flung at the pair in the next row and a fair amount of time was spent telling me about his time in jail and thereafter, he got in a decent amount of work. Truly. We both did. Hot as it was, we picked orange after orange, chugging them in each of the bins we filled that day. Nonetheless, we, the son and I, but also the people in the rows that followed, learned rapidly that the math is off. Taking into account the minimum wage of Australia, on a typical fruit farm, only the best of the best would come even close to making that amount.

Now, seeing how I was not the only one that knew how to do a simple equation, the day after only half the people had showed up. People weren’t stupid enough to work for far below the minimum. Unfortunately, I had no other choice than to accept the measly pay, as my debit had run through and I was solely depending on credit. Having had spent nearly my last money on the tickets to that tiny town, I had no other choice than to fight for a little buck. Another thing I had found, that if you didn’t pluck the trees well enough like many didn’t, or, with figs, if there are too many wrong ones, you simply don’t get paid. What do I mean with wrong ones? Well, figs are about the most sensitive of the bunch that require delicate handling as a simple, quick snatch would damage it. When there are about 5 out of 25 damaged figs, you will not get paid for that box. On top of that, the pay was a helluva lot worse. But, having thought I had experienced all, the worst had been the drought in jobs for the two weeks that followed. No jobs at all, yet the owner of the motel consistently came with a nearby date that marked the start of grape season. But, unsurprisingly, that got postponed about daily. At this point many people left. The ones that needed their 88 days remained and so did I, as I was already living on borrowed money.

Not that it had been a hellish experience. I met loads of backpackers. We did sightseeing around the area or complained merrily about the ordeal. We had tried looking for a job, but that fell through. One guy I met, eventually ended up cycling around a greater part of Australia, all in the name of charity. Some went on to travel more, others tried their luck in a bigger city or a farm elsewhere. But, a number of us remained until the grape season had started. The owner of the land of grapes had been a lot more pleasant to work with than those of previous ones. He’d chat between work and bring us sandwiches, before hopping back on the tractor. The work itself, was laborious, satisfying and fun. Passing the occasional spider, we snipped branches full of juicy grapes and filled dozens and dozens of buckets on a day. Knowing the pay wasn’t going to be horrible added on top of the motivation of course. Then, on the final day we cheered to a few brewskis from the farmer and collected our pay. Upon receiving, I was left with little after the borrowings and due weekly pays were handled. But, at last, I was back in the positive. Thus, with a hand full of dimes and a mind full of new ideas, I took the train to my next destination, Melbourne!

Are you interested in working on a farm in Australia? Here is some advice based on my experiences, heard stories and own opinion:

If you want work on a farm purely to make money, keep the following in mind;

  • You need to have a specific guarantee that you will be working on hourly pay. A simple email won’t suffice as it has possibly been sugarcoated.
  • Working inside – which tends to be for women I heard – or with machinery such as on a tractor gravitates towards having an hourly pay that is minimum wage.
  • For watermelons, it requires you to be both in great condition as well as mentally strong. I heard its toughness has had many people quit, including the “stronger” ones.
  • Otherwise, grapes are decent. Not the greatest pay, but for a good buck you’ll have, in my opinion a fun job. Oranges goes the same, however lesser pay.
  • That figs and apples ought to be avoided.

If you want to work on a farm for the 88 days or simply the experience and make a little bit of money on the side, absolutely do go! Make sure that you know where you will be staying and to have at least one or two proper reviews of that place. I have heard stories far worse than what I had experienced. Yes, Sheree should have been more clear about the conditions and been straight. However, she and her assistant cared about their guests. She had lent me money, at times they would come with a bbq or we’d go out for food and drinks partially on her expense and she’d make sure that we would get paid. I have heard stories of people being in an accommodation where the owner lied about the conditions and didn’t care much about whether they’d get a job. Furthermore, I still suggest avoiding figs. Try to go for grapes, watermelon or oranges and you will have a splendid time, just like I did.