Australia: Doing Farmwork in the Country
Working on a Farm Down Under
Farm work with potatoes, bananas and Bulls in Queensland Australia
By Sebastian Andreasson
Once the first carefree weeks of fun and games are over, and the sense of holiday has faded, the next step for any backpacker doing the full Aussie experience is to find farm work. You need to do three months in order to get your second year Visa. For my own part I spread my farm working days over three separate time periods, and they included work among potatoes, bananas and bulls.
The first scene is set in a paddock far north in Queensland, next to a bull riding arena at a so-called station. The place is carved out of the Daintree rainforest. Ridiculously beautiful, yes, but work is hard, made harder by the humidity.
I’m covered in a film of sweat as I polish horse saddles, scrub floor on my bare knees, dig trenches, chop down trees, paint fences, clean quad bikes and shovel horseshit from said arena.
On a meticulously regular basis my supervisor, the cowboy,checks up on me to make sure I’m working, but he doesn’t talk to me, merely unleashes a blast wave of insults and derogatory jokes aimed at breaking me down so that I’m sure to know my place.This is when I first realise how backpackers are looked upon and treated by the farm work employers.
Living in the Stables
There are about eight backpackers at the station, the number varies as many come and go. We live and sleep in the stables and work on average twelve hours per day (morning horse feeding to evening horse feeding) and we fall asleep at eight utterly exhausted, pretending to watch movies but really it is just an excuse to drift away from a world of work to a world of our own. On Fridays there is a bull riding event, and the shift extends to sixteen hours. Our pay is food and accommodation.
We are expendable, anonymous, there to be treated in the way the cowboy and his crew see fit because we are not people, merely backpackers that come and go like the humid wind.
Only the most devout backpackers stay longer than a week or two because of the hours and no pay all the while the cowboy shouts insulting profanity at us. And no matter how badly he treats his workers there will always be more, as long as there is a second year VISA to be gained.
Soon, talk of mutiny spreads across the station. It originates from the stables and, somehow, as though he had someone on the inside, the cowboy boss brings us a surprise; an afternoon at his beach house where a cooler of Coronas is waiting for us. A reward to stifle dissent. We are alone on that beach, nothing but sand, palm trees and eight tipsy backpackers drinking paradise in the Pacific, and not one of us could remember what had made us want to leave the place.
The cowboy’s plan succeeds.
Off to the Banana FarmIn the end I left the station because I needed to make money. After spending a couple of weeks in Cairns, I got a job in Atherton, on a banana farm.
“Now, Sebastian, if you can’t do the work someone else can. I understand it’s good to have a job, Sebastian, but you have to be able to do it.”
The banana farm supervisor has a surprisingly calm and matter of fact voice. He wants me to cut down sprouts around adolescent trees, leaving one sprout behind so that it can grow when the cycle has reached its ends; bananas picked and fruit bearer chopped down.
I have to do this very quickly because chasing me is another backpacker with a diesel injector and an altogether easier job. He is to inject diesel into the remains of the sprouts that I have cut down. It all struck me as very environmentally sound.
It was also an interesting parable, I thought. When the trees were no longer profitable, which for some reason occurred as soon as it had born fruit once, the whole thing was simply cut down and discarded. When a worker wasn’t profitable, well, goodbye to you, son.
“I’m not the one traveling the world. No one is forcing anyone to do anything,” said my supervisor with that matter of fact voice of his. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Well, in reality there was no door. Just wide open spaces for backpackers to stream in and out of, faceless, nameless, shaped like dollar signs.
After five minutes I have a throbbing blister on my hand the size of a ping pong ball and the guy with the diesel injector catches up with me for the first time. After fifteen minutes, thanks to infinite employer patience, my supervisor approaches on a quad bike. “Come with me,” he says and I’m pretty sure that’s it. My banana farm career had lasted a whopping fifteen minutes and a throbbing blister. “Where are we going?” I cheerfully ask him. “Takin’ you humpin’.”
I’m dropped off at a white 4x4 troopie, the same kind they have all over rural Oz, in which a second supervisor helms the wheels. The troopie has seen better days and it shakes and rattles as we speed through the banana fields.Looking out the roof top window endless banana trees flicker past with increasing speed. We are six backpackers in the car and after a sudden stop we explode out into the bananas to impress our employer as he shouts “faster, go faster”.
Two of us are bearing arms - huge machete-like knives sharp enough to cut through thick banana tree stems – as we rush towards the waiting tractor and trailer parked parallel to the seemingly endless rows of trees.Two workers are needed by each tree; one to position himself beneath the banana bunch to catch it on his shoulders when the
other cuts it from the tree.The huge machete-like knife pierces the warm, humid air. I can feel the stirred up sticky heat brush against my neck as the knife severs the fruit from its branch.
Every time this happens the weight makes me lose my balance and I’m forced to quickly regain it while the hard banana skin lodges into my sore shoulder, and I’ve already forgotten about how grateful I am that the knife once again had missed my head – we are talking centimetres from death. Yes, dramatic!
I run as fast as I can with a seventy kilo banana bunch on my shoulder, to the trailer where I carefully place it while my partner in banana crime cuts down the tree and drags it to the middle of the path. His is task is very hard work.
Even harder than mine. The Italian backpacker doing it is moulded in muscles. When the bunch is secured on the trailer, again I run as fast as I can under the scorching north Queensland sun.
My body is aching. The sun turns the field into a furnace. I’m sweating profusely. My water bottle is on the trailer that just left to drop off its payload.
I ask if anyone else have any but I’m met by despondently shaking heads. No one has water. The furnace turns into hell and the supervisor appears, as he does from time to time, and yells at us to “go faster, must go faster”.
For nine hours a day we run from tree to tree, from bunch to bunch, back and forth to the trailer, cutting and carrying until we literally sweat, blister and bleed.At night we sleep like logs and dream about bananas, and, looming distantly in an almost indiscernible future is the true free life of vagabond ventures; backpackerland’s goon flanked trail of the true and the tremendous.
I didn’t last very long at the banana farm. Hard work pays off, yes, and if you can cope you can bring in a lot of cash, but as soon as I had enough money to make it down the coast, I did.
Four months passed before I once again found myself in the clutches of farm work. This time it was all about potatoes.
When I arrive at the Victorian farmit is late autumn and cold. I am invited into my new employer’s home; the air con heated windy plains palace of the Gallagher’s, a house where windmills make the sunlight flicker in orange afternoons and a pungent smoky smell of burning firewood is ever-present in pitch black autumn evenings.. It is a one floor wonderland of incredibly comfy sofas and armchairs and huge beds and a big screen TV. I have a double bed all to myself.
The job is to stand by a kind of conveyor belt on a huge harvester pulled over the fields by a tractor and remove mud and rocks and rotten spuds. The shifts goes on for nine hours without breaks, except fora few minutes every time the container attached to the harvester is full and the potatoes are dumped into twenty-five ton trailers, and we lose our minds from time to time and when I close my eyes at night I see the conveyor belt and the potatoes and work continues in my sleep.
Work here is different from my adventures in Queensland.
Sorting potatoes isn’t physically hard work at all, however, through unimaginably monotonous boredom it plays tricks on our minds.
You can instantly recognise when one of us is afflicted. A malfunction of the mind that in truth we do not mind, for a mad wander is better than presence of mind among perpetual potatoes’ relentless rapid rumbles.
Some weeks later we move to the third paddock and there is a reason it has been saved for last. The conveyor belt is set to a faster speed than before, the amount of mud is higher, the number of rocks is ridiculous and everything is so relentless that respite becomes a distant blurry memory and muscles ache, fingers hurt and we sweat even though we’re heading into Victorian winter.
Ah, yes, and we are now working sixteen hours instead of nine. Money is pouring in but our sanity is heading the other direction.
Rocks on the Conveyor
Rocks pile up on the conveyor belt. We have to stop it over and over to clear it but the very second the rocks are gone it all whirr, clank and clonk and more rocks fill our souls. A maniacal take-me-to-the-asylum kind of laughter is heard among the potatoes. We all succumb to it.
At the end of the day we drive back to the house, eat, shower and sleep. Then, seven hours after we had stopped working, we start again. Another sixteen hours shift. In the darkest depths of my despair, somewhere in the final third of these sixteen hours of hurt, I struggle to keep tears from gushing onto the ever rolling spuds.
While this may sound nightmarish, it is far from it. Not only work is different this time around. The employer is too. Kerryn, the wife of the religious family who owns the potato farm, tells me, “I believe that all people should be treated equal.”
She is the angelic antithesis of my previous employers and she even cooks us (the six working backpackers) dinner from time to time and when Easter arrives she puts on a feast for her big, friendly family and backpackers celebrate among Gallaghers, and by the end of the eight weeks we spend here, a misty eyed Kerryn proclaims us backpackers part of the family. It is a hallmark/plot twist ending to my farm work story, sweet enough to hurt your teeth, but all together true.
Now, having read thus far, you may ask yourself whether all that hard work really is worth the effort. Why, yes, of course! You see, I have intentionally saved the main twist for last. You know, the once in a lifetime stuff.
At the station I was presented with an opportunity to ride a wild horse in front of a cheering crowd. I did it, of course. At the banana farm I was offered to celebrate a sunny Christmas with backpackers from all over the world. I did it, of course. At the potato farm I – and get this – I was given the chance to turn fields into infernos with an Australian reality TV-star, using a veritable flamethrower, from the back of a speeding UTE. I did it, of course.
I also met people I will call my friends for life, but that’s another story all together.
Sebastian Andreasson spent six months working in Australia in 2014. He is from Sweden.
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