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 is 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.
Queensland Farm Paddock
The first scene is set in a farm 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 was covered in a film of sweat as I polished horse saddles, scrubbed the floor on my bare knees, dug trenches, chopped down trees, painted fences, cleaned quad bikes, and shoveled horseshit from said arena.
On a meticulously regular basis my supervisor, the cowboy, checked up on me to make sure I was working, but he didn’t talk to me, merely unleashed a blast wave of insults and derogatory jokes aimed at breaking me down so that I’m sure I knew my place. This was when I first realized how backpackers are looked upon and treated by the farm work employers.
Living in the Farm Stables
There were about eight backpackers at the station, the number varied as many came and went. We lived and slept in the stables and worked on average twelve hours per day (morning horse feeding to evening horse feeding) and we fell 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 was a bull riding event, and the shift extended to sixteen hours. Our pay was food and accommodation. That’s it.
We were expendable, anonymous, there to be treated in the way the cowboy and his crew saw fit because we were not people, merely backpackers who 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 shouted insulting profanity at us. And no matter how badly he treated his workers there will always be more, as long as there is a second-year VISA to be gained.
Soon, talk of mutiny spread across the station. It originated from the stables and, somehow, as though he had someone on the inside, the cowboy boss brought us a surprise; an afternoon at his beach house where a cooler of Coronas was waiting for us. A reward to stifle our nascent dissent.
We were 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 Farm
In 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 had a surprisingly calm and matter of fact voice. He wanted 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 had to do this very quickly because chasing me was another backpacker with a diesel injector and an altogether easier job. He was to inject diesel into the remains of the sprouts that I 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 Traveling the World”
“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 had a throbbing blister on my hand the size of a ping pong ball and the guy with the diesel injector caught up with me for the first time.
After fifteen minutes, thanks to infinite employer patience, my supervisor approached on a quad bike. “Come with me,” he said, 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 asked him. “Takin’ you humpin’.”
I was dropped off at a white 4×4 troopie, the same kind they have all over rural Oz, which a second supervisor helmed the wheels. The troopie has seen better days and it shakes and rattles as we sped through the banana fields.
Looking out the rooftop window, endless banana trees flickered past with increasing speed. We were six backpackers in the car and after a sudden stop we exploded out into the bananas to impress our employer as he shouted “faster, go faster”.
Two of us were bearing arms — huge machete-like knives sharp enough to cut through the thick banana tree stems – as we rushed toward the waiting tractor and trailer parked parallel to the seemingly endless rows of trees. Two workers were needed by each tree; one to position himself beneath the banana bunch to catch it on his shoulders when the
other cut it from the tree. The huge machete-like knife pierced the warm, humid air. I could feel the stirred up sticky heat brush against my neck as the knife severed the fruit from its branch.
Every time this happened the weight made me lose my balance and I was forced to quickly regain it while the hard banana skin lodged 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 centimeters from death.
I ran as fast as I can with a seventy-kilo banana bunch on my shoulder, to the trailer where I carefully placed it while my partner in banana crime cut down the tree and dragged it to the middle of the path. His is task was very hard work.
Even harder than mine. The Italian backpacker doing it was molded in muscles. When the bunch was secured on the trailer, again I ran as fast as I could under the scorching north Queensland sun.
My body was aching. The sun turned the field into a furnace. I was sweating profusely. My water bottle was still on the trailer that just left to drop off its payload.
I asked if anyone else has any but I was met by despondently shaking heads. No one had water. The furnace turns into hell and the supervisor appears, as he does from time to time, and yelled at us to “go faster, must go faster”.
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.
Harvesting Potatoes at the Farm
Four months passed before I once again found myself in the clutches of farm work. This time it was all about potatoes.
When I arrived at the Victorian farm it was late autumn and cold. I was 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 was a one-floor wonderland of incredibly comfy sofas and armchairs and huge beds and a big screen TV. I had a double bed all to myself.
The job was 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.
Nine Hour Shifts
The shifts go on for nine hours without breaks, except for a few minutes every time the container attached to the harvester is full and the potatoes are dumped into twenty-five-ton trailers.
Then we lose our minds from time to time and when I would close my eyes at night I saw the conveyor belt and the potatoes and work continued in my sleep.
Work here was different from my adventures in Queensland.
Some weeks later we moved 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 was pouring in but our sanity was heading the other direction.
Rocks on the Conveyor
Rocks piled up on the conveyor belt. We had to stop it over and over to clear it but the very second the rocks were gone it all whirrs, clanks, and clonks and more rocks fill our souls. A maniacal take-me-to-the-asylum kind of laughter was heard among the potatoes. We all succumbed to it.
Shower Sleep Eat
At the end of the day, we drove back to the house, eat, shower, and sleep. Then, seven hours after we had stopped working, we started again. Another sixteen hours shift. In the darkest depths of my despair, somewhere in the final third of these sixteen hours of hurt, I struggled to keep tears from gushing onto the ever-rolling spuds.
While this may sound nightmarish, it was far from it. Not only work was different this time around. The employer was too. Kerryn, the wife of the religious family who owns the potato farm, told me, “I believe that all people should be treated equally.”
She is the angelic antithesis of my previous employers and she even cooked us (the six working backpackers) dinner from time to time and when Easter arrived she put on a feast for her big, friendly family and backpackers.
Part of the Farm Family
By the end of the eight weeks we spend here, a misty-eyed Kerryn proclaimed us backpackers part of the family. It was a hallmark/plot twist ending to my farm work story, sweet enough to hurt your teeth, but altogether 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 altogether.
Sebastian Andreasson spent six months working in Australia in 2014. He is from Sweden.
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