Issue 116: A Backpacker’s Odyssey

Following the Harvest Trail

Each year thousands of backpackers find work helping to bring in fruit and vegetable harvests. It’s a great way to travel around Australia at your own pace while working and earning money. NEIL JOHNSTONE shares his experiences on the Harvest Trail.

Working Holiday Makers (WHM) contribute $1.8 billion to the Australian economy. (Image Subiaco Farm, Walcha)

When I first heard that a second year working holiday visa is obtainable via fruit picking in Australia, from a woman working at the flight centre in Edinburgh, Scotland, my initial thoughts were, easy pickings… this doesn’t seem too bad. Images of slow, relaxed days romanticised in my head, of wandering down the paddocks picking bright red strawberries, and popping the odd one in my mouth in a carefree existence. The idea was appealing; the sun, the country lifestyle and the beautiful landscapes I’d read and heard so much about. These romantic daydreams were then systematically torn apart when I spoke to travellers who had worked on the Harvest Trail.

“You’ll want to leave after 20 minutes,” one told me. “It’s like slavery, you can’t stand up straight for a week,” another said.

Suddenly, I was engrossed in nightmare reports of back-breaking labour, in 50°C heat, desperately following a tractor, struggling to keep up with loading pumpkins or something equally as tiresome.

“They have no sympathy,” I was told when asking about the treatment of workers. “You’ll be working and then you’ll see a backpacker, broken down, tears flooding, turning away defeated by the work.”

These stories or backpacker myths painted an ambiguous scene in my mind that farm work was certainly no easy ride, and furthermore can break people to the point of tears! This was the fate of a traveller who wished to extend their visa in Australia – or one option anyway. These were images made all the more terrifying to a city slicker, with no real knowledge of the reality of it; walking ignorantly into the unknown, heavily presuming a tough regime. Like stepping out into the Wild West, knowing no-one and unaware of the rules … if there were any at all.

Then all fears were put to rest when I heard a soft-spoken voice on the phone, not at all reflecting my preconceived notion of the horrible farmer!

“We take good care of you,” she said.

“We give you food and accommodation and some money at the end of the week for your pocket.”

We even got a 2-hour lunch break complete with a lake to kayak on … not at all what I expected. This was the relaxed phone call between myself and Katie, the co-owner of Subacio Farm in Walcha, situated in northern New South Wales. I was at the Wharf Bar in Manly, a tourist-filled destination on the Northern Beaches of Sydney on a busy Saturday night, which had been my home for the last 4 months, and it was now decided that on Monday morning I was travelling to Walcha – wherever the hell that was!

Leaving the platform of Sydney Central Station, I gazed at the Opera House and all the other landmarks of Sydney Harbour with a feeling of anticipation, excitement and loss. I wasn’t sure when I would be back to the place I proclaimed my home away from home. The journey was about 6 hours on the country rail train, showing sights unseen to me previously, the landscape becoming flat and vast with not a concrete building in sight. I managed to get through six chapters of my book, which told the real life struggle of Teddy Atlas, a troubled boy in the process of becoming a man and making his way in the world, by realising that everything comes down to the character of a person and how far they are willing to go to face the truth.

These were ideas I liked very much and thought would most likely play a role in my mental outlook if these apparent backpacker myths were true. I believe that everyone at some point or another goes through a time when they must demonstrate longevity and consistency, persistence, not look for distractions or an easy way out, essentially face the truth of what it is they have to do, all of which resulting in a test of an individual’s character. I was keen to prove to myself that I wasn’t a quitter and was strong-willed enough to not be dictated by my emotions. To be a professional and do what it takes to finish the job as opposed to expecting an easy ride in a beautiful setting. The words of Teddy Atlas stayed with me, and he became my invisible mentor for the duration of my Harvest Trail experience. If I ended up in a nightmare situation, I felt determined to persevere and not to be a blubbering, whimpering mess, leaving a field defeated.

The train pulled into Walcha station, which if it weren’t for the Public Broadcast announcement, anyone could be forgiven for mistaking as an abandoned shed with a small concrete platform and a dusty car park. Waiting was the shuttle bus into the town where I would meet up with Katie. There was nothing but fields in every direction and the only phone signal existed on a small local network.

Wildlife includes tree-like owls camouflaged within the branches.

The WHM visa permits young international travellers from 19 countries the right to work and travel in Australia for up to 12 months. (Image Subiaco Farm, Walcha)

“The work was relatively simple”

Subiaco Farm on the outskirts of Walcha was my first stop in working towards my second year visa. It was an organic farm spanning over 12,000 acres. My job was primarily weeding around the echinacea plants. The plants were still young although some had bloomed into beautiful pink flowers. Once harvested, the medicinal ingredients were used for strengthening the immune system and sold in bottled liquid form to pharmacists. I tasted the produce on my first day by biting the head of the plant and chewing the strange substance. It tasted bitter sweet and left my mouth with a numbing, lightly stinging sensation. It certainly tasted very organic, but sticking to beef jerky was a more enjoyable option.

Once harvested, the medicinal ingredients are extracted to produce bottled health products that are sold in pharmacists. (Image Subiaco Farm, Walcha)

Unfortunately, weeding was the dominant task and was what workers spent most of their days on during my time there. The hours varied, but it was typically a 6 a.m. start for a 3-hour shift, then back to the house for breakfast, back to the fields for a few more hours, broken by a lengthy 2-hour lunch and returning to work for two or three more hours, all of which was weather permitting.

Organic echinacea farm. (Image Subiaco Farm, Walcha)

On my first morning we saw kangaroos bounce across the fields, which was a first for me, mentally ticking off one ‘must see’ in Australia. The work was relatively simple; hoe in hand, walk up the paddocks removing any weeds that could impede the growth of the crop. We would do this for an hour, have a quick 5-minute water break, and then back to the fields.

Coming from Scotland, there were many species new to me, especially in the insect world. Walking through the paddocks reminded me of scenes from Avatar, the insects bringing life and character to the fields, flying across from side to side, in fantasia-like fashion. A hint of concern came when two Swedish girls left on my first day of work. It was only their second day on the job. I never did learn why they left so promptly.

In a country known for its dangerous critters I was hesitant at first to get my hands dirty. While I was told there was the odd snake here and there, I never saw one, but was informed by others, which ones to look out for, as well as spider info, which was the usual red-back this and white-tail that. The wildlife was beautiful; tree-like owls camouflaged within the branches, rosellas and tropical-looking birds of every colour. Praying mantis roamed around the grass and to my dismay, flies patrolling every step that I made. The silence in comparison to Sydney was striking, but I only really noticed at night when the moon took centre stage with no street lights to compete with its presence.

Most days were the same old song, using hoes to prepare for harvest, that soon became repetitive and mundane at times, relying on banter to keep the mind focused, rejuvenated and enthusiastic. If that’s not there, then the work can become hard, especially if you have an annoying song stuck in your head. Thankfully, there were no signs of the concentration camp ethic just yet. Feeling like a duck out of water, I wore a fly net to cover my face, a symbol of my city innocence. My boss kept telling me to take it off.

“We don’t wear these here you know … no one does!”

I soon learnt to adapt to the ubiquitous flies.

Though I enjoyed many aspects of living on the farm, I knew I would be happier somewhere else, so after working for 2 weeks I decided to move to Stanthorpe, travelling north into Queensland. The National Harvest Trail Guide, an essential travelling companion for backpackers, stated job opportunities were in abundance at this time of year and so the following day I caught a Greyhound to Stanthorpe with a co-worker from Subiaco Farm.

“At this point I really, really hated weeding!”

We arrived at The Blue Topaz in the afternoon, staying in a cramped, two-man cabin. The site was pretty small, sitting on the highway about six and a half kilometres from the town of Stanthorpe. The Blue Topaz is a caravan park well known to backpackers and local growers looking for casual workers. The other option to gain work is through the local employment agency Ready Workforce, which is also well-connected to local farms in the area. However, the booming industry didn’t seem to exist this year, as there were hundreds of backpackers waiting for work. It was really luck of the draw if one was successful or not.

I got lucky when I first arrived, hearing my name called over the Public Broadcast system after waiting only 2 hours. All I knew was I was being picked up by a guy called Tomo, and the job was at the Red Jewel Farm. One co-worker was surprised at my luck, informing me he had waited weeks and his friends were still waiting. We worked in strawberry fields weeding the paddocks. This was long and gruelling work and the weather was warming rapidly. At this point I really, really hated weeding!

The glasshouse (background) features the hanging gutter system and Grodan slabs, and includes simple, innovative technology to accurately measure and monitor run-off.

Harvesting at Red Jewel Nursery. (Image Red Jewel Nursery).

The shifts were 9 hours long (5.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m.) with only a 15-minute break at 10 a.m. It was a place where weary bones and fragile minds walked the paddocks, knowing that as each hour goes by they are a step closer to an extended visa. But minutes and hours go by very slowly under the baking heat where barely a word is spoken, and a constant threat of being replaced by a faster, more efficient backpacker waiting in line with the many others. This growing concern made me consider my image in a different way. Neatness and cleanliness didn’t mean much here, it was rather how strong mentally and physically I looked – did I look like a quitter? Did I look straight off the boat, a spoilt traveller on the gap year before starting at a prestigious university? I thought honest and scruffy would be the best image with no hair gel. I made sure there was mud or paint on my clothes to show I was ready to work on my hands and knees. It turned out the farmer couldn’t care less. I was simply a small unit, a dot in a field among the other dots making up the workforce for that week.

I started to question whether I wanted a second year, forgetting months of beaches and bars and lie-ins I had enjoyed in Sydney and Melbourne. Now a reality had dawned, one of hardship and lack of morale. Never before had low spirits prevailed so consistently. The work was long and the breaks were short, psychologically making it tougher, knowing there was no time to pause (unless subtly), and when the break did eventually arrive the feeling that it wasn’t going to last long was imminent, in a sense taking the comfort away from it.

Every day was exactly the same. In the mornings we would look at the sky hoping for clouds to block the sun so that the day went by less painfully. Working up the paddocks, differentiating the weeds from the plants in an endless row, in silent fields. Some with music in their ears, others just concentrating on the task, seldom was there chatter and if the day was more social this was usually in the mornings. Crossing between hands and knees to standing and bending over, flies on the face, hoping the boss isn’t looking to quickly stretch the back and guzzle a mouthful of water at the end of the row. The quiet days gave rise to a whole day of thinking, dedicated to the swirling thoughts of that week or month. In that sense it was very peaceful with plenty of time to evaluate oneself and think of what’s ahead. The life of a backpacker is rarely planned, only the next week’s accommodation accounted for, hoping the farm keeps you on long enough to pay the rent and buy food, and of course, some beers at the end of the shift.

At the end of the day there is a silent bond; we have all collaborated on the day’s labour together, going through the same aches and pains, concentrating on plants and unenthusiastically, moving onto the next paddock.

The weeding was all preparation for the harvest the following month. If we were lucky we’d be back again for that. Rumours of 400 bucks a day brought smiles to our faces.

After a couple of shifts I brought my iPod to work and the difference was unprecedented. Somehow, by not hearing the tools digging into the ground, the hot, sticky silence, the cicadas’ ongoing racket, the work became psychologically far easier. It made hours drift by faster, but did nothing for the back pains. Only endurance and the muscles getting used to it over time helped. Strawberry Fields Forever by the Beatles came to mind and I saw the irony.

One morning, we were all dismissed at ‘smoko’, which came as some surprise as we had been made permanent only 2 days prior. Ready Workforce informed us that there were twice as many people in Stanthorpe this year in comparison to normal years. This information contrasted with the Harvest Trail Guide, proclaiming that Stanthorpe is essentially a Mecca for farm work at this time of year.

“Work definitely felt more worthwhile and satisfying when produce was involved …”

Work feels much more satisfying when produce is involved as opposed to just weeding. (Image Subiaco Farm, Walcha)

After a week of waiting I got 1 day picking grapes at a nearby vineyard and work gradually got better and more consistent at the Blue Topaz. Grape picking was a joy in comparison to weeding. For one, it was standing work, the grapes slid off the branches with the sharp scissors and the buckets kept on filling. I heard it’s by far the easiest – nothing on mangos. The following day I picked squashes. The work was relatively easy, simply clicking them off the branches and placing them in a bucket. It was a small farm and I was the only worker.

Work definitely felt more worthwhile and satisfying when produce was involved as opposed to just weeding. So far this satisfied feeling had been largely absent from my experience, most of my time spent lulling around the caravan park speaking with other backpackers looking for work. It felt like a jail at times, with very little freedom. Obviously, one can leave at any time, however, you risk losing work in the instant that you miss your name being called and the job redirected elsewhere. If you do wonder, it’s a 6km walk to Stanthorpe, there are next to no buses, and once you get there, there are only a handful of shops, one internet café, a few bars and that’s about it.

It seemed being employed depended on one’s likability. I asked how the system worked and it was no secret, it all relied on the individual. How polite, how eager one is, can gain them valuable points over another. It’s a competitive place, just the same as any major city, but perhaps tougher and more cut-throat. We were all in competition with one another.

Waking up one morning in Groundhog Day fashion in my scrubby, claustrophobic room, I really had no idea where the next work would be. Finding a contact I was given on my first week in Sydney that I had scribbled in a note pad, I decided to call it one dull morning. Feeling despair under the heat and lack of employment – I had nothing to lose. It turned out to be a good decision. Four days later I would be on a bus to Brisbane then flying to Alice Springs via Cairns. I would be working for 3 months on a hydroponic lettuce and herb farm. I bought a hat and fly net.

Throughout my time in Walcha and Stanthorpe I never really felt engaged in my work. It was really just turning up for a pay day. I hoped to feel more stimulated at the next job in Alice Springs. When I told the squash farmer of my plans, he replied: “I hope you like fighting”, a cryptic clue to the town’s Wild West reputation. I wasn’t sure what to make of this at first, though I had heard other stories about the town. That said, there have been drastic misconceptions from the start of this farming lark. On the plus side I would get to travel the Northern Territory, which the squash farmer said was extraordinary.

Neil Johnstone

About the Author
Neil Johnstone is a young backpacker from Edinburgh, Scotland, following the Harvest Trail in Australia. In his next article, he will recount his work experiences in the Red Centre. Email: neiljohnnstone10@aol.com


Translator