Harvesting & WWOOFing in Australia - An Introduction

Perth Travel Blog

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It's a recent visa agreement between Britain and Australia that leads me to my next adventure Down Under. Australia produces much of it's own food due to it's sub-tropical climate: bananas, mangos, apples, potatoes, not to mention sheep & cattle. But no self-respecting Australian citizen wants to help pick these harvests, what with the low rate of pay, risk of spider or snake bites, and soaring temperatures etc. And so the Australian government came up with the wizard idea of insisting British working-holiday visa holders carry out 3 months of this delightful manual labour in return for an extra year visa. And so I, like many other eager working tourists find myself seeking 3 months work in slave labour camps all over Australia.

In my time travelling I have been collecting stories & mentally noting pros and cons to each harvest. The risk of snakes falling into your basket as you pick bananas in my mind excluded that fruit as a possibility. Ginger is back-breaking & you are disturbing hundreds of 'deadly' red-back spiders. Potatoes are back-breaking not only for the ground-level work but also for the lugging & lifting. Apple-picking involves 4am starts to pick while there is still frost, and what's more you aren't allowed to wear gloves to protect your frost-bitten fingers because you may mishandle & bruise the fruit. I seriously considered getting a doctor's note to excuse me from lugging since I suffer from lower back pain, but concluded that if I turned up to a farm suggesting I be given only easy work, I would more likely be told to get lost as I was "bloody useless". One friend fainted four times in 40 degree heat out in the fields but did the farmer care that his workers were dehydrated & fainting from heat exhaustion? No, she was told to harden up or move on. In all the stories regaled, most of the farmers sounded either "strange", or just plain unpleasant to work for. I liken the situation to that between students & London landlords. The students expect the landlords to be shitty to them; refuse to fix things or dispute over deposits; the landlords expect the students to be shitty, smashing up the place, disputing breakages & stiffing them over the deposits, & so they end up being shitty & argumentative to the other and the situation is self-perpetuating. Similarly in Australia, the backpackers rock up to the farms, work for 2 hours/2 days/1 week & then decide it's too bloody hot/tiring/dangerous (in Northern Territory you can be put in a crocodile pit on your first day, & unsurprisingly there's a high staff turnover), decide to blow it off, jump in their car & piss off again leaving the farmer one worker down (or several if said backpacker has organised a mutiny & offered car space), and so the farmers tend to be hard & unpleasant to the potentially shonky workshy backpackers & so the bad feeling & bad work ethic is perpetuated. As another example one friend was enticed to a remote potato farm with the promise of good lodgings but when rain put a stop to the harvest on the first day, and so on for the next 10 days, the farmer refused to advance any of the workers money, refused to provide them food & they were so skint they had no money to escape. For that 10 days they lived on stolen potatoes & water, & eventually pushed the car to the next town, pooled their meagre dollars & escaped. I kid you not, that's a true story. So with all this in mind I had in fact long ago decided on pruning grape-vines (there are obvious advantages to working near wineries....) but decided first to earn some decent cash doing temp work & put the whole question of harvesting aside for another day.

I settled into a real life in Perth relatively quickly, landing myself a flat, good job and kind friends. My work environment was enviable, the pay excellent, my team warm & sociable. But after 6 months working there it was time to change the ABN (Aus Business Number) of the company I worked for, another visa restriction to prevent foreigners taking the jobs of Aussie citizens. My work colleagues & I were dismayed, it was a good team & none of us wanted me to have to leave. But after looking at the situation some time I realised that mining counts as 'specified work'. Therefore my first plan was to get signed off for having provided 'Mining Support Services'. My boss was delighted with the work-around, and we agreed that I would continue in my same role but working for one of our team's business affiliates. We thought we had the problem licked, but were thwarted on three counts as 1. 'Mining Support' does not include admin, 2. I didn't carry out the work 200km from an urban area (another stipulation), and 3. Immigration prevents against working for a business affiliate until after the seasonal/specified work. So it was back to the drawing board. The question of this harvesting nonsense was still hanging over my head, and as the 6-month limit on my working capability at my office approached, I was struggling and struggling to find a way to avoid the inevitable fruit-picking that loomed on the horizon, in favour of staying with my happy-go-lucky team. I wriggled and wriggled to get out of leaving my cushy job, but ultimately I had to concede. Immigration's vice-like grip had triumphed - I would have to go. Bye bye cushy job, bye lovely team, bye friends and boyfriend in Perth, I'm off to pick frickin' fruit.

So having finally accepted the imposition, the next obstacle was where to go harvest. I'm not mobile, I don't drive and I'm no longer plugged into the travelling community. Were I in a hostel it would be no trouble to make friends with other people off to complete harvest work, we'd jump in someone's car together, drive to a farm and move on when the mood took us. Unfortunately I had a life, a fella, a job and friends, which is what made the whole thing so insufferable. At first I considered a friend's boyfriend's olive farm 3 hours east in Beverley, but he insisted that I be independently mobile to get groceries from the town 20km away, and since I couldn't promise I wouldn't be a burden I had to look elsewhere. I happened to look in the WWOOF book for 2008 just out of interest: WWOOFing stands for 'Willing Workers On Organic Farms'. Workers can stay as part of the family and receive bed and board in exchange for free labour. I had wanted to do it with another friend for the experience, but we'd never got around to it. The first entry on the southern WA page was for Pinjarra; "2.5 acre hobby lettuce farm. 6 hours per day, 4 days per week, work is not strenuous and easy on the back. Located near beautiful beaches, national park, forests, bicycles available to borrow." It just sounded too good to be true & I sincerely doubted that there would be any space for me on such an idyllic farm so near the front of the list. I called with my fingers crossed, never daring to hope. An old lady answered the phone, she was a bit deaf & struggling to hear me whilst conversely yelling down the phone at me. She didn't know if they needed a WWOOFer but said she'd pass me over to the farmer, and so followed a few minutes of muffled crashes & stumbles through undergrowth, her shouting "David! David!" too close to the mouth-piece for comfort. As she searched we talked about where I came from & it turned out she was British too & what's more her daughter lived quite near me. 'David' was eventually located and we chatted for some time. He explained that they'd been turning away WWOOFers in recent months, at which point my heart sank, but asked me how long I'd like to stay. I explained I needed 3 months, but was happy to stay for a shorter time if he preferred (some do). It must have been the magic words, because suddenly I'd been invited down the following week to dinner to meet the family.

Practically speaking, I realised later that the short-stay WWOOFers are too labour-intensive needing constant supervision to be of much use & that my offer to stay long-term was appealing to David. Additionally my unwitting disclosure that I lived near her daughter probably swung existentialist Dolly's decision, but the fact that I had surmounted the odds to land myself this cushy farm-job in such an ideal location just felt like destiny, or something else ethereally inexplicable. I just felt I'd been given a gift. I was close enough to Perth to see Pete & my friends, I was easily traversable by train (not many places in WA are), & in fact after some thought (and some long phone calls with Immigration) worked out a way to even keep my old job on part-time for pocket-money! The pieces of the jigsaw just kept falling into place, my life was just peachy as I surveyed the upcoming months of part-time sunny lettuce farming, part-time paid city-slicking.

And then the recession started, and I thought I was sitting pretty in my nice cocoon in Perth, but then Nickel prices dropped and Tannith got a lesson in corporate crisis. Almost overnight we went from a happy, satisfied workforce to a worried, anxious grey-faced workforce scurrying about our business trying to fend ourselves from the whispers of grim redundancy & job-cuts. At first it was the cancellation of our team-building events, then farewell lunches & presents, then dramatically the work Christmas party, and then the petty stuff started; mobile phone contracts, laptops, fruit, even real coffee. Contractors were for the chop, then permanents were offered redundancy or retrenchment, and our little team dropped from 40, to 25, then 25 to 10, then 10 to 5. Even the Deputy Project Director lost his job, and to be frank, even the VP may lose it and our faction of the company fold completely.

Just as well then I suppose that I had to drop out of the job-market & go off farming. I would have been for the chop as a contractor anyway, but managed to swing 2 days a week at the office as a compromise to the job cuts. So I would work Monday/Tuesdays at the office, work 3.5 days at the farm, and enjoy 1.5 days of the weekend in Perth with Pete and friends. Pete & I visited 'the hillbillies' for dinner 2 or 3 times over the month before I started and we all shared interests over dinner in science, biology, ecology, diving, fishing, and despite the collapsing industry around my office-life and the dismal financial global crisis, still I had the feeling that everything was on the right path for me....

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photo by: cimtech