Everyone always gives me different reactions when I mention working on a farm for three months. Some people are shocked, others find it funny, while some are curious as to what the whole experience would be like.
My most honest summary is that it has been better than my expectations. Although, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what my expectations were to begin with. The first month has gone by very fast and in the blink of an eye, I’ll be back in Melbourne re-sorting myself again. But while I am here, I will share my experience for everyone’s entertainment and curiosity. I’ve written this post in Q&A fashion, answering questions that people have asked me over the past few months. If you have a question you want to add, feel free to add a comment and I’ll update this post!
Disclaimer: My experiences and opinions may not be reflective of all farm life or other people’s experiences.
What is it like working on a farm?
Overall farm work is HARD. Very hard. While almost all the jobs you are given are simple, most of the jobs are hard because of the duration of the job, the repetition and the conditions that you work in. Usually when I can call a job easy, I mean it is easy relative to other farm jobs.
Right now, it is the summer season and the average daytime temperature ranges from 31 degrees to 41 degrees. Besides dealing with the heat, the labourous nature of the jobs can make it hard on your knees, shoulders, back, hands and probably every other part of the body that isn’t used to working in that fashion. You can usually expect to work 5-6 days a week unless there isn’t work available.
As hard as it is,
What is a typical day like on the farm?
A typical day probably starts sometime between 6am and 8am. Like most people, I prefer the starts before 7am so you can get in more work before the heat kicks in. Once 11am hits, you can really feel the sun.
Jobs vary between fruit picking/fruit sorting to random farm jobs like clearing weeds. So far, I have tried the following jobs: grapefruit picking, plum picking, grape picking, branch cutting/raking and tree painting. Many jobs are unsupervised and compensated by the quantity of work you complete rather than the duration. For example lots of fruit picking work is paid by piece rate. That means that the more fruit you can pick, the more money you can make. You may think this is unfair, but farmers are often forced to use this pay scale because they can only profit on the quantity of fruit produced. With this pay scale, they are not hindered by slower pickers.
A full day of work is usually around 8-9 hours whereas a partial day might be 4-5 hours. Regardless of the job, a full day is usually pretty tiring. Typically, the only thing you care about when you come back is taking a shower, having dinner and unwinding for the evening.
What is it like living on a farm?
The farm that I’m staying at operates like a working hostel. On the days you don’t have work, Michael (the farm owner) will try to find you work on neighbouring farms. This farm in particular grows oranges for juices and grapes for wine.
Most of the farm residents are comprised of traveling backpackers. Right now, we’re in the middle of the grape harvest, so there are over 20 backpackers at the farm. A good chunk of them are doing their days for the visa extension but you also get backpackers coming to make some money or “just to experience farm life”.
Other than that, one can see it as largely a long termer’s “hostel” and you can expect everything that comes with copious numbers of backpackers. That can include chaotic meal times, dirty common areas, great people, clashing personalities and so on and so on. This will end up being the longest time I’ve spent in a hostel and it reminds me of when I lived in my exchange house in South Africa. While it was a very different experience, it was a big communal house and it had all the good and bad that comes with living with a diverse group of people. Despite the hecticness, most people usually walk away with great memories.
That being said, there’s always people that can’t make it. Maybe they thought it would be easier, maybe they could make more money, maybe it would be cleaner blah blah blah. I don’t know the exact numbers but during the harvest, at least 3 groups couldn’t handle it. They usually don’t last more than a few days. What can I say? Farm life isn’t for everyone.
What has been the best job and what has been the worst job?
The worst job I had was the first two days at the farm for a neighbouring farm. The job was to remove all the lower branches (below the knees) on the orange trees. This meant that you were always on the ground kneeling, squatting, and crawling to cut the branches. After cutting all the branches, you had to rake all the branches into the middle. Each row consists of about 70 trees. It honestly felt like the row would never end. I worked with one other backpacker and we both agree that it was a job that we never wanted to do again.
The best job (ignoring the pay) has probably been harvesting grapes which involves cutting the grape vines and putting them in buckets. It’s pretty easy as it involves no ladders, no lifting nor carrying bags. It’s a solo job and if you’re fast, you can do usually do better than orange picking (which is more dependent on your group).
What is the town like?
I’m currently based in Leeton, NSW, which is a small town that can feel like the middle of nowhere. There is one major commercial street which is home to a few known commercial businesses like McDonalds, Red Rooster, Aldi and Woolies. It takes about 40 minutes to walk to town from the farm.
What do you like/dislike about working on a farm?
You spend everyday with the people on the farm so it’s natural that the people are what makes and breaks the experience. Like a hostel, I always find it is better to come by yourself to get the most out of the experience. When there are long termers staying, it’s always great to meet different people from around the world. In some ways, I wish I was a backpacker without an agenda as I have now.
I have already mentioned some of the downsides above as most of them come naturally with living in a larger hostel environment. To enjoy yourself, it’s best not to be too uptight about anything and of course, the hard work and low pay. And while at first, you’re likely shocked by the environment and work, after a few days of adjusting, I can tell that this place is special and that I will genuinely miss it when I leave.
Another surprise is that I like chatting and bantering with the farmer Michael. He loves to crack bad jokes and I think he enjoys feeding off my smart ass remarks.
Do you get to milk the cows?
Unfortunately not. I stay on a grape and orange farm. The grapes are turned into wine (offsite) and the oranges are turned into orange juice (also offsite). The only animals around the farm are cats, who love to stalk your food.
How do you feel about the experience?
Before I came here, I was feeling pretty burnt out. Not burnt out physically but emotionally burnt out. Moving is tiring and the last few months have been emotionally tiring. I have met a lot of people over the last 8 months and I’m the type that needs a break after “extraverting” so much. I felt it after Malaysia and I feel it now. I feel like I don’t have my usual energy for making new friends so I feel like I haven’t been entirely myself since arriving here.
Nonetheless, the first few weeks have gone by fast and it’ll be interesting to see how I feel by the end of the experience. One last thing is that I do admit to feeling homesick. While almost everyone is a backpacker, I had a life in Melbourne so I miss “home”. It’s still two months away but I am looking forward to heading back to the life I started in Australia.
If you have a question for me, feel free to post a comment and I will edit and update this post!
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