Australian farm work: Thoughts of a sweet potato picker
For 12 weeks out of my year long trip in 2015, I had the pleasure of doing my Australian farm work in Tolga, part of the Atherton Tablelands. I was moved about from farm to farm experiencing how to pick avocados from trees (who knew they grew on trees), plant blueberries, sort bananas and most of all I learned the ins and outs of the production of sweet potatoes.
Tindel sweet potato farm
I was placed at Tindel for the majority of my Australian farm work in Tolga. Others had warned me about this farm from the very beginning, about a dragon slayer farmer who was a top class bitch.
I had my worries naturally and on my first day I joined a group of boys and began my education in sweet potatoes. I hid away from Jackie the boss and did as I was told. Of what I could understand anyway, as she yelled constantly with a fag hanging out of her mouth.
It was Fiona, another supervisor, who showed me the ropes and who people confirmed with about what Jackie had told them to do. She took the be nice to backpackers approach, treat them as you would like to be treated.
In the end I got used to Jackie and I actually admired and respected her for having the balls to shout at people all day long. It got the job done and any of those that gave her attitude were immediately replaced the next day.
When you got to see Jackie everyday you could see that she was actually a big softie at heart. Especially when she talked about her little dogs and when she teased the Italians. She definitely made each day interesting.
When you spend all day standing around, you get a lot of time to think. Ex boyfriends who you haven’t seen in 6 years make an appearance and what your lives would be like if you were still together. Of course magical and full of joy, which makes you question why you ever broke up with them. This is an example of how farm life can make you insanely crazy. You question all life choices and many other things.
The thoughts of a sweet potato packer during Australian farm work
The farm scouts
I imagined a scenario of there being farm scouts who travel the distance in search of the best backpacker fruit packer. The idea is that each job you do during the day are in rounds. So for example for sweet potatoes here are the rounds:
- De-vining rows that can stretch to up to a kilometre.
- Digging the potatoes on the machine.
- The making of crates and cardboard boxes.
- Sorting and packing premium sweet potatoes. And finally;
- Cleaning of the shed.
Now in each round you have to be the quickest and most efficient worker to impress these imaginary farm scouts. As it was just me playing this game I got to chose who was the fastest. I don’t mean to be biased but some days I was the fastest. I prided myself on how fast I could throw those potatoes from one belt to another, flinging them up and hoping for the best. Spraying mud and dust into everyone’s faces and having the occasional potato falling back onto the first belt, consequently holding us all up. I had never moved my hands so fast but when there’s important scouts on the loose, I had to do anything in my power to impress. I just hoped that one day they would notice my talents and see I am meant for better things.
You definitely learn things about yourself
By listening to my thoughts all day every day, I found out some traits of my own. I seem to be a perfectionist, I want to impress and also to be approved of. It could possibly stem from not being able to get the top grades at school or at uni, which didn’t impress my parents or myself.
So I started to use practical skills to impress instead. I found out that during my Australian farm work, I am good with my hands and not with my head. Being a perfectionist though in farm life is useless. It slows you down rather than does a good job. Imagine cutting every single weed on an entire kilometre row. I found out the hard way…it takes twice as long as those who ignore the little buggers.
We were given the instructions of “nice and fast…nice and neat”. It’s very hard to get the right balance between the two but after 12 weeks (yes that’s right, I was there longer than I was in South East Asia!) on sweet potatoes I think I got the gist.
However, compliments were given out as many times as Jackie gave up smoking…once.
So instead I faked her approval by making up dialogues between myself and the top boss. Mainly on how she would come up to me to personally tell me that I am a really hard worker and one of the best girls they’ve had at Tindel. When in reality I was actually being yelled at for letting the good spuds go past.
Tolga’s mad social life
Farm life takes away the horn from some people, for others it definitely doesn’t. But for me while I had three bruised fingers, constantly covered in mud and dust reaching the inside of my nostrils and eardrums, feeling sexy wasn’t on the agenda.
Even when I revisited Fifty Shades of Grey or upgrading to Silvia Day – nothing happened, no spark, no tingle, nothing. Just barren thoughts of sweet potatoes. Australian farm work takes over your whole life. Close your eyes, sweet potatoes. I couldn’t even sleep on the far side of the bed anymore as I would think I had turned my back on the conveyor belt of potatoes.
When Friday came along, girls being girls, we were quick to change out of our muddy and torn, second hand weekday clothes and transform into real life ladies masked in eyeliner and ready to hit Tolga.
For such a small town, the drama that went down each weekend would keep us entertained all week. The third Friday of each month was when the real debauchery let loose. Atherton’s BV hotel offered out its’ bar services to host a wild party for all backpackers of the Tablelands. Some ended up face down on the street, some walking home, some in a strangers bunk bed and others in a cell.
The soundtrack to Australian farm work
Naturally at Tindel where smiles, laughter and joy were closely controlled by Jackie, any musical device was confiscated. Therefore to keep a hold of what was left of my sanity I supplied myself with a personal radio station inside my head.
I had a special collection of songs that I put on shuffle in my head while standing at the conveyor belt for hours on end. If you know me well, you would probably think I’d have had an electronic track list running through my head. But I just couldn’t recreate a wobbly baseline in my thoughts. I needed lyrics! (None of these songs were even on my ipod at the time).
Optimistic as the day started, I began with this catchy tune. However the happiness of it soon faded after lunch.
‘I’m walking on sunshine woowooh, and it’s time to feel good yeaahh [trumpets] da da da-da-da-d-da-da-da!’
On repeat at 6am while viscously vining those kilometre rows of potatoes. Who knew Australia could get that cold!
‘You’re as cold as ice, you’re willing to sacrifice.’
My inner gangster waiting for pay day with some Kanye.
‘Naa naaa Na Na wait till I get my money riiiight….ah ha you can’t tell me nofing.’
Obviously the Bublé cover, his velvety voice soothed me as I struggled to push back a mountain of potatoes for the sixth time that morning.
‘…it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.’
I tended to finish the day on a motivational song to make those last 10 bins fly by. (Take That if you couldn’t get it)
‘Heyyyy forget where you’re coming from heyyy…oh we’ve come so far, da da da da daahaha’
[Do not take these lyrics seriously because they are probably all wrong]
Another fun game was to guess the songs that people were humming or whistling along to. We had a French guy that worked with us for a week and he was always whistling away. As soon as I heard the intro I’d surprise him with the artist…Bruno Mars! Manu Chao!
It’s the simple things.
Sweet (potato) dreams
Each night after a long day packing away sweet potatoes, I would go to sleep and dream about the perfect potato. My aim for the next day was to find the dream shape and tell it it’s beautiful and worthy of being gently placed into a premium crate and sent to Coles across Australia. I even freaked myself out after working many hours into the night packing continuously and found a potato shaped like E.T.
I spent a lot of time thinking about Christmas and not about the rest of my time out here. It’s the thoughts of going home and being looked after and fed by my mum that got me through the long days. I imagined the whole family in Christmas attire waiting for me at the airport on my arrival…this time I’m not in a wheelchair like after Spain. I get to go through my wardrobe and pick what Christmas jumper I want to wear. It’s almost always my pink and gold bobby dazzler. And the spread of food on Christmas Eve and Dad’s homemade turkey and ham pie that’s definitely one the the highlights.
Getting the most out of your Australian farm work
I definitely lost some brain cells while working on the farm but I finally gained some strength in my upper body. Now I can find the perfect potato, I can still hear Jackie shouting out demands, and I found a new love for getting covered in mud. Never will I ever complain about another job in the future, I bought a holiday to Bali and most importantly I met the best people ever that will hopefully be in my life for a long time.
Australian farm work can be horrific but it’s worth it if you have something to come back home to. Like a movie and a home cooked meal with your favourite girlies, and of course a box of goon.
Tolga Country Lodge
I would highly recommend for your Australian farm work to get in touch with Tolga Country Lodge. They try their best to provide you with daily work, depending on the seasons, and hostel accommodation. You really feel like you’re at home here, especially if you have great people to share it with.
If you have any questions about Australian farm work, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. I will be happy to offer any advice.
To see a different side of Australia, take a read of my Australian west coast road trip post or love brunch as much as I do? Then see where my favourite places in the whole of Australia are to enjoy the best smashed avo.