For our first taste of harvest work, my boyfriend and I got in touch with Ready Workforce, a harvest recruitment agency based in Stanthorpe to help us find a harvest job. They quickly set us up with work on a lettuce farm just outside of Warwick, a small town about 2 hours drive south west of Brisbane, famous for its annual Rodeo.
We weren’t looking forward to the early starts (4.30am!) but as we would be working split shifts (4.30-10.30am and 3.30-6.30pm) we figured we would have plenty of time in the middle of the day to enjoy ourselves in the sunshine.
We were told that most backpackers working on the farm stayed at a campsite near Leslie Dam – it sounded nice and we liked the idea of swimming in the lake between shifts. However this campsite turned out to be quite far from the farm – too far to drive back and forwards to each day – so most of us camped in the grounds of a local pub. This was free, we just had to pay $3 to use the shower. Due to the split shifts, only backpackers with their own transport and accommodation ie. a tent or campervan were hired for the job.
There were 8 of us in total working on the farm from a mix of nationalities – Aussie, German, French, British and Dutch.
The work turned out to be harder than we thought, and the hours longer. Each day we would get to work around 4.15am to help load up the tractor trailer with crates, ready to start cutting in the paddock at first light. It was chilly at this time of morning and we would admire the sunrise through sleepy eyes. For the rest of the morning we were knelt on the ground cutting lettuce with a sharp knife like a 6 inch machete, and carrying crates to and from the tractor. We were expected to fill 10 crates every hour although this wasn’t very realistic. Of course no amount of telling this to our bosses made them stop shouting that we had to go faster or be fired! And if anyone dared to accidentally let a piece of bruised lettuce slip into their crate there was hell to pay.
As the morning wore on the sun would get hotter and hotter – there is no shade in a vast flat lettuce field! The lettuce would start to wilt…as would the workers. By 10.30am we were all ready to go home, but if the farm had received a big order that morning, which it did on most days, we had to carry on until the order was completed at 12pm, 1pm or even 2pm. Fortunately we were paid an hourly rate- $19.20 per hour. It seems that this is a pretty good wage for harvesting work…the French couple on our farm had previously been making about $8 or $9 an hour picking cherries at a “per piece” rate in NSW.
Nonetheless, there was little time to enjoy our afternoons but this is what we had to do for our 2nd year visa. We were always so exhausted and aching. We would drive back to our camp spot, grab some lunch, have a quick snooze and a shower to cool us down and then get back to the farm for the afternoon shift.
Fortunately the afternoon shifts were much more enjoyable. The temperature would start to cool down and, as the day’s order had already been completed in the morning, there was less pressure from our boss. Moreover we couldn’t work in the dark so they couldn’t keep us working any later than 7.30pm! So our moral would pick up and we would all have a bit of a laugh. The day would end with a beautiful sunset and us dragging our weary bodies up from the paddock to wash off the crates and then get back to camp for more food, another shower and sleep.
It wasn’t a surprise that no one lasted very long in the job. We lasted 2 weeks which was about the most anyone had reached so far.
What was great though was that we all got on really well and at the weekend we would hang out together in the pub or by the lake. We all hope to keep in touch and maybe bump in to each other again on our travels.
So lettuce picking in Warwick is definitely not for the faint hearted. We certainly worked for our money but at least we made good friends and now hopefully harvesting work can only get better…surely?!