Australia: Farm Life

G’day from the outback! It’s been two months since I left the metropolitan buzz of Melbourne for the dusty landscapes of rural Victoria. My time doing farm work has gone pretty quickly since I got into the swing of things, and I’m almost half way through my 88 days – so it seemed a good time to check in and report back.

Managing to find a flight from Melbourne to Mildura for a decent price (around A$120, which when they can often be double the price, was worth it), I waved goodbye to my friends and boarded a Virgin Australia plane bound for Farm Life. I landed an hour or so later and got a taxi from the little rural airport to my new home: a working hostel in a tiny town called Red Cliffs. Even on the 25 minute journey from the airport, it instantly felt like I was in a different world to the Australia I’d known up until that point. Flat red scrubland with long straight roads, very few passing cars and the odd scattered house. Yes, we were in outback country now. I arrived at my hostel, the Mallee Inn, and was instantly scooped up by my new roommates for a ‘day sesh’ – I was to learn it’s not often we leave the confines of Red Cliffs to any place worthy of wearing make-up, so it appears I arrived on a big day. I scrubbed up and joined the others for lunch in the pub next door before we headed out. Thankfully, for the purposes of shopping, drinking and battling the cabin fever, Red Cliffs is only a 15 minute drive from much larger Mildura (the second largest town in Victoria only to Melbourne. Which isn’t saying much, but we take the small wins). We headed to Sandbar – an establishment which excitedly advertises on the radio its offering of the only rooftop bar in Mildura, big news – and set up camp for the evening, beers in hand. It was a good way of meeting people on my first day – and something of a baptism of fire when the tequila shots came out. Oof.

Making some friends on my first day, at Mildura’s Sandbar

The next morning, with more of a headache than I’d bargained for, I unpacked and went for a walk around Red Cliffs to acquaint myself with my new hometown. It took all of about 9 minutes. Exploration complete, I spent the rest of the day cooking and chatting to my new farm family, getting ready for the work to begin…

My first day consisted of an induction to the labour resources agency. This involved a series of health and safety videos, followed by idiot-proof questionnaires to ensure you will not be a liability on a farm. You’re likely to have one of these at any working hostel where you are contracted out via a labour resources agency rather than applying for jobs directly. Being part of this set-up can be beneficial in that you’re not having to look for work yourself, and as you’re allocated jobs as and when labour is needed, it can be more varied than doing the same job for 88 days straight. The Working Hostels Australia and 88 Days and Counting websites are a good place to start looking for farm work hostels, and Backpacker Job Board can send you through to these through listings as well as advertising jobs direct. Having passed the very (un)challenging induction test, I was given my work card and sent on my merry way, ready to get going. I spent the afternoon exploring Mildura as it was to be the last day off I’d have for a while, and was pleased to find that although it’s not quite Melbourne, the town has all you need: a few bars and cafés, clothes shops, a doctors’ surgery, big supermarkets, banks – and of course, a trusty K-Mart. With some people doing their farm work on isolated cattle ranches and roadhouses, I felt I could certainly have done worse than ending up in Mildura.

An evening in the shed at the Mallee Inn

My farm work has since consisted of a few different jobs. My first was just one day at a chemical plant, working in a pair with another girl from the hostel unloading truckloads of fertiliser into tonne bags. Not the most stimulating work, and I did get covered in fertiliser more than once when the funnel overflowed, but in general, not too bad a day. The guys were friendly and we worked much faster than they were expecting, so we left a little early. 1 day down, 87 to go…

Looking very tired on my first day in hi-vis, at Swan Hill Chemicals

My second job had me working on a huge almond farm for a couple of weeks, which I really enjoyed. I spent my days pulling bamboos from gum trees, raking sticks from underneath trees, planting and watering baby trees and making and counting tree ties. It doesn’t sound that exciting, but having been used to sitting at a desk in front of a computer all day, I really enjoyed the novelty of being outside and moving around all day in a totally new (and actually very beautiful) environment. I particularly enjoyed driving around the ‘mules’ (farm carts, a little like golf buggies on steroids). Less enjoyable and part of the challenge was avoiding the 7.6 million bees that were on the farm at that time to pollinate the trees – I spent much of my time wearing a very fetching bee net over my head and hoping that the day’s task didn’t take me too close to the hives… Bees aside, the farm crew there were friendly and good fun, and for a farm of 10,000 hectares, only getting lost twice was a great success. 9 days down, 79 to go…

Working it with my mule on Annuello, the huge almond farm

My third job was picking oranges. The job itself was good – again, I enjoyed being active all day, despite a few slightly hairy moments at the top of the ladder. We worked in teams to fill the huge fruit bins so we had the speaker going and played some games – plus, the farmer had a great cat who took a particular interest in my ladder tasks, which was a bonus. The downside to the oranges was the abysmal pay, which was ‘piece rate’: wages based on the amount of fruit picked. Though the piece rate agreements claim the rate of pay set allows ‘any competent worker’ to earn more than the average hourly wage, this is rarely the case even if you go into turbo picking mode. So I earned next to nothing for 5 days’ work. When you’re looking for a job, see if you can find out which farms or working hostels offer majority hourly paid work vs. piece rate – as unless you’ve managed to save a good amount of money before commencing farm work, you’re unlikely to break even working wholly on piece rate. Nevertheless, I was only on this job for 5 days, and have been on hourly work since – so it was at least 5 days in the sunshine with a cute little mascot. 12 days down, 76 to go…

Getting some help up the orange ladder from my mascot, Flowers the cat
Letting the cat out of the bag…
My fourth job, and the one I’ve been on since, is in a raisin factory. Days here are spent in rooms akin to giant fridges, sorting, trimming and packing bunches of raisins. Pros of this job include friendly colleagues, hourly pay, not being rained off (more jobs than I’d realised are at the mercy of the elements), and a work environment less full of deadly critters than being out in the sticks on the farms. Cons of this job include standing in the same spot all day and not really being allowed to talk, thus going slightly madder each day with only your own thoughts for company. I’ve actually had entire conversations with myself – and, it turns out, raisinville was where my friend planned a full-on treasure hunt for my birthday. So I suppose I’ve benefited from it in some way. Despite the lunacy, I’ve been full time on this job for the last 6 weeks, and this has been the one to get me to where I am now, at just under half way. It’s worth knowing that if you do over 36 hours under the same job/ABN in a week you get 7 days ticked off rather than 5 – so if you can get yourself on consistent full-time work, you’ll fly through your days.
Going a bit nuts packing raisins at Murray River Organics

It’s been quiet season since I arrived. There are currently only about 30 of us in the hostel (with full capacity around 120), all at various stages of our farm work sentence. Sorry, our farm work ‘experience’… With the early starts, physical work and, er, tame nature of Red Cliffs, weeks can feel a little bit monotonous and the hostel a bit claustrophobic. As a result, we try and make weekends (when we’re not working) fun and memorable to carry us through our 88 days with a positive attitude! Some weekends have been pretty chilled, consisting of walks and picnics down at the riverside cliffs the town gets its name from, or coffee and breakfast in Mildura (Blk Mlk being our favourite spot – it feels like a little slice of Melbourne).

A Sunday walk down to the Red Cliffs on the Murray River

Of late, there have been a fair few birthdays at the Mallee Inn, so we’ve turned the ’shed’ (our little outhouse with ping pong, pool table, sofas etc.) into a party haven. The shed has hosted some big ‘surprise’ birthday cake and jelly shot moments, a hotly-contested beer pong tournament, a baseball bat-breaking piñata incident, and a nostalgic 90s themed night.

90s night at the Mallee Inn for Amy’s birthday

Most recently, and perhaps my favourite weekend activity of my time here, was the Mallee Olympics. Three of the guys organised us all into teams and devised an afternoon schedule of games to get us active, very competitive – and also rather drunk. Whilst it turns out identifying different vodka shot flavours and trying to score football goals having spun around a mop 10 times aren’t my key strengths, I was glad to find out that the sack race and flip cup are still my milieu. I captained the winning team – and in fact went out for my birthday night out that evening wearing my medal. One for the family album.

The white team with game faces on for the Mallee Olympics
A night out at Dom’s in Mildura

So, with 42 days down and 46 to go, I’m admittedly tired but in good spirits. It sounds rather obvious but I’ve found that being in an optimistic mindset is a huge boost to getting through an experience most of us would be unlikely to sign up for voluntarily, so looking after your health and having social gatherings to look forward to are an important part of life on the farm. It’s been nearly a year since I left the UK so I’m actually taking a break at this point to go home for my first friends’ wedding (eek), catch up with the family, and sneak in some Hawaiian sunshine with my best friend from university. A holiday from my extended holiday, if you like. I’ll report back from the northern hemisphere – wish me luck with the two-day journey home…

A beautiful sunrise at the raisin factory

Until next time,

Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today on farms: 29 permanent farm employees across all of my jobs
Interaction was: on a sliding scale along the spectrum from ‘haha you have a very posh British accent, what are you doing on a farm?!’ to ‘oh, you’re actually really good at this!’ It has thus become my mission to dispel myths about ‘useless’ backpackers on farm work, particularly as there seems to be something of a default misogynistic assumption that women aren’t able to do physical jobs well. Watch this space, Mildura…

One Woman and her Backpack x

Follow me on Instagram @ellielfield


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