Strawberry Fields of Gold

Spoiler Alert: There is no gold and very little money from picking strawberries, in fact, being paid piece-rate (i.e. by the weight of your fruit pickings) will come far far under the national minimum wage unless you are a freak of nature. There was one freak of nature on my strawberry farm on the Sunshine Coast. He was a black Italian bodybuilder, a machine of a man, who earned twice as much as anyone else on the farm, pulling in around $30 an hour.  He nearly cried when he heard we would all be getting paid the minimum wage when we were cleaning up at the end of the season, while for everyone else this was a bonus and less backbreaking work.

But let's cut back to the start- I had just been fired/ quit unceremoniously, from a horsefarm outside the Gold Coast, and was back on Gumtree, Ibackpacker (which is scam btw), and Facebook groups searching for farmjobs. After 5 days of 6 hours a day searching, I caved and gave harvesttrail.org.au  a call. These are the guys who regulate seasonal farmwork around Australia, and who help connect job seekers with farms and vice versa. When I called, they had a mini interview of questions- Where was I based, did I have any experience, when did I want to start, where did I want to work, did I have a car, etc. The usual, basic, necessary questions. I assumed that they'd set me up on a blind date with a mature, older farm seeking a young energetic worker, but I was wrong. Harvesttrail.org don't always connect you with a farm, but oftentimes with working hostels, and contract companies. In my case, I was directed to the towns of Maroochydore and Mooloolaba, names which are up there with Wooloomooloo as hilarious Aboriginal names. They sent me to a hostel, called Suncoast Backpackers, where I met with Mr Chao, the enigmatic Chinese owner. He was only enigmatic because his grasp of English was poor, and my grasp of Mandarin was also, poor.  But, he showed me around the hostel after a 30 minute wait, and after insisting on a week-long, $150 deposit, that was that. I was handed sheets and told I'd be staying in room 6, and I could choose any bunk I liked.

I would describe the hostel as dilapidated, and but that would give dilapidated hostels a bad name. This was without a doubt the worst hostel I've ever stayed in, anywhere in the world. The bottom floor contained a terrace, three 4 bed dorms, the kitchen and the reception. The terrace was overgrown, the bedrooms were 'cosy', and the kitchen was well on its way to becoming the terrace- so covered in dirt it was overgrown. Luckily my room was upstairs, up a staircase that was rusty, and about as stable as an IKEA table. My room was at the back, and when I walked in with the sheets in hand, and an overly optimistic state of mind, I was disappointed to see that I was the sole occupant in the 10 bed dorm. Luckily I had a choice of beds too,  as each bed had it's own unique pros and cons. The majority of the lower beds were stained brown and black from years of accumulated dirt, and the springs stuck out like ribs on a charity add. There were 3 plug sockets in the room, one beside the bathroom, where the sole other piece of a furniture, a cupboard was placed, and the other two randomly spread across the walls. Although the top bunks looked as though they'd collapse at the slightest touch, I reasoned that the rats would have higher to climb to get at me, so I choose a top bunk in the corner nearest the bathroom. I then made my bed, and decided to see what Maroochydore was all about, and went to explore the city. Maroochydore isn't about much- it's a standard Aussie beach town, fresh air, nice beaches and in general a sweet laid back atmosphere.

I came back to the hostel to the sound of familiar accents, and a guy aggressively shouting rap lyrics from the roof. Following the sweet smooth Northern Irish tones, I stuck my head in one of the rooms and lo and behold, there was a group of 4 from Tyrone. They were sound, and after the typical (where you from/ who do you know) exchange, they told me that they were starting the next day picking strawberries too. They didn't know much about the wanabee rapper, but we hypothesized that he was the local character, and that he might be good craic after a few pints. It was getting fairly late, so I headed up to my room, which was no longer unoccupied. Turns out that lads aggressively shouting rap lyrics to strangers aren't always sound. If this man wasn't on meth, I don't know what a methhead is. Saying hello got no acknowledgement from him, he was busy scabbing a cigarette off the other new roommate, who he had clearly just met. Methhead-Jake was Aussie that you wouldn't see on Bondi Rescue (Actually, maybe as someone been rescued). Jake appreciated that we were all starting work at 6am in the morning, and decided a raunchy phone call with a girl(friend) was the right idea at 10pm in a hostel room. This phonecall ranged from emotionally dependent (I can't be without you), to sexually charged ("I can't wait until we fuck") to aggressive (Fuck you cunt you never cared for me anyway). While I was standing up, facing the wall to take my contacts out, Jake (in the midst of the sexually-charged portion of his conversation) rested his chin on my shoulder. Our only exchange up to this point was me greeting him, with no response. Now, I'm fairly easy going, and try to think the best of people, so I thought he was just doing this to get a reaction out of me for a laugh. So I just looked at him, and he looked at me, told his phonesex buddy he couldn't wait to fuck her, and didn't move his head from my shoulder, until I pulled it away. I went to bed.

To put this into perspective- in the room there were 4 people. Me, the English guy who smoked and once shared cigarettes, a Nigerian guy who was studying in Sunshine Coast University, and Jake. Jake had long dank brown hair, and a dirty high vis tradie top on. When his phone sex-come-emotional-sponge conversation finished,  everyone else was in bed. Jake turned the light on, and asked the English guy for cigarettes again. English guy said no. Jake didn't like this, and his reaction went from whining and begging ("Mate gimme a ciggy, I seriously need one"), to slightly more forceful ("Man you don't know what I'll do if I don't get one"). English guy said he had none left. Jake gave up but wasn't content, and decided to skype call another friend. Now, at this stage everyone else was trying to sleep, but we all could overhear tidbits- 'If I'd reloaded I'd have got him', 'I'm so happy I didn't kill that guy" 'I'm so fucking angry right now', ' My court order wanted me there' were some of the sweet words that flowed to our ears. This skype call ended after about an hour, and I was lying in my filthy top bunk, hoping I wouldn't get murdered in my sleep. Jake then decided to start rapping again. His self-styled raps were shite, but that didn't stop him from sharing them at the top of his lungs. The Nigerian prince got pissed and told Jake to stop as we were all trying to sleep, and that if he didn't he'd call the hostel manager. Jake got up, started turning the lights on and off in protest, and told him to go fuck himself.

Nigerian Student didn't like this, and went to get Mr Chao involved (An unlikely hero?). As it turns out, Mr Chao was scared shit-less of Jake, but still threatened to call the police if Jake didn't let everyone else sleep., Jake called his bluff, by calling the police himself. His call put his call on loudspeaker for the room, which went something like this:

'Hello this is 999, what is your emergency'

'Hi my names Jake, I'm in a hostel right now and I'm been aggressive'

'Who is been aggressive towards you?'

'No I'm the one been aggressive, I want you to pick me up'

There was a pause where you just knew this wasn't on the responder's training script. Jake then started chanting 'prank caller', over and over again at the phone, to which he was told that it was a crime to prank call the police. The chanting continued until Jake hung up. Unfortunately, this episode had also wrong-footed Mr Chao, and his attempt to throw methy Jake out somehow got twisted into an agreement that Mr Chao would buy Jake cigarettes, and in exchange, Jake would stop turning the lights on and off. Not all Chinese lads can are good barterers. So Mr Chao went on a midnight errand, bought Jake a pack of ciggys, and fair enough, Jake stopped turning the lights on and off. Instead of going back to his own bunk, he got into the bunk below me, and started muttering under his breath how he was going to kill everyone. I found this off-putting, and this slightly effected my quality of sleep. 

4 hours later, I woke up barely rested, and went to my first day at work. When I returned, the room was practically the same as when I checked in: there was glass from a smashed vodka bottle spread over the floor ,a lot of dishevelled beds, and a court order covered in footprints. The only difference was that someone cleared a path in the debris to my bed, the same path where someone had been dragged out. From what I gathered, Mr Chao waited til Jake was asleep, and called the police to pick him up in the morning. Evidently Jake didn't go quietly, and in his unceremonious exit he had been forcefully evicted, leaving behind fond memories, his phone, and his passport.

Knowing that an iced up Jake wasn't going to steal my things and murder me when I returned would have made my first backbreaking day of picking strawberries a bit better. Our strawberry farm was a nice commute away, three grand fields of hundreds of rows of sunshine coast strawberries. We were given a number, a cart to push ahead of us, and basic training, and sent out en masse, like a herd of vermin. The work was much like working a day in the bog- hours with your back bent under the blazing sun, a brief respite of sandwiches and tea after 2 or 3 hours, and then back at it for the afternoon. You even got the bog tan to match. (For non-Irish readers, the bog is where country Irish people go to dig up peat from the ground every summer, to burn in the winter. It's like a rite of passage that all good country people went through). So the typical day revolved around picking as much as you could as quick as you couldly, and bringing your trays over to the trucks, to be delivered to the packing rooms, all the time with a team of supervisors and two of the owners overlooking you, to make sure you were picking the right berries and not filling your trays full of unripe ones. Most of the supervisors were backpackers like myself, and were absolutely sound. One of the owners was one of the nicest people you could ever meet, and the other was an absolute bastard to everyone, with a chip in his shoulder for non-english speakers (why would you take this job??). A real-life case of "Good Cop, Bad Cop".

 Lines and lines of wonderful strawberries

Lines and lines of wonderful strawberries

The pay was  $1-$1.20 per kilo, and you were told to work as fast as you could. My mentality between those lines was that I'd go flat out and try and beat the person next to me, everytime. Of course, after sweating in the heat (even winter was 20 degrees everyday), you'd be tempted to grab a nice juicy berry off the plants. This was frowned upon, and tasted like pesticide, but was 100% worth it. But seriously, wash your fruits and vegetables before you eat them, if I ever get mouth cancer, I'm blaming it squarely on this farmjob. You were given a sheet every morning showing how much you had picked yesterday, with everyone ranked by the amount collected. The average wage ended up been $14-15 an hour (not including tax taken out), while the best jobs on the farm were without a doubt to become a supervisor (some people got this role after a week), to be driving the truck, or to be in the packing shed, where you got the hourly wage for casual work ($22.5 per hour).  

During the first few days, your body was in bits, as muscles you've never had any need to use before were been stretched constantly for 5-8 hours a day. Some people only lasted one day, and then couldn't face the next day as they could barely stand. Everyone would come back filthy, in pain, and shattered, but living on the Sunshine Coast meant that there was easy access to a natural ice bath each evening. But after a few days, your body, the amazing piece of meat that it is, adapts, and the muscle pain becomes less frequent, you build up a rhythm when your picking strawberries, and you bitch about everything with your hostel mates. 

But back to the hostel- myself, Alberto (A Neapolitan cool as can be), and the Irish guys decided to hightail it out of there, leaving Mr Chao and his Asian ghetto behind us. Our few weeks picking strawberries ended up been a few weeks of house hopping- we'd rent a house for 4 people, much like a J1, stick 8 people in it, and then be surprised a week later when the housing office kick us out. This gave us a tour of Maroochydore's finest neighbourhoods, and plenty of opportunities to meet people.  The days passed relatively quickly here, and come season end, I'd finally hit the required number of farmdays- in and around 88! 

REVIEW:

Entertainment value: ***** The craic was mighty with the other backpackers especially our strike to watch the Conor McGregor fight

Real life Aussie Experience: * The only Aussies present were the owners- but he was an ANZAC man so they get one star.

Monetary value: *** Had enough saved to afford my second year visa..so $445 

SEARCHING FOR FARM WORK FOR YOUR SECOND YEAR VISA? LEARN FROM MY LESSONS:

  • Piece rate farmwork comes in below the minimum wage, unless your a freak

  • Chinese men are not always good barterers

  • The only acceptable times to make your own rap music is if your black, or talented

  • Sharing tough experiences with people in similar boats will help you through it

  • 8 people in a hotel apartment built for 4 is frowned upon

All names have been changed to protect the people involved (Mainly me).

Links to the first two parts of the series:

Part 1

Part 2

Have you had a similar experience with your Australian farm work? Add a comment below.