What it’s like to work on an apple farm in hopes of getting a second year visa in Australia.
For the last 42 days, I’ve been employed as an apple picker at Snowman Orchard in Thulimbah, Queensland.
And yes, I have been counting the days, as each one contributes to my 88 days of regional work required to obtain a second year working holiday visa in Australia.
Never in my life did I think I would professionally pick apples. My interest in apple picking has always started and ended with the yearly trip to Berlin Orchards in central Massachusetts around mid-September, where I would pick apples leisurely for a few hours then proceed to eat the whole bag of crisp, delicious fruit in three days.
But here I am, waking up before the sun every day and picking apples until my hands ache and my mind feels numb. I decided to write about my experience at Snowman Orchard for a few reasons.
First of all, this is probably the most random job I’ve ever had, and lots of my friends and family have been asking about it. Second of all, there are so many backpackers in Australia looking for farm work and wondering what it’s like, so hopefully my insights into the world of apple picking will enlighten some curious travelers.
What The Work Is Like
Apple picking is not the easiest job.
We work from 6am until 2pm, Monday through Friday, and sometimes on Saturdays. Usually the mornings are cold, but occasionally we witness beautiful sunrises with orange and pink clouds. Other days are cloudy and windy; one day was so cold and rainy that we got sent home after three hours because we were all too frozen and soaked to work efficiently. But normally by 10am, the sun is shining in full force and the clothing layers start to fall off as the heat blazes down on the field. By 1:45pm, we start to pack up our bags and walk back to the meeting point for the bus to pick us up so we can shower, eat, relax, and mentally prepare to do it all again the next day.
This job is quite monotonous, especially after spending most of my life working in the excitement of hospitality and tourism. We work in teams of four, and one person drives the tractor with three giant bins attached to the back. One time our rickety old tractor couldn’t pull the three full bins up a hill so we had to use all of our strength to push it all the way up the incline.
There are no toilets on the farm and only one place to fill our water. If we’re working too far away from the water, we can’t refill our bottles so we just have to hope that what we brought is enough. Headphones and speakers are forbidden as well for safety reasons, so once our team runs out of conversations we just work in silence, daydreaming about when our 88 days are over.
Our most important tool at work is our picking bag, a large plastic box lined with thick cloth that hangs over your front so you can efficiently place the apples right in front of you after removing them from the tree. We stand and pick until the bag is filled to the brim, and once it’s full it weighs around 20-28 kgs. Then we waddle over to the bins, unhook the straps of the cloth lining, and release the bottom of the bag so the apples fall downwards into the bin. Then, we repeat this same action over and over and over for eight hours.
This may seem straightforward, but there are obstacles to apple picking that complicate the job.
First of all, the apples are delicate and cannot be bruised. I’ve seen countless people get fired for bruising too many apples, and our supervisor roams the paddock all day checking people’s bins to ensure there is minimal bruising. We’re supposed to twist the apples off the tree, softly place them in our bags, then extremely gently and slowly empty the bag into the bin. This careful pace is sometimes hard to maintain, considering we get paid for how many bins we pick. I’ll get into more detail about the pay later, but I always find myself in a constant battle between quantity and quality of work.
We also can’t break the branches off as it jeopardizes next year’s crop, we can’t drop too many apples, we can’t have too many leaves in the bin, and we can’t leave too many apples behind. All these things happen accidentally every single day, so it’s basically impossible to avoid scoldings from the supervisor.
Sometimes my hand will be 0.0000067 centimeters away from an apple and it just falls to the ground for no reason. Sometimes I’ll pick an apple and the whole branch comes off with it. Sometimes the apples are too far inside the tree or too high up to reach even with the ladder, but I’m afraid of leaving it behind and getting caught so I waste five minutes trying to get one lousy apple. Sometimes I’ll finally get that apple, only to find it has been half eaten by a bird so I have to chuck it away.
Sometimes I’ll waste five minutes just trying to get the ladder in the right spot, because the uneven ground and the stubborn branches refuse to cooperate. Sometimes I’ll be at the very top of the ladder and my heavy bag of apples will shift and threaten to pull me right off the side. Sometimes I’ll be reaching a little too far for an apple and my heart drops down to my stomach as the ladder rocks off balance. Who ever thought apple picking would instigate an adrenaline rush?
Sometimes the apples are giant and my team can fill a bin in 40 minutes. Sometimes the apples are tiny and we fill a bin in two hours. Sometimes we’ll end up in a great row, with small trees and apples all nicely bunched together. Sometimes our row will be terrible, with half of the apples already rotten, the trees sparse, and the branches thick, twisted, and sharp. Some rows will be full of weeds and sharp nettles, some rows will be swarming with flies. Sometimes the branches hang so low we can barely get the tractor through. Sometimes the grass is so overgrown we can barely walk. But whenever I’m not slipping on fallen apples and almost twisting my ankle, I’m squishing moldy ones under my feet and feeling the rotten fruit seep into my sneakers. Every time we drive to a new row, the amount of money we’ll make and the amount of frustration we’ll face changes.
Certain things remain the same no matter what row we’re in, such as constantly having sore muscles, inhaling pesticides and pollen, and ending the day covered in dirt. I would have a much better attitude about these minor inconveniences, if we got paid well.
Piece Rate Payment
Snowman Orchards, like most other fruit farms in Australia, pay their workers piece rate, so we make $50 per bin rather than an hourly rate. Since we work in teams, all the bins we pick in one day get divided between the four of us. A few weeks ago, the trees were short and had decent apples so we were averaging 9 bins a day, which works out to $112.5 each for an 8 hour work day. Recently, the trees have been taller so we waste a lot of time working on ladders, and we’ve been averaging 6 bins a day, which works out to $75 each.
Even on our best days, we have never even earned minimum wage. At our best, we were making $14 an hour, and at our worst we were making $7 an hour. On average, we make about $9-$10 an hour, which is terrible especially for a country that prides itself on fair work rights and good wages. I’ve been earning roughly $400 a week, which after taxes drops to about $350, and after paying for rent, food, and laundry, I only pocket about $100 a week, for long hours of tiring work. Keep in mind this is all in Australian Dollars, so in US Dollars I’m making even less.
Living In The Hostel
The hostel where I live, Backpackers of Queensland in Stanthorpe, has a partnership with our farm and with other farms in the area. Basically to work on the farms here, you have to stay at the hostel, and vice versa. So the option of trying to live somewhere else in Stanthorpe with more affordable rent is off the table because we would lose our jobs. Our hostel charges us $205 a week for rent, which is more expensive than a nice apartment in the city. Compared to the other two places I’ve lived in Australia, I’m paying much more in rent for a much lower quality place.
I live in a dorm room with five other people, and we have to pay extra for wifi, laundry, and air-con/heating. The kitchen has no oven, two microwaves and a gas stove with eight burners, and it’s a nightmare to try and cook in there while 30 other workers are trying to eat as well. We get a small locker to store all our dry food, and a little basket to store our refrigerated items. If anything doesn’t have a name on it or is slightly uncovered, it gets thrown away. The rules are pretty strict, like no alcohol or drugs, no rowdy noise and no outside guests. Because it’s a working hostel, I understand these rules as they ensure everyone’s sleep is respected. But one tiny mistake and you get kicked out, which means you also lose your job.
High Demand for Farm Work Jobs
Farm work jobs are precious; us foreigners depend on them if we want to stay in Australia longer. I know a few people who have experienced the working conditions and decided the second year wasn’t worth going through this. I’ve seen people lose their jobs and struggle to find another one because there just aren’t any available. Or people lose their jobs and just don’t care enough to go through it again, so they give up on their 88 days.
But for people like me, who have loved ones in Australia and therefore have relationships riding on this visa, the stakes are a bit higher. I always feel like I’m walking on eggshells because I’m scared to lose my job. And no one is really safe, because us backpackers are indispensable to the employers of Australia. They know if they fire one of us, 20 others will be waiting to take our spot.
Because the demand for farm work jobs is so high, the employers and hostel owners are also easily able to take advantage of us the way they do. They can pay us far below minimum wage and charge us far too much for rent, because they know we’ll just suck it up and do it for our visas. Piece rate payment is perfectly legal, so even though we make far less than minimum wage we can’t do anything about it.
The Bright Side
Despite all the negatives about my situation, it will all be worth it when I get my second year visa. Australia is an amazing country, and I can put up with a few months of shit if it means I get to live here for another year.
There are some other bright sides to apple picking as well. I get unlimited free apples, and I’m still not sick of them even though I eat about five a day. I often see kangaroos hopping around the farm, and our neighborhood cows provide lots of background noise to entertain us while picking.
Stanthorpe has some incredible sunsets and sunrises, and I spent lots of time at the gym, library, and park to pass the time. I’ve met lots of interesting and friendly people here at the hostel, and we’ve had some great times while working on the farm and partying at the local pub. One Sunday the hostel owners drove a bunch of us to a nearby National Park for some hiking, and there’s also one nice lookout in Stanthorpe that you can walk to from the hostel.
A New Perspective
So of course, my life could be worse. Apple picking isn’t too bad, it does get old really quickly and the money is terrible, but I am lucky to have a job at all. This experience has been character building and eye-opening; I have a new respect for people who work on farms for their whole lives.
It’s also been interesting to see farm work from the eyes of a migrant worker. As a foreigner, I know I’m privileged to be able to live and work in Australia, even if the working conditions aren’t ideal. I can now empathize a bit with the many migrant workers that come to my own country in search of a new life.
I also understand a bit more the prejudices between locals and foreigners, as it’s very noticeable in small country towns like Stanthorpe. There’s been plenty of fights between locals and backpackers on nights out, and the tension some of the locals feel towards us is palpable. It is a bit uncomfortable at times, but I can understand both sides of the spectrum.
No matter where I am living, whether I am the local or the foreigner, in the USA, Australia, or any other country, I will always try to look at others with an open mind. Everyone has their own reasons for living and working where they do, and anyone who works hard and maintains a positive attitude deserves to be treated with respect.