The First Cut

Have you ever been told not to do something and, knowing that it would be difficult, done it anyway? This is currently the case for Jordan and me with farm work in Australia. We were told by friends who have done it previously that harvesting vegetables would be backbreaking work, but we committed to the job before we arrived in the country so we decided to go ahead with it despite their warnings. We quickly found out that our friends were not exaggerating and backbreaking was just the start of it.

We arrived in Stanthorpe, 3 hours Southwest of Brisbane, on a Sunday afternoon and were picked up by the owners of Harslett Farm Alec and Denise who immediately put us to work at their daughter’s nursery. Repotting plants at rapid fire speed I thought this isn’t so bad… aside from the slugs. Farm work will be good for us. After our “volunteer work” at the nursery we loaded up our backpacks and groceries and set out for the farm a 20 minute drive, past apple, plum and strawberry farms, further into the bush.

For $120 rent per week, we arranged to spend the month of December living in a shared house on the farm with one girl from Denmark and three Aussie university students. Alec and Denise dropped us off at the house and we were left to determine which of the two open rooms we would occupy. This consisted of laying on all the mattresses, each one proving to be more springy and unsupportive than the next. In the end we chose the room with two single beds on frames over the room with a queen size mattress on the floor. This is spider territory, afterall. Our housemate Monika warned us to keep the house doors shut to keep the snakes out which we took as confirmation that we chose the right room.

Our humble home.

Our humble home.

On Monday morning we reported to work at the shed and were assigned to the celery crew with Jose, Emilena and Ernesto our El Salvadorian counterparts. Our Spanish speaking skills and knowledge of Central America got us into their good graces which was important since all of them have been working on the farm for more than 20 years each. We were issued our very own harvesting knives and searched the shed for gloves because the celery produces a sap that burns your skin (and apparently seasoned farm workers know you have to bring your own gear). Learn something new every day!

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We spent most of the day in the paddy (field) learning how to cut the celery and the last two hours of the day in the cabbage fields weeding. That night my wrist and forearms hurt so badly that I completely forgot about the back pain associated with being hunched over all day. The second day we were back in the celery paddy, all day, and my cutting skills had improved a fraction. It’s all about the first cut.

Alec and our other boss Tim were out working with us side by side which meant high speed and high stress. If being the slowest cutter in the field wasn’t bad enough, being barked at by Alec had me fighting back a fit of rage. It was only my second day and he expected me to keep up with men who have been doing this for 20 years – ugh. There are no excuses or mercy in the paddy.

By the end of the day I felt like we had enlisted in boot camp and was seriously wondering what the heck we were doing working on a farm. My inner monologue went something along the lines of, “I guess this is penitence for having the past seven and a half months to do whatever we want, whenever we want…. No, I worked my butt off for two years so I could spend seven and a half months doing whatever I want, whenever I want! We could be making money somewhere that isn’t in the middle of nowhere, like the coast, where we would have access to the outside world and no physical anguish. What.Are.We.Doing.Here?!?!”

On the third day I was assigned to packing the celery on the truck while five people cut, which turned out to be more stressful than the cutting since I was the final quality check, full speed and getting barked at again. Turns out farming is no different than most other jobs, the training is minimal and expectations are high. Somewhere deep down past the frustration and exhaustion was an underlying determination and on the walk back to our house that afternoon Jordan and I agreed that our commitment to the job felt more like a personal challenge than anything else. Together we resolved to face this challenge head on.

The first step toward seeing the light at the end of the tunnel was breaking down the timing. Technically we only committed to 18 working days and we had already gotten into a routine. Wake up between 4:45 and 5:15 a.m., start work at 6 a.m. break at 9:30 a.m. (known as smoke-o or morning tea, I love Aussie-isms!), lunch at 12:30 p.m., finish at 3 p.m., hang out on the porch for a while (afternoon “avo” tea), take turns showering up, cook dinner/make lunch, go to bed, do it all over again.

Within the first few days we had already formed bonds with our roommates and the other travelers working/living on the farm. It’s a funny almost camp-like community feel. Not having a car, we rely on our new friends for rides into town for groceries or to use the internet and somehow it always turns into an adventure. On our first Saturday we caught a ride with Monika and her sister Majken and her boyfriend Andreas to Surfer’s Paradise on the Gold Coast. It was awesome to spend even one day exploring a new place in Australia. We’re feeling lucky to be out here with such great people.

Surfer's Paradise - the weather wasn't great but it WAS great to be at the beach instead of the farm.

Surfer’s Paradise – the weather wasn’t great but it WAS great to be at the beach instead of the farm.

In addition to the people, we’ve been exposed to a lot of animals being out here in the bush. Our backyard butts up against one of the paddies so we regularly see kangaroos – they are especially active at sunrise and sunset. Parrots and kookaburra birds hang out in our trees and beetles and frogs are abundant everywhere. Thankfully we haven’t seen a single snake since arriving! I’ve crossed paths with my fair share of huntsman spiders. Even though they are big and scary looking they are harmless, so I’m OK with it.

With two weeks under our belts, we are feeling more optimistic. It’s been rewarding to put in a hard day’s work and burn off some of the steak and wine we indulged in for the last few weeks of our South America experience. I recon we’ve already lost a few pounds each and have gained back some muscle strength. Getting exercise and getting paid? YES!

View of the farm from a giant granite hill - at least it's pretty out here.

View of the farm from a giant granite hill – at least it’s pretty out here.

Working out here has opened my eyes to the process of getting food from ground to mouth. I was picturing everything to be mechanized and thought we’d probably be in a packing plant somewhere, but I was wrong. Serious hard labor goes in to every aspect from physically planting 30,000 cabbage plants by hand in one day because the machine isn’t working (at best the machine just creates lines in the ground that it then clumsily drops the plants into, which means that no matter what you have to walk the rows and fix everything) to weeding. There isn’t some miracle chemical getting rid of those beasts, it takes hands, hoes and a whole lot of sweat. I even joked that we should bring one home and use it as a Christmas tree because some of the weeds are the sizes of small trees!

Cauliflower must be the most unprofitable vegetable we have on this farm. Did you know that cauliflower can get sunburned? Meaning that anywhere the sun has touched turns yellow therefore rendering the plant unusable, even though it doesn’t change the taste at all!? The cauliflower must be completely covered by the leaves which must be done by hand and even then the ratio of usable to unusable plants is mind-boggling.

This area of Australia has been considered to be in a draught for the past two years making farming nearly impossible. The main component of vegetables is water! Additionally, the government lacks funding to help these farmers out so many are going under. We were notified on arrival to Harslett that work will end mid-January because they will be leasing the farm out. This farm which has been in the family for three generations is no longer sustainable. With cabbage, lettuce, celery and cauliflower as the main crops, it’s little wonder that the farm cannot operate without an abundance of water let alone in a draught. It’s also been really interesting to see the parallels between working in corporate America and a farm in Australia. Work is work no matter where you are.

I had a great job before we left the U.S. with a lot of responsibility, involving a lot of travel and working side by side with people I still consider to be great friends – the farm couldn’t be more different, but I’m happy to be here. Working on Harslett Farm is allowing me to continue seeing new parts of the world, learn, meet incredible individuals and appreciate the work experiences I’ve had.

Best of all, it has brought Jordan and I even closer together. Long-term travel is a good strength builder for relationships, but working side by side in a paddy in intense heat, intense rain and wielding giant knives is… well it just IS.

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