One morning in rural South Australia, I arrived at a vineyard for my grape-picking job, shortly after the sun had risen. The mist was still suspended above the vines, and the air was cool. As I approached, I squealed as I noticed three kangaroos nearby, hopping away through the rows of grapes.
Sound romantic? I thought so too, at first! Not only is following the Australian harvest trail and picking produce a great way to save money fairly quickly, it allows you to extend your stay for another year, if you’re on a Working Holiday Visa.
However, it’s not all kangaroos in vineyards. (That only happened once!) Harvest work is tough; you have to be prepared to work for long periods of time without a day off, to work quickly if you want to earn a decent wage, and to accept that you will probably come face to face with some not-so-cute Australian wildlife.
Still think you might be up for harvest work? Read on to learn about a day in the life of an orange picker.
A Day in the Life: Orange Picking in Australia
8 – 9 am: Wake up to a text from a farmer at the orchard, letting my hostel mates and I know when we’ll be starting work. This depends on how much dew is on the fruit; we can’t pick when it’s wet. (Rainy days = no work.)
9 – 10:00: Leave the working hostel and head to work in a clunky van.
9:30 – 10:30: Start picking! Orange picking goes quickly because the fruit is big and you can pull it right off the trees. Mandarins take more time because sometimes you need to cut them off with snips (one time we had to measure their size to make sure they were big enough to pick)!
We pick in pairs between two rows of trees, each of us taking one side. We fill chic kangaroo pouch bags with fruit, then empty them into a large crate. Our pay depends on how many of the crates we fill, so the faster we work, the more money we make!
11:30: Farmer X comes by to inform us that a lot of the fruit in our bin is too green. “Leave more on the trees!”
11:45: A spider, roughly the size of my palm, comes crawling out of my belly bag, up towards my FACE. I have a minor freak out, but I’m used to it by now so I brush it away and keep picking.
12:00 or whenever we fill our first bin: Lunchtime. Sit under the trees and talk citrus psychology and picking strategies. The most ambitious pickers don’t stop for lunch!
1:00: Farmer Y comes by to tell us that we should “pick harder”, i.e. pick more of the green fruit.
1:30: Step on an anthill. Do a little dance where I am simultaneously kicking the ants that are snacking on my leg and madly trying to pick at the same pace as before.
2:00: A fun song plays on my iPod. Perfect the dance-and-pick.
3:00: Climb up a ladder to get at the few ripe fruits at the top of a tree.
3:02: Ladder and I fall into the tree so that the ladder is approximately at a 45 degree angle to the ground. Continue to pick, supporting my weight against the ladder with my knees while trying not to crush the fruits in my pouch while also leaning backwards to reach the fruit above me. Am now looking like a Cirque du Soleil acrobat-in-training but it’s worth it because I have 5 more oranges in my bag!!
4:00: Home stretch! Finish the bin we’re working on. Farmer Z comes by in his tractor to collect the bins, and cracks a hilarious joke about how few bins we’ve completed. “Only 3 bins? Were you out at the pub last night?” To which we reply: “Haha, no, actually our bodies HAVE STOPPED FUNCTIONING, haha!”
The fruits of our labour.
4:55: Finishing touches. Hide the dark green oranges under the brightly coloured ones.
5:00: Home time! Grunt in collective pain as we all clamber back into the van.
5:35: Hop in the shower and proceed to wash most of Australia’s red dirt off my body. Inspect my new thorn scratches (I’ve started wearing long sleeves to avoid these) and knee bruises (gotta buy knee pads). Am impressed that I’ve managed both a glove and t-shirt tan.
Spend the rest of the evening hanging out with my hostel mates, who come from all over the world.
10:30: Crawl into bed and sleep very well.