Looking for information about picking oranges on a working holiday visa? Click here.
Throwback post! In July 2009, I was living in a tiny, rural town along the Murray River in South Australia, working a citrus-packing job at a large shed. Some of my hostelmates and I were on the arvo shift (arvo = afternoon = 4:30 pm – 1:30 am), working 6 nights a week, so life was weird! After a couple months there, I decided to “update my resume” with some of the skills I picked up at the factory:
What is it? Packing basically consists of hand-packing fruit into boxes (or occasionally bags for Woolworths). After being sorted, citrus fruits come flying down into bins we pack out of. The way the fruits are arranged in the box depends on the count, displayed on a small screen above the bin. Sometimes we have to weigh the boxes, which usually means lining up in front of the scale holding 14.5-15.1 kilos of fruit. All quite riveting, I know! It can get exciting though, when we switch from oranges to lemons or tangelos! I’ve even been able to take home the occasional bag of limes or grapefruits.
* Multitasking: It takes a bit of effort to master the art of packing while imagining you are doing something infinitely more interesting (i.e. anything else). It’s also important to make sure that your hands are moving at the same speed as usual when chatting to the person next to you, in case the supervisor is lurking nearby.
* Time management: If a bin looks like it’s almost empty when I start packing, I work slowly. Otherwise, I’ll have to be creative coming up with ways to look busy when I’m finished packing. On the other hand, if a bin is ridiculously full, I pack quickly to avoid being stuck in the same place all night.
* Space management: It’s tough to squeeze obese oranges into a box, but even harder when the pack is loose and I’m trying to hold onto 14 oranges at once while setting the next layer on top.
*Ability to slow/stop time: Yeah I’m pretty sure time has actually stopped a couple of times!
Best part: Sometimes we pretend to smuggle the fruit out, Mission Impossible-style, even though we can just ask and take it home!
What is it? Sorting entails rooting through large quantities of fruit which come hurtling towards you on a conveyor belt. As the oranges speed past, they are also rolling, which makes for a nauseous experience. We have to sort them into different grades by throwing them onto different conveyor belts. Unfortunately, standards change nightly and this process is fairly subjective in the first place, so we get contradicting instructions at least once an evening. Fruit with splits, holes, rot, etc. is rubbish. Anything with albedo (orange cellulite), long stems, skin damage, sunburn (yellow on an orange) and various other ailments gets thrown into juice. The rest goes into first or second grade, according to that night’s standards. More than you ever wanted to know about oranges? Ditto!
*Attention to detail: We have to decide whether an abrasion is skin damage or just a blemish, whether a little dot is mud or spray damage, etc. The worst is when we have fruit going to the US – their standards are sooo high; the Quality Control Officers get all tense and we end up throwing out tons of decent oranges.
*Working under pressure: High speed oranges, quick decisions, picky and omniscient sorting supervisor pacing around with a big fake smile … need I say more?
Best part: Besides being kind of trippy, staring at rolling oranges for hours on end actually feels a bit like meditation. Also, I’m pretty sure that if you’re sick of sorting, you can use motion sickness as an excuse to go packing.
What is it? This is the job with the least amount of responsibility. You’re the first to see the fruit when it comes out of the bins from the farms, and all you have to do is take out the really disgusting-looking stuff – splits and juicy chunks of fruit, that kind of thing. Since there are at least three other groups of people who will are responsible for doing this with the exact same fruit, it’s not really a big deal if you let a couple of rubbish oranges slip by. The only drawback is that working on sour rot is really, really cold, even when you’re Canadian and wearing six layers.
*Hand/eye coordination: Establishing a connection between spotting the rotten orange and picking it up can be difficult. For me. Maybe this lack of coordination is why I suck at video games?
*Creativity: I like to think of fun activities to do when the machine stops. E.g. making different-sized pyramids out of oranges, grabbing my coworkers with the vacuum thingy (see below)…
Best part: we get to use these like… fishing rods with vacuumy suction cup things on the ends to pick the fruit out. While that may not fully make sense, it’s fun! Kind of like that fishpond game, with the magnets and rotating fish.
What is it? When we’ve finished packing a box, we stick it onto the massive ‘boxline’, a conveyor belt which snakes around the factory and eventually ends up in the loading area. Pack turners stand just before the area where the boxes are glued and loaded…and turn the boxes. Seriously, we just have to make sure that boxes are on the correct belt (according to where in the world they’re headed), the flaps are folded down, and that the stamp is facing the right direction.
*Problem solving: Occasionally the line gets crammed. If I’m working alone on boxline when this happens, I yell for help and two or three of us attempt to wrestle the boxes, holding back the big line-up while turning and folding the ones going by. Sometimes it gets so crazy that a box needs to be pulled off the line! It’s wild, really.
*Physical strength: Turning/pushing/pulling heavy packs can be quite the workout!
What is it? I get to be the one who drives the rickety old hostel van home at 1:30am down kangaroo-inhabited country roads! Actually, I have yet to see a kangaroo on those roads, and it’s only a 10 minute drive. However, a van which I am no longer driving did break down on us twice. Once was on a late-night McDonald’s run which we really were not supposed to be making. In the drive-through. That was embarrassing. The other time was a little scarier – the van just gradually started dying until we had to pull over on a deserted road. This wasn’t long after some of us had seen Wolf Creek (movie about backpacker murders in Australia, based on a true story) so we were suitably freaked out. Luckily, some of our friends were willing to get out of bed and rescue us.
*Staying awake: For obvious reasons. Actually, I’m usually quite wired after work. My schedule’s all crazy now – I sleep at 3 or 4am, wake up around 11 or 12 (or 1), and don’t get much accomplished during the day.
Best part: I’m gonna have to go with sneaky Maccas drive-through!