If you think fruit picking is the sole domain of European backpackers working under slave-like conditions in the blazing Australian sun, then think again. Fruit picking has gone respectable and there is no shortage of grey nomads making a decent income from it.
As international tourist numbers plummeted, one of the traditional sources of seasonal workers for Australian farmers began to dry up and they had to fill the gap somehow. Older Australians travelling around in camper vans and caravans were targeted, as they were perceived to have an established work ethic, their own ready-made accommodation, and a willingness to broaden their horizons.
At fruit farms these days you’re just as likely to find a group of grey nomads playing cards outside their caravans in the evenings as you are to find backpackers partying the night away.
Right, so what about those slave-like conditions? Fruit picking is hard work. You will need to be fit and healthy and prepared to stay the distance. However, you do not need to be a triathlon athlete. It is in no one’s interest for you to keel over with heat exhaustion or dehydration, and working conditions are generally good. Normally you will start picking early in the morning and finish before the sun really begins to take its toll.
Each fruit or vegetable is different and pickers soon work out what they like and what they don’t like. Harvesting ground fruits such as strawberries, rock melons, watermelons and ground vegetables like cabbage, zucchinis, capsicums and potatoes means you will be bending down all day long and this can be a strain on a back.
Tree fruit such as avocadoes, oranges, apricots, macadamia nuts, apples, cherries, and bananas are more back friendly as they are picked from the branches of a tree or plant. Sometimes ladders are also used to do this.
Fruit pickers are either paid by the hour or by the bucket. The hourly wage is based on the Australian standard wage rate for casual farm workers. For experienced or enthusiastic pickers, the contract arrangement is generally more lucrative. You will be paid a set amount per bin and you are free to work as long and as hard as you like, although the farmer will obviously require a certain level of productivity.
In addition to the picking itself, there are lots of other opportunities for seasonal farm work including pruning and weeding, grading and packing fruit that has already been harvested, and even driving tractors and heavy machinery if you have a licence.
The grey nomad fruit-picking trail has become a well-worn one and you will see many of the same faces at different farms picking different fruits. Members of this growing community are eager to pass on their knowledge and relate their experiences, so it will quickly become known on the grapevine which farmers are difficult to work for and which farmers are not.
As a rule, the main picking season is in the summer months and your services will be in hot demand during that time. Happily for hard-working nomads, Australia is a big country with a varied climate and therefore produces a wide range of fruits and vegetables at different times of the year, so you’ll be able to keep yourself pretty busy.
The government website www.jobsearch.gov.au/harvesttrail is a great place to pick up tips about what jobs are avalable.
STATE OF PLAY
The brief guide below will give you an idea of what you can expect to pick across the country … and where.
New South Wale Fruit and vegetable crops are harvested all over NSW. Among the towns to check out are Griffith, Ballina, Forbes and Lismore for stone fruit; Bathurst, Forbes and Orange for apples; the Hunter Valley, Mudgee and Griffith for grapes, Forbes, Tumut and Young for cherries and Bourke, Dubbo, Naromine and Leeton for citrus.
The tropical north of the Northern Territory boasts year-round harvesting of bananas, selected vegetables and cut flowers. Seasonally, both the Darwin and Katherine regions have melon and mango harvests.
Queensland offers fruit pickers a couple of year-round crops such as bananas and sugar in Tully and citrus and tomatoes in other regions. Check out Emerald, Mundubbera and Gayndah for citrus, Atherton for avocados, and Bowen, Innisfail and Ayr for tomatoes and other vegetables.
South Australia has a range of crops, mainly in the state’s more fertile south. Among the regions to check are the Adelaide Hills, the Barossa Valley the Clare Valley and the Fleurieu Peninsula for apples, pears and grapes; Barmera, Berri, Cadell, Loxton, Paringa, Ramco and Waikerie for citrus and Barmera, the Clare Valley, Berri, Paringa and Renmark for cherries.
A large number of harvesting opportunities are available in Victoria. Check out Shepparton and Bendigo for apples, pears and grapes, Echuca, Shepparton and Werribee for tomatoes and other vegetables and Ararat, Mildura, Swan Hill, Wangaratta and the Yarra Valley for grapes.
Tasmania’s great growing climate means there is a wide range of fruits and vegetables that require harvesting. Among the areas to check for picking opportunities are Devonport, Huonville, Richmond and the Tamar Valley for apples, cherries and grapes; and the Gunn Plains for cherries, strawberries and vegetables.
Western Australia encompasses several distinct regions, each with its own weather pattern and season for fruit picking. Among the towns to check out are Kununurra for mangoes; Manjimup, Pemberton, Donnybrook and Bunbury for apples and pears; Margaret River, Mt Barker and the Swan Valley for grapes; and Carnarvon and Kununurra for tomatoes and other vegetables.