Monday, 27 February, 2017
Australia can be a bit of a wallet crusher at times – checking for penguins and buying sleeping bags disrupts the piggy-bank more than you’d think. Therefore, the time had come for us to find a farm and get stuck in.
After a bit of research, we decided to head to Rochester where we’d be picking tomatoes. The town was just a train ride away from Melbourne and had been recommended by the government associated national harvest trail (bell cheddars!).
So, away we went – optimistic that we may be a day away from unveiling a hidden passion and our future careers.
I had a few guests while I was in Taiwan, however, I reckon there would be less enthusiasm to visit should I decide to make a permanent move to a tomato farm in Rochester – perhaps I should make it my life plan to test the strength of some friendships and my parents’ love.
We called the boss when we arrived in Rochester, just as we were told to do. He let us know that he’d pick us up in an hour, telling us to ‘go shopping’ in the meantime. The town only had one supermarket and three pubs (although, a ratio of 3:1 regarding bars and shops is pretty standard in Australia).
Well, I’m not really big on shopping – plus, we had four huge traveller bags with us. Thus, we went for a pint.
Rochester is one of those towns where everybody knows everybody. The entire community is very friendly, talkative, and within five minute they’re gabbing to you like they would a family member – they’re a lovely bunch.
As we continued chatting away, the conversation naturally moved towards farm work. They explained that most of the locals that work on the farms are very reliable and trustworthy, except for one – ‘Alex, the dodgiest guy in town’ – their words.
As we were leaving the pub, the barman explained that he could probably sort me out with a bar job should we end up with Alex – presumably in an attempt to reassure us and save the reputation of the town if necessary.
That was a nice gesture; although, this place had been recommended by the government associated national harvest trail (bell cheddars!) – Therefore, we felt fairly confident that we wouldn’t end up with the big, bad wolf.
When the bus eventually arrived; the boss got off, shook our hands and said, “Hey, I’m Alex.” – Oh, bollocks!
Alex is a fairly common name – perhaps this guy’s surname wasn’t actually ‘The-Dodgiest-Guy-In-Town’ – maybe we were just looking at lovely, plain, old Alex Tomato, the nicest guy in town – any optimism we once had was slowly fading.
We did consider just boycotting the farm after all we had heard – but, we came a long way for the experience, so we thought that we may as well at least give it a day to see what we were getting into – we obviously agreed that we wouldn’t be sticking around for long though, if he is indeed the con artist that he’s made out to be.
We got to our accommodation – which, in itself, was a huge indicator that it was dodgy Alex that we’d be picking tomatoes for.
Our room was covered in hay, there were flies everywhere, the back window had been smashed through and the plug socket had been ripped off the wall.
I then asked Alex for the key – to which he explained that there were no room keys and that all doors just permanently remain unlocked. Right, well, I suppose there is a window for a burglar to climb through around the back should they so desire anyway – so, what would be the use of a door with a lock anyway, right?
We left the room and unbeknown to us, the door locked from the inside – which is a bit of problem when you don’t have a key. I told Alex, this irritated him and he asked me why I would do that. I explained that not having a key was one thing, but leaving the door open each time we go out would be a little bit too lax on the security.
The only positive thing about leaving our room door open is that it may offer all the flies another gap to leave through – but, then, they weren’t currently leaving via the massive smashed window at the back – so, they were probably actually pretty settled.
With a bit of huffing and puffing he put down his bottle of whisky (apparently, he drinks a full bottle every night according to the other fruit pickers) and went to our room with his key-chain.
He had no idea which key to use though, and just tried the first three – none of which worked – he looked at the keys and asked, “Why am I wasting time with this.” He then put the keys back in his pocket and decided to rip our front window out – the logical next step, obviously.
I reckon we might be in for a bit of drafty night now, you know, with both our windows missing.
His pal then climbed into our room, opened the door, pushed in the latch and told us to be more careful – bloody hell, he’s just pulled a window out to open a door, and I need to be more careful?! The world has gone insane.
An old bloke (who I later found out was Alex’s dad) also abruptly opened our door in the evening when we were sleeping, poked his head in, looked at our beds and shouted, “How many in here?” – Imagine that after lights out?! I crapped my kegs – the rude git could have at least knocked first, man. Frigging hell!
I won’t even get into details with the toilets and showers – I’ll just say that they were very limited on toilet seats, paper and water – no shortage of brown stains everywhere though, so at least they came with views.
At 6am the next day we were on the tomato farm – as the new guys, we got whacked in this shoddy area where there were barely any tomatoes.
The salary (which we were told about in advance, to be fair) was $1.70 a bucket – however, I didn’t quite envision the buckets being quite so big and the tomatoes being quite so small. It honestly felt like we were lobbing cherry tomatoes into a wishing well.
In the first hour I filled three buckets, and to be frank, I really felt like I was grafting my arse off. I was working my muscles harder than I ever had before, and for what? $5.10 (£3.16) an hour – living the bloody dream!
What I am yet to mention is that Alex charges $10 each day for travel to the farm, and accommodation – you know, that lovely room without the windows – is $100 a week per person. Therefore, we’d be grafting away for seven hours every day picking tomatoes, and 90% of our wage would be going straight back into dodgy Alex’s pocket at the end of it all.
It wasn’t actually fruit picking itself that drew me away, yeah it was hard work, but I had anticipated as much – it was everything around it that was the problem. $1.70 a bucket, come on, pal – that is the kind of coin the tooth fairy is giving out to seven year olds.
Needless to say, we left after our first day. We had one final day in Rochester before we left though, I loved that place – everybody wanted to talk to us, share stories, offer advice and slag off Alex – great chat over a pint. We also discussed the possible bar job too, but unfortunately there just wouldn’t be enough hours in it. Not to mention, we didn’t really want to be within a fifty mile radius of tomato farms, at least for now.
We’re now in the airport waiting to board a flight to Tasmania – let’s get over tomatoes by seeing some little devils.