Farm Work in Australia | Tips, Advice & Stories

Farm work for working holiday makers

Unsurprisingly, battling some of Australia’s most deadly creepy crawlies and slithery suckers to harvest fruit and vegetables isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. However, if you want to spend more than one year down under, you will need to complete three months seasonal work in some of the most remote regions of the country.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Farm work can be fun, challenging and you are likely to make some life long friends who you can spend the next ten years reminiscing about your days spent bent over strawberry plants in the blazing sunshine. Although your days will consist of rising before dawn, sweating it out in 40 degree heat and removing thorns from your delicate hands, evenings are spent with other working holiday makers with similar interests who know how to demolish a few beers with the best of them.

As the majority of farms are located in the arse-end-of-nowhere, miles from the nearest big city and all of its drinking establishments, you are likely to save a substantial amount of mullah that can fund the next leg of your trip. Plus, the crowing glory, a shiny sparkly, second year working visa which allows you to keep the dream alive and real life at bay for at least another year.

A few words of warning…

Unfortunately folks – here comes the scary part. There are people out there looking to take advantage of your kind souls and the fact that you are desperate to stay in Australia. This is a given, wherever you are on God’s green earth there are people like this so don’t be a sucker – use your head and don’t let anything like this happen to you.

Here are some stories from fellow travellers…

English working holiday maker, Will told us about his misfortune; ”My mate and I were broke and badly in need of money. We called a guy that we found online who said that he could offer us work and a roof over our head. We hopped on a bus only to arrive to what can only be described as a hell-hole. The accommodation was nothing more than a shell of a house, there were filthy chairs, cockroaches running about, stained mattresses that looked like they had been salvaged from a dump. It was horrific. We were tired and weren’t thinking straight and somehow he managed to get us to hand over our last pennies as a deposit for the accommodation. There was no work but we had to wait around on the off chance because we needed some money to get out of there. It was the worst experience I had ever had on my travels”.

Pheobe, another backpacker told us her opinion on the system and how her experiences meant that she opted to return to the UK. “Basically, I think it’s a joke that it’s a legal binding obligation that you serve the country by completing three months regional work to extend your visa by a year and then you have to pay for the extension on top of this. There are no regulations in place to protect people which just opens you up to being ripped off. It’s the perfect opportunity for people to take the piss, pay nothing and expect you to work like a dog…or even worse, not even bother to get you a job! I hated it, packed it in after three weeks and enjoyed the rest of my time in Australia before returning to London – I don’t regret it one bit. I couldn’t have done three months”.

Many fall in to the trap of thinking that because they are heading to a backpackers hostel that the staff are trustworthy. Sadly, this is not always the case. German working holiday maker Max told us what happened to him in Queensland: “We arrived at the hostel and there were work boots everywhere and people returning from days on farms – we thought – this is great, there must be lots of work for everyone. We happily handed over a months deposit and then basically sat back and waited. It was well over a week before we even got one days work and then there was nothing for another week. We were broke, twiddling our thumbs and had no option but to stay and hope that they finally took pity on us. I would advise people to never hand over more than a week’s deposit. Looking back, I feel stupid and really angry about the whole thing”.

It’s not all doom and gloom…

Now it’s quite possible that we have filled you with dread and now even the sheer mention of farm work will send you flying to the hills screaming like some kind of possessed banshee fleeing from Hitler. The fact of the matter is that the people whose stories I told above were unlucky – hundreds of thousands of working holiday makers have worked their way through the system, found farms where the people welcome them like they are family and where they happily spend three months and even more, earning money, experiencing nature and earning their visas. You can do the same if you go through the right channels.

Here’s a few happier stories to help ease those nightmares of murderous tractor drivers, hostel owners intent on milking you dry and spiders the size of dinner plates…

Betty, who is now happily living in Bondi after working to receive her work visa, told us how things went for her and why her experience was so enjoyable: “I organised my farm work through a company called Outbackpackers. I went to a place called Coonabarabran which was eight hours from Sydney. There were 12 of us and we spent a week learning cattle skills, driving tractors, bikes and large farm utes. We did so much; horse riding, mustering cattle – it was a tough week but it gave us real experience of what it was like being a Jackaroo/ Jillaroo. I was then shipped off to work at a 250,000 acre cattle station in Queensland to work as a Pommie Jillaroo mustering, branding and weaning cattle. It was the most amazing experience, even if I did share my cottage with frogs and mice! It was tough and painful at times but there were also a lot of laughs and many news friends…including some particularly cute baby cows!”

Stephanie from Sweden told us about her experiences with WWOOFING. “I found out about the program through friends at work in Sydney. I have, and always will be, a city girl but they raved about it so much that when I decided that I would like to stay in Australia, I decided to do it to get my second working holiday visa.

My sister and I started our WWOOFING experience in Queensland in a beautiful farm in Cooroy. We stayed with a lovely lady named Sandra for two weeks, who welcomed us into her home and treated us like we were one of her own.

After that we went to Rockhampton, Coolum Beach, Townsville, the Atherton Tablelands and we ended our journey north of Cairns in the Daintree Rainforest. We selected each farm carefully out of the WWOOFING book to maximise our experience and increase our understanding of the Australian culture and its people. During our three-month adventure we did many different jobs ranging from cow mustering in Rockhampton to weeding in Townsville. In each of these wonderful places we met amazing people, many of which we are still in touch with. WWOOFING was a fantastic experience for us because we were completely out of our element, miles away from any kind of comfort zone! During WWOOFING we saw wild life we didn’t even know existed and spoke to people who we would never otherwise have got the chance to meet. I couldn’t recommend it higher”.

Julia from Germany told us about her time doing seasonal work: “Farm work is hard, anyone that tells you different is either lying or has been lucky. It’s really hot and it’s physical and a lot of people aren’t used to that – you need to just get over yourself and get it done. There was something really romantic about being up and working just as the sun was coming up. It made us sit up and take notice of the beautiful country that we were in and once you realised that you didn’t mind working hard to stay here”.

Are things set to change?

It’s very clear that there are good and bad things about completing your seasonal work, go about it in the right way and things will go swimmingly, neglect your research or experience a bit of bad lu
ck and before you know if your funds could have rapidly depleted leaving you miles from civilisation with barely enough food to eat and no way of moving on.

However, things could be set to change. Recently, the Australian Tourism Export Council (ATEC) have been hard at work creating a paper which they have submitted to the Department of Immigration arguing that travellers should be able to get their Working Holiday Visa multiple times and be able to extend them until the ripe old age of 35.

The ATEC have urged the Federal Government to make five key policy adjustments which they believe could increase the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by an impressive $275million over a period of ten years. This would strengthen the economy and create jobs within the tourism industry which at the moment is affected by labour shortages – certainly nothing to sneer at!

So, what exactly are they proposing?

  • 1They want to extend the visa expansion scheme to include “tourism and hospitality” work rather than just harvest work.
  • 2To implement reduced costs and financial requirements of applying for a visa.
  • 3To widen the qualifying age from 18-30 to 18-35.
  • 4To allow travellers to gain the visa multiple times.
  • 5They want to push the Government to improve their engagement with the tourism industry in an attempt to widen the visa expansion scheme to new countries around the world.

All sounds good to us and if the proposals are passed, you might be able to do your time behind a bar in a regional area rather than behind a tractor in the mid-day heat.

The ATEC are supporting their argument with the fact that previous research has indicated that more than 11 per cent of those who have had working holiday visas previously would return if they could. Based on this fact alone, Australia could expect a boost of £275 million to their GDP over 10 years. Surely it’s a no-brainer. Come on Dept. of Immigration – get your asses in gear!

Top tips…

Follow these tips and hopefully your experience will be nothing but positive:

Your strongest weapon in the search for reliable and reasonably paid work is word-of-mouth. If you want to make sure that you aren’t ripped off by some cane-wielding maniac intent on milking backpackers for every last drop of energy, go to the places which you have heard good things about. There are hundreds of reputable farms which are grateful for the extra help provided by the backpacker army who will be more than happy to house you in liveable accommodation and pay you what you deserve. Keep your ear to the ground and listen to the advice of others.

It’s all about the research – the Internet is a powerful thing my friends. If you think you have landed yourself some regional work but haven’t yet booked your bus ticket to get there, get online and see what it says on the world wide web about your potential employers. There are forums, Facebook groups and websites dedicated to this type of thing so put those research skills you honed at university to work and save yourselves potential bother.

Always ask for hourly paid work if possible. Contract work is all very well but you may be told rates of pay according to what the most seasoned worker can pick. In reality and especially at the beginning of your job, you may not be able to pick enough to keep your head above water. Hourly rates are the way to go.

Don’t try and cheat the system. Although it is easy to be tempted by the online ads which claim to provide you with the documentation needed to bag a second visa once you hand over your cash, the majority are scams and the visa-granting authorities aren’t idiots. If they discover that you have tried to get your second visa by illegal means, you’ll be on a plane back home faster than you can say, “I’m an idiot”.

Get all of the information related to your job offer in writing. This means that you will know exactly what you are committing to before you get there.

Travel in groups or pairs. Remember, there is safety in numbers. You wouldn’t head to live and work with a complete stranger in other places in the world. Use your head, keep your wits about you and trust your instincts. Surprisingly even the most seasoned clichés are actually worth obeying.

Don’t hand over rent or a deposit until you know that you have work. As a guideline, you should never have to hand over more than one week’s rent in advance. The last thing that you want is to hand over the last pennies that you have in the universe only to be trapped somewhere with no job opportunities.

Listen to the “lifers”. There are loads of Aussie and Kiwi pickers who have been travelling around between regions, landing work at just the right times. They will be able to provide you with invaluable advice about where the work is, who you should work for and how much you are likely to get paid.

If you have your own car – use this to your advantage. If you volunteer to transport fellow workers to work and back, the farmer might bung you a few extra dollars in your pay packet. It’s all beer money at the end of the day!

 If working hostels don’t seem to be delivering – try and organise your own work independently. Chat to the locals and ask for introductions from friends. By cutting out the middleman, you are reducing your chances of being screwed over.

Useful websites…

By Amy Baker