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sweet potato

For the last 11 weeks I have had the pleasure of doing my regional work in Tolga, part of the Atherton Tablelands. I have been moved about from farm to farm experiencing how to pick avocados from trees (who knew they grew on trees!), plant blueberries, sort bananas and most of all I have learned the ins and outs of the production of sweet potatoes.

After hanging around Cairns for 2 weeks with my 3 friends and other backpackers desperately searching for regional work, we eventually got the good to go from Tolga Country Lodge. We had got the details of this working hostel from a friend we’d made in Vietnam. I would say it’s better to take people’s recommendations rather than look online for random farms as that’s where the majority of scams occur.

Getting a Fruit Picking Job

It happened all of a sudden on a Sunday afternoon while I was sunbathing peacefully at the lagoon and had just applied my tanning oil, if I was going to be poor and unemployed, I may as well get a tan. But then my friend’s phone rang, they wanted 2 of us to arrive today to start bright and early tomorrow morning and then the other 2 arrive the next day. We rock paper scissored for it. Amy and I won and so the mad rush began. All of our things were splayed across our hostel room and we had less than an hour to pack up and get on the last bus. We waved goodbye to Steph and Charley as if we were being shipped off to farm camp, leaving our freedom and laughter behind.

I was placed at Tindel for the majority of my stay. A farm I was warned about from the beginning of a dragon slayer farmer who was a top class bitch. So I had my worries naturally and joined a group of boys and began my education in potatoes. I hid away from Jackie the boss and did as I was told, or of what I could understand as she yells constantly with a fag hanging out of her mouth. It was Fiona, another supervisor, who showed me the ropes and who people confirm with about what Jackie had told them to do. She takes the be nice to backpackers approach, treat them as you would like to be treated. In the end you get used to Jackie and I actually admire and respect her for having the balls to shout at people all day long. It gets the job done and any of those that give her attitude are replaced the next day. When you get to see her everyday you see that she’s actually a big softie at heart when she talks about her little dogs and when she teases the Italians. She makes each day interesting.

The Typical Day of Harvest Work

When you spend all day standing around, you get a lot of time to think. Ex boyfriends who you haven’t seen in 6 years make an appearance and what your lives would be like if you were still together…of course magical and full of joy which makes you sad and question why you ever broke up with them which is how farm life can make you insanely crazy. You question all life choices and many other things….

I have imagined a scenario of there being farm scouts who travel the distance in search of the best backpacker fruit packer. The idea is that each job you do during the day are rounds. So for example with sweet potatoes…

Round 1: de-vining rows that can stretch to up to a kilometre.
Round 2: digging the potatoes on the machine.
Round 3: the making of crates and cardboard boxes.
Round 4: sorting and packing premium sweet potatoes. And finally;
Round 5: cleaning of the shed.
Now in each round you have to be the quickest and most efficient worker to impress these imaginary farm scouts. As it is just me playing this game I get to chose who is the fastest. I don’t mean to be biased but some days I am the fastest. I pride myself on how fast I can throw those sweet potatoes from one belt to another, flinging them up and hoping for the best, spraying mud and dust into everyone’s faces and having the occasional potato falling back onto the first belt holding us all up. I’ve never moved my hands so fast but when there’s important scouts on the loose, you have to do anything in your power to impress. I just hope one day they will see my talents and see I am meant for better things.

I think by listening to my thoughts I have found out some traits of my own. I seem to be a perfectionist, want to impress and also to be approved of. I think it stems from not being able to get the top grades at school or at uni, which didn’t impress my parents or myself so I have started to use practical skills to impress instead as I have found out here at the farm, I am good with my hands and not with my head. Being a perfectionist though in farm life is useless. It slows you down rather than does a good job. Imagine cutting every single weed on an entire kilometre row. I found out the hard way…it takes twice as long as those who ignore the little buggers.

Learning, instructions and getting through through the day

We are given the instructions of “nice and fast…nice and neat”. It’s very hard to get the right balance between the two but after 11 weeks (yes that’s right, I’ve been here longer than I was in South East Asia!) on sweet potatoes I think I am getting the gist.

However at Tindel, approvals and compliments are given out as many times as Jackie has given up smoking…once.

So instead I fake her approval by making up dialogues between myself and the top boss and how she comes up to me to personally tell me that I am a really hard worker and one of the best girls they’ve had at Tindel, when in reality I’m actually being yelled at for letting the good spuds go past.


Farm Life

Farm life takes away the horn from some people, for others it definitely doesn’t. But for me while I have three bruised fingers, covered in mud and dust reaches inside my nostrils and eardrums, feeling sexy isn’t on the agenda. Even when revisiting Fifty Shades of Grey or upgrading to Silvia Day – nothing happens, no spark, no tingle, nothing. Just barren thoughts of sweet potatoes. It takes over your whole life. Close your eyes, sweet potatoes. I can’t even sleep on the far side of the bed anymore as I think I’ve turned my back on the conveyor belt of potatoes.

When Friday comes along, girls being girls, we change out of our muddy and torn second hand weekday clothes and transform into real life ladies masked in eyeliner ready to hit Tolga. For such a small town, the drama that goes down each weekend keeps us entertained all week. The third Friday of each month is when the real debauchery lets loose. Atherton’s BV hotel offers out its’ bar services to host a wild party for all backpackers of the Tablelands. Some end up face down on the street, some walking home alone, some in a strangers bunk bed and others in a cell.

Passing the Day

Naturally at Tindel where smiles, laughter and joy are closely controlled by Jackie, any musical device is confiscated. Therefore to keep a hold of what’s left of my sanity I supply a personal radio station inside my head. I have a special collection of songs that go on shuffle while standing at the conveyor belt for hours on end. Knowing me, people would probably think I’d have an electronic track list running through my head, but I just can’t recreate a wobbly baseline in my thoughts…I need lyrics!

– Optimistic as the day starts, I begin with this catchy tune. However the happiness of it soon fades after lunch.

‘I’m walking on sunshine woowooh, and it’s time to feel good yeaahh [trumpets] da da da-da-da-d-da-da-da!’

– On repeat at 6am while viscously vining those kilometre rows of potatoes. Who knew Australia could get that cold!

‘You’re as cold as ice, you’re willing to sacrifice.’

– My inner gangster waiting for pay day with some Kanye.

‘Naa naaa Na Na wait till I get my money riiiight….ah ha you can’t tell me nofing.’

– Obviously the Bublé cover, his velvety voice soothes me as I struggle to push back a mountain of potatoes for the sixth time that morning.

‘…it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.’

– I tend to finish the day on a motivational song to make those last 10 bins fly by. (Take That if you couldn’t get it)

‘Heyyyy forget where you’re coming from heyyy…oh we’ve come so far, da da da da daahaha’

[do not take these lyrics seriously because they are probably all wrong]

Another fun game is guessing songs that people are humming or whistling along to. We had a French guy that worked with us for a week and he was always whistling away. As soon as I heard the intro I’d surprise him with the artist…Bruno Mars! Manu Chao! It’s the simple things.

Each night after a long day packing away sweet potatoes, I go to sleep and dream about the perfect potato. My aim for the next day is to find the dream shape and tell it it’s beautiful and worthy of being gently placed into a crate and sent to Coles across Australia. I even freaked myself out after working many hours into the night packing continuously and found a potato shaped like E.T! (An erratic phobia of mine).

I spend a lot of time thinking about Christmas and not about the rest of my time out here. It’s the thoughts of going home and being looked after and fed by my mum that gets me through the days. I imagine the whole family in Christmas attire waiting for me at the airport on my arrival…this time I’m not in a wheelchair like after Spain. I get to go through my wardrobe and pick what Christmas jumper I want to wear…it’s almost always my pink and gold bobby dazzler. And the spread of food on Christmas Eve and Dad’s homemade turkey and ham pie that’s definitely one the the highlights.

I definitely have lost some brain cells while working on the farm but I have finally gained some strength in my upper body; I can find you the perfect potato, I can still hear Jackie shouting demands in my head, found a new love for getting covered in mud, I will never complain about another job in the future, bought a holiday to Bali and most importantly met the best people ever that will hopefully be in my life for a long time.

Farm work can be horrific and you may not laugh for 10 hours a day, but it’s worth it if you have something to come back home to, like a movie and a home cooked meal with your favourite girlies, and of course a box of goon.

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sophia howe /

One Response to “Thoughts of a sweet potato picker”

  1. Monique

    Hi Sophia,
    I loved reading this. It’s great to hear honest and entertaining stories from the ‘front-line’ of farm work.
    Thanks for sharing!


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