As is the theme for this whole trip, we really have been hitting each place just out of peak season or during the worst part of an off season. Perfect example: Loxton, South Australia. This year has seen lots of rain in all areas that don't usually get it. With old timers saying its the worst they've seen it in 50 years. Then almanac enthusiasts say it's the third worst rainfall in 70 years. We have heard it all. We did find fruit picking work eventually though, and here is how it goes.
Staying at the Harvest Trail in Loxton did have a better deal going for it than Balfes Hill in Cradoc, Tasmania. The Harvest Trail Lodge charges only $120 for 7 nights with no office fees and free transportation to the farms. As well, double rooms had power outlets, which is enough to make any fruit picker feel spoiled.
The bulk of the picking work in this area comes from grapes, walnuts, oranges and some apples as well as a few other fruits. While the Lonely Planet Australia 2010 boldly and confidently states that the communities in the Riverland area are seeking fruit picking work year round, that is simply not always the case. Farm work depends on weather and if the weather isn't right, you will sit at the hostel for days or even weeks. Ask the hostels in advance what the fruit picking situation is and be prepared for some down time.
As with many harvest hostels, even if they do have work but the van into work is full of people, there simply may not be enough room for you. Then you will be waiting for others to leave town before the drivers have room for you. As was in our case, it took 4 days of visiting the sights of Loxton before we saw our first day of work.
One old timer who has been farming since after WWII did mention that this area is dipping into a slow time for backpackers. Things were going strong and you could always find lots of work only 5 years ago. What has happened since then? Prices on fruits have gone down and machines do everything cheaper.
The grower at our farm said their grape picking machines cost half as much as hiring human to do it, and it takes up a fraction of the time. Not to mention the machine doesn't get drunk on Victoria Bitter the night before a pick. The farmer family we worked with was great, they even had us all stop for a 20 minute break at 9:30am and have tea and breakfast sandwiches which they prepared for us. It's a nice touch and it shows us they care.
As for the picking itself, it was a decent deal. Each bucket pays the picker $0.85 and in about 5 hours I got a whopping 60 buckets, netting a massive $51. Now I am not bragging at all, as most people did much more than this (read Victoria Bitter) and one grey haired fruit picker actually picked 100 buckets. Either that or he thought we asked how old he was.
Now on to the realization that Day 2 brought me. Picking 100 or more buckets in 5 hours is actually the norm. While my day 2 bucket count of 70 barely crept over day 1's, the rest in the group were into the 110's or more.
A farmer, I am not.
Each farm has different varieties of grapes, with some varieties paying more than others.
Basically, there are a few of the more common ways in which you can pick each bunch of grapes. Easily, like milking a cow you grab the vine near the top of the bunch, squeeze and pull down. Snap. Done. Move on.
Or when you come across a vine in the middle of the plant. Being careful not to shake the bunch too hard and shake the grapes off the vine, you pull gently. When it comes loose however, the bunch you pulled rubs against the plant thus removing all the grapes with it, watching them fall to the ground, leaving you holding a sort of grapevine skeleton.
Picking all day, you go through the winners and the losers. I have pulled grapes which were worthy of being the living model from the Fruit of The Loom logo, and then others that were barely worth crushing and stuffing into a 4 liter box of wine.
Watch out for spiders, especially Redbacks. A bite from a Redback can put a grown man in the hospital and actually kill a child or the elderly. Redbacks are pretty bad and, luckily, they're very common around here. Good for you. But don't worry, the locals have all assured me that most hospitals inregional Australia have the anti venom stocked up. Wonderful. Then they happily mention too that the spiders are just as scared of you as you are of them. Somehow, it helps knowing that the spider just crapped himself at the notion that I may bite him.
I don't know what kind of spider this was, nor do I care. I chose not to pick the bunches that he seemed to be guarding and move on to bucket number 26. I may be picking grapes, but I'm also picking my battles.
Spider:1 - Mike:0
Grape picking can be profitable as long as you are faster than me, and based on the fact that a man maybe 3 times my age picked twice as much as I, you will do fine. Better yet if you can get in with a farmer that pays you hourly. Although, you do get more pressure from the farmer to be efficient if he is paying hourly.
And just remember the next time you take a sip from your next South Australian Vino, that those grapes have been fingered and pulled from this guy.
Yours, in wine
First Impressions of Melbourne