It’s going to be a long one folks! This is my 100% honest account of what it was like working on farms in rural Victoria to get the 88 days farm work needed to obtain a second year working holiday visa here in Australia.
To be honest, I could probably sum it up in one sentence: it was hot and there were always spiders.
But there’s so much information out there about farming in Australia, so many scams and horror stories. It can be hard to work out what’s relevant. I’m going to go into much more detail about the work itself and the aftermath (i.e. when I actually applied for my visa.) I’m going to tell you about all the horrendous parts (and believe me, there were many.) If this induces a certain amount of Schadenfreude in you, don’t feel bad. I can look back and laugh now. We can all laugh together.
Finding The Job
Out of desperation, I did exactly what every blog and guide tells you not to do: I paid a guy I found through Facebook to place me in a working hostel. His company was called Farm Work Oz and a quick search of Google and Facebook tells me that it doesn’t exist any more (take from that what you will!)
I could have probably found somewhere legit on my own if I gave it a bit more time, but time was a luxury I didn’t have. After a couple of emails back and forth, I told Matt at Farm Work Oz to find me a place on a vineyard in Mildura. I only paid $40 and received a phone number for the hostel. My overnight coach leaving Melbourne was booked for a couple of days later. I started getting really nervous.
Arriving in Mildura
I arrived in Mildura at 5am after a horrible journey with no sleep and several shrieking babies. The heat hit me as I stepped off the coach- it was so hot compared to Melbourne, even at that time in the morning. I collapsed into a taxi to head to Merbein, a small town just outside Mildura, where the hostel is located. Merbein is a classic rural Australian town. There’s a small supermarket, a pool and… not much else. The taxi pulled up outside the hostel, which is attached to a much larger pub. Of course there’s a pub! As you can imagine, it’s a match made in heaven- especially with $10 chicken parma’s on Wednesdays.
I called the hostel manager from outside. I was half expecting her to not pick up (to be honest I was expecting the hostel to not be there at all.) Thankfully she answered, met me downstairs and took me to my room. The hostel smelled old and vaguely like feet, but I couldn’t care less at that point. I needed a bed! After telling me to head to the office to fill some paperwork in when I woke up, I took the only bed that wasn’t occupied by a sleeping girl and was out like a light.
First Days of Work
The girl in the bed above me had only arrived the day before so we stuck together like scared year sevens on their first day of school. We were assigned to the aptly named Big Farm, a sprawling vineyard where all newbies to the working hostel work first until a better position becomes available. No one likes Big Farm. Groups of backpackers are assigned to endless rows of vines that stink sickly sweet in the 45 degree heat. The rows stretch ahead of you further than the eye can see and you’re paid a pitiful amount per row (hourly wages? What are those?) This is all made worse by the fact you have to share a row with a partner. I worked the first couple of weeks on Big Farm with my bunk buddy who was an absolute workhorse compared to me. It was like she was born to harvest grapes while singing motown.
We were given ‘snips’ (secateurs) and as these grapes were destined to be sultanas, we had to cut bunches and hang them from wire strung through the vines. You basically had to get fully into the vines to reach the grapes and of course, there were creatures. I saw a mouse, lizard, spider or massive generic insect at least once every half an hour. My least favourite times were when I grabbed a bunch of grapes to cut and something crawled out from behind, usually onto my hand.
Massive huntsman spiders were the most frequent and horrible of all. They’d remain absolutely still while I tried to scare them away, first by rustling the vines, then by tapping the snips near them. They’d wait and wait until I looked away for one second… then they’d jump! Sometimes at me! At which point I’d scream and throw the snips and fall backwards out of the vines into some thorny weeds. A daily struggle.
Ready to Quit
On the hottest days, we’d start at 5am and finish by 11am, at which point any water you had left could have hardboiled an egg. The first two weeks on Big Farm saw me pass out numerous times in the heat, get stung by a massive bright orange wasp and accidentally clasp an unseen huntsman spider so large that at first I thought I’d grabbed a mouse. At least I was earning money though, right?
NO. After two weeks of struggling up and down the vines, I’d barely earned $200 after rent was taken. I was ready to quit and almost convinced myself I didn’t want a second year in Australia. I was sick of the heat, the fact that everything I owned smelled like vines, the flies that were so tenacious about landing in your mouth or eyes that I almost stabbed myself in the face with the snips more than once… If it weren’t for the people at the hostel I’d have been long gone after the first week.
There were anywhere between 50-100 people at the hostel at any one time. It definitely wasn’t big enough for that many people, but everyone made the best of a bad situation. Though the kitchen only had three forks, less than a third of the hobs worked and barely any of the saucepans had handles, people managed. Mostly noodles or toast to be honest. Outside, there was a speaker system and a shaded area where everyone played beer pong with goon (insanely cheap boxed ‘wine’… it’s not wine) and played the same playlist on repeat until the early hours. I never want to hear ‘Middle’ by DJ Snake ever again.
The people were awesome though. Mostly 18-23yo but there were a few older backpackers (like me… ugh, do I class as an older backpacker? I hate that.) For me, it felt like being back at university in a huge student house. I’d arrived in early January and by the time my birthday came around at the end of the month, I had a great group of friends who all made me forget the fact that I’d spent my birthday working in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles away from my family and hundreds of miles away from my best friend in Melbourne. I even got a special birthday drink from the owner of the pub next door! A special birthday drink that consisted of half a pint of Jack Daniels and nothing else. It’s the thought that counts.
Finally Getting a Decent Job
Besides the people at the hostel, the only other thing that convinced me I could stick it out was that just before my birthday, I was assigned a job on a different farm. It was paid hourly and to be honest, as soon as I heard that I just agreed to do it- whatever it was. It could have been anything but I got lucky and found I’d be working inside. On the first day, after a few hours putting together grape boxes on my own in a huge shed (I think the farmer had forgotten I was starting that day, to be honest) the farmer drove me to a nearby vineyard where I was introduced to the owner.
They explained I’d be grading boxes of table grapes bound for China. Tractors would bring a steady stream of trailers of polystyrene boxes to the shed, the guys working for the owner would then load them onto racks and bring them over to me for inspection. The farmer put a few boxes on the roller table in front of us and explained: it’s easy, you just look at how the grapes are packed and judge the colour then you grade them either 1 (good) or 2 (bad). Simple!
I opened up a few boxes. The farmers both made noises approval or disapproval (it was difficult to tell which) and quickly pointed out the good boxes to me. I nodded in agreement. All the boxes looked exactly the same.
Getting Into Grape Grading
Though the grading seemed pretty impossible at that point, by the end of the week I’d seen a couple of thousand boxes of grapes and was starting to be able to pick out the badly packed ones. Or my eyes had lost the ability to focus and every grape box was starting to look like one of those magic eye pictures that messes with your brain. I’m not sure. What made it more difficult was that the top two rows of boxes on the racks were above head height and each box weighed 10kg. I soon realised my lack of upper body strength was going to make getting the boxes down impossible without running a huge risk of taking one straight to the face. That did happen a couple of times before enough time passed and I built up the strength to manage.
What really made me feel like a grape judging fraud was that at the end of the day while I swept up the shed, all the grape pickers came in to stand by the boxes I’d graded as shit and get yelled at by their supervisor. Then they weren’t allowed to leave until they’d fixed all the boxes! These poor guys had been outside in crazy heat all day (most of them wore sweaters too, which I will never understand) packing hundreds of boxes of grapes only to come in and see some blonde, perpetually hungover backpacker with a (mostly ornamental) pair of snips in hand judging their hard work. I was obviously not qualified. So when they came in and ate all my biscuits one day, I accepted it without a fight. I owed them.
That job was the most repetitive I’ve ever done. Luckily it got busy enough for another person to work with me and the same job opened up on a couple of nearby farms. There ended up being a small group of awesome girls from the hostel that rotated in and it made the time go so much quicker, having someone to chat to and drink endless cups of tea with. By the end I needed a break from the constant lifting (we were doing over 1000 boxes daily by April from 8am-6pm) and I convinced myself I hated the job. I didn’t really.
Looking back it was one of the better jobs available at the hostel and I was paid weekly directly from the farmer. I knew how much I was earning and everything was totally legit and recorded. I’d even consider going back to work for that particular farmer, since he looked after the backpackers working for him. After one particularly busy day he even brought us a crate of cider! So many farmers don’t care about temporary working holiday workers at all because they know they can get away with so much, since the backpackers are desperate for their 88 days.
Applying for my Second Year Visa- and Getting Investigated
I left the working hostel with 89 days under my belt and a new travel buddy boyfriend, Tim. We were so eager to leave- Tim had been doing farm work for six months by then! Though we’d had our own room in the hostel, we were completely over beer pong until 3am followed by a 5am minibus to work. The hostel felt claustrophobic. It wasn’t fun anymore. It wasn’t until we reached Perth after travelling across Victoria and South Australia into Western Australia that I applied for my second year visa. I applied in mid-June, a whole month before my first year visa was due to run out. Plenty of time. I knew so many people who received a visa confirmation hours after applying.
I did not receive a response that day. Nor the day after. I waited- impatient and stressed- for three weeks before I received an email from the Australian government.
S56 Request For More Information
Damn. I was being investigated and although I knew it was sometimes randomly selected, that didn’t assuage my fear. The payslips from the first weeks at the hostel weren’t proper payslips at all- there were no hours, just an amount paid noted at the bottom. Thankfully the majority of my wages came directly from the farmer and I had legit payslips for those… but without the entirety being accepted, I wouldn’t be able to prove I’d done enough days of work.
The sheer amount of information requested scared me. Months of bank statements, signed statements from the farmers regarding the number of hours worked and what dates I was there, all the payslips, authority from the bank, receipts and any other proof that I’d been in Mildura and that I was paid for the work I did. As I gathered it all I convinced myself I was going to be rejected. Tim said it would all be fine while looking at flights back to the UK.
You know how this ends though guys! I’m still in Australia so obviously the evidence was accepted- after almost a month. The worst wait of my life. I was working in Perth but hadn’t saved much by then. Every day that passed made me more and more convinced I was going to be kicked out of Australia with no money to my name.
In the weeks following my visa being sorted, other people from the same working hostel started contacting me. They were in the exact same position: they’d done the exact same work but were also being investigated. We started to realise that the hostel and/or the farms themselves must have attracted the attention of the government (I’m not going to make any guesses why…) and they decided to look closely at the applications. I know one guy Tim worked with had his visa rejected outright and he’s had to lodge an appeal, which has no guarantee of success.
Of course, it’s completely unfair on the people working at the hostel. For months before backpackers had left and had their visas approved without a hitch for doing the exact same thing we did. There’s no way anyone could have known about what’s happening behind the scenes.
Aaand that’s my story!
Phew, if you’ve made it through the whole thing, well done. Though it may seem hard to believe, especially after what I’ve just written, I do look back on my farm work fondly. I couldn’t have done it much longer than I did, mainly due to the repetitiveness of the job and the crazy hostel atmosphere but it was fun. Mostly. Like, 70/30.
If you’re looking at doing regional work in Australia, I can’t recommend where I went (One Big Family hostel, Merbein) purely because of the issues I and many people from the hostel had when applying for their second year. I was lucky that I got through the investigation- others haven’t been so lucky and it’s not worth the stress and money.
It is possible to find decent farm work that pays a liveable wage, you just have to be savvy:
- Try to avoid working hostels that take your rent before paying you.
- Ensure you receive a proper payslip with all the right information.
- If possible, get your wages and pay slip straight from the farmer you’re working for.
- Make sure the amount of hours and dates you worked are on the payslip.
- If you’re paid in cash, pay it straight into your bank account. You need a record of it in the event your visa application is investigated.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my time working on the vines of Victoria! Have you done any regional work in Australia? Leave a comment below.
If you’re interested in my experience finding other types of work in Australia, read this post.