The Hobo Guide to Fruit Picking in Tasmania
For travellers, there is no such thing as “good value” in Australia. The place is just too expensive. You never walk out of a bakery here saying “You know what? This meat pie is so huge and delicious, it’s actually worth four dollars.”
If you are saying that, it means you really paid 14 dollars.
However, the wild landscapes and strange people you’ll find in this country really are worth the cost of travelling here. What’s more, it’s relatively easy to find work and top up your bank account with adventure tokens (also known as “money”) along the way.
Tasmania – cold weather, chilled locals, ridiculous natural beauty – is chock-a-block full with orchards that, once a year, cry out for hungry travellers to fill their ranks and pick their fruit. This is the hobo’s guide to being a Tasmanian fruit picker.
What to pick and when to pick it
Tasmania is known as “the apple isle” for a reason. Cherries are also a big crop here, as well as pears, grapes, stone fruits, strawberries and other assorted berries. The main fruit-growing region in Tassie is called the Huon Valley, south-west of Hobart. The main towns in this area include Huonville, Lucaston and Cygnet.
You need to make sure you’re turning up in the right season. Apples are picked from March through May, while the cherries are on in December and January. Strawberries are on at the same time as apples, but strawberry picking on your hands and knees is a good contender for the Worst Job in the World. As the manager of a strawberry farm said when she offered me a job: “You’ll feel like you’re dying.”
How do I find work?
The hardest part of fruit picking can be summoning your courage and plunging in. It’s just like any job search: everyone seems to have their shit together except you. Plenty of online job agencies take advantage of this anxiety, and it can be tempting to lock something down before you even turn up.
Resist this urge. Go to the area you want to work in and use your phone to look up orchards. Call them. Better yet, use your wheels and visit them. Don’t be disheartened if the first five places don’t need pickers – ask if they know an orchard that does.
If you don’t have wheels, there are hostels scattered throughout Tassie’s fruit growing regions that cater to seasonal workers. In return for your rent these places will find you work, and provide transportation.
In the flaky world of fruit picking, where farmers and hostel owners see new faces coming and going every day, it’s important to remember that longevity matters. The best jobs go to the workers who have been around the longest. Lose your millennial’s sense of entitlement (we all have one, however big or small), be grateful for the job you get and work hard at it.
Where to sleep
Some hostels allow tents and vans on their property, but in some places (like Cygnet) the council has cracked down on free camping and forced everyone into the caravan parks. Some farms will let you camp at the orchard, though these tend to be the smaller operations and are harder to find. You may have to start out in a caravan park, and keep your ears open for word of an employer that allows camping on their property.
If you’re not Australian, make sure you have a tax file number and an Australian bank account, both of which are easy if you have the right visa. If not, cash-in-hand jobs take a little more work to find, but they are there.
The glamorous life of a fruit picker
You’re going to hear stories of fortunes made in the orchards, as if they were picking gold nuggets instead of fruit. Everyone knows of somebody who knows somebody who made $300 a day picking cherries, and I guarantee that you will too. Don’t expect it to happen to you.
Most jobs pay based on how much fruit you pick, rather than how many hours you work. For example, apple orchards give anywhere between $35 and $45 per bin of apples before tax. (The bins were bigger than I expected, and I expected them to be pretty big.) So your pay depends on your speed, but also on lots of elements beyond your control. Most orchards won’t pick in heavy rain. Cherries can’t be harvested when it’s too hot. Storms damage the crop. Some orchards just have a bad season, and it takes you twice as long to fill a bin with smaller fruit. However, when the elements come together and you find an orchard with beautiful big fruit, there is money to be made. Maybe not $300 a day, but decent dollars nonetheless.
A large element of success in fruit picking is simple perseverance. Your first paycheck is going to seem terribly small, especially compared to the aches in your back and shoulders. The trick is to concentrate on learning the correct picking technique, and your speed will come.
It’s not just travellers who pick fruit. A lot of locals work in Tasmanian orchards, as well as nomadic Australians and Kiwis who spend years on the move, following the seasons. Many of these professional pickers are grumpy buggers, and some are downright insane, but if you befriend them (or buy their weed – same thing really) they can become invaluable sources of information.
They know which orchards have annoyingly stringent quality controls, who has good fruit this year and which are the more desirable employers. Your orchard may have tiny, terrible fruit, or take a break mid-season, or simply run out of fruit altogether, and these veterans will know where and when to move on. Be friendly, show respect and you’ll be in the know.
There’s no point sugar coating it. You work at the mercy of the weather, which can be awful in Tasmania, and for most mere mortals it is hard to make a decent living out of picking fruit. Some don’t last longer than a week.
However, for those with the right attitude, working in a Tasmanian orchard may be one of the best cultural experiences you have in Australia. Working outside, surrounded by the Tasmanian bush, is a fine improvement on sitting in some sterile office or workshop. It’s strangely satisfying to be paid based on how quickly you can work, and you’ll meet more exotic characters out here than most hostels.
Who knows? You might just leave with enough adventure tokens for a pie or two.
Cover by Bonnie Kittle