LAST Monday morning was not a typical start to the working week for Peter Huth. The usually empty footpath outside his Sarina Russo office on Gayndah’s Main St was nothing short of a UN convention – albeit with a relaxed dress code.
About 80 people politely queued outside the former mayor’s office – young French, German, Korean, Canadian, British, Estonian and Australian backpackers all keen as mustard, desperate even, to work.
That work would be filling “bins” with thousands of mandarins every working day for the next six months, and everyone at Huth’s office wanted a piece of the action.
“Don’t forget, I am motivated,” a German girl pleads to Huth after completing her paperwork.
Welcome to Gayndah – citrus capital of Queensland – a town of 1900 people that swells by 500 in peak harvest. The town, 360km northwest of Brisbane has three pubs, a theatre that’s now a plumbing supplies business, a “big orange” and a mandarin-shaped mascot called Gay Dan.
In the first week of harvest, there were no vacancies unless you had a tent, as backpackers and council workers converged on the town. Now, harvest season is in full swing.
Don Hann, 86 and Kay Hann, 82 have been travelling around Australia picking fruit and veg since 1973.
By September some 164,000 tonnes of mandarins – mostly out of Central Burnett – will have been harvested, picked, sorted, waxed, ripened, boxed, trucked, bought and thrown into lunch boxes around the country.
Much of the hard labour is done by the backpackers standing in that queue or going directly to the farms.
“Pretty much everyone at the door got a job,” Huth, a lifelong local says. “We’re working pretty hard at the moment. The town’s full of people, probably 400-500 backpackers and most of them will get a job.”
Blue Cow Citrus co-owner Cris Bryant says a dry summer and recent rain has set the region for a bumper harvest.
Blue Cow, one of the larger farms in the district, employs up to 50 pickers and staff for their packing shed.
At full capacity the shed will be processing one million pieces of fruit a day. It’s also a state-of-the-art packing process that sees every piece of fruit photographed 30 times and, within a second, sorted into different classes of fruit, destined for wholesalers and retailers around the country.
“We’ve had a good dry summer, which is good growing conditions … and we’ve had some really good rain in the last month that has helped the fruit size and the sugar’s come up, and it’s ready to be harvested now,” he says.
Thommi and Kaile, both 25 from Estonia, are in Queensland picking fruit to pay for their trip around Australia.
At Blue Cow, workers are scattered strategically around the orchard. Some work at ground level, others are high on a ladder, cutting the mandarins at the stem and dropping them into bins placed near them. Some listen to the radio, others work in silence with a tractor the only constant sound as it moves bins around the orchard.
As long as you’re not picking, there’s a cathartic vibe wandering through hundreds of trees with deep green leaves and ripened mandarins.
If you’re picking, that serenity is largely relative. A couple of Aussie Year 12 teens look pretty filthy at how they’ve got themselves into this mess – barely getting through a bin between them each day.
At the other end of the scale, Estonian couple, Thommi and Kaile, both 25, are filling up to four bins and can get through five if they’re feeling particularly eager.
Paid per bin, the money can set a backpacker up for the next six months as they travel through Australia.
“This is really nice to be here,” Thommi says. “I’ve been here before and wanted to come back.”
Cris Bryant, co-owner of Blue Cow Citrus at Gayndah.
Brooke Snowden, 18, is one of a handful of Aussies working at the farm and is saving for a trip to the US. “I started last week. I have a goal to make as much money as I can so I can travel overseas. I wouldn’t say it’s fun, but it’s a good job,” she says.
Everyone works to their own beat. A couple of Italian backpackers are too busy to talk as they work at a hectic pace in the afternoon heat.
In another row Kay Hann sits on a little stool beside her 1980s Mazda coupe having a cup of tea. Nothing unusual in that given it’s 32C. But at 82 she is four times the age of many of her co-workers.
The last of the grey nomads, Don and Kay, say they have been around so long they are now picking for the grandsons of their original bosses.
“Our bosses keep dying on us,” he says. “If we went back over all the jobs we had, we would now be working for their sons and grandsons.”
The pair love coming back to Gayndah because the length of the job means they can stay put for six months without having to follow the harvest.
For the growers there is an increasing necessity to treat pickers better than has happened historically. Supermarkets are demanding ethical audits to ensure that backpackers are treated well, let alone legally.
For Bryant, it’s a no-brainer to look after his staff.
“This particular area is renowned for being good to its pickers,” he says. “They literally live with us, have dinner with us … they earn good money, they spend the money in the town. The town becomes vibrant, and we need them for our economy.”
Source – Mitch Gaynor, The Courier-Mail, April 23, 2019