Once in a lifetime
As a teenager I picked sultana grapes with the De Luca family a few kilometres outside Mildura.
I was a Kiwi kid who’d never experienced a day above 30C in my life and the 40C plus temperatures people were telling me about had me convinced that I’d surely die.
The two seasons I picked with the De Luca’s lasted barely four months but the impact of that time has been life-long.
Mrs De Luca, who everyone called Mama, had an incredible veggie patch, baked bread and cakes in a wood-fired oven, made her own sausage and could be as fierce as she could be welcoming.
She almost sacked all of us on the first day for butchering her vines with our rough picking.
Mr De Luca, Pat, was the opposite; thin, soft spoken, purposeful and phenomenally hard-working.
The kids in their early 20’s and late teens were all still home and deeply involved in the farm; Tenina, Maria, Sam and my friend, Larry, the animal whisperer whose horse, duck and kitten followed him everywhere.
The people I picked with came from everywhere; a teacher re-evaluating his career, a truckie between jobs and marriages, a public servant recovering from a heroin addiction, a lost farm boy who had survived a light plane crash and a recently retired Holden autoworker who was up for the harvest in his pristine gold Kingswood Premier sedan and caravan.
We lived together, worked together, ate and drank together. We shared our hopes and fears, our stories and our secrets.
The work was hard and not everyone lasted the season, but we got the hang of it and talked each other through the tough days.
I remember early mornings cooling my knees in the soft red soil under the vines and the nights sleeping like the dead.
There was drama aplenty; waiting outside the lockup at 3am for our teacher-friend who couldn’t resist arguing with cops, a run-in with English backpackers and a secret love affair between Maria and one of the picking crew – they were married when I came back the following season.
These few months shaped my understanding of where my food came from – seeing the precariousness of farming, the brutality of a poor season, of low prices dictated to growers, of nature’s randomness and the sheer hard work it took to grow a crop.
And there were other lessons that stayed with me; the warmth of being welcomed into a new family, of finding new friends I would never have otherwise met, an acceptance of human frailty and of learning how good a cup of sweet tea and homemade cake could taste after a morning’s work.
This past year’s COVID-19 travel restrictions has left many growers critically short of the backpackers and Islander pickers who aren’t here to bring in the harvest.
Kane Busch (that’s him above) from Busch Organics in Lindenow, has less than half of his usual crew to pick the tens of thousands of celery, cabbage and broccoli he has ready to harvest right now.
So many other growers are in the same position.
Thinking of a field of broccoli or stone fruit or grapes that has taken so much effort to get to harvest being left to rot is heartbreaking – to a farmer it can be the difference between being around for next season.
These days harvest pay is a minimum $24.80 an hour – not the sometimes soul-crushing piece rates of the old days. On–farm accommodation is sometimes included or can be arranged close by.
If you or someone you know is looking for a working experience unlike anything you’ll have in your life drop us an email and we’ll help put you in contact.
Have a great week