I started my farm work at the end of February 2013 (during the last 6 months of my first year Working Holiday Visa). I was just back from having spent Christmas and New Years in Toronto with my family, and was couch-surfing through Melbourne, VIC (I’ll save that for another post). After emailing a few farmers who were looking for workers through Gumtree, I got a call from a farmer in Mullumbimby (Mullum), NSW. After a short chat I agreed to join the farm and took a flight out the next day.
It was a WWOOFing farm, which stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms, a placement where hosts (or farmers) agree to provide their volunteers with food and accommodation in exchange for their work on the farm. Volunteers also get the opportunity to learn more about organic farming and its benefits to the local community and environment.
I flew out from Tullamarine Airport and landed in Ballina Byron Gateway Airport. From there I caught a shuttle bus to Byron Bay. I was picked up by a pair of lovely English girls (also on the farm) and we drove out to Mullum. The town itself is one of my favorites. It’s a small town taking up one main street and a couple of side streets, surrounded by beautiful views of the Hinterlands and lush mountains. Mullum’s full of crafty markets, health food and book stores, vintage donation shops, as well a few friendly organic cafes. Be sure to set aside a few hours to dabble into the gardens of the Kiva Spa, a hidden gem off the main street.
The farm itself was a few minutes drive from the town, and only about 15 minutes away from Byron Bay’s main beach. Work was from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. (with breaks in between) from Monday to Friday with weekends off. The farmer owned a massive property that sloped on a hill. It wasn’t the type of farm you would compare to a Canadian prairie farm that’s flat and cultivated. It was filled with tropical plants, and everyday he’d have us planting more (banana trees, mixed greens, carrots etc).
Every morning we’d hop into the main house where he’d delegate our duties for the day. That could’ve included planting, pruning or cleaning. After work we’d take our turns using the shower, and every evening we’d rotate cooking dinner for the team. One of the farmer’s rules was that no phones or laptops were allowed at the table, a great rule that allowed us to really enjoy our time together, chat about our experiences and really feel like a family. Attached to the main house was a large room with 4 or 5 beds where we, the workers, slept. There was Wifi, phone reception (in certain spots) and an incredible view of the mountains.
The farmer was generous to lend a vehicle for us to drive into Byron Bay, or go on road trips on weekends. He would sometimes take us to Brunswick Heads for a swim after work if he had time. Of the farms I went to, this was by far the best. Not only for its location and free weekends, but it was the people that really made it. Working together, cooking together, sharing the same quarters and experience, made us a family.
I only stayed two weeks, sadly, because the sand flies were a little much for me (a lot much actually) and I developed an allergic reaction. I decided to try out somewhere new. Here are a few photos…
I reached out to a woman on Gumtree looking for an au-pair for her 2 sons on their farm in Goondiwindi, QLD. After having spoken to 2 previous au-pairs that stayed with the family (and hearing their positive feedback) I decided to give it a shot. I took the Greyhound to Brisbane, then took another bus inland to Goondiwindi, a small town with a population under 6,000 along the NSW-QLD border.
I knew this was going to be as Australian as it would get. The town itself, like Mullum, contained one main street with a few grocery shops, a post office, library and a couple of elementary schools. Residents either lived in the suburbs close by the main street, or at least 10km away on farms that stretched as far as the eye can see. And there was a distinct difference between the way the people from the suburbs and the farm spoke, lived their day-to-days, and reared their children.
There were no buses and no way of getting into town, or to a neighbor’s property, unless driven. The land was flat, very dry, and pretty sparse, an incredible contrast to the lush tropical farms and hippie-like lifestyle of the Byron region. It felt pretty apocalyptic to be frank.
I was picked up in town by the children’s mother and brought straight home to meet the boys. The main house had 2 bedrooms, and another larger room split by a curtain and shared between myself and their eldest son. The only part of the house with phone reception was my room (thankfully), and the only access to internet was through their family computer in the sitting room. Outside their main house they had dogs, pigs, horses, chickens and lambs which kept the property very lively.
I was an au-pair to 2 boys (aged 2 and 4), and their parents worked the cow feed lot close by from morning to late at night. They provided the beef to many of Australia’s major food suppliers like Coles and Woolworths. The parents were very considerate and traditional, and very much a tough bunch. They were raised in the outback and stayed. Most of their relatives haven’t traveled or been to Sydney, and work hard everyday from 4 a.m. to late in the evening. It was a hard life they lived, but they loved it.
My day-to-day looked like this: wake the boys at 6:30 a.m., feed them breakfast, see the oldest brother off to the school bus, and mind his younger brother throughout the day. We would play all day while I squeezed in some time to wash and iron clothes, keep the house tidy, prep meals and get dinner started for when the parents returned. There were no days off so it really felt like you were a part of the family. It was very challenging to be deprived of a social life, as well as to come up with the daily energy to entertainment and keep the boys busy, but it was a harsh reality as to the work these families put in on a daily basis. I was also compensated $150 per week which went straight to the bank as food and accommodation were provided by the family.
The boys themselves were lovely, and as you could imagine, rowdy as hell. I stayed on that farm for 40 days. And after really missing the camaraderie and freedom of the Mullum farm, decided to try out one last farm to finish out my regional work. From Goondiwindi I learned what motherhood is like, and that was just enough for me. A few photos…
I left Goondiwindi and stayed in a hostel in Brisbane for a week, getting in touch with other farmers through GumTree and chatting it up to other backpackers. It felt good to have people to talk to again. I got a phone call from a farmer who needed wwoofers in Bangalow, NSW, another small town just outside Byron Bay. I was excited to get back to the area and get in touch with my mates from the Mullum farm who now lived in Byron Bay. The wet season had also died down so I wasn’t worried about the insects.
I took a bus from Brisbane back to Byron Bay and was picked up by the farmer’s son who talked to me about the farm and took me through Bangalow. It was another beautiful little town, with lush backdrops and a colonial look and feel. The residents of the town were friendly, open-minded and very hospitable. The main street was a 35-40 minute walk from the farm.
This farm was a cucumber and fig farm. We worked everyday (excluding Sundays) from 7 a.m. -11 a.m. picking figs and cucumbers, and spent the odd day packing eggs and other produce to be sent out to the markets. We weren’t paid wages, but accommodation was paid for, as well as as many eggs, cucumbers and figs you could stash. The farmer lined up old used trailers in a large shed on the property. There were about 8 of us on the farm and we each had a trailer. Friends and couples who came together had the option to share their trailer. There was one shower shared amongst us and the bathroom was approximately a 30 meter walk from the shed where our trailers were, a terrifying walk in the dark considering the terrain is known for pythons and other critters. I held my bladder many nights. After one week living in the trailer, I decided to rent out a room in town and walk to work every day, an expense I found well worth it.
Aside from the unfavorable accommodation, it was great to be working with other backpackers again. Working days were short so we could head into Byron or check out Bangalow whenever we weren’t working. While living on the farm, most of us hitch-hiked into Byron, surprisingly a vastly used mode of transportation in the area (if doing so, always use your judgement and always hitch-hike with others to be safe). I found it quite fascinating to be meeting such generous people for however little time, only to never see them again. In that short drive we’d share stories and find out each other’s backgrounds.
When I moved into the town of Bangalow, I took the bus or drove along with my flatmates who were heading into Byron Bay when I wasn’t working. I didn’t take many photos of the farm but here’s a stunner of the main street in Bangalow…
After completing my 90 days of farm work, I headed back to Byron Bay to spend more time with friends before heading back to Sydney. It was an incredibly valuable, amazing experience, but I was ready to head back to make money and indulge in city-beach living. A new adventure awaited.