Edinburgh, Johannesburg, Manjimup? COVID-19 a blessing in disguise for picking pairIndustry Best Practice
When Ione arrived at Bamess Farms in Manjimup in July 2019, she expected to stay for three months to fulfill visa requirements to qualify for a second year visa.
Almost eighteen months later, she’s still in Manjimup, where she works for apple, avocado and stone fruit growers Rod and Sue Bamess, and is now one of the faces of the state-wide Work and Wander Out Yonder campaign to attract workers.
And she’s still loving it, despite having absolutely no agricultural background to speak of.
“It’s been a while” she says with a laugh.
“When I arrived I thought I was only going to stay for three months, get my visa sorted and get on with things.
“When I started working here, that changed a bit.
“The farm was legit, with really supportive farmers, easy to get work, and it all felt like a good place to sit down and save a bit of money. So I stayed another three months.
“Then COVID hit around the end of those six months.”
While the pandemic might have shattered the idyllic Australian adventure Ione had pictured, she took it in her stride.
Instead of trying to find a route home, as many backpackers did, Ione rolled up her sleeves, becoming an invaluable asset to her employers but also gaining an extraordinary experience for herself.
“Manjimup is a different pace for me,” Ione said “I’ve always been in cities, but everyone here is really friendly, you can leave your doors unlocked which is completely foreign to me.
“We’re not too far from the forest and the beach, we’ve been able to get out and explore a bit, so it’s not been too bad at all.”
If Manjimup is a different pace for Ione, it must be a world away for her colleague Victoria, who hails from bustling Johannesburg in South Africa, a city of over five million people.
But like Ione, Victoria has found a sense of contentment among the orchards in the South-West, where she has been for the last 10 months.
“I actually really enjoy it here,” she says.
“My favourite thing about the job is working outside and with new people, meeting these people from all around the world and sharing this experience.
“I’m an outside person, and in this job there is always something happening, butterflies, dragonflies, birds, I found some bird eggs the other day.
“I’ve got a weekend coming up in Bremer Bay. You get to see a lot of the country as well.”
The pair travelled together to Exmouth on Western Australia’s north-west tip recently, swimming with whale sharks and coming to grips with the most rugged of coastal landscapes.
The girls are quick to point out it hasn’t all been beer and skittles (a phrase they probably recognise now), not wanting occasional holidays to mask the toughness of the work they do day-to-day on the orchard.
“We’ve been jacks of all trades I guess, picking and packing, maintenance; thinning at the moment,” says Ione.
“It’s definitely character-developing – it’s not easy work. It trains you into a good worker.
“I’ve learnt so many skills that I just wouldn’t have otherwise had. It boosts your confidence.
“There’s a lot of benefits.”
Both acknowledged they were lucky when it came to their employer.
Victoria says Rod and Sue were most concerned with helping her meet visa requirements. She said the pair always seemed to be able to find work to do when it was needed, or give flexibility when downtime was craved.
“They’re fantastic, really supportive – they didn’t have to keep us on, but they were really kind and share the workload.
“I was always pretty confident I would have work each week.”
At a time when backpacker numbers have more than halved and Australia’s labour pool is thin, finding a couple of trained and effective workers is like finding a couple of diamonds. But then, Rod and Sue’s adaptability and cooperation were critical in keeping the pair.
And what would they say to Australians thinking of having a go at picking fruit, at a time when Australia’s farmers are crying out for people to work on their farms to save produce going to waste?
“If they would like to have a healthy lifestyle, work hard, be more productive, be happy, have a purpose and be close to nature” Victoria says, “then this is the job for them.”