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  • Writer's pictureRebecca MacFarlane

Finding Resilience in 88 Days of Farm Work

If you’re familiar with the working holiday visa renewal scheme in Australia, you already know all about the 88 days of farm work – and everything that comes with it. Those who aren’t familiar are those who have never had to be (a sweet ignorance I envy).

In my last post, I mentioned how, in the wake of my breakup, I was left wondering: “What now?” I only had a handful of months left on my visa and, at first, I couldn’t decide if I was going to use them. With heartbreak clouding my judgment, I didn’t know if I even wanted to be in Australia anymore. After all, what had this country done for me? When the world caught fire due to COVID, it offered me no support but actually tried to spit me back out. It brought me isolation and heartbreak. Still, though, I couldn’t shake this inner yearning I had to stay for the remainder of my visa and beyond. I wanted to escape this feeling of heartbreak. To prove that I could overcome it and turn things around. To make this the working holiday experience I had actually envisioned. Ultimately, a handful of months wasn’t enough time to do that; I knew I needed to extend my visa and there was ultimately only one way I could afford to do that.

The 417 Working Holiday Visa is valid for one year, but to extend it into a second year, visa holders must complete 88 days of work – typically farm work – in regional areas. Having met several other backpackers throughout my travels, I had heard numerous horror stories about the exploitation that is rife in this industry: underpayment or no payment at all, horrible working conditions, mistreatment, even sexual harassment or abuse. These stories were enough to deter me for a while; ultimately, though, I didn’t have any other options. It’s only three months, I thought. I can do anything for three months.

With that, I started applying to several farm jobs a day all around Australia. After a few days, I heard back from a woman who owned a strawberry farm near Caboolture, Queensland. She told me that I would be picking and packing strawberries and that she would be able to give me enough farm work to fulfill my 88 days and get my second visa. She promised me a working contract and accommodation at the share house with the other backpackers; all I had to do was get from Sydney up to Caboolture as soon as possible. So, one a week’s notice, I quit my job, gave notice on my apartment, and booked a flight. Just three weeks after my breakup, I found myself in a new state, a new home, working a new job with all new people. Honestly, it was a bit of a head trip, but a welcome one; after all, I needed to escape and creating distance is an excellent way to do that.

As expected, the work was tough. The conditions were extreme; oftentimes, we’d work 10-hour days in the blistering heat, with little breaks. Farm work is often described as back-breaking work for a reason. It’s incredibly physical, taking a massive toll on the body. For the first few weeks, my back and neck were sore in a way I had never experienced. What was more trying, though, was the treatment. Farm owners aren’t exactly the gentlest of people, at least not in my experience. Over my time working at two different strawberry farms, I noticed trends in the way they pressured us to move faster, to do better, despite the fact that they were paying us mere pennies for the work we were doing. When I say pennies…I wish I was exaggerating. They were rarely encouraging, instead feeling entitled to our labour and indifferent to our exhaustion.

The lack of stimulation was another challenge. When you’re rolling through strawberry fields in rural Queensland at 5:30am, the world is very still and quiet. Not to mention, you’re repeating the same monotonous task over and over again for hours on end. It gives your mind plenty of opportunity to wander to places you wish it wouldn’t.

In the end, though, the silence, the stillness, the slowness of the work and the lifestyle that came with it turned out to be exactly what I needed. On my off days, I laid in the garden, soaking up the sun and watching the clouds pass above me. Somehow, laying there as still as a corpse made me feel more alive than I had in weeks – a strange contrast. In a town with little else to do, I began to read and write and run, getting back to the simple pleasures on which I once sustained myself. Slowly but surely, the pain of my breakup, the catalyst for this whole experience, began to dissipate. A scar growing fainter with time.

I also discovered the magic of finding solace in strangers. With each passing day, this host of lovable characters from all over the world – Canada, the U.K., Finland, Ireland – blended into the support system I didn’t even know I needed. Aly, sweet and innocent at just 20 years old, yet courageous enough to move to the other side of the planet all on her own at such a young age. Beautiful with a melodic laugh that could bring a smile to anyone’s face. Caroline, feisty and fiercely loyal, with a disarmingly tender heart. Complex and often enigmatic, she proved to be both admirable and incredibly lovable. Shan, whose kindness and magnetic humour could light up any room. Down to earth and funny, Lily was the best roommate I could have asked for throughout this entire experience. The human equivalent of a golden retriever, 19-year-old Oscar was equal parts charming and quirky. Gangly and smiley, his six-foot-four frame was the only giveaway that he wasn’t a young boy who had accidentally wandered into the farmlands.

More than anything, I learned that I was right – I can do anything for three months. Through every moment of exhaustion and doubt and frustration, I carried on anyway. I dug deep and found the resilience I needed to make my dream of staying in Australia a reality.

My 88 days of farm work started because of a breakup. But, in the end, this experience became so much more than that. What started as a journey of healing became a journey of resilience. In moments of weakness, I learned to give myself grace. To be patient. To take steps every day to move forward, away from my past and into my future.

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