Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But, Mike, I have never worked on a farm before. Why would anyone hire me to herd sheep, work with cattle or drive a tractor?” It’s a reasonable question that many backpackers must be asking themselves before they pack their bags for Australia. And thankfully, there is a farm in Queensland where you can spend a week learning the various skills that one would need to be successful in this type of Specified Work. I visited this training farm and had an intensive one-day learning experience to see what it’s like to work on a farm in order to finance a backpacking holiday. I very quickly discovered that that farm life is not easy, but it is also far from boring.
About 240km northwest of Brisbane sits the tiny town of Goomeri (population 400). Just outside of town is Springbrook Farm, a 2,500 acre cattle and training farm. Owned by Dan and Joanna Burnet, Springbrook Farm raises cattle for beef and trains backpackers on how to make themselves employable on farms around Australia.
The five-day training course at Springbrook covers several farm disciplines:
- Horse riding and mustering
- Tractor driving and machine operation
- Cattle work
- Chainsaw operation
First, some definitions. Mustering is just another way of saying wrangling. When you’re moving cattle from one place to another, you’re mustering. See, you’re on your way to being qualified to work on a farm and you haven’t even left your cubicle! And, as far as fencing goes, leave your rapiers and foils at home. This refers to actual fences and the work involved to install and mend them. If you’re going to muster cattle, you need to have fences.
Second, why motorcycling? Well, as the Burnets explained, many farms herd sheep while riding dirt bikes. Of course, I had hoped that this meant that the sheep rode the bikes, but I was mistaken. Farmers, however, use the bikes to stay ahead of the sheep and get them moving in the right direction.
Backpackers who come through Springbrook Farm for training spend five days learning these skills. We sped through several subjects in one day under the tutelage of a very patient trainer. Having never ridden a dirt bike before, I mastered certain aspects, like continuously moving forward, very quickly. However, I also learned that the initial start-up was a unique challenge that once resulted in me “parking” the motorcycle in a shed immediately upon giving it some gas. But the staff at Springbrook took their time with everyone and showed that safety and self-sufficiency are their two main priorities.
In other words, don’t expect to be coddled when you are learning farm work. In order to get you placed on a working farm, Springbrook makes sure that you have not only the skills but the work ethic to succeed. So, as you tackle new tasks, you’ll receive detailed instructions from your trainers and then figure out any difficulties you face on your own, just as you will once you are employed on a working farm.
Mustering offered it’s own unique set of challenges. Even experienced horseback riders will find that adding the activity of moving cattle in specific directions makes everything markedly more difficult. Cattle, obviously, do not always want to move (or have differing opinions on which direction they should go). And horses don’t always want to obey. Add an uncertain rider to the equation, and, well, mustering can quickly devolve into animals running in random directions while perplexed and frightened farmers-in-training yell, “whoa,” in increasingly frantic tones.
I make this assessment after I experienced mustering for the first time while visiting Springbrook Farm. Mustering for beginners is an exercise in organized chaos, as riders struggle to guide horses, horses struggle to run free and cattle struggle to out-wit their pursuers. After what seemed like an eternity but was probably only 90 minutes or so, with the guidance of our trainer, the skill of one geriatric mare and sheer luck, we moved the cattle to the desired location and only one person was thrown from her horse.
This may be a good time to note that farm work is dangerous. It’s not for everyone. It requires you to always be alert and cautious. Once again, I am not trying to scare anyone away from this type of working holiday, but if you are expecting a watered-down, reality TV version of farm living, then it would be best if you stayed on your couch. Springbrook Farm prepares you for real farm work, and real farm work involves scrapes, bruises and the occasional accident.
At the end of the day, however, you feel fulfilled and proud. And, you reture to some fairly comfortable accommodations Backpackers training at Springbrook stay in a cozy house with shared rooms, a deck that was seemingly designed for barbecues and a pool. During my visit, several of the trainees in attendance had farm experience before they arrived and were just enhancing their skills before seeking employment elsewhere in Australia. Others were learning farm life for the first time and pursuing the adventure that such a unique challenge can provide.
The Burnets also founded VisitOz, which handles the training and job placement of hundreds of backpackers looking for farm work every year. Springbrook Farm is one of the training farms that functions within the VisitOz operations. Enrolling in VisitOz and utilizing their serves will cost around $1,990 AUD (roughly $1,500 USD) but you receive quite a bit in return. Included in the price is assistance with travel arrangements, nine total days of accommodations in Brisbane, Rainbow Beach and, finally, at your training farm, and, of course, your training and job placement. It may seem like a steep price to pay, but if you are intent on finding farm work with a respectable farm, experience with a program like VisitOz can pay huge dividends. And, if you have limited farm experience, it may be the difference between success and injury once you start work.
The stay in Rainbow Beach serves a vital purpose, according to the Burnets. As Dan told us, a farm is no place to get over jet-lag. Farmers need their staff to be rested and focused. This allows everyone to use the time on the farm as efficiently as possible.
The Burnets communicate with working farms and provide them with information on their trainees. By the end of the five days of training, most backpackers receive several job offers from farms and can select the opportunity that most interests them.
Know before you go
Whether you’re planning on utilizing the services of a training farm or finding farm work on your own, it’s best to prepare yourself in advance of your arrival in Australia. Dan Burnet’s advice was to pick up whatever skills you can while you are still at home. For example, become certified in CPR or First Aid. If you have the opportunity to gain experience on horseback, take advantage of it. Anything you can do to make yourself more appealing to farmers and, obviously, keep yourself safe while working is beneficial.
Farm work is difficult and tiring. During your time on the farm, you’ll wake up early, work until you are sore and fall asleep shortly after sunset. But, unlike fruit picking, you will be working with animals and experiencing adventurous activities that will test you mentally as well as physically.
And when your time on the farm is done, you will have a substantial amount of money in your pocket. How substantial? Depending on your qualifications, farm work can pay anywhere from $250-$1000 AUD (roughly $200-$800 USD) per week, with room and board on the farm provided free of charge. Tucked away on a farm for a few months, you can plan quite the Aussie adventure once your time at work comes to an end. All the more reason to stay safe and leave the farm with all of your appendages in tact.
Mike Barish spent a week in Queensland, Australia on a trip sponsored by Backpacking Queensland to see how backpackers find employment and entertain themselves down under. He’ll be sharing what he learned about the logistics of working in Australia’s Sunshine State and the myriad activities that young travelers have at their disposal. Read other entries in his series HERE.