Getting a job here was easy. Keeping said job proved more challenging.
I arrived in Blenheim the first week of December. After a ten minute meeting with Nicolette, the labor coordinator for the Marlborough area, I had a name and number. I called Julie about vineyard work. “Do you know about how long the position will last?” It’s always good to ask potential employers questions. “It depends on how fast you are,” Julie replied in her sharp, grumbled voice.
Everyone met at the KFC at 7am on Thursday morning. I wore my gumboots and hat for sun protection. I applied sunscreen with the window reflection. Sitting on the curb were two women, hugging their knees and looking anxious. Like me, it was their first day on the job. Anne-Marie, the innocent German and Jamie, the quiet New Yorker. Often I would wake up to texts from Anne-Marie: “It’s too cold for work today! And I’m tired :D” or “Yay, I’m so motivated to work :D” Jamie lost her job on the second day.
There are several jobs that vineyard workers perform, but I only had the opportunity to work two. The first was shoot thinning. This required walking down rows and removing the dormant vines to provide more energy for the healthy buds. We had to be fast but efficient. The average length of each row was around 200 or 300 feet with about 50 plants per row. We got paid $0.03 per plant. My hands were flying and I found a good pace somewhere between fast walking and jogging. Although the work was mindless, it did need precision when removing only five to seven vines per plant. Often it was easy to remove too many or too little, especially when your focus is on speed.
The second job I performed was wire lifting. This is where I lost patience and began cursing New Zealand. The goal of wire lifting is to keep the vines upright against the wire to prevent drooping, as they get bigger. Nothing is so tedious and requires more focus and care because the wires can become twisted if you aren’t paying attention. It doesn’t help that I did not give a rat’s ass about this job. The success of these vineyards had no personal impact; other than providing me an underpaid job.
Our supervisors were Julie and her daughter, and we would be split into two groups working at different vineyards. Often I was working with Julie’s daughter, an overweight woman who liked to pluralize every word. (I don’t know how long yous guys are gonna takes on the toilets).
Julie always wore gray sweats tucked into her white cotton tube socks. On the days the two groups worked together it was chaotic. Julie would expect one thing whereas her daughter would be lax about the same. For instance, Julie hated when the wires crossed, even at the end of the rows where they could be cut and untwisted. But Julie’s daughter didn’t care, as long as we told her that the rows twisted. This lack of organization made the workers fearful and rather than saying something wrong, we would say nothing at all.
This job lasted for nine days. On the evening of the eighth day I received a message from Julie saying we had the next four days off. Frustrated and annoyed at this last minute change in schedule I awoke early the next day and drove to Nelson Lakes. There I spent the afternoon reading Mary Karr’s, Liar’s Club and writing, staring out at Lake Rotoiti. That evening I received a message from Julie, “Change of plans work tomorrow are u keen?” No Julie. I’m two hours away because I thought we had the next four days off. I’m not keen.
It was clear that my last day of work was approaching because I was eager to get back to work; anxious to feel the hard wire burrowing callouses into my hands. But I started working too fast. I lost track of the wires and twisted more than one row. Julie approached me in her golf cart and applied a look of guilt onto her wrinkled face, “I’m sorry Sam. But I don’t have any more work for you. You just twisted too many wires and slowed us down today.”
Hallelujah. Praise Jesus. Hail Mary. I gave Marielle, a German girl, a ride into town because Julie also just fired her. She was distraught and on the verge of tears. I tried my best to uplift her spirits and encourage her to see the upside in losing the vineyard job. Back at the Spring Creek campground I inquired about a cherry-picking job with my German neighbors. I don’t remember his name, but he was tall with a pimply face and brown curly hair. He said I could follow their car tomorrow to the orchard and ask for a job. I did and I began work that morning.
Cherry picking requires a different kind of focus, strength and speed. I enjoyed this more than vineyard work. There is shade, yummy sugary snacks and provides more social opportunities. We got paid eight dollars a bucket, which meant you had to pick at least two 6-kilo buckets in an hour to make over minimum wage, $14.75. I averaged about twelve buckets a day the first few days. Some people would easily reach thirty buckets. There is a reason fruit picking is a backpackers favorite job, because in one week people can make two grand. But I was too focused on not ruining the spurs and branches and my quick assessment of color and size was not great. At times I would only search for dark cherries and forget about the size, or pick only large cherries even if it was on the light pink side. This slowed me down considerably, but I was just happy to make money. The orchard owner was, unfortunately, not a nice man. At one point I was working alongside German girls, and he dangled small pink cherries in their face saying, “Eat this. Eat this. Do you think this would taste good?” They had picked bad cherries, and they did not taste good.
The stigma of the helpful and gracious Kiwi did not hold true among farmers who manage backpackers. Although there are seasonal workers from Vanuatu who often hold loyalty to the same orchard year after year, the majority of the work is dependent on the Working Holiday Visa holders. And this is a mixed bag of people from around the world ranging in maturity level. It can’t be easy, but yet I don’t think forcing young Germans to eat their cherries (slightly erotic?) is necessary or effective. After five days of orchard work in Blenheim, I was ready to leave. It took three weeks to receive payment and during which I had fourteen dollars in my New Zealand bank account. Struggle.
In retrospect, I’m happy I conquered the laborious backpacker jobs. Cherry picking proved to be rewarding enough that I continued the work throughout January, which allowed me to make enough money to save, and then spend on Mango sorbet.