Covid-19: A Farm Story

My friend offered to switch me places for a day. Did I want to do her office job from her home in Denver, and she could take my place in Australia in the great outdoors? Sure, I told her. It’s just gonna hurt a bit.

Hurt? She wondered. Your hands again?

Yeah, and more, I wrote back. Fingers from gripping, shoulders from holding up clippers, neck from constantly looking up, back from constantly leaning back slightly, legs from standing all day, arms from constantly moving in the same motions, toes and feet from keeping your balance against steel-toed shoes, cheeks from the windburn or sunburn (depending on the day).

I may have forgotten to mention that she may get a zebra stripe tan on the top of her wrist – the patch of skin between the glove and where my longsleeve slips down my arm as I reach upwards all day.

I may also have forgotten to mention that she’ll get freckles, but they won’t be the cute ones. Our freckles instead are a guessing game of if we’ve managed to wash all the dirt off our face or if that smudge is now permanent.

It’s a bizarre world we live in, and usually by about Wednesday our working crew has aged fifty years. Our bodies don’t get a chance to heal as we abuse them in the same way day in and day out. We lean over to take off our shoes and struggle to straighten again. We move to stand up from the table and have to inch ourselves across the chair and hold on to something to pull ourselves up. We go to lift a glass to our lips and have to use our other hand to give our first a boost.

They weren’t kidding when they told us it was backbreaking and mind-numbing work. Fortunately, my audio books and podcasts keep my brain busy while I do repetitive motions all day every day. I’ve just finished listening to all the books from the Stormlight Archive by Brian Sanderson – a monstrous 155 hours worth of storytelling in just about 5 weeks. But now that I’m caught up, I’m looking for recommendations. Know of any other exceedingly long books to capture my attention for the next month or so?

Brims and hi-vis and masks, oh my!

Coronavirus, naturally, has reared its ugly head again. While our little town was overall unaffected when we got here, Victoria as a whole has turned into a massive epicenter. Hot spots in Melbourne suburbs soon spilled over and after a record 700+ cases in one day, the city went into stage 4 lockdown with curfews, permits to drive to essential work more than 5km from home, and a mask requirement. The rest of the state bumped back up into stage 3, so dine ins shut down in favor of takeaway food and coffee, and we all now have to wear masks any time we leave the hostel. Even though we’re almost never within even twenty feet of another person in the fields, I believe that we are still supposed to wear them when in the vines. I am definitely going to have different tan lines than I anticipated before coming to Australia!

Every morning now, we have to get our temperature taken. There’s a thermometer gun that is thrust at your forehead and noted down. We’ve discovered if we are wearing our beanies, it will register that we have a mild fever. It’s a bit annoying (as you can quite literally see your breath most mornings walking inside the hostel) to have to remove your one source of warmth in order to show that you are not sick. Good thing, though, because if one person has a fever we all have to stay home and quarantine. Not exactly on the top of our to-do lists when most of us only have a few days wiggle room to get our 88 days for our visa extension. But it is understandable. After all, we are all in the same household, touching the same door handles, using the same kitchen utensils and bathrooms. So if one of us gets Covid-19, we all do.

Here are vines after rolling one dawn – the next step is to prune all the stray branches.

The last few days have been a little different at work. The main batch of workers have been split into three-ish groups. One disappears to a totally different farm, the boys who remain are sent with drills to each of the posts, and the girls are all continuing to prune. It’s been bizarre watching the fields change. When we first arrived, everything was so bushy we may as well have been in a forest. We first yanked away pre-pruned branches. Those that were left and long enough, we rolled onto the wires. Now, we are pruning the final twigs and leaving a nearly naked vine.

The last day and a half have been a relief on my hands at least. The farm recently changed hands and as such all the rows were re-numbered. They wanted an accurate count on how many poles were in each row, so we are given 20 rows at a time to count.

Note: I’ve said poles. Not vines, poles. Sometimes, there are vines without a pole any longer. Sometimes, there are poles without a vine growing up next to it. Sometimes, the pole has been smashed to pieces, but as long as one vaguely exists we are to count it. They do not want to know which rows have broken poles, or how many vines actually exist. They just want us to count poles.

Standing atop a hill you can really understand how perfectly spaced these are

So, we walk. It takes a good 8 minutes for me to walk from one end of a row to the other. I’m a fast walker with long strides. Also, through our naked vines, I can easily count six rows at a time. It still takes me over half an hour to do each section. Longer, if there are many branches in the path and I’m tripping or the vines grab my laces and untie my boots. Yesterday I walked over 12 miles (21km) and trudged up many a hill. With average rows ranging from 95 – 125 vines, I quickly downloaded a counter app on my phone so as to not lose track and have to start over again. Yesterday also became a music day to give me a beat with only minimal distractions.

This morning we usually would have worked a half day. Last night, our schedule read out that we may or may not be working and we’d find out at 5:30 am if we had to get out of bed or not. Naturally, my body couldn’t deal with not knowing so decided that sleep was out of the question. I told my roommates not to set their alarms last night as the forecast said there was 100% chance of rain all day – I’d wake them up if something changed. Sure enough, at 5:31, the text came through to go back to sleep. Unfortunately for me, I was wide awake.

When the lockdown orders came through, I realized we’d be even more trapped in this hostel than usual. I’d put a message in the group chat that I’d been a professional barista and would make coffee on request for anyone. I mocked up a menu with mochas and syrups and London Fogs and said any day we weren’t working just to text me. The first text rolled in at 6:11 – apparently I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t get back to sleep! Throughout the day, I wound up making drinks for at least half the hostel, even having my own version of a rush around lunchtime. I have to remind myself that even if everyone wants something, there’s fewer than 40 people here and they are all willing to wait twenty minutes for their drink. Sorry, Padre crew, it’s much harder to get off the pass alone with only stovetop espresso and a whisk-style frother with a pot of milk!

I try to make it pretty when I can – it’s a bit harder when I run out of mugs and plates!

In other news, I’ve officially been away from the U.S. for the longest continuous period in my life. The actual mark passed me by without much notice. Usually by the time I get to 9 or 10 months away from my family I feel very antsy and homesick for them. Don’t get me wrong, I still miss my family and wish I could see them. But between the constant upheaval of this year (and also the absolute stability in the form of my lovely partner, Michael), I passed by my usual milestone without much notice. It was only when I got an email from my travel health insurance thanking me for a year of serving me that I even blinked (to which I quickly bought more – not only is it a visa requirement, a global pandemic is the last time I’d want to be without that security even here).

This time last year, I was in Chicago, getting ready to board a plane bound for New Zealand. I was fresh on my anti-anxiety medication (also, lolz – you bet that I’ve increased that prescription in the last few months) and feeling very lost in the world. I hadn’t bought my plane tickets back to the country I loved until a couple weeks before I left. I hadn’t applied for my working holiday visa in Australia yet. I at least remembered to buy a rental ticket onward from New Zealand so they would let me board the plane. But beyond that, I was feeling very frail and out of touch with my own body and dreams.

This lonely tree at the edge of our farm has entranced many of us

The last year has been chaotic on a global level.

Yet for me, it has also been one of the most affirming. The pandemic has changed me. I am much more introverted than I used to be. I am much more content to walk around my local block instead of needing to always be in the next city or country. I am much more content with just hanging out with my partner or my own thoughts, instead of always needing to make plans to go meet somebody new. Unlike the past, even though I am not “traveling” any longer, my skin fits my soul. I belong in my own body and feel as though I have finally grown into myself. And, if the last few months of blog posts have been anything to go by, I’m discovering my voice again. Who knows? I may even pick up the book I’ve been writing again.

In the meantime, I will continue counting my days in the vineyards of rural Australia, my hi-vis visible from Mars and driving a van full of sleepy backpackers towards the sunrise and trying not to hit any kangaroos.

It’s a strange, strange world we’ve found ourselves dropped into, but it’s still our home.

‘Straya, we think you’re worth it.

The skies here often remind me of Iowa with their stunning sunrises and sunsets

2 thoughts on “Covid-19: A Farm Story

  1. Good Morning, Allison, from British Columbia, Canada!! Yes, that sunset looks very much like the Iowa ones I have seen through the years and most recently as we passed through on our way back to Canada!!
    Your story telling is fun to read, the closest I’ve come to what you’ve been doing was when I hoed beets in North Dakota during summer break from high school…. and strawberry picking the summer before I got married, in British Columbia. Hard work being outside long hours in any and all kinds of weather….
    Congratulations for persevering and also sharing your barista marvels with your fellow field hands….Hugs, Auntie Jan 🙂


  2. Dude! I love reading your blogs and hearing how you’re getting on. I’d been thinking you sounded comparatively settled! And I love that you’re making drinks for everyone on days off- it’s a wonderful gift, something special and different. Sending hugs from the UK! X


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