Do you want to travel the world, but aren’t sure how to make money while doing so? In this week’s article, we have an interview from Rob Stiles who shares his experience working as a wine grape harvester on vineyards! Rob and his wife, Kari, spent some time in Tasmania making money for travel while picking grapes along the way.
Wondering how much money you can make from working as a grape harvester? How to find a job? What the job entails? What are the pros & cons? Read on!
Please Tell Us a Little Bit About Yourselves
We’ve been together 13 years (married 7) and traveling full-time since 2012. Kari introduced me to the splendor of travel early in our relationship. We craved more from our travel than what a typical “American Vacation” could provide us. So, while living in Los Angeles, California and working in the television/entertainment industry as producers, we started cutting back on expenses and saving our money.
We wanted to hit the road full-time and experience places and cultures more thoroughly. We planned to travel for 1 year.
4 years and 60 countries later we’re loving our decision. We’ve made countless friends, eaten tons of amazing food, seen incredible things…even survived a natural disaster. Traveling has been the best education about this crazy and amazing planet we inhabit.
Tell Us About Your Job Working as Wine Grape Harvesters
Picking grapes at a winery in Tasmania was exactly the type of experience we were after when we decided to go abroad. It was an awesome departure from the jobs we had in LA. Every morning we would arrive to the vineyard and join a team of 20-30 backpackers from all over the world. We would then harvest the different grape varietals from different vineyards that were ready to be sent to the wine makers and turned into wine.
This was a fun experience because we LOVE wine. This was a great way to get a better understanding of the wine industry. It was also cool because we got to work with other backpackers from all over the globe. Our team was made up of pickers from the USA, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, China and Australia. It was like a staying at a hostel because it was such a mix of nationalities.
- Related: Top 7 Must-Try Wines in Argentina
Why Did You Choose This Job?
This job sort of picked us. We were tasting wine during our first visit to Tasmania (Tassie). We were expressing our newly found love of Tasmania to one of the owners of Goaty Hill Wines. He suggested that we come back and work for them during the upcoming harvest season.
However, the harvest season was 2 months away and we were planning to head back to mainland Australia. We exchanged information just in case we could make it work and went on to the next winery. In a few days we were headed back to mainland Australia to meet a friend coming to dive The Great Barrier Reef with us.
A few months pass, we had bought a car up in Cairns after our diving expedition and driven back down the coast to Sydney. We had sent our contact at Goaty Hill a few emails to keep us fresh in his mind. It must have worked.
When the phone rang, the ensuing convo went like this:
Tony: “Hey, this is Tony from Goaty Hill. How’d you like to come pick grapes for us this harvest season?”
Rob: (whispering to Kari…”It’s the dude from Goaty Hill. He’s got work for us”) “We’d love to! When do we start?”
Tony: “Hoping to start tomorrow.”
Rob: “One small problem…we’re in Sydney.”
Tony: “Well, if you guys can get here ASAP, we’ll put you to work in the vineyards.”
Rob: “Awesome. Thanks, Tony. We’ll see you soon”.
We packed our bags straight away to be ready to leave first thing in the morning. We left at 6:00 am to drive our 1995 Mitsubishi Magna station wagon (named Paz because of the giant peace symbol painted on the hood) from Sydney 8 hours to Melbourne. In Melbourne, we’d catch a ferry for a 10 hour ride down to the northern tip of Tassie.
We knew this would be an awesome experience because it was such a departure from the type of jobs we had back in LA. We also knew the work would be short-term and we wouldn’t have to commit to more than the 6-8 week duration of the harvest season. It was a perfect opportunity for us. Which is why we didn’t hesitate to make the 8 hour drive and take the 10 hour boat ride to make it happen.
Where Have You Worked?
We’ve only had the opportunity to do this sort of work in Australia. The Working Holiday Visa Australia offers is really great and is why we were able to have this opportunity. More on this awesome visa later!
Do You Need To Be Certified, Or Have Any Qualifications?
Picking grapes requires no special certification or training. You simply need the Working Holiday Visa to make you eligible to work legally. It does require physical labor. If you don’t like getting dirty, sweating or the occasional run in with a spider the size of your face, picking grapes might not be for you.
How Can People Find Wine Grape Harvesting Jobs?
As I mentioned before, we got this job just by talking with the winery owner and keeping in contact with him until the harvest season began. This type of harvest job is pretty casual in terms of origin and commitment. Many people simply stop by wineries or farms in the days and weeks leading up to harvest season to give the farmers their info and express their interest to work. It’s pretty old school, but makes it interesting and more personal than online contact.
In reality, backpackers do the grunt work that local Aussies don’t want to do. The government realized this and covets this relationship, and actually, they’ve developed a more advanced network since we were there in 2012. An example is this website for the “Harvest Trail”. This government-run site helps connect employers with backpackers seeking agricultural work along the Harvest Trail.
What Is The Application Process Like?
It’s a pretty casual situation for harvest work. There are jobs that are longer term and often further off the beaten path, which require a more structured process. In our experience, most of the farm work was casual and if you had a Working Holiday Visa, were willing to show up and do the work, then that’s all that was required.
What About A Working Visa? Do You Need One?
Finally, I get to describe the amazing Working Holiday Visa for Australia! This visa allows you to work and be legally hired for certain types of jobs. The most common sectors are agricultural (farm work), hospitality (tourism), construction and even mining (if qualified).
I call this visa “amazing”, because for us, it was super easy. You simply need to be between 18-30 years of age to apply. Kari applied for hers one week before she turned 30. Once the visa is granted, you have one year to enter the country and the visa remains valid for one year after date of entry.
There are two subclasses for the Working Holiday Visa, 417 and 462. From what I can tell, these are delineated based on what country you’re from and defines what the visa allows you to do. Each subclass has a list of countries that are eligible. Being from the United States, we applied for the 462 subclass, which allowed us to work for one year.
Those with the 462 subclass are eligible for a second year if you complete three months of 462 subclass eligible work during your first year.
Applications can be submitted online, in person or via post. You’re going to save yourself a heap of time by applying online. According to the Australian visa website, online applications are usually processed in 12-27 days. Our visa applications were processed in just over 2 weeks.
Costs for the visa can vary depending on where you’re from, when you apply, and if you submit online or via another method. For an American applying online in June of 2017, the costs starts at $355 USD (pricier than a tourist visa, but allows you to make money). Online visa applications can be paid for with a credit card, via PayPal or Australian BPay (bank transfer).
What Does a Job as a Grape Harvester on a Vineyard Entail?
As I mentioned earlier, picking grapes can be physically challenging. Most days we were at the vineyard by 6:00 am. The picking team would gather and the vineyard foremen would give us a rundown of the rows where we’d be harvesting and the type of grapes.
The rows were all numbered. During a full day, we’d have to pick 10-12 rows before lunch and 6-10 after lunch. The rows varied in length from 100 yards (approx 92 meters) up to about twice that. Once we knew the plan, everyone would grab a bucket or two, a pair of gardening snips and head for the rows.
We worked in teams of two with a person on either side of the row. The rows were separated into “panels” by tall vertical posts. Two people per panel, one on each side to ensure we got all the fruit. When you and your partner completed a panel, you leapfrogged the other teams to start on the next open panel in the row. The teams worked their way down the row until it was complete and then onto the next.
We didn’t pick at Goaty Hill everyday. Goaty Hill supplied their picking team to small vineyards in the area. Which was great because it gave us a chance for more work.
As a grape picker, you’re often standing for long periods of time. Vineyards and varietals vary in the way they are planted and grow. Sometimes you’re required to bend or squat to get all the fruit. At Goaty Hill, the vineyards were masterfully planted and all the fruit was usually between waist and shoulder height.
However, we worked at some other vineyards where the vines were planted in “Y” shape. This forced us to be bent over, or on our knees as we worked down the row. It was much harder working with the “Y” shape because of the bending over and crawling that was required to get at the fruit.
You are often required to carry heavy buckets, teeming with grapes, weighing 30-50 pounds (13-23 kilograms). Usually you’ve got to pack those buckets long distances to the end of the rows and empty them into larger containers to be picked up by machinery. If you have experience operating farm equipment that’s a bonus as you may be able to operate a tractor to pick up the large containers of grapes.
How Much Does a Grape Picker Get Paid?
We were paid minimum wage, which at the time was about $22.50 Australian Dollars. At that time in 2012, the Australian Dollar was crushing it on the world market due to the value of their minerals. The exchange rate was about $1 Aussie Dollar to $1.15 USD. It was a pretty lucrative job at the time. Especially since we had the freedom to live cheaply and travel around Tassie.
Minimum wage varies across the Australian states and territories.
What Are The Hours of Work?
As far as hours and scheduling, our team was sort of “on call”. Each day, grapes from the vineyard in the Tamar Valley were sent 25 miles down the road to a lab in Launceston to have the sugars tested. The test results would determine if the grapes were ready to be picked. So our hours depended on how many rows of certain grapes needed to be picked.
Oftentimes we wouldn’t know if we were working the next day or not because the winemakers were waiting on results of sugar tests. We often worked three days in a row and then had at least one day off. Usually we didn’t work more than 8 hours. Some days we’d only work 3 or 4 hours and go home around lunchtime. Other days, we’d work a full day, but only half or three-quarters of the team would work.
It was pretty inconsistent to be honest. If we knew we had a couple of days off, we could go anywhere on the island and be back with relatively short notice if need be. So it didn’t bother us because it gave us a chance to see Tasmania. That’s probably why we love it there so much.
Were There Any Contract Jobs Available?
Our situation was very casual and it was possible to find other work at other vineyards or farms. Many of the other backpackers on our picking team worked at other places in the area on the days we weren’t working at Goaty Hill.
What Are The Working Conditions Like?
Obviously, picking grapes puts you at the mercy of the weather. Mornings were usually cold and wet from dews on the ground and vines. Afternoons were usually hot and dry. Tasmania is pretty temperate so we never really experienced any extreme weather conditions.
Another dicey condition was working in the fields amongst insects and animals. Australia is notorious for its poisonous critters. We were often spooked by big spiders, snails, insects and suffered a few pretty painful bug bites. We encountered a few snakes as well, but nothing serious. It’s best to be aware that you might encounter wildlife, and to leave the animals be when you do come across them.
Our teammates, being from different cultures, had a variety of work ethics which made for some interesting dynamics. Since we were paid hourly, most of us realized that if we kept a steady pace and worked safely, the supervisors didn’t bother us. But often times, the European backpackers wanted to sit down to take breaks or eat some grapes straight from the vine. You can probably guess, this was frowned upon by the foreman.
The Asian backpackers on the team often worked too fast. We encouraged them to slow down and explained to them that the slower we went as a group, the more hours we’d get paid for. It was often entertaining trying to get everyone on the same page and working at the same pace.
The management at Goaty Hill was actually really awesome. They were very fair, paid us all on time, and never worked us too hard. Many backpackers had stories of tyrant bosses and horrible working conditions. We encountered fair treatment while working at Goaty Hill and only experienced safe working conditions.
What Are The Pros & Cons Of Working as a Grape Harvester?
I always struggle with pros and cons because often it’s a matter of perspective. So, I’m going to give some definite pros, definite cons and some pro/cons (as I call them) that could go either way depending on the person.
- Good Pay: $22.50/hour is pretty tough to beat for a job that requires no training or previous experience.
- Good Bosses: The guys at Goaty Hill got it. They were very fair and made sure we got paid when they told us we would. They were kind, but expected hard work. It was a really good situation. We heard horror stories from others about mean, stingy bosses. We felt fortunate to have cool superiors.
- Meeting People from All over: Backpackers are all over Australia. It’s one of the great backpacker destinations on Earth…IMO. Getting to work with and know people from all over was a great perk.
- The work: It was chill, man. We’d just pop in our headphones or pump tunes from a portable speaker and pluck grapes from the vine. It was calming work that didn’t require a ton of concentration. I always felt productive and wasn’t ever stressed out.
- At the mercy of the elements: This will happen anytime you work outside. There’s nothing you can do about it if it decides to rain. I remember being sent home one day because a thunderstorm, with lightning and all, came on unexpectedly.
- Critters: We had a some pretty wicked spider bites. Nothing serious, but a few painful, swollen bumps. Also, if you’re terrified of snakes like I am, and knowing one could pop up at any second, it can be a little nerve-wracking.
- Inconsistent Schedule: To some that might be frustrating. Not knowing when you have to work or how many hours you’re guaranteed makes it tough to plan. It didn’t bother us since we were living in our car, camping for free at a nearby boat launch. Whenever we didn’t have work, we just headed out on an adventure. Sometimes we’d visit the nearby wineries and taste wine all day!
- Hard Work: The physical work was hard sometimes. We really liked this kind of work and being outside because it was so different from what we had done in our previous lives as TV producers. We also liked it because we got a workout in every day with tons of walking up and down hill. All the while carrying heavy baskets of grapes!
- Nomad Lifestyle – We were able to camp close to the vineyard for free at a boat launch on the Tamar River. It had bathrooms and a power box so we could charge our electronics. That saved us heaps of cash! We were able to camp, chill, and live super cheap during our work stint. Whenever we needed a shower, we’d pay to stay at a caravan park or head into Launceston and shower at the public pool Cataract Gorge. It’s a lifestyle that’s probably not for everyone. But, Kari and I look back fondly on those simple, carefree days.
Why Do You Love This Job?
We loved picking grapes in the vineyard because it was different from what we were used to. Making $22 bucks an hour with zero stress was awesome. It was nice to work outside, work hard and be tired at the end of the day. We weren’t stuck at desk. The phone never rang after hours. Nobody was asking all kinds of questions about call times or when we would wrap the shoot. It was thousands of miles away from LA and our old Hollywood jobs…literally thousands of miles away, around 8,000!
We also loved this work experience so much because it allowed us to go back to Tasmania and explore it more thoroughly. We visited Tassie about two months into our time in Australia for 14 days. We explored it in a campervan and quickly realized two weeks wouldn’t be nearly enough time. We really liked Tassie and hoped to find a way to get back. When we did we fell in love with it even more. The food, wine and beer in Tassie is amazing!
The nature and terrain of the island is EPIC. Tasmania has beautiful National and State Parks. Cradle Mountain was our favorite and we recommend a visit. We dove near Bicheno on the west coast in search of weedy seadragons! And of course, the notorious wildlife should be mentioned. We loved watching cheeky kangaroos and getting up close and personal with adorable wombats. Seeing nature’s Frankenstein the platypus was a highlight, and we can’t forget the trademark Tasmanian Devil.
Tasmania was a huge reason we loved picking grapes. It’s not the type of job we’d ever consider making into a career. But, it was a great job to do while traveling.
Any Final Advice For Someone Wanting to Work As a Grape Picker on a Vineyard?
I cannot recommend picking grapes enough. We are big fans of Australia’s Working Holiday Visa in general and the opportunities it provides for travelers. While we only worked for 8 weeks in Tassie, we traveled all over Australia for 7 months. There’s a vast backpacker scene “Down Under”. If one wanted to work the entire year while in Australia, it’s totally possible. It’s a great opportunity for first time backpackers or experienced travelers.
If you’re between 18-30 and are just finishing school or don’t know what to do with your life, this is an excellent option. Australia is a safe and fascinating place to travel.
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