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We didn't 'Planet'! One camper van. Two blokes. Four weeks. What could go wrong?

The Life Cycle of an Apple

AUSTRALIA | Monday, 9 April 2007 | Views [4106] | Comments [1]

Do you remember that feeling as a kid when your mother would drag you to the dentist? Arriving in Stanthorpe kind of brought back such memories for me; for it was only a few years ago that I was here as one in an army of backpacker farm workers. For two months I spent nine hours each day bent double cutting cabbages. These were no ordinary cabbages, oh no, they were Chinese Womboks – veg on steroids. They are heavy and tough as old boots to cut through. But a young lad needs a way to fund his travels, and once I made some local friends it led to some great experiences.

However, I had nothing to fear this time around, because I am returning older, wiser, and with absolutely no intention of doing any work. I would normally come here to visit my good friend Matt – but as he has been travelling with me on this very trip, we decided to call in for some rest and relaxation. The van needed a wash, as we did too, and I have a little challenge to complete, which you can read all about in the next blog – I can tell you now that is does not involve cabbage in any way.

Sitting close to the border with New South Wales, Stanthorpe lies on an elevated plateau of the Great Dividing Range, and at 915m, is one of the highest in Queensland. The area is known as Granite Belt Country, due to the amount of exposed rock and the soil type. It is the rich soil, hot summers and cold winters that has enabled the region to prosper in fruit, vegetables and boutique wineries. At various times of year the farms all take on a number of travellers for pruning, thinning or harvesting, and it is a good place to aim for if you are on the market for a bit of yakka. Going rates hover around the $15/hour mark.

During the settler days, the English had a go at farming the area, but their conventional methods and choice of stock or crops did not work. During WWII Mediterranean immigrants, mostly Italian, were put to work on the farms and they began to thrive. Today, most of the families behind the more successful orchards and farms are of Italian descent.

Stanthorpe itself is an attractive service town for the surrounding area, boasting several pubs that can get lively at weekends (I spent more than my share in Top Pub last time). There is an RSL for a cheap Sunday evening feed, a supermarket for veg, if you must, and a great little internet café run by a German chap named Wolfgang. Nearby there are two great national parks, Girraween and Bald Rock, both of which are home to dense populations of native wildlife – I guarantee you good sightings of Red Kangaroos here. Both offer excellent opportunities for camping and hiking.

Matt is based twenty odd kilometres out of town, along with his two brothers they all live and work on the same farm. They are all from New Zealand – and they are known in Australia as economic refugees. While brother Daniel has increased in height by three foot and got much hairier, little bro Chris is still the most accident prone person I know. Every time I have met him, he has had a major accident of some sort. This time around, he even managed to have one in his sleep – bitten by a small scorpion in his bed, leaving him feeling ill and numb for twenty-four hours. The next day, he fell off his motorcycle while doing a jump, leaving him with broken knuckles and a hand the size of a shovel. But here’s the thing – Chris feels no pain. Where all our nerves are plugged in at the end, his, I suspect, are all tied off in a neat knot. He went back to work the next day, as usual.

This farm is all about apples, and it happens to be one of the biggest producers in the area. It is the work of two families, and combined they have hundreds of acres of orchards under netting, designed to protect the fruit from the hail storms that are not uncommon in this area. Personally, I have a phobia of orchards and anything in neat rows, but like most blokes, I like machines. So I was happy to spend a few hours one evening in the packing shed. Any images in my head of wondering a leafy orchard at sunset with a beautiful woman, who would be wearing a delicate cream coloured dress, have a flower in her hair and be carrying a wicker basket, were quite frankly ruined in the shed. Welcome to 21st century apple production.

The grading machine begins near the cold store, where one tonne boxes are loaded into a big tub of water. The fruit floats up and out, then down a channel towards an elevator. There are two good reasons for this; by floating out of the boxes, the delicate fruit does not get bruised as they would if tipped. Secondly, much of the rubbish, such as foliage and twigs, gets separated at this point. It is just like the apple-bobbing competition you used to get at the school fair, just bigger and noisier (and, on this night at least, there was nobody dipping their head in the water). From there, they rumble over various brushes for a clean up, before travelling through a heated tunnel for drying. A quick dip in the wax protects them from future handling and gives them a healthy shine, before they go through the wall to the next stage.

The apples pass through a magic machine that first weighs them and then photographs them! From this point on, each and every one of the millions of apples has its own identity. Both of these help the machine to grade the fruit into different classes, which are sold to different markets. Next they are given a label and then travel along a conveyer that drops each apple in the appropriate hole according to size. At this point, the human eye takes over in the final check for quality and size, before they are packed into boxes and onto the waiting truck. As a grader, which I was for a few hours, I found it hard to concentrate on the job at hand because one apple would catch my eye and I’d follow it to see where it went. It is probably a good thing I don’t work here. Each one has its own personality, and I became especially fond of the “fugitive fruits” – occasionally, two small apples, which are destined to be consigned to the juice bin (and they know it) would stowaway on the same cup. This would fool the robot weighing machine thing into thinking there was one plump, very healthy apple in transit. The two fugitives would appear at my conveyer, trying to mix in with the big apples. If they are spotted, and not much gets past me I should say, well, you can guess where they go. Juice.

You may be wondering where all this is going, or what it is all about. After all, it is not Fraser Island, The Great Barrier Reef or bungee jumping. Quite. But, it is a slice of Australia – and if you are coming here to work, you may well end up doing something like this. I can assure you, the woman with the flower in her hair is nowhere to be seen around here.

After the last time in Stanthorpe, I have since not been able to walk past the veg section in the market without feeling the cabbages. Now I keep an eye out for fugitive apples in the pile – if I spot a couple, I’m gonna think, good on ya guys!

Next time, I do something very silly indeed.


Stuff on Stanthorpe

More stuff on Stanthorpe

Bald Rocak National Park

Girraween Nation Park

Tags: ambassador van, on the road



Love it! Such a silly subject but you bring it alive!

  Bonnie Feb 2, 2010 6:23 PM

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