Brisbane school-leaver Rhys Burke never imagined he would end up picking watermelons under the blazing sun on a Chinchilla farm.
- The five friends answered a farmer’s call for fruit pickers
- Without backpackers to work due to the pandemic, the farmer said his crop was at risk of not getting to market
- The teen pickers said it was the best experience they had had
Four months ago, the city-based teenager answered the call from farmer Murray Sturgess, who was desperate for pickers to get his watermelon crop to market.
Rhys and school friend Aidan Stuart packed up and headed west, straight out of school into the hot paddocks of the Western Downs.
It is hard work after 13 years in the classroom, but, as Rees explains, “if you can survive the first three days, you’re sweet”.
“I’d definitely do it again and recommend it to anyone else.”
Aidan said their plans drew a mixed reaction from school friends.
“Some were over the moon and some were kind of worried, given the fact that we were just right out of school,” he said.
Not afraid of hard work
Farmers Murray and Wendy Sturgess have used backpackers in the past for fruit picking, but with COVID-19 restrictions, none of them were available this year.
They tried advertising on social media and other sites to no avail, but then, through a friend, found Rhys and Aidan willing to give it a go.
But they needed even more help and three of Rhys’s friends who had recently graduated from The Gap State High School also answered the call.
One of them, Luca Nikolic, said the experience had changed his mindset and he was surprised by how much he was capable of.
“I enjoyed it so much,” he said.
Despite a tough start, Mr Sturgess said once the newcomers got going, they loved it.
“They were grateful kids that have never worked before other than at fast food outlets,” he said.
Working life boosts teen confidence
Mr Sturgess said he had put a lot of time and effort into training the young recruits, not only in fruit picking but also in cattle husbandry.
He was pleasantly surprised by their work ethic.
“Some have never been in a rural area and I can understand why a lot of big employers can’t use them because they can’t put that extra mile into making them feel at home,” Mr Sturgess said.
The school-leavers also made their families proud.
Rhys’s mum Carol Burke was amazed at the change in her son after a couple of months on the farm.
“He’s a little bit quiet and maybe not so confident,” Ms Burke said.
“He came home for a couple of days over Christmas and the difference in the three weeks he was out there was astounding.
“It was so obvious — it was just that confidence.”
Rhys is now turning his love for the outdoors and the skills he honed on the farm into a landscaping apprenticeship.