Wallaroo and Canberra Too

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10/9 – 10/17 Canberra – Wallaroo – The Orchard
*We've removed the names of the farm, the farmer, and his wife in order to avoid litigation for speaking publicly about the situation. It's unfortunate as we feel a warning is necessary for the place, however legal wheels are turning and things are being done to eliminate the potential for victimization of other workers and volunteers.

The owner of the orchard we're staying/working at is an interesting, shortish fellow, with a ring of curly hair surrounding a bald pate. He met us at the station and got us to the rural area of 'Wallaroo' in the early evening. I was wondering (not seriously) if 'Wallaroo' is just a mix of 'wallaby' and 'kangaroo'. I believe it's an aboriginal word... actually, I just looked it up and a wallaroo is an animal that's about midway in size between the two.

It feels quite remote considering it's only about 15-20 minutes outside of the capital. Brick farmhouses and tin barns in varying degrees of disrepair lie at the center of large open tracts of grazing land. Occasional clusters of tall gum trees (eucalypts) contrast creepy, dead, grey gums off by themselves. As we were getting close to the farm, the farmer commented when seeing the road dust, 'It looks like someone's leaving, I wonder who?' We quickly said hello to his wife through the open car windows as he asked her where she was off to. She cryptically said, 'I just have to go out.'

We jumped right into working on some seemingly urgent irrigation for a couple of hours before he grilled up dinner on the barbeque. “We realized that there was a young French girl also staying on the farm named Marine (pronounced with that throaty French 'r') when she quickly passed by and said 'goodnight' with a smile as she headed off to bed early.”

We also met the farm dog Mindy, a big, friendly lug of a dog whose resemblance to the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz is unmistakable. She has golden curly locks and this funny kind-of beard under her chin. She has this slightly depressed look when she's just lying there which quickly changes to an unmistakable grin when she gets some lovin'.

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Samantha didn't sleep well and heard the farmer's wife arrive back at the farm sometime after midnight. Interesting schedule.

Next morning we're at it bright and early. Breakfast at 7:00 and back to fixing the irrigation system for about 3000 trees on about 33 acres. It's a relatively modest sized commercial orchard, as well as the only organic orchard in the area. He sells them at the local farmers' market, and at his annual 'apple-day'. He also sells veggies and herbs he grows to upscale restaurants in the area.

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By the end of the day we're already wondering if this is not the right situation for us because we worked our butts off, with no time for relaxing, and through the WWOOFing program there's no pay. It's only work for meals and accommodation. We like the WWOOF program, because we really want to get more hands-on experience farming, and we're not spending any money, but if this is the norm at this farm, we won't learn anything, I won't be able to get any music business or rehearsing done, and I'll quickly get out of practice and won't have the time to book gigs. Also, The internet sucks here and that makes getting business done a real problem. We can't really get a signal close to the farmhouse. Out in the middle of the yard it's ok, but we had to spend a couple hours at the national museum using their free wifi to get any videos uploaded. At least it also gave us a chance to learn a bit about Australian history and see some interesting exhibits.
After a couple days here, it appears that the schedule isn't as busy as we thought, maybe it was just the urgency of irrigating areas that really need it. 4-5 hours in the morning/early afternoon with a break for morning tea, then a hearty lunch and 2-3 hours of time to get our business/rehearsal done, followed by a couple hours of light work in the evening before it gets too dark to see.

We got to know the farmer's wife a bit and she seems really nice. She's somewhat diminutive, and has a nervous way to her, with a constant, awkward giggle almost as if she's a bit embarrassed to be saying anything. Her cooking is wonderful, and she's nearly constantly at work in the kitchen preparing meals for the farm, dinner for their church group, or things to sell to restaurants.

This morning Marine was crying in the hallway outside of our rooms after I heard the farmer say something like 'Well fine if you're going to continue to be cantankerous...' That's a funny word for him to use, because it would much better fit his personality. We haven't really spent much time with Marine except at mealtime, but she seems to be a sweet, polite, unimposing girl. We're reminded of the exchange student who is harrassed by her host family in the John Cusack movie Better Off Dead – I offhandedly quoted to Sam the line from the movie 'The international language – love!'. Her accent and English language ability are nearly the same as the girl in the movie, as well as the way she carries herself.

Marine's dining habits are entertaining to watch, but I don't want to embarrass her by staring. She loves cheese, sweet mayonnaise, and chocolate. She makes these little open-faced sandwiches where she'll put a little slice of cheese, maybe a piece of tomato and then smother the whole thing with sweet mayo. At one point I saw her take a little square of bread, cover it with mayo and then spoon the mayo off the bread and into her mouth and do it again! She has a serious sweet-tooth. We had some little pancakes topped with ice-cream and chocolate sauce or maple syrup for desert. She had a second round of chocolate sauce before she had eaten the pancake and then filled her spoon with maple syrup and drank that.

It's really not cool the way the farmer treats her, he's working her from sun-up to sun-down, and he picks on her. There's just a weird tension there, and she doesn't seem to know how to act when she's around him.

She's not a WWOOFer, she's on a 'working holiday' visa, and we're wondering if she's getting paid enough to be worth it.

We met Isabell on Monday. She's a German woman in her late 20s who works and sleeps on the farm during weekdays. She studied in Canada and her English is nearly flawless. She's been working here for the last couple of weeks, and she told us that Owen is 'not always friendly, but that's how he gets things done.' Marine mentioned her last night and emphasized how nice she was and that we'd like her. As we chatted through the doorway of our room it struck me that there was something not quite genuine about her smile. She's always smiling, but I think it's often one of those awkward, uncomfortable smiles.

At tea-time there are always cookies, and today the farmer was teasing Marine about a Tim-Tam (a yummy Aussie chocolate covered cookie). She wanted one, but she wanted to save it for later, after a bit of back and forth he took it from her and told her she had to either 'eat it now or not at all. That how it's done in Australia.' It seemed like it was just a bit of friendly teasing, but when she turned her head away there were tears in her eyes. I think the problem is just that he never lets up, to the point that she doesn't know whether she's coming or going. Another time we were chatting at the table after lunch, he walked back in the room and Marine quickly stood up, obviously because she's uncomfortable around him. He put his hand on her shoulder and pushed her back down somewhat forcefully saying, 'you were talking, finish what you were saying.'

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I was working near Marine in the orchard this afternoon and I asked her if she was getting paid enough for it to be worth it, as she's not here in a volunteer capacity. She said that she's getting paid $200/week plus room and board, but that another girl who worked on the farm left for a job that pays $22/hour. I told her that she should definitely look for another position. She thanked me profusely like usual. I've told her that she's much too polite. She mentioned that she was having trouble sending emails and keeping in touch with friends and family back home as she was told that it's too expensive.
Wednesday was kind of a weird day. There was a smell of death in the air in the area in back of the farmhouse, and then Mindy showed up smelling like death... she's not getting any lovin' now! Samantha and I were doing some thinning of pears in the north of the orchard and noticed a dead chicken up against a tree. We heard a gunshot somewhere relatively close by, and a bit later we noticed a dead cockatoo up in the tree close to where we were working. When I mentioned the chicken and the cockatoo, he said he was aware of the chicken and that the cockatoo had 'gotten in the way... of a bullet.' Cockatoos are a pest in parts of Australia, and he said a single one can and will pluck 100 fruit in about five minutes. He said they're pretty smart though, so if you kill one, the others will stay away for a while. Not sure if we approve, but it's not our decision. Eventually, we figured out what the smell of death was when we saw Mindy carrying around a tail from what must have been a relatively large kangaroo. 

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It was disgusting, with a fresh, soft looking pelt and several vertebraes hanging out providing a nice place for Mindy to carry it from. She was really proud of it of course.

We did discovered that the wifi signal is great up in the sheep 'paddock' on the hill -haha! Not a practical place to get work done, but we're talking about taking chairs up there in the evenings and working among the sheep. Sounds like an office from Monty Python's Flying Circus.

So, things are becoming clear to us. Friday came and before Isabell left to head back to Canberra, she told us to watch out for Marine. She got the farmer to agree to let her take Marine to town to go swimming this afternoon, and Marine opened up to her about what's been going on. Basically, it amounts to sexual harassment. Isabell said that she and her boyfriend Rogan “are working on a plan”, but that we need to look out for Marine and basically protect her. He'll be taking the three of us to Canberra Sunday to see Parliament House. Isabell is going to meet us there.

We pulled Marine aside and told her that she has friends, and that if she needs any help we're right here with her. She's obviously frightened of the farmer – she looked around as if he might be right around the corner listening and said in her broken English, that 'on Sunday when we're alone, I'll explain to you.'

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Saturday evening and it's been drizzling since early afternoon, so no work. We're spending the evening hanging out in Marine's room watching episodes of Big Bang Theory that she has on her hard-drive. Ok, maybe it's not such a horrible show after all. The farmer stuck his head in to ask if Marine had turned the fertilized chicken eggs recently. They need to be turned at least 4 times a day in the incubator if there's to be a chance of them hatching healthy chicks.  'About 10 minutes ago', Samantha said as Marine stumbled over her words. He walked away and then stuck his head back in a moment later and grabbed a vase of flowers off the floor, saying 'We wouldn't want this to get knocked over!' It was a really fake excuse to come back in, and it really felt like he was invading a space that we'd created for ourselves that he doesn't belong in. He was obviously just looking for an excuse to find out what we're doing in here.

Well I guess tomorrow we'll find out what the plan of action is.

Samantha Chappell