My father planted his first commercial crop of beans on our farm near Ulverstone on the north-west coast of Tasmania, in 1958. Initially we grew just a couple of acres, without the benefit of irrigation. We picked the crop four or five times over, struggling to fill our cannery quota and remain eligible for a contract the following year. The whole family shared a feeling of despair when the final few bags were rejected as being past peak condition. At first we tried to hand sort them, but it was hopeless. In the end we simply re-bagged them and tried again. Miraculously they were accepted, and we achieved our quota by the slimmest of margins.
In those early days, picking the beans was entirely a family affair. Mum went to help every morning, as soon as the beds were made and the washing up done. She left the paddock hours later, and only to ensure that the house was clean and her family fed. Dad picked between milking the cows and doing general farm work. We kids, then aged from seven to ten, helped after school and at weekends. We were paid a shilling (1o cents) a bucket. I was the seven year old, guilty of standing the last layer of beans on their ends to make a skimpy bucket pass as full!
Eventually my father invested in an irrigation scheme, powered by a tractor pumping water from the farm dams. By this time I was old enough to help carry the pipes. We lugged them from crop to crop, sometimes across a big gravel pit. They were difficult to balance, and quickest way to incur Dad’s wrath was to let the sprinkler end hit the ground. Once in the new paddock we changed their position every couple of hours, our progress slowed by clumps of mud forming on our gumboots.
While helping Dad one evening, he left me to link up the final few pipes while he went to turn on the tractor. Alas, I failed to insert the end plug properly. When the full force of water hit, it blew! A jet of water 12cm in diameter shot out and in my panic I tried to force the wretched thing back in. Oh my word, it was like trying to hold back Niagara Falls with a fence paling. I was drenched, and muddy water filled my gumboots. A river formed, coursing down the hill taking soil and uprooted bean plants with it. It was too dark to signal Dad, and impossible to make him hear over the tractor, By the time he appeared a lot of damage had been done…and he still had to charge back to shut off the engine. Surprisingly, no harsh words were uttered over this incident. Dad said I looked so pathetic he felt sorry for me.
With a reliable supply of water our crops flourished, but so did the weeds. I swear we grew the best Fat Hen (Chenopodiaceae) in Tasmania. Many years later I discovered that Fat Hen is quite palatable. It is used in French cuisine, lightly steamed and buttered. If only we’d know we could have hoed out the beans and harvested the weeds!
One hoeing was never enough. By the time we had been through the crop a couple of times Dad was using psychology to keep our spirits up; ‘I reckon one more light go will do it.’ We believed him, because the alternative was too depressing to contemplate.
Our acreage increased to the point that we need outside pickers. They were paid the going rate of threepence a pound, and we kids immediately demanded the same! Initially we relied on a small band of neighbouring farmers wives and their offspring, but eventually we had to advertise in the local paper. Married women and the unemployed formed the bulk of the workforce. Some worked all season, others lasted a couple of hours. You could pick the ‘stayers’ from the start. They arrived by eight o’clock, dressed in long sleeved shirts and wide brimmed hats. The others bowled up at half past ten, wearing thongs and shorts and carrying blaring transistor radios. My father’s body tensed at the sight of them.
Thermos flasks and picnic baskets formed a haphazard row along the fence as the day began. In many ways it was enjoyable work. Women had a legitimate excuse to escape the daily grind of housework. The extra money was welcome, and they loved the opportunity to laugh and joke together. There was always a prankster ready to hide a rubber snake in a bean bush, or to slip a frog into someone’s bucket. A curious intimacy developed as we worked side by side; heads down, bottoms up. We sheltered country folk were often startled by admissions from more worldly ‘townies’. I remember hearing tragic stories of domestic violence and alcoholism, and of the demoralizing effects of long term unemployment.
There was an inspiring display of community spirit during the tragic Tasmanian bush fires of 1967. Local growers donated a truckload of bean to the victims, and pickers provided their services free.
Naturally, the biggest gripe about bean picking was the ghastly backaches. We moaned cheerfully about them day after day. Some of the older pickers were never free of pain. You could stand up to ease your back, but that meant suffering the fresh agony of bending again. The work was also very tiring. By late afternoon you might spot someone staring into the distance with glazed eyes; chewing on a bean. Eating raw beans was the ultimate sign of weariness.
Weighing-up time was exciting. Would that last, well filled hessian bag be a sixty pounder? Would Mrs Lehman finally beat Mrs Dobson in the daily tally?
Cheques were traditionally distributed at the end of the season. While I was at primary school I bought a bike and a gold watch with my money . My siblings and I once pooled our resources to purchase a bound set of 15 classic English novels. Those books provided my introduction to the wonderful Charles Dickens, and the Bronte sisters. At a very young age I became a champion picker in the district ….my sole claim to fame! After I left school and started work I picked beans during my holidays, putting the cash toward my first car and a working holiday overseas.
The backaches, the flies, and the miserable wet days were hard to take. However, I’ll bet there were few of us who did not feel a pang of regret when mechanized harvesters made us redundant
NB – Special thanks to Leonie Andrews for allowing me to use the two photographs from the Rowe Collection.
Here’s another piece about my upbringing in Ulverstone.
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