Picking beans- hard work, but companionable and  yes''' good fun!
Bean picking – hard work, but companionable and yes… good fun! (Rowe Collection)

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.

Beans almost ready to pick,  circa 1963. The gravel pit is  in the distance, RHS.
Beans almost ready to pick, circa 1963. The gravel pit is in the distance, RHS.


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!

Fat Hen...Delicious!
Fat Hen…Delicious!

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.

Oh my aching back! Picking beans was hard on the back.
Oh my aching back!

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?

Ready for the weigh-in  of the beans. (Rowe Collection)
Ready for the weigh-in. (Rowe Collection)

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.



  1. Pauline,
    Your family didn’t have a life of leisure but you worked as a family. Farmers had good times and bad but drought was one of the hardest, or having a disease in the crops. But, I loved my up-bringing on a farm. Ours was a sugar cane farm but we had to have a milking cow, hens and ducks. We lived on the banks of a salt water river and so we ate plenty of fish, prawns and crabs. Our food was mainly organic. Oh, what bliss. The flavor in our food was delicious.
    I enjoy your blogs, very much. Have you had a chance to check out my latest book on Amazon? It’s title is ‘Golden Promise’ . You can find the information on AuthorCentralPage of Heather Whipp. I think I mentioned it before.

    • Pauline

      Oh my word Heather, your childhood diet must have been superb. Our was too, except for those wonderful prawns and crabs you had. I don’t remember you mentioning Golden Promise but have since looked it up. Sounds really interesting, especially for someone like me with convicts in my family. How about writing a guest blog for my website to help promote it?

  2. Pauli, what a beautiful story, I loved it and could relate to all the incidents (even the irrigation mishap), I remember it would be about this time ofyear and getting very cold, having still to irrigate and hands freezing from the late afternoon cold and the morning frosts. Thankyou for sharing it.

    • Pauline

      Hi Josie, thanks for taking the trouble to leave a comment. I hated irrigation pipes. Glad I had left home before we started growing the winter crop of broccoli! Loved the camaraderie of the bean picking. You don’t really appreciate the great things about your childhood until you’ve grown up.

  3. Hi Pauline,
    I enjoyed your story of a lifestyle fast disappearing. It sounded like hard but enjoyable work. I had to help out in my parent’s grocery store but it was quite a walk in the park in comparison, and there was always the lolly jars to sample.

    • Pauline

      Wow Christine, I so envied kids whose parents owned shops, especially ones selling lollies!!

  4. A great blog, Pauline – especially interesting to one who grew up in a small West Yorkshire town. Your experience puts my childhood trials in the shade. We complained about the winds whistling over the Pennines – and my first, quite enjoyable job, was working in Woolworth’s in the summer holidays! I take my hat off to you.

    • Pauline

      Yes, well I guess it was hard work Ann, but also a very privileged upbringing in many ways. Fantastic, fresh food and all the wonders of rural life, such as hay making. No wonder I love Thomas Hardy.

  5. My word Pauline, I shall look at you from now on with a completely different perspective! ‘A tiller of the soil.’ How wonderful to have these memories to draw on, and I understand why you empathise so deeply with Thomas Hardy. I am assuming these beans were what we now call bush beans, as opposed to french beans, which are one of life’s pleasures to walk among and pick in our very modern garden.

    Thanks for lovely blog.

    • Pauline

      Hi Annabelle, yes….bush beans for the cannery. Dr Bob is hesitant to buy fresh beans, because I am always so critical re their quality!

  6. Lovely reading your stories. I remember my mum Margaret Russell and her neighbour Daisy chatwin going bean picking in the early sixties. Mum was a separated parent and the pension wasn’t a lot those days. She used to come home and tell us the stories of the day and how fast she could pick beans. I also remember her picking up a cheque at the end of the season hoping she could go for a trip to Melbourne to see her brother but she hadn’t picked as fast as she had thought. She is long gone now but Daisy is still alive as far as I know …

    • Pauline

      Thanks for leaving a comment, Dianne. I loved the fun and friendship of bean picking, as I’m sure your Mum did too. It was hard work, but very rewarding. It’s the only thing I was ever really good at!

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