Surf & Blueberries
An Australian tourism icon, the Big Banana, sits prominently beside the Pacific Highway at Coffs Harbour on the Northern NSW coast. Built in 1964 to attract attention to a farmer’s roadside stall, it lays claim to being Australia’s first ‘big thing’ and was indicative of the dominance of the banana industry in the region at the time.
Being the only location in NSW where the Great Dividing Range meets the sea, the surrounding hilly countryside has proven to be more viable for berries than bananas in the modern context.
As a major regional centre Coffs, as it is locally known, is home to over 75,000 residents and continues to steadily grow, with an almost 25% population increase expected in the next 15 years.
With a mild winter climate the district has long been popular with tourists who are serviced by a large number of motels, B&B’s, guest houses and caravan parks. Many grey nomads pause for a few days, weeks or even months in their caravans and RVs. Younger travellers attracted by nearby surf beaches, particularly at Sawtell, and are more likely to stay in one of several backpacker hostels.
Blue is the new black
About 25km to the north of Coffs is the community of Woolgoolga which features an impressive Sikh Temple established in 1968. The horticulture industry surrounding Woolgoolga has a proud ethnic Indian tradition. Although Punjabi is still spoken in some homes, most of the local population are at least third or fourth generation Australian and many have been key in the development of the blueberry industry in the region.
Just another 15km further north is the large Berry Exchange farm owned by the Costa Group. This farm uses techniques to manipulate the harvest timing of raspberries and blackberries to complement the period when blueberries are out of season so they can produce fruit all year round. Needing well over one thousand workers during their peak, the requirement for seasonal workers is very high.
Bananas and berries are not the whole story of horticulture in the region surrounding Coffs Harbour. Avocados and macadamias are also grown, along with some vegetables.
Work and pleasure
To help coordinate farm jobs or anyone looking for seasonal work is the responsibility of the Harvest Trail Service which is funded by the Australian Government. The Moonee Street office is manned by local staff who have relationships with hostels, farms and other stakeholders servicing the horticulture industry. They will put workers in touch with farm employers and there is no cost for either workers or farmers to use the service. The office receives support nationally from Harvest Trail Information Service which is ideal for anyone seeking to move to work in a different region.
For many young people it is the surfing lifestyle along the Northern NSW coast that is the big drawcard. And with plenty of seasonal work to top up the bank account while in the district, it is no wonder it is popular with young Aussies and international backpackers alike. Some young people move to the area excited by a daily routine of an early morning surf then only a short drive to work on a nearby farm.
Establishments like the Hoey Moey, a hotel and backpacker hostel rolled into one, cater for these young travellers very well, providing both budget accommodation and a party atmosphere. If work rather than play is the priority, the Aussitel hostel has developed a working relationship with the Harvest Office and may even be able to provide transport to the farms – ideal for the many guests who don’t have their own car. YHA Coffs Harbour also has a hostel with a range of accommodation options as well as providing their national and international links.
As much work as you want
Blueberry picking is very labour intensive and many seasonal workers are needed during spring and through most of summer. The pandemic has hurt this industry badly with a shortage of pickers becoming the norm during the 2020 harvest. Workers have been offered longer hours than usual to try to get all fruit picked in time. In some cases picking piecework rates have been increased to attract workers, and even bonuses offered to entice them to remain for the entire season.
Social media is a great resource to find out which farm employers have a good reputation. Posts may direct where workers choose to offer their labour, which is in demand.
Don’t miss out – book now
With COVID-19 having depleted the supply of young international visitors, some accommodation providers as well as farms have been impacted heavily. Hostels have had many empty beds as backpackers have left Australia in droves, and health restrictions have limited the shared nature of hostel accommodation. However, as restrictions have eased and the peak summer holiday period approaches, bed bookings are filling fast and expected to be at capacity well before Christmas.
Once school holidays start and remaining accommodation options are filled, a shortage of beds is likely to be critical so those who get in early will be in the best position. Berry picking work will continue into the New Year.
Coffs Harbour is a thriving place, popular with tourists and seasonal workers alike. Although this year has had a different buzz and 2020 has been a challenging year for some – challenges always bring opportunities.