MADEC recently caught up with Dennis while working in Coffs Harbour at a berry packing shed and berry collection store.  We wanted to hear about Dennis’ experience transitioning from previous employment which he held for 15 years and then moved into horticulture work.  Dennis has lived in Coffs Harbour for 20 years and came across an advert for blueberry picking.  Dennis had heard of the concept of Harvest Trail Services but had never experienced it before.  Dennis found the berry picking position via the Jobsearch Harvest Trail website.

What horticulture work have you completed previously?

I have never done any type of horticulture work before, this was my first experience. I had worked on my brother’s farm over the last 12 months while transitioning from my previous job of 15 years, just helping with the horses and general maintenance. So when I applied for a job with MADEC Harvest Trail Services, I was put forward to a blueberry picking job, and was advised that packing shed jobs would become available later in the season.

Were you paid on a piece rate or hourly rate? If piece rate, how did you find working on piece rate?

It was on piece rate. Look, it was the first time I’d ever done picking and I’m not ashamed to say that I was slow. So when you’re new, it is hard to make money. But I got faster as the week went on with more experience.  When I moved to a different role I was on hourly rate.

How did you find the working conditions?

Out on the farms wasn’t too bad, it’s a lot of time on your feet and you’re out in all types of weather.  Then when I moved to the packing shed, the first thing that struck me was how immaculately clean it was. I’d never worked in food processing before, my previous job was concrete blocks, so this place was so different. I understand the process of running a pack-shed so it wasn’t too different from what I was expecting, but, state of the art machinery!!  It was really impressive. Another job came up in the drop off centre on the north side of Coffs Harbour after a few weeks and I put my hand up for that as it involved forklift driving and I have my forklift licence. So I’m now working up there, and it’s different again. But I love the processes of it all, everything just makes sense.

Is there anything that you have done that you didn’t expect to do?

I’ll be honest, having been out of work for 12 months, my goal was to just get my foot in the door. Once I had done that in the pack-shed, I made sure I worked hard and was enthusiastic and then I got the opportunity to drive a forklift in Woolgoolga at the drop off centre. Its more hours and more money so it’s exactly what I was after so I keep putting my hand up.

Is the work harder or what you expected it to be?

The work is pretty much what I was expecting. When I was in the pack-shed I got to rotate around different tasks of the packing machines. I did fruit tipping where you empty trays of fruit onto the conveyer belt and do some initial quality checking.   I also worked at the end of the line stacking pallets, and I also put packed punnets into the box trays. I found that quite hard as you had to be really fast otherwise there’s a backlog and the punnets get jammed. You don’t want to be responsible for the machine breaking down! Again, the more you do it, the faster you get.

In Woolgoolga at the drop off centre, I’m on receivables, so I wait for the growers to arrive with the berries they’ve picked that day.  I tag them, pick them up onto the forklift and take them into a cool-room. Then head back and wait for the next grower. At the end of the day we load the trucks with all the berries and it heads off to the pack-shed. One of the harder parts of the job is working with computers as we have to track and trace all the fruit that comes in. I struggle a bit with computers so I use a log book and manually keep track of things before working with a colleague or team leader to get the data into the computer when we get a break.

What has been your best experience?

Probably the team in Woolgoolga and who I get to work with. It’s a small crew but we all get along. Then the support and training I get from my Supervisor and Manager has been amazing as well. They’ve given me a chance and I hope I’m doing a good job for them as I love working here.  I’m enjoying working in horticulture, I know the blueberry industry in Coffs Harbour is big and will continue to grow so it’s good to be a part of it.

What advice would you give other jobseekers about doing horticulture work?

I’d just say don’t be afraid to have a go at anything. You don’t know until you’ve tried. I understand that certain jobs are for certain people, but give it a go and see where it gets you. Picking the phone up to call MADEC Harvest Trail Services for a picking job on a farm has ended up seeing me driving a forklift in a town close to home doing good hours, earning good money. It makes a big difference to my life and wellbeing.

Would you stay in horticulture beyond this harvest season?

The next goal I’ve set for myself is to become permanent. I’d love to stay at OzGroup but if that chance doesn’t come up then the experience has given me confidence and self-esteem to apply for another job. I need consistent work so hopefully this is a stepping stone towards my goal.

How was your experience finding a job through MADEC HTS and how could we improve our servicing?

I found the process extremely smooth and easy, nothing was too hard. I completed the necessary Inductions and received all the relevant information from MADEC so I was well prepared before I started. Since commencing work I have really appreciated the follow-ups conversations with MADEC and it’s been nice to share my story with others along the way.