People – especially colleagues – think this idea is mad. Why would you not want to relax on your annual leave? Lie on a beach? Actually travel around Greece, Italy or France – rather than be stuck on a farm somewhere in a rural backwater?
I can think of hundreds of reasons. Physical work is exhausting – meaning you sleep better – meaning you actually relax from the last 11 months at your desk job. You’re in tune with the weather and you’re standing up using your body. You learn in depth about one side of agriculture and farming practices… the challenges and rewards of the farmer and the workers. You learn about the life-cycle of the olive tree, of varieties, grafting and pruning, irrigation and pest control – the debate of organic vs non-organic. You learn to be a better consumer – knowing what makes a quality olive or oil. In a foreign country, you learn about the link between farming and the area’s culture and practices. You learn about people and language and meet people who are not university educated and have never worked in a corporation. Sure, as a tourist in these places you get a sense of this – but I want to experience it in full. But the main reason is because I like olives and I love olive oil.
Now – I’m not after the money. I’m not doing this to earn a bit extra in time off. If that is a side-effect, fantastic. But I’d rather work in return for free accommodation and a couple of meals. And if it was a small farm somewhere in Greece, Italy or France, with a grandma that cooks traditional meals – that would be ideal. It would add a whole new dimension to simply picking fruit. Mealtime conversations in a foreign language. Cooking and cuisine and customs. Home-made classics that tourists can never buy in a seaside resort restaurant. And – hopefully – lifetime friends with new people.
Now this all sounds very nice and idealistic, the sort of deskside daydream, induced by the driest of meetings and conference calls. But I’ve done this before (well, not the family meals, and not in a foreign country, but close enough). A few years ago, I organised three weeks leave and jumped in the car with my flatmate to go and pick cherries in New South Wales. We worked almost every day – rising at 6 am for a 7 am start, working through until 2 pm… Monday to Sunday. Early afternoon finishes meant I had plenty of time to read in the shade of a cherry tree – three books in three weeks, not bad for someone who never reads. We met people who do this work for a living – constantly travelling with the seasons, and three months a year to relax: what the rat race dreams of. We met professional, very experienced pickers earning hundreds of dollars every day. I learnt that there are 160+ varieties of cherries, and picked and tasted all the common ones – I still recognise these in Australian supermarkets today. I learnt how trees are grown, why there are variations in fruit from season to season, the challenges for Australian cherry exports competing with Chile and Argentina, the difficulties of getting apiarists for pollination. And I came back to my desk job, against all odds, 100% refreshed – ready for another year.
In fact, I enjoyed the experience so much, I went back to the cherries for another year. Worked in a winery in South Australia. Picked citrus in Queensland. Adding to travel funds before my relocation to the UK – all the while travelling, learning and experiencing my home country before departing it.
I want to pick olives.