This was my only job in South Island, and I lasted for two to three weeks before the “Holiday” part of my working holiday actually started officially. When I say I “lasted”, it was because it has been a really arduous journey. You’ll see why as you read on.
Where was I?
My job was located in Ashburton, a little town an hour away from Christchurch. Somehow, we managed to settle our accommodation very quickly and got ready for work in no time at all. We found a place that was really cheap, but we had to share a room with two other guys. I was with two other female friends then and we initially felt uncomfortable with the idea of sharing.
However, the landlord suggested drawing a large curtain down the middle of the room for that bit of privacy. Immediately after we’ve set it up, this was how it looks on our side of the room and that set-up instantly made us feel so much better!
We eventually got really comfortable in it and spent countless nights chatting at the edge of our beds and planning for our holiday before calling it a day. It also helped that our work schedules were entirely opposite with the guys on the other side too. While we worked from 6am to 6pm, they worked the night shift that literally ends at the time we wake up for our next day. It seems like we had the rooms to ourselves at each point in time!
How a Potato Grader works
If you read my story as a blueberry grader, you might think being a potato grader maybe be somewhat similar. That’s what I thought too initially. Me freezing by a grading machine in an 8 degree celsius packhouse, and running my fingers through little cold blueberries.
This, was a whole new level.
Instead of a stationary packhouse, we’re now grading high up on a harvesting machine that’s constantly moving across the fields. While the machine harvests and sends potatoes upwards towards the grading area where we stand, a huge container truck follows us beside to collect the potatoes. Once it is filled up, it gets sent off directly to factories for processing.
This job was so tough it made me doubt myself really hard for leaving my comfortable job back at home. Although I was working 10 to 12 hours a day in the office then too, at least I was comfortable. This just pushed me to my limits every day, both physically and mentally. Here’s why.
1. 7-day work week, 12-hour shifts
Being a potato grader means a 7-days work week. We did not realise we had to report for work everyday until our first day of work. Initially, it sounded like a good idea as I could earn more money to fund the remaining of my travels. However, when I got to the third day or so, I was so desperate to rest that I told myself I can totally make do without that extra money.
Eventually, I still held on and that’s why I still have a story to share.
Life was purely tough. We worked 12-hour shifts each day, from 6am to 6pm. This means we had to wake up at 4.30am to have breakfast since we will not be able to eat until lunchtime.
Also, the drive to the potato field takes up to 30 minutes, so sadly, that means lesser sleep too. This was typically how the sky looked like when we drive out every morning, literally nothing but darkness. The only light I could see was my headlights as I drove on. We eventually started sleeping at 9pm and waking up at 4am just to clock in enough hours of rest.
Why 12 hours?
Did you know that potato harvesting is a race against time? Potatoes that are ready for harvesting also means it would rot really quickly if they are not harvested fast enough. Hence, to maximise their harvest, the machine ran as much as it could throughout the 24 hours in a day.
With non-stop harvesting also means non-stop grading. We had two teams working 12-hour shifts each day and I’m glad we were in the 6am to 6pm shift. This was because of the amazing sunrise that we saw every morning welcoming us that never fails to put a smile on our faces each time!
Each morning when we arrive, it is freezing cold and can get as low as 5 degrees Celsius. Although it gets warm when the sun starts rising towards the afternoon, our morning is usually painful because of that terrible cold wind in our faces with nowhere for us to hide. I really cannot imagine how cold it is for the team who works overnight because it will only remain cold throughout their 12 hours of work. I wonder if that’s why they had a full-men team for that shift…
In any case, I was always excited to see the other team because that means the end of work for me! We’ll have an exchange of high-fives before leaving the spot we have stood by for the past 12 hours. That high-five felt SO GREAT, honestly, I can even remember that feeling till today.
During that 12-hour shift, we had really short breaks. There was officially only a 30-minute lunch break. OH MY!!!!!! Maybe it’s just me, but this was really really tough. I think my slow eating made things worse and I felt stressed having to rush through my food to make it in time. I was just stuffing my food in on the first day, but eventually I learnt to adapt by just packing smaller lunches. There was one day I even forgot my lunch in the refrigerator, can you imagine!!!!!
We also kept our toilet breaks in between to a minimum as the nearest toilet was at least a 5 minutes drive away. Since the round trip would take a total of 15 minutes, we took the liberty to enjoy this unofficial 15-minutes break each day. This really taught me to not take anything for granted and learn to appreciate the tiny joys in life.
3. Situation on the harvester
So the situation on the harvester wasn’t the best working environment too. We had to cover ourselves in a N95 mask and goggles for as long as we were on the machine. That’s at least 11 hours.
The reason for covering up is because all that crazy digging of potatoes by the harvester made so much dust and soil fly up into the atmosphere around us. We usually end a day of work under a layer of soil and dust particles on every inch of our body.
Also, it was dangerous to be high up on a moving vehicle with no safety gate or equivalent. We were standing on metal planks that allowed us to see what was going on below us and it’s wow, messy.
The space we had was really small too. There was no space to sit or rest our tired bodies at any point in time. We ended up being so mentally drained at the end of the day as we were permanently on our guard for that sudden jerk when the harvester stops or moves off.
3. Grading potatoes? Or not?
Initially what I thought a potato grader does is to determine if the potatoes harvested made the cut to be sent to a factory. Maybe it was looking to see if it was large enough or beautiful enough to be sold. However, grading in their terms was somewhat different. Instead of looking for large and beautiful potatoes, I was looking for stones, rocks, soil chunk to pick out from the grading line.
Each stone, rock or soil chunk was huge and heavy! I felt like I was engaged in a 10-hours workout of lifting 1kg or more over my shoulders. In addition, I had to challenge myself at each lift to give the “weight” a strong push to throw it onto the field outside the harvester. The first day was still alright and the aches were bearable. However, three days into this routine and that body just did not feel like it was mine anymore. Just imagine yourself working out at a gym for 11 hours straight using the same muscles, with that ache building up on the same spot day after day. Horrible isn’t it?
The grading line also moved so quickly that we could not afford to blink our eyes or even take a little break while it moves. I couldn’t decide if my eyes or my body was more tired out from the day’s work.
Present from the birds
We were harvesting from a portion of the field when a load of the crops included carrots, pumpkins and radishes. Look at how pretty and fat they were! However, just because they were not potatoes, we had to remove them from the grading line and throw it away! My friends and I then brought it back instead and had it for dinner for at least an entire week.
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