I almost left the farm.
I want to be free and drive south to Taupo, with her beautiful lake and mountains, or some quaint coastal town. Everyone else is traveling around the country and having fun and I’m slaving away on a farm communicating with one human and 200-something cows and 30-something calves. I want to go skiing. I want to live at a hostel. Work at a cafe. Meet new and exciting people. I want to drive my van around the countryside and sleep in the back. No Internet, read books. Go on adventures. Go tramping. Get into silly situations. Drift and create the stuff from which stories are made.
After a day of traveling and facing strange encounters, I immediately feel the need to write and it flows out effortlessly. They are novel and interesting, I think, but the best stories take patience. Some stories evolve and get better with time, like chili in a crockpot. Maybe your feelings change. Maybe you develop a new perspective. Some stories never end.
I wanted to leave the farm because I felt like a burden. When I first met Digger, he didn’t want to hire me. This story started when I met Jeremy…
I stayed at a hostel for my last month or so in Australia. I had moved out of my flat and needed an easy place to stay until my visa expired. The receptionist recognized me from the Wide Open Space music festival and knew I was “cool.”
I’ll put you with Jeremy,” she says as she looks at the hostel notebook.
I get my key and enter a dark room with a small TV playing Spiderman on DVD. There are three bunk beds covered in dirty sheets, candy wrappers, empty coke bottles, and one outline of a human body underneath a blanket.
I hear a raspy, cigarette voice come from the top bunk in the corner.
“Hey, bro. I’m Jeremy.”
I set my bags on the bottom bunk bed on the opposite side of the room and introduce myself. I tell him I’ve been living in Alice for about 11 months, just came back from a three-week road trip to Adelaide and Melbourne, and I’m going to New Zealand soon.
He slowly lifts his fist into the air and says, “New Zealand,” with as much enthusiasm as his hangover can handle.
Jeremy works at the hostel as the maintenance guy. His job consists of fixing shower heads and repairing the table he broke last night when he was on the piss. He can usually be found around the hostel, barefoot and shirtless in the desert sun wearing raggedy denim shorts with a black peace sign bandana holding up his unwashed blonde surfer hair. Just yell his name and you will probably hear a response. He walks tall on the balls of his feet with his chest puffed out. And he is loud. Very loud.
When I come back from work and step out of my ute I hear his booming voice greet me from the other side of the hostel.
I wave because I’m too soft-spoken to yell across the hostel courtyard.
I’m not sure where the desire came from, but something told me I should work on a dairy farm in New Zealand. I didn’t know why or how, but that was my goal. Luckily, there are heaps of Kiwis in Alice Springs. They are drawn to the easy lifestyle and high wages. I had been talking to Jeremy and Matt, both from the Waikato, about farming in New Zealand.
Don’t work for an Indian,” Matt advises me.
They tell me I’m coming at the perfect time — late June — because the farm season begins on June 1 so everyone will be looking for help. They say some farmers prefer hiring new workers because they don’t have any bad habits. They say it’s easy to find a job. They say to expect a weekly salary of about $800, free accommodation and a freezer full of meat if the farmer kills a beast.
It seemed like a great gig, almost too good to be true.
I asked Jeremy if he could help me find a job on a dairy farm. He is from Matamata, right in the middle of some of the best farmland in the world. The next morning he tells me he called his old lady and she said I have a job starting on June 31. That would give me 10 days after I fly into Auckland to buy a car and make my way to the farm.
Once I made it to New Zealand and talked to his Mum, I found out he lied and there was no dream job waiting for me.
I thought I would have to try something else and give up on my farming pipe dream. The dairy payout in New Zealand is the lowest in ten years and most farmers are set to lose at least a quarter of a million dollars this year. Farmers are culling their animals, laying off workers, and not spending any money. That means no one wants to hire a completely inexperienced American guy who used to work in sterilized Washington, D.C. offices and tourist town bars in Australia.
Jeremy’s parents let me stay in his bedroom for a few days while I figure out my next step. On my second night they invited Digger, one of Jeremy’s best mates, over for dinner. He seemed like a very genuine guy. I told him my situation. He said he couldn’t hire me. He has been on his farm for less than a month and he doesn’t have a budget for me. I told him I’m looking into WWOOFing and willing to work for free. I just want experience.
Digger decided to give me a chance. The next morning he picked me up and we drafted his cows. The next day I put up a fence. The next day we lit some big bonfires and I took the thin foam mattress out of my van and onto the floor of one of the four empty bedrooms in his cold house.
For the first few weeks it was easy work and I would come and go as I pleased. Preparing the farm for calving, fixing fences, readying the milking shed. I was learning something new every day and I enjoyed being outdoors in the beautiful Waikato.
Once calving started, he said, “Well, I guess I should start paying you.”
Now we were talking hours and pay and everything was confusing. I didn’t want to be a burden and every time I fucked up and dropped a tape gate or let a cow escape I felt like I should be paying him for lost time.
He said he likes working alone because if something goes wrong he only blames himself. I could tell when he didn’t want me around.
I would work with Digger during the week but he said he would quiet happily work alone on the weekends. So I would sit in my cold room and smoke and watch movies and TV shows and browse inane travel blogs, not understanding how something so trivial and boring could muster 400 followers and 20 likes on every post. Just because you are somewhere noteworthy, doesn’t make your 200 word listicle post noteworthy. I would search for the bloggers who write with passion, who actually have something to say besides the best place to get a coffee in Queenstown.
I am happier when I’m on the farm, but the new rules about money and time relegated me to only being needed at certain hours. It’s a strange relationship having your boss, roommate, workmate and friend all rolled into one. It takes time to get a feel for how to communicate with each other.
After being in a funk all weekend, I perform my morning tractor duties and when I return to the farm Digger drives up and skips the greeting and says a heifer jumped a fence and can you stand here and be on traffic control duty. My mood immediately picks up and I remember that I have a place here and everything is right with the world.
I’ve realized that Digger and I both like having our own space and being alone, but we need each other. It’s getting busy now so there is always work to do. I am more confident and independent and we know how to work with each other. Digger can go into town to buy Mastitis drugs and I can milk the first two rows myself and hopefully not fuck anything up.
I can’t believe I wanted to leave this place just a few days ago. I love being here. I did so much badass shit today. I drove a tractor down the highway with a full load of silage. I taught two newborn calves how to drink and fed eight buckets of milk to the heifer calves. I shoveled soiled sawdust from the calf pens into the bucket on the tractor and then changed to the forklift to dump the rubbish bins into the trash pile. I rode a two-wheeler around the farm and chased cows and set up temporary fences. I got poo flung in my eye. My finger was caught between a cow and a metal bar. A cow kicked my arm into a beam. A cow stood on my toes while I was wrestling her back through the gate with her head in my arms grimacing, “Fuck you, cunt,” through my teeth. I’m sore and I’m tired but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This story isn’t over yet. I can’t just cut a story short because of a brief period of doubt. I have to see it through. It’s OK to be uneasy. It’s ok to have that feeling in the pit of your stomach that makes you want to move on and leave everything behind. I always want to travel and drift, but right now my place is here on the farm.
There is no right time to write. Everyday I become a new person. Sometimes I read back on what I wrote in my journal last year and I wonder how I ever thought these thoughts. I think that is the purpose of writing. To make yourself immortal for a day. Maybe there is no write time, it’s just right all the time.