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A wide angle photograph of a line of workers picking fruit from rows of grapevines.

Image: Matthias Mitterlehner, Unsplash

When I became a farm worker on a small-scale organic market garden, I thought I was taking the first step towards the rest of my life. From the beginning I loved this work unequivocally—the feeling of using my body, growing my muscles; the sun and the soil always on my skin; the joyful conversation and the meaning I took from growing food. I woke up early each work day with a sense of purpose.

I grew accustomed to early starts and long lazing lunches, to being filthy and wet and thirsty and hot, and to the deep satisfaction that rounded out these sensations; to rare bird sightings and the dance of earthworms. Over time, I found ways to manage the intense physical work alongside the demands of my ill body, a body compromised by the chronic pain of endometriosis. Bits of uterine tissue were growing where they shouldn’t, bringing monthly agony and daily discomfort. But I’d had surgery, was taking pills, and would not accept that I could be permanently unwell.

I farmed part-time, and on my days off I rested and recovered. I had a lifestyle that I felt could only support my health—always outside, always moving, and the fresh vegetables bursting with nutrients that I ate abundantly each day. I threw myself into the work, to prove that I was not limited after all. When my bones ached, I coaxed them on. When I was tired, I reminded myself that rest would come later. I felt I was living my values, took pride in the work. This job would be just the beginning; I imagined my future learning on different kinds of farms, and later, if I was lucky, on a farm of my own.

But all at once, it became too much. After two and a half years on the farm, my body’s protests reverberated as a roar. Each farm day depleted my energy beyond recovery. On the hottest summer days in the field, I struggled with the heaviness of the heat, the unending labour. I found I could barely think. Eventually, there was no choice but to leave, and when I finally did, I lay on the couch for almost a year, pushed over the edge of weariness and into chronic fatigue.

In the years since, I have thought endlessly about farming and health, and the ways they are entwined. I used to see a clear split between two systems of agriculture in this country: the mainstream, broad-scale, conventional system, exploiting land and workers to produce the cheapest food possible; and the alternative, small-scale, organic or regenerative system, which valued the soils and the workers above all, producing food that was expensive but of infinitely higher value to life and health.

But this division is simplistic.

Too many of my farming friends have burnt out of small-scale farming, their bodies and their finances pushed past their limits in the pursuit of an alternative farming business that is both regenerative and profitable. Within our current globalised and industrial food system, and even the pockets of it that serve wealthy foodies at farmers’ markets, too many costs are externalised.

Too many of my farming friends have burnt out of small-scale farming, their bodies and their finances pushed past their limits in the pursuit of a business that is both regenerative and profitable.

The low price of fresh food, while welcome for many households, does not reflect what it takes to grow it well, with respect for the land and the bodies that work it. Food isn’t cheap because the farmers are being subsidised to care for the soil or pay living wages. It’s cheap because corporations—fossil fuel companies, supermarket chains, meat processors—can maximise their profits by exploiting land, water, growers and workers. Throughout this system, it is health that loses out.

Furthermore, almost all farming in Australia takes place on stolen land; even in alternative farming circles, the reckoning with decolonisation is only just beginning. ‘I want people to stop treating us like children,’ says Oral McGuire, chair of Noongar Land Enterprise Group, in Gabrielle Chan’s Why You Should Give a F*ck About Farming. ‘We are the wisdom holders and we are the carers of everything. Allow us to be reinstated.’

I can no longer consider the impacts—positive and negative—of various farming methods on the health of soils, workers and eaters, without also questioning what it means for non-Indigenous farmers to apply them here in the first place, especially in the absence of treaty and truth-telling.


Even with my existing illness, I entered life as a farm worker from a position of great privilege. I have a science degree behind me, and with it a disillusionment with academia and a thirst for bodily living that led me out of university and into other kinds of work. The low pay was not a necessity but a choice I made, enabled by my partner’s wage as a mental health worker and the absence at the time of any caring responsibilities. My offer of employment at the market garden came after six months of weekly volunteering there, and six months of travelling and working for free on farms before that. I sought an agricultural vocation from passion and commitment, and as part of my learned narrative that I could do more or less whatever I wanted to with my life.

Undoubtedly, there is a proportion of agricultural workers—in mainstream as well as small-scale systems—who love the work, who are devoted to it in the same way I was, who weigh up the costs to their finances and their health and still choose to continue. But for many others, they toil because they must, borrowing against their own wellbeing in order to generate profit for their employers and the nation.

Almost a third of all farm workers in Australia are casual and contract workers, according to data from the Department of Agriculture. Of these workers, half are from overseas (not including workers from Aotearoa New Zealand). During peak harvest season in 2019, there were 69,000 foreign workers either on the Working Holiday Maker visa or participating in the government’s Seasonal Worker Program, which employs workers from nine Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste. The number of undocumented foreign workers who are employed precariously outside this system of visas is thought to be between 50,000 and 100,000. Without them, our food systems would likely crumble.

Though farming is increasingly mechanised, human bodies remain at its heart. And when we break, we are not so easily fixed.

While for many of these workers, seasonal or short-term farm work in Australia can represent a powerful opportunity to send money home, to start businesses or buy property, in recent years the widespread exploitation many overseas agricultural workers are subject to has come to light. Investigations by media, researchers and a series of parliamentary inquiries have uncovered practices that amount to modern slavery—including withholding or docking pay, housing workers in cramped and unhygienic conditions, and threatening arrest or deportation for raising their concerns. Exploitation has been found to be an ‘established norm’ in pockets of Australian horticulture, as described in a 2019 report from Joanna Howe and colleagues. Only after a 2021 Fair Work Commission ruling were harvest workers finally guaranteed a minimum wage.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the extent to which the Australian food system relies on underpaid labourers from other countries, as well as the vulnerability of supply chains when the flow of this labour force is interrupted. With the approach of the peak harvest season in the summer of 2020 and 2021 came a predicted shortfall of almost 30,000 agricultural workers. In September 2020, 163 workers from Vanuatu were granted exemptions to border restrictions in order to provide harvest labour on mango farms in the Northern Territory. At the same time, Australia’s domestic unemployment rate was projected to reach 10 per cent. Instead of addressing the economic forces that lead to the undervaluing of this essential labour, we choose to import workers whom we can more readily exploit.

As well as being underpaid and insecure, many farm workers are vulnerable to the long-term health repercussions of pesticide exposure, dangerous machinery and long hours in the elements. As summers grow longer and hotter with each year, the demands of labouring outside can become perilous. In my final summer at the market garden, it was the heat that my body found most difficult to bear. On every forty-plus degree day since, I have thought fretfully of the farmers—starting work at dawn to try and outrun the sun, the nauseating waves of heat that must wash over them as they step into the greenhouse, the exhilarating relief of lingering in the cool room while stacking crates of washed vegetables. In 2017, a Belgian backpacker collapsed from heat stress while working on a North Queensland watermelon farm, and subsequently died in hospital.

Though farming is increasingly mechanised, human bodies remain at its heart. And as much as industrialised capitalism would like it to be so, human bodies are not machines. When we break, we are not so easily fixed.


It is the physicality of farming that draws me in. No other work I’ve done has had me so aware of my body, the pleasure and the suffering of movement and being. Even so, before my body broke down I hadn’t realised that working yourself into the ground isn’t in itself admirable. I hadn’t considered that systems in agriculture should support workers’ wellbeing as much as in any other industry, and I thought that being a ‘hard worker’ meant pushing through, always. I valued work more than rest, because I hadn’t yet learned to be in partnership with my body, to listen to what it was telling me.

No other work I’ve done has had me so aware of my body, the pleasure and the suffering of movement and being.

One Saturday morning during my time as a farm worker, I woke up with intense and devastating pain echoing outwards from my abdomen, obscuring my awareness of anything else. I rolled from my bed, crumpled onto the ground and inched my curled body across the floor with sticky shaking palms, whining with the exertion of each breath. After a long hour the agony subsided, leaving me spent and still.

The following evening, I went to help some farming friends of mine slaughter 140 chickens with our bare hands in the dark. The birds had some mild disease, and for distance and cost, the abattoir was not an option. I knew this was a big, messy, painful job; but I wanted to be part of it, to learn this side of farming. So I pushed my pain to the side, and let it be the backing track to another intensely physical experience. It was only days later, after an ultrasound, that I would learn that a cyst on my ovary had twisted and burst.

Perched in the tray of my friends’ ute, we rumbled across the paddocks, dusk seeping darker, stars popping open and tall stripped eucalypts washing out into their silhouettes. The chooks were settled in their caravan, and we pulled them out one by one, broke their necks with a sharp tug, a crack, a burst of beating wings. It was almost midnight when we bounced back down the valley, my insides crying out at every harsh bump. I was tired, and I had no self beyond my body, the damage wrought to and by it. I felt hollowed and humbled, still grateful for the experience of the land. When I looked up at the moon it was big and orange—like the yolk of an egg, like a swelling cyst.


Thinking of our bodies as distinct from the land has not served our farming, or our health. ‘Contrary to popular belief, good health is not determined by the quality of our medical system,’ writes eminent soil scientist Christine Jones. ‘Rather, it is closely linked to the nutrient content of food—which in turn is linked to the ecological health and organic carbon content of the soil in which food is grown.’ It may not be simple cause and effect, but in their shared history, agriculture and disease have often been entwined.

Regenerative farming—the kind of agriculture I am interested in—is about a measure of healing. It isn’t just a rejection of the chemical and industrial modes of producing food that now dominate our land use; it’s an acknowledgement of the necessity to go further than minimising harm, to actively support the productive processes of life. In this country, where for over two hundred years, colonisation has seen millennia worth of topsoil depleted, and the sophisticated land management of countless generations trashed, this healing is a vital and ongoing and cross-cultural project. As Claire G. Coleman writes in Lies, Damned Lies, ‘There’s no inherent reason why a new culture that respects the land and its people cannot arise here from the ashes of the colony.’


In his 1977 essay ‘The Unsettling of America’, farmer-poet Wendell Berry writes: ‘Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity?’ Berry goes on explore how the carrying capacity of a piece of land might be signalled. ‘How much can be taken from it without diminishing it?’ he asks. ‘What can it produce dependably for an indefinite time?’

Instead of asking how much and how quickly a person can be made to produce—what can this work give back?

These are questions that First Nations people have always known the answers to. Pre-invasion land use practices were, in Coleman’s words, ‘mind-bendingly sophisticated’; upwards of 65,000 years surely counts as ‘an indefinite time’ for a landscape to nurture its occupants, and vice versa. Bruce Pascoe writes in Dark Emu that ‘English pastoralists weren’t to know that the fertility they extolled on first entering the country was the result of careful management, and cultural myopia ensured that even as the nature of the country changed they would never blame their own form of agriculture for that devastation.’

Farmers today need to ask Berry’s questions not only of their land, but of their workers as well. If a better way in agriculture is to be realised, it will be recognised not only by the health and viability of the soils, or the composition and temperature of the atmosphere. It will be in the bodies of the people who practise it, in their wellbeing and their income, and in the joy they are encouraged to feel in their necessary labours. Instead of asking how much and how quickly a person can be made to produce—in service of a capitalist, industrialised food system built on the economies of colonialism—we need to ask how much can be taken from their bodies without diminishing them. Or better yet, what can this work give back? It shouldn’t only be overeducated white farm workers like me who can expect to derive meaning and experience beauty in the course of our work growing food. To farm—to feed people, to work with the earth—should be among society’s most treasured roles.

There is a powerful opportunity in coming to see agriculture as a site of healing and renewal, not only for the soil and for the eaters, but for workers too, and the economic and social systems that enclose us all. In Berry’s words, ‘The care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility.’ When we value that care; when we see our bodily health as inextricably linked with the health of the collective, and that with the land itself; when non-Indigenous farmers can learn to listen to traditional owners and decouple food production from the colonialism it currently depends upon—then, we will truly eat well.