COVID leads to fruitful work

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With COVID disrupting their long-term careers, Craig and Fiona Dennes decided to answer the call for more fruit pickers – turning work into an opportunity to explore Australia.

Last year the couple, originally from Taree, found themselves without employment after long careers in the telecommunications and retail industries.

“Our lives were flowing along as usual with everyday 9-5 jobs,” Fiona said.

“Craig worked at Telstra for more than 36 years as a technical expert, and I was with fashion retail outlet Sussan as second in-charge and occasional store manager for 14 years.

“From March 2020, things changed rapidly for us. Craig was retrenched from his position at Telstra. At the end of July, and as a direct result of COVID, I was offered less hours or retrenchment from my position at Sussan. So, on the 1st of September 2020, I accepted retrenchment. It was then we both came to the realisation neither of us had a job!”

Fiona said after seeing a news story about the shortage of fruit pickers, they decided it would be a great opportunity to get out and travel and be paid.

“Having never participated in this type of work and to test the waters, we enquired with local avocado farmers around our area but with no luck. We then applied online with Costa Berries as there was need for pickers in the Coffs Harbour area, at Corindi.

“Within a couple of weeks, we’d bought our very first caravan and by October long weekend 2020 we left our home in Taree. We left our younger son in charge of the house and we hit the road and headed for the Costa farm at Corindi.”

After working for two months in Corindi, including as pickers, driving trucks and as assistant supervisors, the couple moved to the Costa Berry farm at Tumbarumba arriving in mid December 2020.

Craig’s previous work involved travelling across the country, training and supporting Telstra’s internal construction workforce across all regions.

Fiona said in her previous role, she managed inventories, staff and customers.

“Here at Costa, I manage a small crew, inventories and diverse picking crews from various nationalities. The roles have similarities, although my dress for work uniform differs significantly. I now have a pair of steel cap boots and dress for farm work, not retail fashion.

“At Tumbarumba, I supervised my own crew, while Craig again drove the trucks. We both gained a lot of invaluable experience at Tumbarumba, formed new friendships with amazing people and visited beautiful locations across the Snowy Mountains region.”

After finishing the Tumbarumba season, the couple headed home to Taree for an eight-week break before heading to Far North Queensland for the Costa berry harvest on the Atherton Tablelands.

“The opportunity to work and live in FNQ is one we will never regret embracing. There are so many things to see and places to visit including The Daintree, Port Douglas, Trinity Beach and numerous visits to Cairns.”

“We have met so many wonderful people on our journey. Friends, new and old are so envious of our lifestyle. The flexible work arrangements provide many opportunities to explore regions close to the harvest locations we have been too.”

Craig and Fiona have now done full circle and returned to Corindi for the 2021-22 blueberry season.