As farmers, few of us will have been surprised that the government’s recent attempt to raise an ‘army’ of British workers to replace the 80,000 migrant workers, on whom British agriculture and horticulture depend, failed.
Instead, with an alarming number of unfilled farm vacancies, and despite the difficulties presented by the coronavirus in moving people between countries, planes are now being chartered to carry planes full of foreign nationals to the UK. United.
Once here, they’ll milk our cows, pick our strawberries, and sort our potatoes.
See also: How to find seasonal work on farms
We are painfully aware, as farmers, that agricultural work increasingly turns off British citizens.
Low wages are an important factor, but no matter how good the terms and conditions might be offered in other sectors of the economy, such as the hospitality industry or the casual jobs provided by the so-called “gig economy” , farming is still not considered sexy.
It’s not like our kids are lazy or shy at work. Far from it, they are as motivated to continue their work and their career as previous generations.
It is just the nature of the often repetitive, dirty and dangerous all-weather work in lonely places that undermines the attractiveness of farming.
When I started working in agriculture in the mid-1970s, working conditions on farms were much worse than they are today.
My first job on my father’s farm was when I was 14. During the long summer school holidays, he chiseled stubble behind the combines.
Sitting on a Ford 5000, my only protection from the dust bowl created by the plow was a raw Duncan cab that simply trapped the dust inside as it swirled stiff tines.
I have protected my own children from such experiences because of my anxiety about putting them in danger. In addition, the health and safety legislation insists that I must not, even if it obliges me to.
Modern tractor cabs are obviously vastly improved, but my kids are now going through their teens and beyond with barely a week of tractor driving experience between them.
With large-scale fruit and vegetable cultivation in the UK, conditions and especially accommodation are often suited to migrant workers accustomed to this work in their home country, rather than local workers
Hampshire farmer and broadcaster John Cherrington argued that milking cows twice a day, 365 days a year, was something that had to be imposed on children before they knew better.
Few British children are now weaned from milking in this way, which is why the floor plans of British super dairies often show a dormitory for workers from other countries.
Likewise, with large-scale fruit and vegetable cultivation in the UK, conditions and especially accommodation are often suited to migrant workers accustomed to this work in their home country, rather than local workers.
Fifty years ago, before most women left home to find paid work, fruit and vegetable growers often sourced their labor from a local pool of ready-made women. use. They showed up in all weather, grateful for the money and eager to escape lonely and mundane household chores.
So while improving farm wages and working conditions could help UK farmers recruit UK workers, there are other long-term social and educational trends underway that will make it even more difficult for us to do so.
We might like to think Britain can bring its own harvest home again thanks to the work of its own citizens, but the coronavirus crisis has shown that those days are long gone.