WHY BRITS DON'T OR WON'T PICK POTATOES
1st June 2020
Last month Prince Charles called for a Land Army to bring in the harvest, and urged those who could, to join the government's Pick for Britain campaign, a drive to recruit jobseekers for agricultural work. This followed reports that farmers had flown in Romanian workers themselves to pick crops, back in April.
Prince Charles acknowledged that the work was "unglamorous", "challenging" and "hard graft", and this seems to have been backed up by the Pick for Britain campaign struggling to recruit workers. The Telegraph reported on the 19th of May, that applicants were "dropping out after learning they were required to work full time, away from home or in all weathers".
The Environment Secretary, George Eustace, suggested on the 26th April that British workers furloughed during the coronavirus crisis should be encouraged to take a second job picking fruit and vegetables.
However, this seems to have been unsuccessful. The Telegraph also reported that the results of this campaign had resulted in only 112 people out of 50,000 applications taking up roles in April, "as they learned the reality of the eight-hours-a-day job, picking crops in all weathers potentially miles away from home".
Coming from farming stock, and knowing from briefly working in a Job Centre, what the Job Descriptions for farm work look like (the heavy and dirty nature of the tasks being pointedly emphasised), I wasn't surprised by this.
But The Guardian ran a story on 20th April, saying that British applicants for jobs harvesting crops, had said that farmers have made it virtually impossible for them to secure the work and save the UK's fruit and vegetables, alleging that farmers are "favouring cheap migrant labour".
A particular concern was that the on-site accommodation involved three or four workers were being asked to share a caravan.
So what is going on here?
Firstly, Prince Charles and the Environment Secretary no doubt mean well, but their comments show a lack of knowledge about farming. Farm work is very physically gruelling. I would know - most of my family have done it, and so have I.
In my part of the north east in the 70's, we had a week off school every year for what was known as 'Tatie Picking Week'. A van would come through all the villages, picking up local women and children and take us to local farms. I picked my first row of potatoes at around the age of 12 or 13.
Even this relatively minor experience brings back memories of barely being able to walk the day after. I also used to help out at a farm in Swaledale during hay-time, and have helped to heave bales into barns. Not as arduous as potato picking, but demanding nonetheless.
You can't ask people used to sedentary jobs to suddenly do this work. Even if they are fit in the sense of going to the gym, jogging or cycling, nothing prepares you for the toll on your body. The body has has to be twisted into all kinds of 'unnatural' shapes, to dig, cut and pick, at speed, all day long.
Interviewed on the BBC about his new job cutting asparagus, a furloughed Ski Instructor, whom you would consider to be supremely fit, said how much it hurt his back.
I did shelf stacking in a Supermarket in my teens, and more recently have worked in a kitchen, both of which are relatively arduous, but believe me, farm work is far harder.
Stamina for this work has to be built up, and this is a problem for farmers because seasonal crops have to be picked 'now or never'. During any type of harvesting, every waking hour has to be devoted to getting the crops in. In my area, during the potato and corn crops seasons, lorries and combine harvesters can be seen on the roads and in the fields deep into the night, their lights illuminating the dark countryside.
There is a small window of opportunity to get any kind of crop in, before it rots. The weather is also a factor. This means farmers need physically fit, experienced workers now. Training lots of new workers, and getting them used to this tough work will probably not be an option for many farmers. This is probably why some of them flew in the Romanian workers - they are fully experienced and physically able to do the work.
Moreover, the Romanians may well have worked together in teams before - an important part of seasonal work. I well remember from my potato picking years how important it was that we all knitted together seamlessly; mainly because we all knew each other. Bringing in a disparate group of people, unused to each other's strengths and weaknesses could well cause chaos.
Also, farm work is dangerous. Farming regularly tops the list of the most dangerous jobs for deaths at work. This means extensive training has to be given; and, again, this takes time.
Farmers dont employ foreigners because British workers are lazy or "not prepared to work for peanuts", but because of massive changes in the countryside and the economy. The rural working class have, in many cases been "ethnically cleansed" from the countryside, as well off people move into villages and push house prices beyond their reach. They were the people who used to do this work.
But mostly, seasonal work requires people who are not otherwise employed. In my area, there was a steady supply of school-age young people and women who didn't otherwise work, able to, in our case, go potato picking. Women from the countryside and places like Middlesbrough would all descend on local farms during the potato picking season. But the increased movement of women into paid employment has made this impossible. And no-one would countenance child labour nowadays; even though I dont recall being 'oppressed' by it. We had a lot of fun.
That being said, until the Coronavirus and the sudden fashionablness of 'key work', my experience of some young people is that there's no way they want to do farm work - unless it's in Africa when they're on their Gap Year. This is because expectations have increased, which in many ways is a good thing, but can lead to unrealistic ambitions.
I worked for a couple of years in a prison for young offenders, and spent one day a week in the education department. When I used to ask young offenders what they wanted for their future, it was noticeable how often the answer was, "to be rich and famous". Some of them were not even keen to do old fashioned trades such as painting and decorating.
This outlook is not limited to young offenders. I've met a lot of young people whose greatest ambition is to succeed in the performing arts, or even become "like the Kardashians". And why not? Why shouldn't young people want to express themselves in this way?
When I was young in the 70's, the great ambition of many young people was to 'be in a band'. Yearning to make a mark on the world is in many ways a rite of passage, and a noble one. The difference then was that pride was still taken in ordinary jobs; indeed, people went on strike to preserve them.
The problem is that more people want fame, or success through performing, than there are opportunities available, and it makes sense to have a more realistic back up plan. It remains to be seen whether the downgrading of celebrity culture and the new respect for working class jobs brought about by the Coronavirus Crisis, will change these values.
Finally, I must admit to being cynical about Guardian-type, liberal, middle class tropes of evil farmers treating the Romanians terribly. I have no experience of Romanians, but I do know from talking to the Eastern Europeans who have come to work in my area that they seem to be well treated; a lot of them get rent-free houses. In fact, this has caused resentment in some quarters, and arguably contributed to the Brexit vote.
The underlying problem is of people wanting cheap food. And who can blame them? I certainly dont, I buy it myself. But the effect of this is that farmers have to keep their costs to a minimum to compete in the global economy. If it is true that workers are being asked to sleep three to a caravan, this will be why. The global markets are ruthless.
I dont know what the answer is, but one thought that comes to mind is to stop sneering at middle class people who are prepared to pay more for 'ethically-sourced' food - a trap I've occasionally fallen into.
Next time I go to my local organic farm shop which charges a lot more than the Supermarkets for its produce, whilst I'm buying my newspaper, maybe I'll silently cheer the middle class folk paying £1.20 for a cauliflower, rather than the £0.89 they would be paying in Sainsbury's or Morrisons or Tesco's.
Just a thought.