Farming has changed lots in the past 50 years. But the best farm workers have stayed the same, says Fen Tiger
Employing people can be a nightmare. Pick the correct staff and you have a happy workforce. Pick the wrong one and life as an employer becomes difficult.
Most farmers agree there is a shortage of experienced workers. But you cannot get experience if you don’t get a job in the first place. So it is one big conundrum: how do you get experience if nobody wants to employ you?
In today’s world, many of the bigger farming businesses try to find younger employees with a large mortgage and thirst for extra cash. Even so, the general trend within agriculture is that farmers and the farming workforce is ageing.
Why? Long hours seven days a week are bad enough. But agricultural employers find themselves in stiff competition with other sectors which offer shorter hours, a cleaner working environment and better money.
The reason I mention employment is because a former employee recently passed away. I won’t reveal his real name, so let’s call him Jim. He joined the farm aged 16 in 1947, worked 49 years and retired at 65.
After retiring, Jim returned to the farm on and off for the next few years. He was 89 when he died. At first glance, you would call him a scuffy bugger. Always wearing the same black donkey jacket, wellington boots and baler twine holding up his trousers.
At one time, Jim went through a brief spell wearing a cap. But it was usually the jacket, boots and trousers. The farm saw major changes during his lifetime. But generally, Jim’s clothes stayed the same.
He could remember as a young man trying to plough with the horses and having trouble getting them to behave. It was not until the farm foreman told him to whistle that the horses started doing as they were told.
Why whistle? Because whistling told the horses when it was time to wee. No wonder they weren’t behaving themselves – the poor things needed the loo.
Jim was full of stories. He would often tell the tale later on in his farming career of how he wore three coats on the back of a rear mounted tractor hoe trying to steer with a Fen Blow around his ears. He used to return home the colour of his coat.
When I first started on the farm sprayer, he told me he once sprayed some yellow stuff that blocked the sprayer so he took off his jacket rolled up his shirt and stirred the contents of the tank around with his bare arm.
His arm and the other things he scratched that day turned yellow and stayed that way for a whole week.
Jim spent hours hand-hoeing beet, pulling weed beet and wild oats. He remembered the days before cover crops when straw was planted between the beet rows to stop the wind blowing the soil away.
He was the best drill man I ever saw. Straight as an arrow and when it came to corners he managed to position himself on the mudguard of the old 4600 and still maintain the 20-inch row width.
Now, only memories remain.
I wonder what he would make of all this satellite technology today. He once remarked about taking all the sat navs away for 12 months and seeing how straight the tramlines would be then.
Farmers today might be trying to recruit people with the right attitude, qualifications and experience. But really, all they need is to find someone like Jim. Sadly, it is an almost impossible task – it’s unlikely we will see anyone like him again.
He was a straightforward man with simple ideas that worked. He always ate the same docky – a large piece of bread, cheese and a cold drink in an old sherry bottle.
For those who remember my old neighbour Dave, well the two men never saw eye to eye. In Jim’s words, they never had to because Dave was always wrong. But you couldn’t fault his loyalty. How many of today’s farm workers will stay on the same farm for 49 years?