It’s British harvest season – and somewhere, hidden deep in the hills of the Lincolnshire Wolds 17 labourers are working tirelessly to bring in the last dregs of this year’s potato harvest. It means working late – and pulling 11-hour shifts of hard manual labour, in working conditions that leave you open to the elements all day.
“I don’t know why they’ve got you there picking up all those potatoes from the ground – to me it seems like a waste of good energy?” one worker says, as I pick up all the small potatoes left behind by the harvester. “It’ll be for seed, next season’s seed – you’re saving us £400 a tonne by doing that,” says the owner, Michael, to me later in the day.
Following the Conservative Environmental Secretary, Andrea Leadsom’s recent plea for young British workers to take up jobs in agricultural labouring. For the last month, I’ve joined one organic farm in Lincolnshire to see what working as a seasonal labourer in the British farming industry is like.
During harvest season – this is an average day for most of the 100,000 workers the County Land and Business Association (CLA) report as labouring on British farms across the country. Be it harvesting potatoes in September, apples in October, or leeks in the cold winter months – these are the people who keep Britain’s fridges stocked with fresh produce.
Farming is no easy life. With wages for farm labourers often much lower than the national average salary, and a degree in farming at agricultural college setting you back just over £30,000, it’s little wonder that many of today’s workers haven’t chosen to take up total isolation, farming in some of the most rural parts of England.
“We often just can’t find the British workers – so it means we often come to rely on the casual labourers we can bring in from the local towns,” says Michael, the owner.
To me, farming seemed like the author Martin Wainwright’s image of, “a life circumscribed by the seasons, the rotation of crops, and the demands of living in a close-knit community,” which it still is in some senses. But it is also becoming an increasingly cutthroat industry that needs careful business planning and precision thinking.
The farm I end up working on is an 800-hectre estate based in the hillier districts of Lincolnshire, one of very few organic farms in the area. Unlike most of its local competitors, there aims are much more focused on local conservation, than farming for profit.
It’s farming in the traditional sense – working with the land, and using natural crop rotations that work on a 5-year cycle. Being fully organic means they can’t spray fertilisers like most commercial farms – a practice we see as being widespread as we drive across the Lincolnshire countryside. But here, they use a combination of volcanic ash, hay and manure instead of fertilisers.
“Most of those I trained at college with didn’t understand why we chose to farm organic over commercial. I’m worried there’s a narrow mindset amongst those at agricultural college, towards where the future of sustainable farming is,” says Sasha, a trainee on the farm.
From potatoes to carrots, leeks, spinach, asparagus, broccoli, beans and oats – the wide and varied produce of the farm is used in all kind of sectors, from being sold for milling to make to flour, to baby food, cattle food, and onwards.
Newly planted orchards will eventually produce a bountiful apple crop for making juice and cider, and the wildflowers that surround the orchards will go on to be used in essential oils. Alongside arable produce, the farm also keep a herd of cattle and sheep, whilst they are eventually to be slaughtered, their main aim is to help produce manure.
During peak season the farm employs 17 people. A handful are locals, born and raised in Lincolnshire with farming backgrounds, but at peak season, much of the picking and grading work is done by migrant labourers, bought in as ‘casuals’ from the ‘gangers’ operating in nearby cities.
For casual and seasonal workers, there is often an hour long commute in from the local town before work even starts, and the zero hour nature of their contracts, means all-year-round work is often hard to find. “This isn’t easy, but it reminds me of the days I used to spend farming at home in the Ukraine,” says Jozef, who has been on the farm 12 years.
“In agriculture alone more than 30,000 permanent workers and an estimated 67,000 seasonal workers overseas help keep our shops and market stalls stocked with UK produce,” says Ross Murray, of the County Land and Business Association (CLA). Seasonal migrant workers largely do much of Britain’s farm work; with The Guardian reporting that 90% of all British fruit is picked by overseas workers.
‘Gangers’ largely manage these groups of casual employees, and for a long time they have acted as the back bone of the farming industry. But with Brexit fears and clampdowns on these kinds of employment agencies, many farmers are worried about where workers might come from in the future.
Agricultural colleges could largely hold the answer – and this farms plan is to employ many of the trainees and graduates who pass through them. One trainee, has spent the last five years visiting the farm, and recently been taken on full time.
“We think he’s got a lot to learn – he knows a lot, but it’s the practicals of farming that he can’t learn in college. The lessons you learn over time. But we’re here to teach him,” says Mary, talking about the new trainee, Sasha.
Outside of harvest season things on the farm are very different. Where long work days, out in the fields were once so busy, work often moves to towards the more monotonous operations to do with the day-to-day running of the farm. Days are usually pretty mundane, but they are at the backbone of keeping the farm running. “If it wasn’t for these jobs, we wouldn’t be in all-year-round-work. They keep us employed,” says Mary. “In the winter, we all work in the grading sheds, all cutting the leeks together for the Christmas orders. We have the radio on, and everyone tends to sing. For me, that’s the proper spirit of the farm life.”
The greatest rewards of farm work are largely in the more esoteric feelings you get from the work. There is some grace in waking up; working in and around nature, and feeling like an honest days work has been done at the end of the day. And there’s something to be said about harmonising with the food itself – picking something grown from the soil, and eating it within thirty seconds of picking.
Sasha tells me about the first time he saw something he’d picked in a UK supermarket. “I was working on a farm in Zimbabwe, picking beans. Three days later, those beans were in Waitrose in the UK with my unique growers name on them. I’ll always remember the moment when my mum bought something with my name on it, picked on the other side of the world. That’s where the real enjoyment of farming is.”
It’s what drives many of the workers here – and many I speak to over the course of the month would choose no other livelihood.
Daniel, 70, has spent his entire life in Lincolnshire – though he has five brothers spread across the county, he has never made it anymore than 22 miles from his birth home. “My family are mostly here,” he tells me.
Many of the other farm workers were born and grew up in the local towns, having worked in and around the area their whole lives, moving from farm to farm.
For Mary, a job here came after her family closed down a local dairy farm, one of four who used to operate in the area. “There was a decision between either stepping up to the next level, mechanising further parts of the production – which would have required huge investment to buy on-site processing plants, refrigerated vans, or selling up,” she says. It’s a similar story across much of Lincolnshire, with bigger commercial farms staying afloat, while less mechanised ones often feel the brunt of supermarket prices hit them hardest.
At times there is vast separations between the local workers and the migrant labourers. Seasonal work means there is little time in the working day to build relationships, but largely, it is to do with the close-knit community that keeps many of the traditions of rural British life alive.
“It’s still the history, family and home that drive things here; it’s what keeps me doing it. I wouldn’t trade the community for anything,” says Mary.
It’s these little illuminations into the small interactions of the workers – the lunchtime breaks, the deluge of private jokes that circle amongst tight knit groups – the, “good morning then was it,” that Tony shouts, when I walk into the workshop in the morning, a couple of minutes late.
While British consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about where there produce is coming from and who is producing it, we are still largely removed from the story of what goes into making our food.
And as I leave the farm, I’m left with one lasting thought.
If we are to support a future for workers on our farms in Britain, we need to start engaging with the human side of farming. So when we go to make our choice between the commercially produced £1 bag of baked potatoes, and the £2 organic variety – we can understand why the price is a reflection of the backbreaking work that goes into bringing you your food.