Young Women & Hay


Many years ago a friend of mine used to regale me with stories of an old farmer he’d worked with. The old chap farmed at the top of one of the valleys that run into the Pennines. Back in the day, the farm at the foot of the valley would be a really good dairy farm with a fair bit of ploughing. The next farm up would be a mixed farm, perhaps a few dairy, even a bit of ploughing, and some sheep. At the top of the valley you’d get a tough hill farm. In this particular area all three farms were owned by the same estate, and this estate used to pay my friend to go and draw up plans for work the tenants and/or the estate wanted doing.

Nowadays the dairy farm at the bottom of the valley is massively capitalised, heavily borrowed and in good years makes a reasonable living. In other years it will just break even or make a loss. The middle farm muddles along and the rough spot at the top does OK.

The old lad farming the top farm had been there since before the War. My friend hadn’t a clue how the old chap made a living, but he did. Just about.

My friend turned up in the yard one day to see the old lad looking miserable. So my friend asked what the matter was.

“I lost my hay crop.”

“How do you mean, lost?”

What had happened was that there was about three acres on this farm they mowed for hay. So he got a neighbour to come with a mower, and then he and his daughters went out with forks to scale it out. He was a little bit of a chap. His daughters were well built young women, tough as nails and with the sort of muscle that you get with constant exercise and outdoor work. They’d spent two or three days shaking the grass out, stirring it up and it was almost hay.

Then it rained.

So they fell back on plan B. Up there they still remembered the old techniques but rather than build special frames, they just put it on the wall tops. After all the three acres was at least two fields, both with tall dry-stone walls. So the old lad and his daughters manually put all this damp hay on the walls. That night it blew a gale out of nowhere and the whole lot just disappeared.

Those daughters were interesting ladies. (As an aside, in my culture, it is a mark of respect to refer to a woman as a lady.) From what I was told, all had gentleman admirers, and all would in due course marry, the last one to marry took over the tenancy with her husband. But what do farmers’ daughters do for a living?

I remember reading an article which looked back to the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. As a rule of thumb the article reckoned that you could work out how much the Father was worth financially by what his daughters did.

At the bottom of the heap, like the old lad with the missing hay crop, daughters tended to work at home until marriage, then they’d go and work with their husband, fitting in children as and when.

Next up, if Dad was a bit better off, the daughter would go into nursing. Don’t knock it. It means you’ve got somebody in the family who’s professionally qualified when it comes to helping with lambing.

If Dad was better off still, daughter became a teacher. Again a useful profession. Not only can she be relied upon to write letters for you, but she’ll be also able to do the farm accounts as well.

Finally at the top end where the farm is almost big enough to be an estate, daughter works at home. But this is after doing secretarial and accountancy courses and then she runs the office for her father. After marriage she then runs the estate office for her husband.

To be fair, I’ve come across ladies who have been married for thirty years and who are still doing their father’s accounts. This now includes dealing with cattle passports, sheep movements and EID and suchlike. One commented that every Saturday when she drives the twenty miles from her nice suburban home to the farm, she has a feeling that somehow the whole thing is getting out of hand. But at least it’s kept her children in touch with agriculture and she suspects that they’ll join the industry in some way.

By the 90s the system was breaking down. It probably only lasted for a couple of generations. Some of the break down was inevitable. For a start there were so many more careers open for young women. Also I saw figures which claimed that 80% of farmers’ daughters do not marry farmers. You can understand that. They know the life from the inside.

But even when the daughter remains within agriculture, I know a number who’ve built up their own business with a bit of land of their own, some contracting, and some relief milking. Much like a lot of lads in that respect. Also on some farms you will often see two brothers in partnership. Given the importance of getting the paperwork right, dealing with Defra, the Environment Agency and other agencies, a sister who decides to be the partner who does the office work can be every bit an equal partner. Mind you, nobody in farming ever managed to stay in the office. The farm has a way of hauling you outside, normally into mud, rain, and with somebody asking, “Are you small enough to reach in and give it a pull and a twist?”

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.