BY JIM WEBSTER
I remember an old farmer commenting about lads ‘helping out.’ “One boy is one boy. Two boys is half a boy, three boys is no boy at all.”
I know of a couple of farms round here that used to get a lot of lads ‘helping out.’ With village farms where the village was a community, not a dormitory suburb, it was common. I remember talking to one chap, he commented that of all the lads who’d passed through the farm, all were in work but not one was in farming. As far as he could tell, all of them would be earning more than him. Most were working for plant hire companies, or on the highways or in similar trades.
What is noticeable is just how switched on and flexible you need staff to be, and if nothing else the lad working a bit will pick up self-reliance, learn that there’s no such thing as demarcation, and nobody is too important to push or pull when pushing or pulling is called for.
I can remember a farmer locally who was also a local councillor. He hit the roof when one boy in a local school told the careers master that he wanted to go into working on farms. The teacher told him, “Then that’s a total waste of an education.”
The farmer went into the school and formally complained. After all could the teacher work out the Metabolisable Energy of a dairy cow diet, spot and treat Ketosis, deliver a calf and stomach tube it with Colostrum, work out a breeding programme to take advantage of modern genetics, or trim a cow’s feet?
But there’s another side to this issue. In simple terms, nowadays there isn’t a lot of room on a farm for the person who isn’t on top of their game. The days when you could have a lad who was willing but not too bright spend a day mucking out bullock hulls with a fork and a barrow have long gone. Now when the job’s done, because of fewer staff, less money and larger farms, the lad with a barrow might be a contractor with a skid steer loader combined with a serious tractor and a big muck spreader. The contractor could be paying the leasing on £100,000 worth of kit. He’s a businessman and his phone hopefully never stops ringing as people are booking him.
But we still have the not too bright lads. Intelligence is the classic bell curve.
When I was a lad I can remember the bin lorry coming. It had a plank on the back and the crew stood on that. I suppose this was fair enough when it was just slowly working its way down the street, but they used to stand on it as it drove three or four miles out down the main road to start picking farms up. I remember my Dad chatting to the foreman who he’d know from farm work. The foreman and the driver were both bright enough. The others in the crew, perhaps six or seven of them, were distinctly below average.
But they had a job, they were paid a wage, they were independent, and they had homes and families. They had their self-respect and they had the sheer exhilarating joy of riding on the back of the bin lorry on a plank at a hair raising thirty miles an hour on the main road.
But what do they do now for a living? I know one chap, I remember him saying, ‘I’ll never be anything but semi-skilled.’ He’s never held down a paid job, but has worked in charity shops etc. He never will hold down a job. He’s in his forties, living with his parents and when they die, the council are most unlikely to house him in their house so he could even finish up homeless. He doesn’t need to be in an institution. He might even have made it to being foreman on one of the old bin lorries. He could certainly aspire to that job.
He’ll never have a family, no woman is going to marry him, they can do better. Indeed I suspect his only family will be his sister and her children. His sister, a one parent family, managed to get a flat. Ironically she too has never really worked (a little casual bar work or temporary shop staff) but she’s made a cracking job of rearing her children, the oldest of whom has gone to university and they will all hopefully do well. But with increasing automation and the arrival of the robot, what’s going to happen? Is perpetual unemployment going to be pushed further up the bell curve? What is going to happen to these people? Because the lad who’s a bit slow but can sweep up with a brush can already be replaced by a robo-vacuum cleaner.
On the other hand the accountant, the middle manager and the journalist can also be replaced by algorithms.
Now I’ve spent enough time doing dirty jobs in the rain. I’m not going to wax lyrical about the dignity of labour at this juncture. It’s surprising how often those who do have an indoor job with no heavy lifting talk about such dignity.
But people need a reason to get out of bed in a morning. If you’re going to decide that fifty percent (to pluck a figure out of the air) of your population exist purely as consumers, then frankly, lockdown has given us an unwanted insight into that world. If you’re offering people a life which consists of benefits, a flat, and a Netflix subscription, wouldn’t it just be kinder to suggest they open their veins in the bath?
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.