Moving to Mechanisation


Whilst my time in agriculture has been a time of impressive change, I suspect that the industry has been moving so quickly that every generation born since 1900 will be able to say that. I started my life working alongside men who’d been in farm work in the 1920s and 1930s. They were horsemen but I just missed that era.

But being born on a family farm I’ve done jobs that long disappeared. I’ve planted potatoes by hand. (Push one in by the toe of your boot. Then bring your heel of the other foot to that potato and push the next one in by your toe. But if you are a child it’s two feet.)

Like the folk in the photo I’ve also thinned turnips by hand. Basically using one of the old seed drills you’d plant the turnips with the seeds virtually touching. When the rows of seeds germinated and the seedlings were the right size you’d ‘thin’ them. This involves crawling on your hands and knees up the row, gently removing the surplus and then planting out the surplus at the right spacing in other rows. We always did it with sacks wrapped around your legs to kneel on. Ideally the sack would cover the top of your wellingtons as well it you were wearing them. This means the soil doesn’t go down your wellies as you crawl along. We also used to drag a sack with us. You’d lay the seedlings on the sack (not put them in it) and when it was ‘full’ you’d walk across to where you were planting them and get back down on your knees again.

A job that won’t be missed was ‘cutting kale.’ This was a winter job, the kale would be cut daily and fed to milk cows. Because it was still green and fresh cows enjoyed it as a contrast to the hay that made up most of their winter diet. So when the weather is really cold and wet you’d take a cart and a bill hook. Then by hand you would cut a cart load of wet (and sometimes frozen kale.) For this job people preferred marrow stem kale.

Remember you’ve no real waterproofs, sometimes just a sacking apron to protect your trousers. The kale is tall, wet and cold. You end up with hands so cold and numb you can barely grasp the billhook.

As my father commented, once farmers no longer had cheap labour (lads like him) they stopped growing crops like this. Previously most would have had a few acres of turnips and kale. These crops virtually disappeared for a while.

On this side of the country, the lads who would previously have gone into farming could get other jobs. It wasn’t that mechanisation drove them out of the industry. They left and in some cases machines replaced them. In other cases we just stopped doing whatever it was they were paid to do.

Currently there’s a lot of talk about the shortage of labour for the vegetable growers and others. Who’s going to pick and pack the crop? To an extent they’re catching up with the rest of the farming sector. Now they’re losing their labour force. Let us be fair, they weren’t jobs greatly sought after by folk. Looking at the margins of these farms I doubt they could pay a lot more if they wanted to. Some of them are trapped in the world of gang masters supplying cheap and anonymous labour on one side, and supermarket buyers grinding the price down on the other.

My suspicion is that they’re now going to have to face up to what we have had to cope with. Even if we hadn’t left the EU, as the poorer EU member states became more prosperous, their citizens would have set their eyes on a better lifestyle that picking vegetables for not particularly good money. Indeed even within the EU a lot of work now is done by North Africans and similar who are still willing to work for a pittance.

If we see the vegetable side of our industry following along the same path that the rest of us followed I think we’ll see it splitting into two. There’ll be a small niche sector, organic and artisan, charging premium prices to discerning (prosperous) customers.

Then we’ll see the really big operations who are already looking at moving towards more mechanisation. How about this for a spinach harvester?

Or this for strawberries

It’s interesting to think that if consumers are serious about moving away from packaged food, just dropping spinach leaves into a wooden crate could be packaging enough. Put the crate out in the supermarket and let the customer pick their own leaves.

But it does look as if ‘big’ is the direction they will be going in. At the moment we have Thanet Earth on the Isle of Thanet in Kent. It has 220 acres of glass houses producing about 400 million tomatoes, 24 million peppers and 30 million cucumbers a year. This is equal to roughly 12%, 11% and 8% respectively of Britain’s entire annual production of those salad ingredients.

Indeed it may be that some crops disappear from the UK. They may no longer be economic to grow. They could be imported from places with access to cheaper labour, or alternatively they may have a novelty value which means that the consumer is prepared to pay a price which makes growing them possible. But it strikes me that what we’re seeing now is the next big change in agriculture. Just as we changed the way we sowed and harvested root crops for cattle, so they’ll have to change the way some crops are grown so that robots can plant and harvest them.

Really it depends on what the supermarkets think customers are willing to pay. But if people are not willing to work for a pittance, then you either pay them more, do without, or alternatively accept the inevitable changes.

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.