I Left the City to Become a Farm Labourer and Here’s What I Learned

Following Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom’s recent plea for young British workers to take up jobs in agricultural labouring, I’ve spent the last month on a Lincolnshire farm.

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Nov 9 2016, 11:23am

It's British harvest season and deep in the hills of the Lincolnshire Wolds, 17 farm labourers are bringing in the final dregs of this year's potato crop. It means working late and pulling 12-hour shifts of hard manual labour while exposed to the elements.

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The Lincolnshire farm on which the author worked as an agricultural labourer. All photos by Luke Farley.

"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," says Bill*, one of the workers, as he sees me gathering the small potatoes left behind by the harvester.

Later that day, his boss Arthur* explains: "It'll be for seed, next season's seed—you're saving us £400 a tonne by doing that." Be it harvesting potatoes in September, apples in October, or leeks in the cold winter months, Bill and the 100,000 other farm workers like him across the country keep Britain's fridges stocked with fresh produce.

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Following Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom's recent plea for young British workers to take up jobs in agricultural labouring, I've spent the last month on an organic farm in Lincolnshire.

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I soon realise that 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 Britain is facing a shortage of native agricultural workers.

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A worker stands in one of the farm's barns.

"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," Arthur says. Arthur's farm—the one I end up working on—is an 800-hectare estate based in the hillier districts of Lincolnshire, and one of very few organic farms in the area. Unlike most of their competitors, the farm is focused on local conservation, rather than farming for profit.

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Alongside arable produce, the farm keeps a herd of sheep and cattle for manure.

It's farming in the traditional sense: working with the land and using natural crop rotations that work on a five-year cycle. Being fully organic means that Arthur's workers can't spray fertilisers as commercial farms do, instead using a combination of volcanic ash, hay, and manure.

From potatoes and carrots to leeks, spinach, asparagus, broccoli, beans, and oats; the farm's produce is used in all kind of sectors. Some of the vegetables are sold for milling to make to flour, others for baby food or cattle feed. Alongside arable produce, the farm also keeps a herd of cattle and sheep to help produce manure.

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Arthur employs 17 farm workers. 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 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," one casual worker tells me.

Arthur's farm isn't alone in its reliance on casuals. The County Land and Business Association estimates that British agriculture employs 67,000 seasonal workers, and other stats show that 90 percent of all British fruit picked by overseas workers. The gangers largely manage the groups of casual agricultural employees, but with fears that Brexit will cause clampdowns on these kind of employment agencies, many farmers are left wondering where casual workers will come from in the future.

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Agricultural colleges could hold the answer. Arthur hopes to employ more new graduates, and has recently employed one as a full-time trainee.

"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," one of the farm's older workers says of his new trainee. "The lessons you learn over time. But we're here to teach him."

Outside of harvest season, I'm told that things on the farm are very different.

"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," one worker tells me. "For me, that's the proper spirit of the farm life."

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Personally, I find the greatest rewards of farm work are the grace in waking up, working with nature, and feeling like you've completed an honest day's work at the end of it all. There's something to be said for the harmony you feel with the food you harvest, too. Picking something you've grown and eating it straight away is a special feeling. One worker tells me 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 grower's name on them," he remembers. "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."

READ MORE: How Long Will It Be Before Robots Replace Migrant Workers on British Farms?

It's what drives many of the workers at the farm. Most I speak to over the course of the month would choose no other livelihood. One has spent his entire life in rural Lincolnshire, never making it further than 22 miles from his home town. "My family are mostly here," he tells me. For another worker, she moved to Arthur's farm after her family closed their nearby dairy farm, one of four which used to operate in the area.

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"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 the large commercial farms staying afloat, while smaller estate's like Arthur's feel the brunt of the supermarket price wars.

But, as one worker tells me: "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."

All photos by Luke Farley.

*Names have been changed.