Hunting for a way to make a living

Cheetah With Two Indian Servants And A Deer By George Stubbs, 1765

I never felt I had all that much in common with the Arab nobility who used to hunt with a hawk on their arm and a cheetah sitting in front of them on the saddle. But I too have moved into the big league. Admittedly I haven’t got a hawk or even the horse, but Billy is a suitable alternative to a cheetah. Having seen a rat running backwards and forwards between two locations, but only when I didn’t have an air rifle to hand, I summoned Billy.

So be fair, I picked him up and carried him to the first location. He sniffed disdainfully and then froze into a hunting pose and disappeared off into the second location. Based on his previous record I don’t really expect to see that particular rat again.

But Billy is sorted. A steady job in agriculture. Cannot beat it. But what about everybody else. A few days ago seventy seasonal workers out of two hundred working on a Herefordshire vegetable farm tested positive for the virus. All across social media was a storm of people asking, “Why are we bringing in Rumanians when there are people in this country looking for work.”

The problem is that whilst people in this country may be looking for work, they don’t want that sort of work. Apparently only 0.2% of those who expressed an interest ending up taking the jobs.


There are serious problems.


First, farms tend, strangely enough, to be rural. This means that those who want jobs often have to move to them because they cannot commute. Accommodation is often provided, but it tends to be the sort of accommodation you’d expect to be provided by a low margin industry. Working away from home isn’t necessarily an issue, the off shore industry is staffed by people who do it. But they’re that is a lot more profitable industry paying far higher wages.


The second problem is that it looks as if the retention of farm workers from the UK is low. So you pay them, spend time training them, and then they just leave. Amongst East Europeans retention runs at over 90%. Amongst workers from the UK there aren’t really comparable figures but it might be about 40%.


The third problem is that it is hard and skilled work. Firstly it’s physical, you’re on your feet all day lifting, bending, carrying etc. But also the hours can be long. If a supermarket demands fresh produce delivered to their depot at 7am, then those doing the picking could be working for as long as there is daylight enough to see. Just to make sure the produce is there when the customer wants it. Also it’s the old problem with harvesting agricultural crops. When the weather is fine, you work. As any farmer will tell you, eighteen hour days during harvest are not unusual. The problem is that the British workforce, even if they wanted to do the work, often aren’t physically capable, and even where they are, don’t have the skills needed. Obviously you can train people who are willing, and end up with a good workforce, but they have to be willing.


And the fourth issue is the fact that very few workers in the UK have experience in agriculture so they do need a lot of additional training. On the other hand, migrants often return to the similar work year after year lowering the time necessary for, and costs of recruitment, training and induction. Potential British recruits don’t know the job, they aren’t used to the industry culture, and the migrant worker who comes each year is already trained and knows how things work. Indeed some people have imported East Europeans to act as foremen and team leaders to help train the UK workers who do turn up. But when out of 36,000 applications, only 112 people actually take up a job offer, I suspect a lot of businesses have just given up on UK applicants.


Obviously things might improve. With growing genuine unemployment more people might look seriously at agriculture, but it’s obvious that there is no real enthusiasm for this and we will have to continue bringing in migrant workers for the foreseeable future.


Underlying all this is the problem of low margins. If you have Brussels sprouts sold to the customer for £1.12 per kilo leaving the farm at 29p a kilo, (figures from a couple of Christmases ago) there isn’t a lot of wiggle room for the agricultural industry. In this case, have consumers demanding cheap food shot themselves in the foot? Food has got so cheap the industry cannot afford to pay what the same customers would consider an adequate wage? Is food production caught in the same hypocritical trap that clothing is? People say how shocked they are at the wages paid by sweatshops, but then spend a couple of pounds on a garment they’ll wear once and throw away.


I suppose we could hope for a price increase, passed on to the producer so they could afford to pay higher wages. As somebody who has been in farming all my life I’m used to years when I make little or nothing, but I can quite understand those employed in the industry having a somewhat harsher attitude.

But without a price increase, what else is available? Now traditionally when the Government wants young men (and latterly young women) to serve it for low wages in poor conditions, it conscripts them. Frankly I cannot imagine this happening. I can see a lot of middle class and metropolitan commentators speaking favourably of the idea of conscripting the ‘gammons’, but should it be extended (as it always is) to the nice offspring of decent middle class families, there would be hell on.

Also, let’s be honest, what farm wants a bunch of conscripts who haven’t got a clue?


Still there is room for the state to move people into rural jobs that don’t exist yet. The government could create jobs picking litter and cleaning up after tourists. But seriously, if a young person asked me for job advice, I’d advise them to get into the civil service. I cannot imagine it getting smaller. Similarly those furloughed civil servants are unlikely to pass straight into redundancy. Guaranteed wage, guaranteed pension, and virtually no chance of losing your job, it could be the way to go.

Otherwise you might be stuck in agriculture, competing with Billy who is happy to work for all the vermin he can eat and having his ears tickled occasionally. But then it is the industry the consumer created.


There again, what do I know?

The fourth of these collections of anecdotes, rants, pious maunderings and general observations on life. Yes we have dogs, quads, sheep and cattle, but in this one we follow the ‘lambing year.’ It starts with ewes being put to the tup in late autumn and finishes in summer with the last of the laggards lambing.
But as well as this we have endless rain, as well as sleeping in a manger. Be brave and you’ll meet young ladies in high heeled cowboy boots, Sir John Moore of Corunna, brassieres for cows, and, incidentally, David Essex.

As a reviewer commented, “This book charts a year in the life of a Cumbrian sheep farmer. It’s sprinkled with anecdotes and memories of other years. Some parts (especially when featuring Sal, the Border Collie) were so funny as to cause me to have to read them out loud to my husband. It’s very interesting to read these things from the pen of the man who is actually out there doing it – usually in the rain! A very good read.”

Tagged: , , , ,

24 thoughts on “Hunting for a way to make a living

  1. rootsandroutes2012 July 17, 2020 at 4:55 am Reply

    No real comment to make at the moment, but I want to follow the discussion, and I can’t find a way of ‘lurking’.

    • jwebster2 July 17, 2020 at 5:01 am Reply

      I’ll have a delve into the mechanism and see what I can find

    • oldhenwife July 17, 2020 at 5:19 pm Reply

      We have rats (because we have chickens) but no dog.What do we do?

      • jwebster2 July 17, 2020 at 5:32 pm

        Assuming you don’t want to use poison, an air rifle is useful. And actually our Sal isn’t interested in ratting either. She killed one once but never bothered again. A good feral cat seems to work, but if you’ve got neighbours it’ll probably just go there to be fed

  2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt July 17, 2020 at 5:44 am Reply

    Amurricans have the same problem. When DT gets rid of the migrant workers, no one steps up to replace them in those low-wage jobs of backbreaking labor. It is a mark of how desperate those workers are that the picking jobs are better than where they come from.

    And it continues, generation after generation.

    • jwebster2 July 17, 2020 at 5:56 am Reply

      A friend of mine had family farming in Germany. At one point he discovered he had three Polish doctors picking cabbages for him because the money was better

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt July 17, 2020 at 6:53 am

        And those doctors were probably educated by the state!

      • jwebster2 July 17, 2020 at 7:30 am

        They were from Poland, as doctors they could only be educated, employed and paid by the state.
        So they left to pick cabbage in Germany

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt July 17, 2020 at 7:33 am

        That is common, unfortunately. Their education as doctors is then not acknowledged by the countries where they pick cabbages, thus compounding the problem.

        There should be some extensive examinations they could take to get recertified, along with required practices in the countries that are often very different from their own Communist countries – but many of those countries don’t want more doctors. Except now.

        I had a cleaning lady who had been a gynecologist in Czechoslovakia – what a waste!

      • jwebster2 July 17, 2020 at 8:48 am

        In Europe some qualifications are mutually recognised, and even where they’re not there is a process of ‘upgrading’
        One of the biggest issues is actually ensuring they speak English well enough to be understood, but also that they can understood English as spoken by the English 🙂

  3. Eddy Winko July 17, 2020 at 5:47 am Reply

    I remember heading off to Jersey to pick potatoes when I was 18 after loosing my YTS apprenticeship as the government stopped paying my second year wages of £43 a week. The first week was hard, digging and picking by hand the early cropping south facing slopes, but I made it 🙂 Now was it the fact that I was a long way from home or the fact that I could treble my previous wages if I worked long and hard? I’d guess the latter, so paying a decent wage has to go a long way in attracting labour. A pound is worth a lot more to a Pole or Rumanian than to a Brit.
    I did move on, but several years later I found myself without a job and no way to pay my rent, with no social security or housing benefit available in Jersey at the time, so I headed back to the farm and picked on a harvester for a few weeks to get back on my feet.
    It was harder work the second time 🙂

    • jwebster2 July 17, 2020 at 5:57 am Reply

      It is always harder when you go back isn’t it 🙂

      • Eddy Winko July 17, 2020 at 6:07 am

        Even more so 30 odd years later, I have to wonder what the hell I’m doing, although its only 20 rows nowadays 🙂

      • jwebster2 July 17, 2020 at 6:15 am

        Yes, I planted potatoes by hand as a boy working with men (potato at the heel, one at the toe, put next foot down, one at the toe.)
        But my feet were so small it was two feet then plant. So they had me carrying the seed potatoes to them in buckets 🙂

      • Eddy Winko July 17, 2020 at 7:22 am


  4. Doug July 17, 2020 at 6:30 am Reply

    I’m afraid Jim, that your view of the Civil Service bears little relation to the current reality. The job guarantees, the decent pension, and the working conditions are long gone other than as beloved myths of certain commentators and cartoonists.

    Once upon a time, talented and intelligent young folk joined the public service because they thought it was important work, that money wasn’t the only measure of success, and they accepted lower pay than private industry because they believed in adding to the common good.

    That was supposed to be the deal, and it all changed because politicians wanted to be able to easily fire folk who gave them unpalatable advice. Now look where we are: a public service the smallest it’s ever been in relative terms, services unable to deliver, and politicians who prefer cronyism to ‘frank and fearless’ advice.

  5. jenanita01 July 17, 2020 at 8:48 am Reply

    There are no easy answers for us, unlike the rats…

    • jwebster2 July 17, 2020 at 8:48 am Reply

      For them, Billy has all the answers they’ll ever need 🙂

  6. Doug Jacquier July 17, 2020 at 7:45 pm Reply

    Any ‘solution’ lacks perfection, Jim, especially when it involves travel and accommodation away from familiar territory. However when I was working with unemployed people before I retired, I was inspired by the Barangaroo project in Sydney (see link below). Yes, it is a construction project but the principles of flexible on-site training and gradual work hardening and transferrable qualifications and skills, underpinned by literacy and numeracy support, could be the building blocks for a primary industry development scheme. If there is hope beyond the difficult task at hand, engagement and retention are that much easier and as a society we all benefit. Regarding wages, as consumers we have to be educated into the idea that every ‘saving’ we make is someone’s (including our own children) job gone now and into the future.

    • jwebster2 July 18, 2020 at 4:36 am Reply

      Fascinating project
      I’ll share the pdf with a couple of people who are looking for this sort of thing

  7. Stine Writing July 21, 2020 at 11:59 pm Reply

    I agree with the government making new jobs. I also don’t understand why things aren’t manufactured by prisoners here in the US. At least it would give them a trade when they were released. It would be cheaper labor but we pay so much in taxes that go to the prisons anyhow. I also think there can be jobs, like you said, with litter removal. I know I drive down some roads and they are strewn with garbage. It isn’t a demeaning job if it is a paid position. I just think there are so many ideas out there but no one in the higher positions care to bother with them.

    • jwebster2 July 22, 2020 at 4:54 am Reply

      It’s a difficult one. In the UK it’s got a mixed reputation. Those people who work in an industry get a bit upset if they lose their jobs because they’re being undercut by stuff produced by prisoners. But I think one major issue was that prisoners aren’t in prison all that long. In the UK the average term has gone up to about 18 months.
      For many prisoners the biggest thing you can do to get them work outside is to teach them to read and write, treat their mental health issues (up to 37%) and their substance abuse problems (again perhaps up to a third)

      As for litter picking and similar jobs, the obvious thing to do, as they aren’t demeaning, is to have them done by those going to university as the first year of a their course. They wouldn’t be paid well but they would then get a grant instead of having to take out a loan.

      • Stine Writing July 22, 2020 at 1:37 pm

        That is a great idea! Here in the US prisoners are in for quite a long time depending on their offense, obviously. The biggest problem is they don’t get the help so that when they come out they can function properly. My brother was in jail for 10 years. I thought they should have forced him to take courses and forced him to have therapy. Instead he watched TV and played video games the whole time. That and moving drugs within the walls. It is a screwed up system.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: