Young women making hay when the wind blows

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 because it runs a nominal number of sheep and farms environmentalists. (Dramatic exaggeration applied for artistic effect. I’m a writer, it’s expected of me.)
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.

But the 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 to 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 suitably letters for you, she’ll be able to do the farm accounts as well. (To be fair, that came as a surprise to a number of daughters who still managed to cope with VAT etc.)
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.

But 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 saying, “Are you small enough to reach in and give it a pull and a twist.”


There again don’t mistake me for somebody who knows what he’s talking about.

For this collection of stories, Sal, our loyal Border Collie, is joined by Terry Wogan, Janis Joplin and numerous dairy cows. Meet pheasants, Herdwicks, Border Collies, and the occasional pink teddy bear. Welcome to the world of administrative overload and political incomprehension. All human life, (or at least all that hasn’t already fled screaming for sanctuary) is here.

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29 thoughts on “Young women making hay when the wind blows

  1. rootsandroutes2012 November 13, 2020 at 5:47 am Reply

    “…in my culture, it is a mark of respect to refer to a woman as a lady”. Jim, you are going to be in so much trouble for this. FWIW, I agree with you.

    • jwebster2 November 13, 2020 at 6:48 am Reply

      People should show respect for indigenous cultures, and there’s damned few more indigenous than I am 🙂

  2. Jane Sturgeon November 13, 2020 at 9:27 am Reply

    Jim, you are a tonic and a gent. 🙂

    • jwebster2 November 13, 2020 at 10:28 am Reply

      Best when poured into gin? 🙂

      • Jane Sturgeon November 13, 2020 at 10:42 am

        He he, best savoured over coffee. 😉

      • jwebster2 November 13, 2020 at 10:45 am


  3. jenanita01 November 13, 2020 at 10:00 am Reply

    Farming is really hard work, you need to be young and fit to make a go of it, which counts me out. I would have loved the life when I was younger…

    • jwebster2 November 13, 2020 at 10:29 am Reply

      It’s a broad industry. A chap of 71 is still driving round collecting fallen stock, a lot of us die in harness 🙂

      • jenanita01 November 13, 2020 at 8:26 pm

        It should pay better!

      • jwebster2 November 13, 2020 at 8:41 pm

        You wouldn’t want easy money to spoil me 😉

      • jenanita01 November 14, 2020 at 8:14 am

        Just a little…

      • jwebster2 November 14, 2020 at 2:28 pm


      • rootsandroutes2012 November 14, 2020 at 4:56 am

        Well of course it should pay better, but that’s down to the choices we make in the shops. I know that when I’m, offered the chance to pay an extra 23p for my milk in Morrisons, with the extra going to farmers, I take the same product at the cheaper price. Of course, in large measure that choice is driven by me not trusting Ken Morrison to get the extra through to actual farmers. What *should* happen is that there’s a standard price which is increased by x% to allow a sensible margin for farmers. Again, it’s not simple. If Morrisons acted unilaterally to provide for that increase, a percentage of their customers would go somewhere else – presumably because ‘every little helps’. So the shops – or at least the ‘Big 4’ – should talk to each other about these things. Oh, that’s ruled out under competition law.

        Many other good things should happen too – like that same milk being packaged in reusable glass. The technology exists to charge a deposit on a bottle, returned when you bring the bottle back. Again, pounds, shillings and pence prevent this happening because of (a) the cost of buying and running the necessary kit, (b) the threat to footfall if customers go where they don’t have to bother, (c) the same competition laws possibly preventing agreement being reached on the matter by the big players… and probably (d) to (zz) as well.

        Here ends the sermon!

      • jwebster2 November 14, 2020 at 5:45 am

        The problem is that if you put money into the pockets of food producers rather than consumers, a lot of other industries will collapse. As the cost of food has fallen the consumer hasn’t hoarded the money, they’ve spent it on other things. I saw figures which said that families spend more a week on a Sky subscription than they do on meat. How many coffee shops, barbers, hairdressers and nail saloons are there in Barrow? How much is spent on ‘music streaming’ and similar subscriptions? It’s not a simple equation because the number of pubs has fallen and that’s another trade experiencing difficulties. But if money shifts into one sector of the economy it moves out of other sectors

      • rootsandroutes2012 November 14, 2020 at 6:04 am

        Interesting one. I’m probably not typical, but I spend £0.00 / week on a Sky subscription (ditto netflix, spotify etc.) – and I imagine that they support very few British jobs. You’ll not be surprised that I also frequent a vanishingly tiny number of nail salons. The latter category has, in any case, been flagged up (by Peter McCall, among others) as being dogged by ethical issues like modern slavery. It seems that what’s true of nail bars (presumably for female workers) is also true of hand car washes (for male ones?) I speak with no authority at all, as I spend £0.00 / week in either of those sectors. It does seem to me that a rebalancing between the service sector and the manufacturing sector is long overdue – not least because of food security issues at a time when we as a nation import 48% (and rising) of our food requirements.

      • jwebster2 November 14, 2020 at 6:14 am

        By reading blogs you’ve already put yourself into a minority 🙂
        But yes there will have to be a rebalancing. How many airlines will we need after lockdown ends? How many can the environment cope with?

      • rootsandroutes2012 November 14, 2020 at 6:29 am

        Yours is the only blog I read at all regularly – count yourself honoured 🙂 As for airlines, well I completely agree. The last flight I took was long haul from Lands End to the Isles of Scilly in the autumn of 2016. I should have flown to Munich last August to lead a group to the Oberammergau Passion Play, but even that is now deferred to 2022. I don’t know what would count as an unsustainable level of flying from an ecological point of view, but my best guess is that well before we got down to levels that are environmentally sustainable, we’d pass the point at which the industry becomes economically unsustainable.

      • jwebster2 November 14, 2020 at 6:50 am

        I suspect we may go back to ‘national carriers’ as the only ones capable of surviving

  4. Doug Jacquier November 13, 2020 at 11:42 am Reply

    Jim, you should be compulsory reading for every Cabinet Minister (and yes, there will be a test afterwards.)

    • jwebster2 November 13, 2020 at 1:43 pm Reply

      I’m not sure they could cope with my attitude 😉

      • Doug Jacquier November 13, 2020 at 6:42 pm

        Then you’d make the perfect chief examiner. 😉

      • jwebster2 November 13, 2020 at 7:20 pm

        Being a farmer I suppose I’d have to be judge, jury and executioner as well because we couldn’t afford to bring in the specialists 😉

  5. robbiesinspiration November 15, 2020 at 4:30 pm Reply

    A great story, Jim. Doing the accounts is certainly a worthwhile skill.

    • jwebster2 November 15, 2020 at 5:25 pm Reply

      It is indeed. My mother dumped the job on me as soon as she decently could 🙂
      I had to deal with a VAT inspection and was frankly shocked when the inspector complimented me on how tidy I kept them!
      A lot of people must be making a real mess.

      • robbiesinspiration November 15, 2020 at 5:46 pm

        Judging from what I see, Jim, I’d say you are right about that.

      • jwebster2 November 15, 2020 at 7:27 pm

        One technique I can recommend for dealing with VAT inspectors. When my lady wife took over the job, she had her first inspection. A lady inspector arrived to look at the accounts, and our two year old daughter toddled across to see her. The inspector spent far more time talking to daughter than she did looking at the books 🙂

  6. Jack Eason December 8, 2020 at 8:53 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    More from our Jim 😉

    • jwebster2 December 8, 2020 at 10:22 am Reply

      All human life is here
      Or at least the scruffy and disreputable bits 😉

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