So where will we get the staff?

Whilst my time in agriculture has been a time of impressive change, I suspect that the industry has been moving so quickly, 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.

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. The 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 round 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.

So now turnips and fodder beet (the latter another root crop but generally considered a better option than turnips, perhaps because it can cope with mechanised harvesting better) are planted with a precision drill. They’re no longer harvested by hand either. Everything is mechanised. Indeed a lot of fodder beet is grown on the big arable farms as a break crop in their rotation. They have the heavy tackle needed. They will grow a fair area of it and it’s sold to livestock farmers in 20 ton tipper loads. Indeed even when feeding fodder beet, you scoop them up using the loader on the tractor and spread them along the feed fence. There aren’t the staff to faff about. (Here my grandfather worked and employed three men and a lad. I farmed the same area on my own. I know farms where the amount of labour shed is far higher.)

With kale we’ve had contractors sow it, but we make no attempt to carry it to cows. Instead they strip graze it behind an electric fence. So crops which fifty or sixty years ago took a lot of backbreaking labour are now totally mechanised.

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. According to the wiki 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 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.


There again, what do I know? On the other hand, I’ve just produced another collection.


Yet more observations on rural life. We have cattle, environmentalists, a plethora of new thinking as Defra plunges into the new world but more importantly we still have our Loyal Border Collie, Sal. She is joined in a starring role by Billy, the newly arrived farm cat. As well as this we have diversification opportunities for those wishing to serve niche markets, living in the past, and the secret of perfect hair.

Available as an ebook from anybody but Amazon at

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24 thoughts on “So where will we get the staff?

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt April 20, 2021 at 4:48 am Reply

    Got my copy – can’t wait to read it.

  2. Doug April 20, 2021 at 5:27 am Reply

    My grandfather was a member of the order of horsemen, farm nobility with his two Clydesdales, my father planted tatties and cut kale before he moved away from the farms. As a kid, locally we had berry holidays when ancient buses would take city folk out to the fields for piece work. All change, now raspberry canes are in poly tunnels, and strawbs on benches so no back-breaking. The bothies that used to house the fee’d farm workers are holiday accommodation.

    Change is the only constant, and you’d be brave to predict the future.

    • jwebster2 April 20, 2021 at 6:03 am Reply

      Absolutely. I remember one old farmer who commented once that at 14 he’d moaned because his farming father had insisted on his becoming a cowman. He’d wanted to be a horseman

      Father had merely commented, “If I whistle I can fill that yard with horsemen. I might get two good cowmen if I was lucky 🙂

      But there was an irony about horsemen, who were some of the finest animal handlers we had, being the ones who had to shift to tractors.

      • Doug April 20, 2021 at 6:40 am

        My grandfather was long gone before widespread mechanisation. And in his day, a horsemen with his own horses was a very valuable commodity. He could pick and choose which farms he worked at. If you are interested, you could start with ‘The Horseman’s Word’ (

      • jwebster2 April 20, 2021 at 6:59 am

        I never heard of it mentioned over here, but there again, I was never a horseman so I wouldn’t 🙂

  3. Eddy Winko April 20, 2021 at 5:54 am Reply

    Movement is much slower here in Poland, but farms are starting to disappear (only 1.3 million left) and the reminder are increasing in size, the average size is something like 11 hectares.
    We still see horse and cart; plough, cultivator and harrow, but they are a dying breed, but it will be a long time before the farmers give up their Ursus C335. And labour is normally provided by large families or the local unemployed who have little lese to do as there is no benefits system as such.
    I cant see the machine taking over anytime soon over here 🙂

    • jwebster2 April 20, 2021 at 6:00 am Reply

      It some areas it’s a thirty year thing. After all, on this small farm, from the last horses to the big contractor driven self propelled forage harvester was about thirty years

      As for the old tractors, in this country they weren’t given up, they ended their days as scraper tractors cleaning out cubicle houses 🙂

  4. April 20, 2021 at 6:07 am Reply

    When our daughter and son-in-law moved to Margate ( could not afford to buy a home in London ) we set the sat nav and as we neared our destination saw signs for Thanet Earth and imagined a fun science park, family day out. At the same time we noticed sunlight glinting on strange glass buildings, but made no connection! We have a lovely traditional greengrocers, but how the veggies are grown and arrive there I doubt most customers have any idea.

  5. M T McGuire April 20, 2021 at 6:21 am Reply

    Interesting and food for thought. To me it’s details of how something we all know, like fartming, might look in future that makes good sci fi back ground. I might be using this … 😁

    • jwebster2 April 20, 2021 at 6:58 am Reply

      Feel free. The future is here 🙂 Or at least its seeds have already been planted

      • M T McGuire April 20, 2021 at 10:28 am

        Yep that I can believe.

      • jwebster2 April 20, 2021 at 5:21 pm

        Extrapolation is fun 🙂

  6. Books & Bonsai April 20, 2021 at 7:57 am Reply

    A totally different world these days…

  7. Books & Bonsai April 20, 2021 at 7:57 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Books & Bonsai.

  8. Stevie Turner April 20, 2021 at 8:18 am Reply

    More and more as i get older it’s a case of ‘acceptance’. Accept changes that are not necessarily good. These changes affect us all from ageing changes that affect the body, to the mechanisation changes that you describe, Jim.

    • jwebster2 April 20, 2021 at 5:20 pm Reply

      I suspect when you think back in your own life, at work and elsewhere, you’ll see a very similar process.
      I suspect wisdom is saving the good and adding to it the best that comes past 🙂

      • Stevie Turner April 20, 2021 at 5:28 pm

        Everything changes. Nothing stays the same, does it?

      • jwebster2 April 20, 2021 at 5:37 pm

        I suspect people are much as they were, some times they’re just better domesticated 🙂

  9. Cathy Cade April 20, 2021 at 9:05 am Reply

    I’m learning a lot from this blog..

    • jwebster2 April 20, 2021 at 5:21 pm Reply

      Fortunately I have to moderate my language, so you’ll not get your legs slapped by your mum for repeating some of the things I’ve said 🙂

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