In farming, there are times when you see nobody. I suspect that if I collapse and have a heart attack in a field it’ll be some hours before anybody thinks to come and see where I am. I wonder if the H&SE will put this down as another agricultural accident and demand we do more on-line training?
But farming is becoming a more solitary industry. Even in my time it’s got worse. I can remember my father commenting on it. When he’d first gone into farm service, a not particularly large farm could have family plus three or four lads working outside and a lass to help in the house. Farm work was a pretty communal activity. Then there were threshings and similar where lads would be swapped from farm to farm to help out.
For me, haytime was a novelty, you’d be working with three or four other people. Silaging less so. OK you worked as part of a team but you’re each in your own tractor and might not speak to anybody for some time.
I remember talking to one chap, his wife went out to work. Because she left home to take the children to school before he’d finished milking, and whilst she and the children got back at 5pm, he was milking again. So he’d see his family between about 6pm and 9pm. And he didn’t see much of the children because they had homework etc. As he said, it was only on weekends he had a family.
At one time auction marts were places with a lot of social contact. When I was milking cows I’d perhaps go every other week on average. With calves or cull cows to sell. When I swapped to calf rearing, I’d be there most weeks with calves to buy or store cattle to sell. It was one day a week but it got me out and it kept me up with the news and what was going on.
But then in 2001 we had the FMD outbreak. Obviously the auction marts were closed, but when they eventually reopened they were a shadow of what they had been. As economic entities, getting farmers good prices, creating a market, they still worked and they’re still doing a good job. But a lot of the social dimension seemed to fade. In our area a lot of small farms went out, people retired, sold up, or rented their land out and got a job which actually paid a living. The situation seemed to slowly get worse. Fewer people on fewer farms, less time in which to fit more work. Certainly not the time available to spend half a day around an auction ring.
I wandered back into the mart two or three times but frankly there were times when I felt it was full of miserable old men, most of whom were younger than me. I remember going to the Christmas beef show and a young farmer commented to me how packed it was. The Christmas shows were always busy, but what he thought of as packed was what I regarded as a normal Thursday auction day.
But over the same period I’ve been volunteering to help with FCN (Farming Community Network) https://fcn.org.uk/
We walk with people through all sorts of problems. A common one can be summed up as, ‘The government promised me £x thousand pounds under a scheme to do something they wanted doing. They haven’t paid me the money and I have creditors who want paying and nobody in government will talk to me.”
Then you get tenancy issues, inheritance issues, all sorts of things. But also you get the people who just need to talk. I remember one woman who just talked for a long time. Various problems, a mixture of farming and life. Boyfriend who wouldn’t commit and other issues. But letting her talk she mentioned that she’d used to go regularly to the mart. But after the mart there was a coffee morning she went to at her local church. She’d drop in for half an hour on her way home. Effectively it was her midday lunch break and she’d just go straight into her afternoon work when she got home. The ladies there were all at least half a generation older than her, but she’d got on really well with them. She’d not been going to the mart so she’d missed the coffee morning as well. I pointed out to her that whilst I could help with farming stuff, those ladies were the perfect group to advise on boyfriends. In fact they probably knew a person who could give him the necessary kick in the seat of the pants. My advice was to go to the coffee morning even if she didn’t go to the mart.
Again I had a young chap on the phone who started with one problem and just talked. As he talked he worked out the answer to his problem, and two or three other problems he’d not realised he had. But his real problem was he never saw anybody to just talk to.
And of course, covid has made it worse. Yes we’ve kept working normally. As somebody commented, covid is a very Protestant virus. You’re allowed to work as much as you want, but you mustn’t enjoy yourself.
And all the bridges we built have been dismantled through regulation. But people still need to talk. Indeed somebody suggested that after lockdown, normal people will understand what farmers go through all the time. OK we’re locked down in a nicer area and have plenty of room, but you so rarely see anybody.
So what to do? Well FCN is still there. In this county and diocese, the churches had organised a system where there was a chaplain (often a retired member of the clergy, or one who was based in the area) would just go into the auction mart every week. It’s a strange ministry. Somebody with this role had to miss a week to lead a funeral. The following week all sorts of people asked them where they’d got to and why weren’t they at the mart. People who had never otherwise spoken to them had missed them.
The chaplain came to the conclusion that even people who never spoke to them liked the reassurance of knowing there was somebody there in case they needed them.
The other problem is that in a lot of areas the traditional rural community has long broken down. The comment I read once was somebody had done a survey and discovered their village had more bank managers or hair dressers than it had farmers and farm workers. Farmers are often strangers in what was once their own community, surrounded by people who they no longer have anything in common with and are generally regarded as a nuisance because of ‘noise’ or ‘smell.’ Given that more people are either moving out of the cities, or at least buying second homes, that’s a problem that isn’t going to improve in a hurry either.
Oh yes, and ‘the crack.’ In this area, probably because of Irish influence, we use their word, Craic, for chat, but of course, anglicise the spelling. It may be an Irish word but it’s now part of English.
There again, what do I know?
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