Andrew Arbuckle: Managing the peaks and troughs of the farming year

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There was a bravado at still going on as the rest of the team went home

I WAS driving home contemplating why I had not done better in the village hall quiz and comforting myself that lack of knowledge of soap operas and pop songs of the 1980s was not something to be regretted.

It was just after ten on a Friday evening and I saw the headlights moving up and down the field with the tractor driver no doubt subconsciously absorbing pop music from his in-cab radio. My thoughts quickly turned to one of farming’s supposed problems: attracting people to work in the industry.

It has been quite an exceptional spring so far with almost all the cereals drilled in March, but on arable farms growing potatoes and vegetables and on many farms with breeding sheep and cows, there is still a major labour peak to come.

So during April, there will be far more “headlights in the night” as shepherds and cattlemen check their charges and potato growers shift tonnes of stone and clods from where they want to plant their spuds.

It can be argued that it was ever thus. I have myself worked through the night on several occasions. In one case it was trying to take a potential blockage out of the work flow by doing extra cultivations in a particularly tough field.

If I recall, there was a certain bravado at still going on as the rest of the team went home at the end of their working day and then as I watched the countryside become quiet all around me, the cottage lights going out one by one and the traffic disappearing, I slowly realised a long night ahead loomed.

Having already worked during the day I nodded off several times, once finding my straight and proud cultivating lines veering off course dramatically. For the obvious reason that this would be mocked in the light of day this required immediate remedial action.

And then as the darkness lightened, the early morning wildlife could be seen far less leery than they are in the heat of the day. As the rest of the team started, I went home and fell asleep.

Back to today. It is possible to believe that with modern technology some of the work stress has been removed. For instance, the CCTV monitors in the lambing sheds and the GPS steering systems used to keep the drills straight.

But the labour peaks have been accentuated. The seed drill I saw on Friday night was the overnight shift with two drivers sharing the one machine; one day shift, one taking the hours of darkness. “Helps cut fixed costs” the farmer told me and no doubt it did as his rig covered a massive acreage in these dry March weeks when in a previous year two machines were used.

But his comment did not mention the effect the decision had on the employees. There are young men who love to drive tractors, especially big tractors, and on arable farms that is what they do. For about a month in spring and two months at harvest they sit on these beasts and regularly clock up over 100 hours per week. The result after several weeks is that their families hardly recognise them and they are bug-eyed with tiredness. Hardly a ringing endorsement of a career in agriculture.

We should note the industry is exempt from the European Union Working Hours Directive that has brought a modicum of sense to other trades and professions – even those much-publicised junior doctors now have some controls on the hours they work.

But I do not argue for any regulation, other than the industry should encourage some self-regulation.

Recently I was much taken to learn that the staff of one of the most progressive Border farmers do not work seven days per week, and that rule holds even in the heat of harvest or the sweat of spring.

I also know other farmers who for religious reasons do not do anything other than the most essential work on a Sunday – and none of those are noticeably behind their neighbours in their work.

I confess that when I was actively farming I was as bad as the next one in frequently working seven days a week. The thought of a good day passing without taking advantage of the weather could not be easily discarded.

But I now repent. As a local authority councillor, I used to get as annoyed as anything when someone complaining about some stretch of road they considered dangerous would end up saying “someone will have to be killed before something is done about it”.

I do hope that it will not be accidents that bring about a modicum of sense in restoring a little work-life balance into those who work the fields.