Farming life isn’t all doom and gloom - Brian Henderson

The scale and extent of the problems being caused by the Home Office’s refusal to substantially increase the number of visas available to allow migrant workers in to help shore up the shortfall in farm labour has often been highlighted.

A moody moment from a Scottish Craft Butchers video (Picture: Scottish Craft Butchers)
A moody moment from a Scottish Craft Butchers video (Picture: Scottish Craft Butchers)

The consequences – including crops being left to rot in the field and businesses being forced to cut back on planned production and scaling back investment – were also well flagged up at last week’s NFU Scotland conference.

Recently a major survey showed that fewer than a quarter of the general population would even consider working on a farm – and the widely reported experiences of those trying to drum up some home-grown additions to their workforce from the UK’s increasingly small pool of the unemployed would indicate that even fewer were willing to stick with it even if they did try.

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But while the UK Government’s attitude of “pay them more” has been almost too glib to merit comment, it has to be admitted that, as a sector, while pay rates are generally well above the stipulated minimum levels, we probably haven’t been doing a great job of selling the industry as one offering the most attractive hours of employment or of prospects for advancement.

There has always been a tendency amongst farmers to focus on the long hours and the drudgery of working out in all weathers – it seems to be in our psyches to revel in the misery.

But it’s not always cold and dreich, nor are we tied by five-day, nine to five. But in the constant rush to get jobs done during good weather spells, we tend to forget that while we’re outside in the sunshine and the morning breeze, most people are stuck in commuter traffic or hunched over an office desk.

But while we shouldn’t be painting a picture of a rural idyll which is only truly found on the canvases of Constable or the weekly episode of Countryfile, colouring the recruitment poster with some of the very real excitement, satisfaction and gratification which can spring from the job is important.

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Looking back in history, farming hasn’t been the only job which has proved fairly unpopular to the general population – it’s only a few centuries since the Royal Navy had to pressgang people into manning the country’s warships. Similarly, the old coin at the bottom of the beer glass was used to forcibly drum up recruits for the army by tricking the unwary into taking the queen’s shilling.

No one would seri ously propose press gang tactics nowadays but it might pay to see how the armed forces turned their unpopularity around. Rather than the stern face of Lord Kitchener pointedly stating that “Your Country Needs You”, recruitment campaigns now focus on the camaraderie, the opportunities and the prospects for advancement, as well as the chance to get to grips with some hi-tech equipment – basically a bit of a PR makeover.

It certainly wouldn’t harm us to move away from the dour, sullen image of the farmer which is imprinted in the minds of many youngsters.

On that front the union’s conference threw up some interesting possibilities. The first was, sadly, held back by a technical glitch. The presentation by the Craft Butchers on one of their recruitment events resulted in only the heavy metal soundtrack being streamed during the conference – but that was intriguing enough for me to click on the link provided later to the “Butcher Wars” video on YouTube.

The event came across as WWE wrestling meets MasterChef, with contestants striding into the spotlight through dry ice, carrying a side of lamb over their shoulder to the throb of the aforementioned music. The ensuing competition between young butchers to turn the carcase into a butcher’s window display of cuts and ready meals brought out real excitement in the crowd – and I’ve no doubt I saw a few signing up for training.

We should harness the talents of the younger generation of farmers also on display at the conference, showing how social media, podcasting and vlogging were helping to get the real farming story out there – and use them to beat the recruitment drum.

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