Fordyce Maxwell: ‘I’ve always believed that farming wives don’t get the credit they deserve’

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Even those with little or no grasp of French – still a majority regardless of the enlightened European times we live in – have a fair idea of what Edith Piaf meant when she sang “Non, Je ne regrette rien”.

The little sparrow was telling us, in her spine-tingling, croaky, way that she regretted nothing in her life. A bold claim. Even super-successful Frank Sinatra admitted “Regrets? I’ve had a few”, while for some their regrets drive them to drink or Leonard Cohen CDs.

Most of us, I like to think, fall between the extremes of Piaf and Cohen – “Some days a diamond, some days a stone”, as John Denver sang.

Regrets that occupy our mind on a bad day, or during one of those nights when the small hours stretch to infinity, are remarkably similar whichever walk of life we’re in, according to a flurry of recent surveys.

They include wishing we’d stayed in touch with friends, travelled more, expressed our feelings more openly, hadn’t worked so hard, been brave enough to live “a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”, and “let myself be happier”.

There are others outside the premier league, such as regretting taking up smoking, marrying the wrong person, not taking enough exercise and thinking we could have made it as a professional sportsman if we’d trained harder – or, possibly, been a better player.

So far, so sad. But I wonder how that list plays among farmers, particularly the regret about working too hard? That finding came from a survey of terminally-ill patients with the comment from a hospice senior nurse: “That regret came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.”

Missing their children’s youth does not apply to most farming families. Children grow up where their father and mother work. The benefit for parents is not only family labour from an early age, but the daily companionship of their children from the time they can toddle.

Compare and contrast family farming relationships with commuters leaving home at 7am and getting home 12 hours later.

But, of course, there are times in a farming year when a farmer is out of the house for 12 hours and more, or, what can be worse, in briefly to take a snatched meal and complain about the latest harvest, sowing or lambing disaster.

Fitting in a shouting match with some unfortunate grain trader or machinery dealer is only missing because that has already taken place on his mobile while walking across the yard.

That’s when sensible children lie low and any later regret about missing a partner’s companionship becomes tricky territory. These are probably the times when a farmer’s partner has regrets about not marrying someone else: “Will marrying a farmer help me live longer, doctor?”

“No, but it will seem longer.”

I’ve always believed that farming wives don’t get the credit they deserve in what is still a male-dominated industry. That might have changed a little in the past generation, as so many wives have taken paid jobs outside the farm and many more have been the driving force behind on-farm diversification, but living with a stressed male who thinks he’s an Alpha is still an art.

There are times on a farm when missing a partner’s companionship is welcome.

As to the central regret of wishing they had not worked so hard, it’s one I haven’t encountered often among successful farmers. For most, hard work is seen as central to their success. They believe, with Voltaire, that in the long run work is the most satisfying activity and replaces the illusions of life.

For many, work is also their hobby – when not thinking about farming or busy farming they show livestock or restore vintage tractors or go to agricultural shows and ploughing matches.

That often-quoted line from Bill Shankly about football being more important than life or death should apply to farming as seen by the majority of farmers.

It is possible that as some farmers face death they might regret working too hard. It’s possible that working too hard for too little obvious result, and other more complex reasons, play a part in farming suicides – suicide rates among farmers are well above the average for all sectors of the population.

But for the successful, and even the average, farmer working hard all their life isn’t a regret, it’s a source of satisfaction as an interview in last week’s Scottish Farmer with 85-year-old Jack Brewster reminded me.

He started his working at 13 milking cows by hand and at 25 started farming on his own account with no car, no phone and no electricity before going on to become one of Scotland’s best known and most successful dairy farmers.

He said: “I have enjoyed my life as a farmer very much. I have had lots of satisfaction along the way, a good life and look back [on] with many pleasant memories.”

Good for him, and a cheerful thought for a miserable November day in a miserable year.