Picture credit: DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Strawberry fields? Never

The idea of toughening zoomers up with hard labour is a pointless fantasy

The young and old in Britain now live in such different economic realities that one could be forgiven for wondering if they share any interests or inhabit the same country. Contrast the barriers to homeownership faced by the young, which are both the cause and effect of the vast housing wealth enjoyed by the old. Or consider that years of higher education no longer reliably act as a bridge into serious or well remunerated employment. The list could go on. Looking down the ladders they have pulled up after them, a frequent boomer strategy is to blame the young for their predicament and imagine schemes to knock them into better shape. A recent instance of this is the former head of the National Farmers Union Minette Batters pondering at lunch with the Financial Times whether the youth of the nation could be drafted into the countryside to work as fruit pickers as a form of national service. From her point of view it would be a win for all involved — character building for the young, cost cutting for the agricultural sector.

Very few people in Britain today work in agriculture or live in the countryside and as such are unable to pinpoint the exact reasons why Batters’ idea of an army of zoomer crop harvesters is unfeasible. I can articulate those reasons, since I have been there, done that and got the sunburn. In the anxious and heady days of April 2020, farmers realised that they were going to be without significant elements of their usual workforce recruited from central and eastern europe due to travel bans to minimise the spread of the virus. They turned with some media fanfare to the public, asking ordinary people to step up to the task. With my university experience suddenly thrown into disarray, a large overdraft to pay off and beautiful weather forecast, I immediately signed up to pick fruit at a farm in Angus. I had no car, so cycled the 15 miles to the familiarisation session and met the motley crew of students, middle aged furlough enjoyers and local weirdos attracted by the smell of strawberries and money.

It became clear quickly that this would be no picnic. Modern farming has wafer thin profit margins and remains at the mercy of weather. Automation has not yet touched whole swathes of tasks which are carried out painstakingly by hand, hour after hour and day after day. We were expected to be on site to start work at half four or five a.m and would work until the polythene fruit tunnels became very hot, making it impossible to pick ripe fruit without damaging it. Some mornings after a night of clear skies it was bitterly cold and the strawberry plants were laden with dew, chilling your hands as you either pulled the flowers into position in the growing frames or removed weeds, each worker disappearing silently down their row of plants in the hundred metre long tunnels. Some days we would plant new strawberry rows, armed with a trowel and pallets full of plants and working along the frames, wind blasting fine coconut growing medium into our eyes. It’s largely solitary work. I listened to hundreds of hours of audiobooks.

 These horticultural tasks — weeding, planting and positioning flowers went on for weeks until the scene was set for harvesting to begin properly. Everything is about speed and very few of the covid crew could keep pace with the core group of Bulgarian and Romanian workers who had been coming to the same farm every summer for years or decades. Most of us (not myself I hasten to add) quit or were dismissed early in the harvesting phase. Failure to pick enough trays of fruit by 8am saw you sent home. Get sent home three times and you were fired, as your presence was a financial drag to the farm. I found myself running down tunnels pushing my trolley carrying six or eight trays of fruit, each containing twelve or sixteen boxes for the supermarket shelves, desperately hoping I could get it loaded onto the pallets in time to keep my job another day. Rain turned the ground underfoot into a puree fruit and mud and scenes of pandemonium reigned as dozens of workers rushed, sliding in their wellies to load trucks which were in danger of getting stuck. 

There were moments of camaraderie, friendships and the fun of being outside, lifting heavy items and getting a sun tan. I also got to tell a pompous train conductor that I was an Essential Worker. But the reason farmers rely on labour from poor countries to get the job done is that it is too physically demanding and disruptive to everyday life to be justified by the minimum wage it offers. I’m an athletic guy, used to climbing in the mountains carrying a heavy backpack, but weeks in the polytunnels drained me like no other job has. Opportunities to injure yourself carrying stacks of crates and trays were everywhere, heavy machinery was always on the move ready to run over or impale the inattentive and dehydration and heat exhausting got to many. Social life after work is impossible if you need to get up at three in the morning and the monotony of picking, running with your trolley and repeating for hour after hour eventually becomes mind numbing. 

The energy of desperation which drives most fruit pickers will not easily be replicated

I never felt mistreated but the operation was run with the assumption that the majority of the workers would be from low income countries where few other options were available. One of my supervisors told me he made enough money doing a summer on the farm to largely cover his expenses the rest of the year back home in his town in Romania. The foreign workers live in static caravans which they rent from the farm and occasionally make forays into town to pick up snacks or see the sights. Not all of them can handle the work — some Slovenians arrived and quickly decided it wasn’t for them. Others come as whole families and work together to ensure each person hits their tray target each day by sharing or swapping trays when someone falls behind. A handful of fruit ninjas pick so many trays that they earn closer to double the minimum wage, walking as gods amongst men.

The energy of desperation which drives most fruit pickers will not easily be replicated by rounding up the supposedly indolent youth of Britain and dispatching them to the countryside. They will not accept the hazards and exhaustion of farming life without significantly higher wages, wages which farmers and the consumer are unwilling to pick up the bill for. Young adults are not known for their enthusiasm to rise in the morning with the dawn or go to bed in the late afternoon. The military, which at least offers respect, money and uniforms, struggles to recruit since the transition from civilian to soldier entails serious losses of freedom and serious physical challenges. To think that zoomers could be persuaded to leave urban areas and act as indentured servants in a field for months at a time is to take leave of one’s cognitive faculties. As with every challenge facing Britain’s exhausted economy and welfare state, the old and unwise suggest either deploying the young in the prime of their lives to act as unpaid or low wage auxiliaries to falling areas like farming, social care or the NHS or perhaps that these problems can be solved by effectively unlimited free movement of low wage, low skilled labour from the poorest countries in the world. Both of these options are undesirable for obvious reasons, but a less obvious reason strikes me as equally important.

An addiction to the availability of badly paid warm bodies to deal with problems acts as a disincentive to invest in the technologies which could solve them decisively. Soft robotics and machine vision could transform agriculture forever if the government encouraged investment on a grand scale. The days of overburdened humans in tracksuits and wellingtons picking their way through polytunnels or wading through muddy fields of cabbages, bent over at the waist, could become as distant a memory as labour intensive car factories or cotton mills. A gleaming future of titanium and stainless steel, precision and elegance could reshape our assumptions about agriculture and lower the prices of food on our shelves.

The lack of imagination of the older generation might be expected and is forgivable but must be swept aside by true ambition. They yearn for a better Britain just as we do, but achieved with character building misery and misallocation of human talent. Theirs are the broken values of keeping calm and carrying on, at the expense of the young, even as the country fails. These delusions deceive no one but themselves. The rising generation must believe in the pursuit of progress and we, and our agricultural robots, will carry the future with us.

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