Skip to main content
Menu

News from the farm   |   Farming

'I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more'

"I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more…" So opens Bob Dylan’s 1965 classic Maggie’s Farm. Apparently the plaintive lyrics were aimed at an exploitative record industry, not as a literal rebuke to sadistic farmers. But on a hot, humid afternoon, surrounded by ripe strawberries that make the whole field smell like a jam factory, with exhausted young pickers around me wilted and limping – as so often, the great man’s words hit home.

“Well, I wake up in the morning, fold my hands and pray for rain,” the song continues. You can’t pick wet fruit, so rain showers offer a bit of respite for our exhausted team; although commercially speaking we would prefer for the rain to fall at night, some tired bodies are understandably grateful for a delayed start. 

Despite Brexit-induced labour shortages, we are staying on top of most of the work. Strawberry picking is always a challenge; it arrives in a four-week rush, and overlaps with the window in which we need to weed and plant winter crops. To ease and speed up picking, most growers have moved to tabletop production of strawberries, growing in polytunnels where the plants never touch soil. Instead, they are fed hydroponically in gutters, or grown in peat which is discarded after a year; both rightly banned under organic rules.

Strawberry
Strawberries grown in soil take up nutrients that add to flavour. 

Our strawberries are grown in the soil, which is more sustainable and, we think, gives much better flavour – but makes picking them back-breaking work, favouring the young and flexible. A few love it, but more cannot believe what they are being asked to do, and crumple in the first few hours. I have some sympathy; I couldn’t manage a full day of it myself anymore. Watching the contorted pickers, I determine to try growing in high raised beds, to make picking more ergonomic. 

“Well, he hands you a nickel, he hands you a dime, he asks you with a grin if you’re havin’ a good time.” As the season goes on and the berries get smaller, we raise the rate of pay per punnet – but years of managing people doing physically challenging jobs has taught me that there is no rate which will keep a miserable team going for long.

Even with the most mundane work there has to be some fun, camaraderie, pride, and a sense of purpose to sustain you through the week. It frustrates me when growers moan about work-shy UK youth; we must do more to make the work attractive, which can be as much about respect, agency and working conditions as it is about money.

    Comments

    Simply Shea

    2 Months 1 Week

    How can I sign up to pick strawberries for next summer?

    0 Reply

    Walrus

    2 Months 1 Week

    More to the point how can I sign up to eat the strawberries that Shea misses next year? As you say you gotta have some fun! the Walrus

    0 Reply

    Margreta Jose

    1 Month 3 Weeks

    Guy, you say that banning hydroponics is right. What about thinking outside the Soil Association box? Consider what the Cubans are doing after Russia withdrew their funding: organoponics.
    The life line of many Cubans, providing them with safe and environmentally sound fruit and vegetables.
    With all the difficulties the UK growers are facing, and not very promising government policies ahead, we could take heart at looking how other countries have adjusted after sudden changes. I would love to have a discussion about this with you. A bit of brain storming if you are open to that. (my background is (sub)tropical agriculture and farm(ed) organic fruit and beef. Just like you am in process giving it over to local hands. Now based in Cornwall. Margreta Jose

    0 Reply

    Guy Singh-Watson

    Guy Singh-Watson has over the last 30 years taken Riverford from one man and a wheelbarrow delivering homegrown organic veg to friends, to a national veg box scheme delivering to around 80,000 customers a week. Tired of meetings, brands and the assumption that greed is our predominant motivation, Guy converted the business to employee ownership in 2018, using the proceeds to buy a small farm and return to growing organic vegetables. In common with many of Riverford’s new co-owners, Guy is an advocate of using business to shape a part of the world, however small, to be kinder, more considerate and sustainable; more like the world most of us want to live in.  His weekly newsletters connect people to the farm with refreshingly honest accounts of the trials and tribulations of producing organic food, and the occasional rant about farming, ethical and business issues he feels strongly about.

    Wicked Leeks is out now

    With a focus on regenerative farming, a cover interview with ethical restaurateur Asma Khan and we answer your questions on price, plastic and organic farming. Plus the joy of seasonal summer eating.

    Read more

    Leading the Veg Revolution

    Shop seasonal organic veg boxes or explore Riverford's recipe hub, for veg help and foodie inspiration.

    Go to Riverford

    How to cook with a veg box

    From meal planning to unusual veg: food writer Stacey Smith talks through how to cook with a veg box.

    Read more
    Spread the word

    The twin crises of climate change and biodiversity losses will be the defining stories of our future, but it is not too late to change direction. 

    Here at Wicked Leeks, our mission is to help inform and inspire positive change. Our journalism is free to all because of this, but we want to reach as many people as possible who share our desire for a better world. We know our readers are some of the biggest advocates of sustainable living, and you can help us grow this movement by sharing this article widely, with your friends and on social media. Now is the time to act.