We are down to our last few ethnic Brits in the fields; it has been a steady progression since the first enterprising Pole arrived with a tent and guitar 15 years ago, to today, where if you don’t speak Russian, you might find picking an alienating experience. It’s easy to see why it is not a popular job for locals; other than deep sea fishing, there can be few occupations more gruelling, both physically and mentally, than harvesting vegetables in winter. The views and occasional bright days help, but this winter has been one of almost relentless wind and rain, and with that comes the boot-clagging and spirit-sapping mud.
Though I did it for almost 20 years, I know I’ve lost the mental and physical fitness to survive a winter in the fields. Maybe it could replace National Service as a means of getting people to value their food more and appreciate the work of others. A few harvesters have made it to retirement but they are the exception; by 40 most have turned in their wellies and are almost impossible to replace, other than with our extraordinarily hardy East Europeans.
Are those who grew up in the former Eastern Bloc made of tougher stuff than us? Are they raised with different expectations? When I ask how they feel about their work they generally look bemused; why would I care? I pay them and they do the work asked of them. I worry that elsewhere such low expectations of employer interest lets lazy bosses off the hook, and risk taking us back to a Dickensian denial of employer responsibilities. Our human need for respect and appreciation is universal, but many of those raised under the Draconian conditions of the former Eastern Bloc (where there was little respect for the individual) don’t seem to expect theirs to be met any time soon. This is convenient for disinterested managers but hardly something to aspire to as an engaged employer like us. We are hugely grateful to our harvesters for their work; it is hard to imagine how we would fill your boxes without them. But I do wonder, who will be doing this vital work in another 15 years?