“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.
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.