What’s going on? “It’s November; I’m getting my life back,” answers Martin, our veteran harvest manager. It’s his job to match staff, skills, and machinery to the requests coming from our veg box packing team. It has been a long summer, plagued by staff shortages and weather anomalies, so it is a relief for Martin to feel the pressure easing.
As the work falls away from our peak in July, we drop from a team of 70 co-owners in the fields, to a hardy group of about 20-25 who will see out the winter.
Some of those no longer working take a holiday, some Eastern Europeans (who make up about half of our co-owners in the fields) go home for a few months, and a few move over to work in our barns instead. Most will return to the fields in the spring.
Pulling leeks in a gale in January with ten pounds of mud on each boot requires extraordinary physical and mental resilience – but a small, hardy minority would choose work with a view, even in wind, rain, and mud, over any indoor job. Sadly they are getting fewer, and every year recruitment for the winter field team gets harder, creating a growing pressure to mechanise.
I love the machinery; it is poetry in motion to see a potato, carrot, or salad leaf harvester working well in a good crop. Those who romantically lament the passing of hand labour have seldom done much themselves. I do lament the combination of ever-growing scale and narrow specialisation used to keep those machines busy; machines require uniform crops, which adds pressure to use hybrid seeds and, on conventional farms, more artificial fertilisers and pesticides – eroding biodiversity.
The co-op I helped found over 20 years ago, the South Devon Organic Producers, shares machinery, labour, and knowledge – and has helped to support a number of medium-sized, mixed farms, whose more traditional methods benefit nature.
Perhaps just as importantly, it has provided mutual support in what can be a lonely business. And for now, as the weather cools, and crops hold well in the fields and the stores, those who work outdoors can enjoy some well-earned days off.