It’s 50 years since I first laid a hedge, taught by a farming veteran who claimed to have ploughed every field in the parish with a horse. With half a mile to lay this winter, I have to pace myself; two hours wielding the chainsaw and billhook, however satisfying, are enough for this 63-year-old (four years older than average) farmer.
Interspersed with the hedge laying, I am meeting potential trainees to join our team in the new year as students of regenerative agriculture. A far cry from the conservative, Barbour-and-tweed agricultural students of my youth, these are all thoughtful, radical young people making sharp turns in their careers – wanting to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
None come from farming backgrounds, so we start the interviews by emphasising the repetitive, physically demanding nature of picking broccoli in January or strawberries in June – and the need to keep up with the battle-hardened, more experienced pickers.
Ten years ago, I would have been speaking to hopelessly unrealistic lifestylers with no concept of farm work, who would not have lasted a week. Today, they have a new determination and realism; perhaps born out of the desperate state we are in, combined with the woeful lack of action they see around them. Saving this planet will take practical skills, hard work, and humility beyond the imagination of most.
In the 1980s, when I gave up my life as a management consultant in New York to return to 60-hour weeks and a damp cottage with an outside bathroom, the countryside was already draining of the highly skilled, but undervalued and underpaid, workers needed to run complex mixed farms. Machinery and agrochemicals took their place, as farms grew ever larger and more specialised – helped by the arrival of skilled Eastern European labour in the 1990s. As they too are driven out, we are facing the question: who will grow our food, lay our hedges, maintain our trees? Who will replace farmers, who now have an average age of 59? Who will transition this industry to meet the needs of a climate and biodiversity crisis?
As much as I admire the courage of our idealistic new entrants, they have a skills mountain to climb. This would be much easier if those who had grown up on the land, plus a few Eastern Europeans, could be persuaded to stay to help them. How do we achieve that? Less romanticisation of a long-lost bucolic idyll, plus better pay, would be a good start.