Ahead of the series finale next Thursday (18 September), one Powys farmer gives his verdict on Channel 4’s First Time Farmers.
Channel 4. It has always been the cool, risk-taking alternative to BBC2. It swears more, shows more flesh and, if allowed, would definitely smoke indoors.
And the seven-part First Time Farmers has quietly been playing a practical joke on Britain’s farming families by trying to start a conversation on the one topic everyone tries to put off until it’s too late: succession.
The show was a mixture of insights into young people’s work, interspersed with their social life and some rather stilted conversations between each other and their parents. These were predominantly on succession which, as anyone who has been involved in such discussions will tell you, can be very complex and take place over a long period of time, often years. Even afterwards, the subject may rarely be discussed, except among close friends and family.
This is why I felt sorry for those taking part – it is impossible to boil down into simple, entertaining sound bites without leaving out large chunks of nuance and detail.
Failure to represent
The show also failed to represent the experience of a significant proportion of young people in agriculture.
As yet, we have seen no coverage of anyone working on a farm not owned by a family member, be they from a rural or urban background. That means no farm labourers, or farm managers. No tenants trying to go it alone, and no share farmers. Nobody who worked from the age of 15 or younger in their summer holidays, perhaps just for two weeks then they caught the bug, and went to agricultural college or university.
It has, however, been refreshing to see the problems encountered by sons and daughters attempting to enter into business with their parents.
The series has clearly shown the difficulty a business has supporting more than one family unit, even on larger holdings, with many of the young people having to find a second income, even when there was plenty of work at home.
“If I want to see people making a right royal tit of themselves I’ll watch Geordie Shore, thanks.”
The programme was at its best when it simply got on with showing real farming. And that didn’t really happen until episode five. But what a episode that was, getting right to the root of how TB affects farmers financially and emotionally without getting bogged down in the controversial aspects.
Equally important was the portrayal of how important friendship is in helping farmers keep a sense of perspective in the bad times. Although we had seen a lot of various mates together already in social situations, that episode really showed what friends are for.
Speaking of social situations, here’s a note to TV producers – we all know that young people like to party. Quite a lot of older people do, too. If I want to see people making a right royal tit of themselves I’ll watch Geordie Shore, thanks. Or go out on the town myself. But the fact you’ve probably sat around and decided the only way to pitch a farming documentary to young people is if you embellish it with their social lives is patronising in the extreme.
From my experience meeting first-time farmers, the common thread is that at some point in their childhood they have interacted with farming whether through a summer job, a family holiday, a neighbour or a friend and have fallen in love with the job and the life. If you want to increase the number of young people interested in farming, you’ll find there isn’t that much of a crossover with those who watch a lot of telly for a start. And even if you get over that hurdle, there’s no point dressing it up because very soon the reality will set in that (as with many jobs) unless you derive a lot of pleasure from working hard then it probably isn’t for you.
So what is the best way to increase the number of young entrants? Well first of all stop worrying about getting the message out. There are plenty of young people who want to make it in agriculture. Simply give them a chance to try it. If you’re someone who needs staff, pay them a decent wage. Give them encouragement when they do something right. If you can’t take on someone full-time, but need a bit of help, why not take on someone from agricultural college. Or an apprentice from the Edge scheme, for example. Challenge them. Give them responsibility. Give them second chances, and reward the ones that step up to the challenges and get rid of the ones that can’t handle it. It’s probably not for them anyway.
The person who did all of the above for me was my employer on placement year during my agriculture degree. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a privilege for him to experience my formative years, but someone had to.
In the beginning, it was a massive culture shock after having worked at home and then become a typical university student. But as the days and weeks went by and I tried to rise to each new challenge (not always succeeding) I knew that agriculture was definitely the life for me. There are few things that beat the feeling at the end of a long hard day of seeing where you’ve been and knowing that even in a small way you made a difference.
So if someone shoves a camera in your face and offers you a bit of free publicity, sometimes it’s OK to say no. But in a world where the truth seems to increasingly belong to those who can shout the loudest, we owe a debt to those who are speaking up for us, and showing what agriculture is really like.