Farmworkers are frequently the backbone of a farm, tackling a vast range of tasks and doing prodigious numbers of hours. David Cousins talked to three exceptionally good examples of the genre.
Staple Farm, Taunton
What makes a good farmworker? Technical ability, of course, and timeliness and enthusiasm, not to mention versatility and an ability to be a second pair of eyes for the farmer. And if the farm is also a diversified business, then an ability to deal with the public is a terrific bonus, too.
This may sound like an unfeasibly long list, but all of these qualities (and many more) are to be found in the form of Graham Glasper.
Graham came to work for Somerset farmer Mark Pope in Taunton back in 1988. Things have been busy: ploughing and combi-drilling of the 160ha have been ditched in favour of min-till and careful management of the often-difficult soils.
This is not an easy farm. Much of it is heavy clay and rocks (some the size of a kitchen table) are a constant threat to machinery. Graham’s knowledge of where the worst rocks are is essential to avoid drills and cultivators getting damaged.
Average field size is a relatively small 4ha and average rainfall is 120cm a year, so it’s hard to get a decent seed-bed after maize.
Of course, none of this fazes Graham, who manages to combine admirable technical ability with a cheerful and friendly personality.
“When he came for the interview I set him the task of backing a big trailer into the barn; he did it brilliantly,” recalls Mark. “He treats all the machines as if they were his own.”
- Arable farm with 160ha of winter wheat, 40ha of winter barley, 8ha of beans and 12ha of grass
- Average 120cm of rain each year means crops have to be got in very promptly.
- Big rocks (some the size of a table) are an ever-present hazard to machinery.
He does all the spraying (in fact, he’s been the Farm Sprayer Operator of the Year winner twice) and cultivating, plus the maintenance. “By October the wet sets in, so we have to get all the crops drilled by the end of September; you don’t get a second chance.”
Graham also has a lot of responsibility for choosing new machinery. The farm replaces its tractors every three years and Graham’s advice provides an important steer to Mark. He’s also currently arranging for the farm to do trials of different strip seeders.
“I’m a county delegate for the NFU and am away one day a week,” says Mark, “so Graham will also check the crops, consult with the agronomist and ring me if something’s amiss. If I’m away, the farm phone diverts to Graham’s mobile phone, too.”
Farm open days
As if that were not enough, Staple Farm also hosts visits for schoolchildren – sometimes as many as 1,000 at a time over two days. Graham is as enthusiastic about this venture as his boss.
The farm has also started a storage business, which involves him having face-to-face meetings with the public, plus a Christmas tree diversification.
“He’s more positive than me; that can be a morale-booster,” says Mark. “He’s not a clock-watcher, either, and always arrives half an hour earlier than he needs to so he can get things out of the shed.”
Admirable though these qualities are, the thing that most impresses about Graham is the way he co-ordinated getting forage to the stricken farmers on the Somerset Levels earlier in the year.
As well as working tirelessly for long days, he provided both a friendly face and practical help to farmers who were at their wits’ end.
Hall Farm, Suffolk
We all know of farmworkers who have given long and loyal service to an employer, but finding someone who can beat George Manning’s amazing record could be pretty difficult.
In fact, you’d have to jump into a time machine and go back to 2 July 1954 if you wanted to witness George’s first day at Hall Farm, Fornham St Martin, near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. However, it’s all as clear as day to him.
George had left school at 15 and went to work for Colonel Long, the grandfather of current owner Andrew Long. His father Tom also worked on the farm before him, so the association between the two families spans more than a century.
He has seen big changes in the farm since that time. Hall Farm was a biggish 300ha mixed farm in those days, with corn, cattle and sheep the main enterprises and 19 people on the payroll.
Fast forward 60 years and the total area farmed is now 1,200ha, with just eight staff running it. The emphasis has moved away from livestock to arable, with the main crops now 12,500t of potatoes, 6,000t of onions, 12,000t of sugar beet, 3,000t of wheat and 1,000t of rape – a massive annual 34,000t of produce.
- 1,200ha, mainly down to potatoes, onions, wheat and rape
- 34,000t of produce grown every year
- 19 staff when George first started. Eight staff now
Embracing modern farming
So how does a 75-year-old fit in with this busy and thoroughly modern farming enterprise? The answer is – brilliantly.
Aged 22, George took over the driving of the farm’s lorry and then graduated to being loader operator.
The role was an increasingly important one because the farm had just started growing potatoes and there was a growing tonnage of produce to shift. So much so that George and the farm’s JCB do 1,600 hours a year – that’s an average of four-and-a-half hours a day, every day.
Co-ordinating 300t of incoming and outgoing crop every day could easily become a nightmare for lesser men, but George’s organisational skills means it runs like a well-oiled machine.
“He’s in at 6am during the potato harvest,” says Mr Long, “He’ll start half an hour beforehand and will just keep working until the job has been done.”
“He never panics or gets in a flap, even if there is a queue of lorries waiting. In this game, if you panic, you’re lost. Also, everything he does, he does with care.”
“He’s also really good at encouraging younger members of staff,” says Mr Long. “He will let them make mistakes and then gently coach them on the right way to do it.”
“He also has an amazing memory. He knows where all the field drain outlets are and he never forgets where anything is. If someone asks: Where’s the rotavator? George will immediately know where it is.”
For George himself, it’s all second nature. His almost military-grade organisational skills have been honed over five decades and there’s not much he doesn’t know.
He also has tremendous stamina, no doubt learned from the days when he would routinely go out and cut 300m of hedge with just a scythe and pitchfork or pick up 16ha of sprouts by hand in snow.
He comes across as a modest chap, but there’s a steeliness about him and he’s obviously a stickler for organisation.
“I do get annoyed when people leave things about – they should be put back where they came from. Otherwise you can spend an hour looking for something,” George says.
Will he ever retire? He smiles. One day he’ll have to, he concedes, but that’s still a long way off.
Wyke Farms is on an extraordinary journey. It’s a far cry from the early days of grandmother Ivy making cheese in a small backroom in the farmhouse. Her recipe remains the cornerstone of Wyke’s cheeses, which are now sold in 160 countries – a fact that would amaze their grandmother since she never travelled on a plane.
Lees Farm, Colyton, Devon
In many sectors, being called a specialist is considered the highest accolade you can receive. But it’s different in livestock farming, where workers and farmers alike often have to turn their hands to all sorts of different tasks and still do them well.
And when it comes to versatility, there’s not much that farmworker Roger Summers can’t do around Lees Farm at Colyton, Devon. He’s been working at this mainly dairy farm, farmed by Michael Williams, since 1988 and he knows pretty much everything about the job.
There isn’t a lot of flat land on the farm, says Michael. The farm itself is almost squeezed into the side of the hill and getting from one part of the farm to another isn’t always easy. The parcels of land are fairly widely spread, too, and moving stock from place to place is a task that always needs doing.
Roger has been on the farm for 26 years. Brought up on a stock farm himself, he came to Lees Farm in his teens after a stint at Bicton College. As on all dairy farms, the days are pretty long – he does the first milking at 5am every day and finishes any time between 6.30-7pm.
As the main herdsman he has a lot to do every day – not that he ever complains. He starts the day with checking the cows, then the morning milking takes until breakfast. After that there is bedding and feeding of the Holstein cross Ayrshire cows (as well as a couple of Shorthorns for Michael’s daughters), muckspreading and maintenance and the multitude of other tasks on a dairy farm.
Depending on the tasks that need doing, he also does slurry spreading, hedgetrimming, cultivating, fertiliser spreading, mowing and muckspreading. Not to mention logging, managing vet visits and routine herd health checks. In fact, there’s not much he can’t do.
“It’s unusual to find a worker who is good at dealing with stock and also interested in the machinery side,” admits Michael. But Roger is happy to turn his hand to tractor maintenance, chainsaw work, vaccination and handler use as well as the more usual chores such as foot trimming and AI.
A cousin has put in a robot milker and Michael is currently giving that careful thought. However, with a worker such as Roger, who takes pretty much all tasks in his stride and is thoroughly versatile, you wonder if it’s really necessary.
Feeding is via a Keenan mixer wagon and three to four cuts of silage are taken each year. The farm has its own mower, but the forager and a fleet of trailers is shared with a group of other farmers, cutting both grass and maize. This collaboration with other farms is an aspect of the job that Roger particularly enjoys.
Big financial asset
“He really has helped support the farm through some tough times,” says Mr Williams. “Because he’s such a reliable and hard worker, that has really helped improve our labour costs. If things are really busy, he’ll work through his lunch break. I sometimes reckon he does the same amount of work as two workers,” Mr Williams says.
“He’s also had a positive effect on the whole team,” he says. “He’s good at encouraging new members of staff, not to mention teaching my three children how to do things such as milking.”
“We hope he will help to sustain our healthy, happy herd for many years to come.”
“Isuzu UK understands that British farmers need a tough, versatile workhorse that can take on any job and do it superbly well. That’s not too different from the abilities of the three candidates in this category, who brought remarkable skill and staying power to all the tasks they tackled.”
Find out more about the 2014 Farmers Weekly Awards