My great farming hero, the late Hampshire farmer writer and broadcaster John Cherrington, used to maintain that if you wished your son or daughter to follow you into dairying you should “break them in” before they knew any better.
To delay an introduction to the mind-numbing routine of the milking parlour beyond the age of 12 was to run the risk that the adolescent will discover there are easier ways of earning a living than being tied to the tail of a dairy cow 365 days a year from 4am each morning.
My own father inducted me into farming with ruthless single-mindedness. We didn’t have dairy cows, but he introduced me to the delights of beef, sheep and arable farming without me realising that a subtle brainwashing was in progress.
I was given a handmade, bespoke model farm for my fourth birthday. By the age of nine I was an expert in the rearing of sock lambs, and he was soon paying me generous pocket money just to ride on tractors and combines (before health and safety took a dim view of such adventures), long before my legs could reach the pedals.
More disturbingly, he suggested that a limited education was an asset if I wanted to be a farmer. University was “a bad idea” because a formal education in agriculture at an college or university would be a “severe handicap” to farming success.
Looking back, I can only guess that he was so against further education because he feared that while I was away from home someone might turn my head against the farming future he had planned for me. His strategy worked a treat and, in suitably bovine fashion, I slipped from behind my school desk to behind the steering wheel of a tractor, where I’ve been sat – more or less happily – ever since. If every farming parent were as determined to produce a farming heir as my late father, it is fair to say the industry would not now be facing the succession crisis that it is.
Only last week I was gossiping with a neighbour about likely local farm succession outcomes and, given what we know about the children’s interests and career paths, we decided that half the county would be up for grabs within the next 20 years.
Of course, the financial rewards from farming can be huge, but it is not money that is at the root of our industry’s difficultly in attracting new entrants. There is something about farm work that is fundamentally at odds with the sensibilities that become the norm in a developed economy. The same recruitment problem affects farming in all advanced countries. We may have satellite navigation in our tractor cabs, but those tractors still need to be greased and cleaned and have their oil filters and fan belts changed, while the dirty, hard, physical nature of working with livestock is even more daunting. I well remember the traumatic effect that a difficult calving had on one of my farm sandwich year students – she is now a successful stockbroker.
I have no regrets about my three decades in farming, but my three eldest children have already declared “no interest” in the industry. That leaves my 15-year-old and nine-year-old “undecided”. I am taking a leaf out of my father’s book. The teenager was rewarded with an iPhone 5 for a mere two days of barley combining this summer. And I’ve just asked a carpenter to refurbish my now tatty bespoke model farm in time for a Christmas present for my nine-year-old. Yes, I’m desperate.
Stephen Carr farms an 800ha sheep, arable and beef farm on the South Downs near Eastbourne in partnership with his wife Fizz. Part of the farm is converted to organic status and subject to a High Level Stewardship Agreement.
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