Farmer swaps arable for Antarctica

Michael Neaverson on the ice

Assistant farm manager Michael Neaverson has temporarily swapped his role in Yorkshire for one in Antarctica.

The 24-year-old, who works at Farmcare’s Goole Estate, is spending three months as a machinery operator for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) helping to unload supplies at its Halley Research Station on the Brunt Ice Shelf.

Predominately a base for scientific research, it requires a large – and diverse – support team and houses about 13 people year-round, increasing to about 50 in the “southern summer”.

What does your job at the base involve?

I’m part of the 10-strong summer vehicles team, fulfilling a number of different roles.

The station is almost exclusively supplied for the whole year by two or three visits from the BAS’ own ice-strengthened supply ship, the RRS Ernest Shackleton, in a process called relief.

There’s no harbour or dock here; instead the ship has to find an area of ice low enough to crane the hundreds of tonnes of fuel and cargo on to trains of waiting sledges. From the relief site on the coast, it’s a 50km, four-hour haul to the station across the floating ice shelf using John Deere tractors and PistenBully crawlers.

It’s all hands on deck during relief, running in shifts covering 24 hours a day for the 10 or so days it takes to unload the ship, though as it never gets dark at this time of year, it’s not really a problem.

When the ship is away, work on station returns to a more usual pattern.

There’s not really “normal” day as the work varies so much and depends on the weather, but today, for example, I spent the morning lifting tonnes of scientific equipment into a laboratory with a tank-based Hi-ab crane and this afternoon I have been moving snow with a PistenBully.

One thing’s for certain in Antarctica – there’s always snow that could do with shifting.

John Deere tracors with tracks on ice

What made you apply for the post?

I love travelling and visiting unusual, remote and extreme places is my idea of fun. On the other temperature extreme, I had seven months working on a farm in New Zealand a few years ago.

When I saw the advert in the back of Farmers Weekly, I never expected that a few months later, after an interview at BAS headquarters in Cambridge, I’d actually be in Cape Town boarding the RRS Ernest Shackleton for Antarctica.

What aspects of your farming job have you found most useful so far?

A practical, hands-on attitude is essential down here to get things done. Experience operating a large range of equipment has also been quite handy because although it is only really the John Deeres I’d had any experience of before, many of the skills required to operate the other machines are transferable from other agricultural vehicles.

Tractors on the ice in Antarctica

What are you driving?

There’s a surprisingly large range of immaculately maintained equipment here, including bulldozers, cranes, excavators, PistenBully crawlers, personnel carriers, Ski-doos and two John Deere 7820s with track conversions. Wheels are useless out here; tracks and sledges are the only way to get around.

What are the conditions like?

Even in the summer it rarely gets above zero degrees and -15 is very common. With the right kit on, though, it’s bearable. It stays light for 24 hours a day during the summer, which is surprisingly easy to get used to. It’s the 13 “winterers” who won’t see natural light for 105 days that I feel sorry for!

Did you have to undertake any special preparations?

Antarctica is obviously quite an extreme place to work, so having the right kit is essential – the BAS supplies all the specialist gear. There is a doctor on station, but passing a medical is a prerequisite too; in bad weather evacuation could take weeks and in the winter it’s likely impossible.

What have been the high and low points to date?

Probably the most notable one for me was the first time I felt the ship shuddering through the ice – it’s an indescribable feeling. Before you get to the sea ice around the Antarctic Circle, it’s a seven-day passage from Cape Town across the notoriously rough Southern Ocean. All I can say is I’m pleased the sea sickness tablets worked.


What is there to do in your free time?

Unlike some of the BAS’ other research stations, it’s pretty flat at Halley, so kite-skiing is a favourite, although I haven’t dared to try it myself. There are also trips out to see the penguin colonies and to try ice climbing.

What are your plans on your return?

I’m thankful to Farmcare for letting me take the time off for this trip and I’ll be returning to my more traditional job in February, hopefully in time for the start of the spring work.