Opinion: Our risk-averse culture switches kids off farming

As a child, I was paid by my father to sit on an unsecured wooden box on an exposed platform next to the driver of our Massey Ferguson 515 combine harvester.

The combine had no cab, and the driver carried a loaded double-hammer action barrel 12-bore shotgun, which he wedged behind the control panel and would grab (letting go of the steering wheel in the process) to take a pot shot at any fox or rabbit that moved in the crop ahead of the cutter bar.

My father’s excuse for exposing me to this insane level of risk? He wanted to get me “interested in farming”. Such was that particular farmer’s approach to “health and safety” in the late 1960s.

For my part, I loved every minute of it. The thrill of the ride across steep, treacherous downland slopes, clinging for dear life to a rail just above the reel, cutter bar and auger of the 3m header. The camaraderie with the combine driver as we wiped the dust from our faces with diesel-perfumed rags and shared his flask of stewed sickly sweet tea and the contents of his lunchbox. Most glorious of all, the approval of my father for having endured another long day of dust, dirt, fumes and noise. And, of course, the chink of the coins in my pocket as I made my weary way up to bed.

At night I could barely sleep from eyes filled with black dust and ears ringing from 10 hours of continuous exposure to the unrelenting roar of a huge diesel engine.

Some 50 years later, I have impaired hearing, dust allergies and weak lungs.

I also have chronic back problems caused by untrained lifting of 50kg fertiliser bags in my early teens. My shoulders are none too hot, either.

But my father’s strategy worked. Far from putting me off farming, my early induction into the joys of combine driving taught me a love of the sounds, smells and unrelenting work ethic of agriculture.

I have never milked a cow, but as my father’s farming peer, Hampshire farmer John Cherrington, used to say – unless children are introduced to the joys of the relentless, mind-numbing routine of dairying by their early teens, it is too late.

I am now a farming father of five and never can there have been such a change in the space of one generation in what is considered an acceptable level of risk for people to be exposed to on farms.

My daughters’ collective involvement in this year’s harvest consisted of one visit to the harvest field in our Volvo 4×4, with them strapped into three rows of three-point seatbelts, sat behind passenger airbags to the fore and impact protection bags to the side.

We did briefly venture out for a picnic at a safe distance from any working machinery, but even our 10-year-old soon declared herself “bored” with the spectacle of our John Deere combine cruising up and down the field with the driver invisible inside the air-conditioned, tinted-windscreen cab.

Farmers Weekly still contains enough stories of tragic farm accidents (some of which involve children) for us to be certain that, even now, our industry still has a very long way to go in terms of reducing injuries and fatalities to farmers, farmworkers, their families and visitors to farms.

But given how remote this process has already made my own children to my farm, I do worry about how interested in farming they are ever likely to be.

Stephen Carr runs an 800ha sheep, arable and beef farm on the South Downs near Eastbourne in partnership with his wife Fizz. Part is converted to organic status and subject to a Higher Level Stewardship agreement.

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