Opinion: Work experience, wild oats and Elvis

My knowledge of botany has always been limited.

Elizabeth Elder

Elizabeth Elder

This was confirmed by a recent visit to the Chelsea Flower Show when I identified several plants that I had just dug out of the garden as weeds, prominently featured and available at a show price of £15 for six little seedlings.

Agricultural botany is even more of a mystery. Thistles, nettles, docks and the buttercups currently turning our hayfield into something with the look of oilseed rape – these are clearly weeds. After that I’m struggling. However, there is one arable weed that I can instantly recognise and I saw it recently.

Maybe it is because we live on a hill farm. Maybe it is because I mainly travel in a car that is too low to allow me to see over hedges. Or maybe it is a sign of how arable farming has changed. Last week, on a cross-county trip in the Land Rover, I saw something I had not seen for many years – wild oats, and lots of them, growing in a cornfield.

For me they will always be associated with my first paid job and with Elvis.

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I was pulling wild oats on the family farm when the death of Elvis was announced. The local radio station then changed from its regular eight-record repertoire to an all-day tribute, consisting of a handful of Elvis records on loop.

It is deeply ingrained in my memory. Wild oats, Elvis, first pay packet. For me these things are inseparable.

Looking back, I wonder if the whole wild oat extraction exercise was just a school holiday activity scheme devised by my mother. How much good we did for the crop I don’t know, as it seemed that we accidentally trampled large parts of the barley as we dragged old fertiliser bags full of collected weeds back up the field to the gate. In any event, the exercise was not repeated the following year. Mother never raised the subject and neither did my sisters or me.

We were paid Agricultural Wages Board rates, less a deduction for being younger than the minimum age. I seem to remember earning about £22 in total and blowing it all on a tape recorder.

This and other paid and unpaid work experience – memorably, scraping out the manure from the milking shed and being butted repeatedly by a calving heifer – made me decide that, on the whole, my talents and future career might lie elsewhere.

Now our eldest offspring is at the stage of thinking about applying for university. It has surprised me how many courses now seem to require not only good academic grades, but also relevant work experience.

I presume this is because they want students to have had the opportunity to check, through work experience, that they won’t absolutely hate it and give up after a fortnight.

The “just study something interesting and pick a career afterwards” school of thought, popular in my day, seems to have almost disappeared.

Last week, we accompanied our daughter to an open day. It was actually at Jake’s old university and we visited a rather beautiful old lab in which, to his own surprise, he remembered working. The lecture rooms in which he sat at the back reading Sporting Life were not included on the tour.

Our daughter is not looking to get into agriculture, but I’m very glad she has had the opportunity to get involved on the farm at an early age. Her work experience has been very effective, partly because it has helped her decide what she does not want to do. It didn’t involve wild oats or Elvis, either.

Elizabeth Elder and her husband Jake run sheep and cattle on 235ha of hill ground on the Otterburn Firing Range in Northumberland.

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