Whitehall work experience? No thanks

Like most farmers I was surprised to read in Farmers Weekly a few weeks ago that the influential House of Commons Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee has recommended “government officials” should be sent to work on farms to gain first-hand experience of the consequences of the regulations they impose on farmers.

That surprise turned to astonishment when, two weeks later, I answered a knock at my farmhouse door to an embarrassed looking but elegantly dressed gentlemen who said that he was looking for a “bit of farm work”. With impeccable manners he introduced himself as Sir Humphrey. Intrigued, I invited him into my farm office for an interview – after all, it’s not often I get a request for casual farm work from someone who arrives in a chauffeur-driven Jaguar.

“Tea?'” I ventured. He said his preference was “Fortnum and Mason white Fujian with peppermint, where only the unopened tips or buds are harvested and are steamed, rather than dried”. I pointed out that unfortunately we were just out of Fujian and only had Co-op own brand fairtrade breakfast, which he graciously condescended to try.

I then quizzed him about what sort of work he was looking for. He said: “Like most old Etonians with a double first at St Annes’s Oxford in History and Politics, I’m very adaptable”.

As it happened, we were dagging out the ewes that morning before turning in the tups, so I suggested he might like to have a go at that. To encourage him I pointed out that because they were particularly dirty around the back end this year I was paying a higher piece rate than normal – 40p an ewe.

He said that perhaps “dagging is not really my thing” but he would be happy to advise on the health and safety implications of sheep shearing and in particular where a notice might be erected in the field to designate an emergency exit, a fire assembly point and first aid station. I thanked him for the offer but thought we were sorted for all that.

He asked if there was anything else he might be able to help with? I said that we were still trying to finish off spreading the last of our FYM so it would be a great help if he’d like to run one of my spreaders for the afternoon. Again, to encourage him I said I’d pay the AWB Grade 2 rate of £6.58 an hour (which was generous of me because really his lack of experience suggested the Grade 1 rate of £5.95).

At first he looked a little nonplussed but then asked if my farm was in a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone. I told him that part of the farm was indeed within an NVZ at which point his eyes lit up. He said: “Perhaps I could help with your diffuse pollution forms? Don’t forget there are different regulatory regimes and sets of forms for phosphates, nitrates and pesticides.”

When I pointed out that all the forms had already been completed, he looked crestfallen and seemed to shrink into his pinstripe suit.

We went on in this manner for some time until we both agreed that I probably didn’t have any work that was suitable for him. At this point, he finally admitted – what I had known all along, of course – that he had been sent for a bit of work experience from Whitehall.

“What,” I asked him, “will you report back?”

He stood up, adjusted his cufflinks and replied: “Compliance with regulatory initiatives first class, but still far too much farming going on.”

Stephen Carr runs an 800ha (1,950-acre) sheep, arable and beef farm on the South Downs near Eastbourne in partnership with his wife, Fizz. A third of the acreage is in conversion to organic status.

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