It’s never been an easy life for man ... or woman

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It’s hardly surprising that things have changed in 170 years. But it is still a sobering thought that in 1841 one in four people in Britain were employed in farming, while now it is less than one in 100.

That compares with four out of five, 81 per cent, in the services sector, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics. No wonder that the tens of millions of shoppers who live in towns and cities think that supermarkets produce as well as sell our food and drink, and have only a tenuous idea of what farmers do.

As with all statistics, totals and averages don’t apply evenly. More than one per cent of the workforce is engaged in farming in the Borders and Northumberland, for example, although even here the steady decline in the number of full-time farm staff seems to have accelerated in recent years as machines have become bigger and the average acreage farmed has increased. And yet, here and across Britain, small-scale farms hang on, such as the Yorkshire hill farmer with a 40-cow dairy herd I met recently.

Almost half a century ago I spent several months working on a dairy farm with about 40 cows and that was a modest size then. Now we’re told than anything below 150 cows isn’t viable and there are herds of 1,000 cows. Yet my Yorkshire farming acquaintance and his brother contrive to make a living by running several hundred Swaledale ewes and selling milk from their small herd to the local cheese factory, even though he said: “They’ve got us over a barrel on prices, like.”

Living quietly with a lifetime of milking cows and shepherding behind him, along with winter work beating and loading on a local grouse moor to pay for a fortnight’s holiday each year, he seemed happy enough, a detail that doesn’t show up in statistics.

Also, almost 50 years ago, the first question our farm management lecturer asked us as new, keen students was whether we thought farming was a business or a way of life? To a man – about 120 of us, all male, a sign of other times – we said: “Business, of course.”

Live and learn, because in spite of farmers’ traditional doom and gloom outlook and dire warnings from the National Farmers’ Unions about the future, many on the fringes of profitable farming try to hang on and prospective new entrants are still desperate to get a start. And, in spite of everything, the most committed and dedicated can succeed often by accepting living standards way below what they could achieve in a job. Never mind 170 years ago, it’s remarkable that in the 1960s there were no girls in our college class. Now I guess that, quite rightly, they comprise at least half an agricultural course intake.

It’s also pleasing to see that, for example, the new chairman of the National Sheep Association’s Scotland division is a woman, as is the chairman of the Scottish Association of Young Farmers’ Clubs, and that Professor Julie Fitzpatrick, head of the Moredun Research Centre, Louise Welsh, agricultural manager with the Morrison supermarket group, and Sarah Mackie, farmer and head of local sourcing with Tesco, have been appointed to the board of Quality Meat Scotland. Some day we might even see women near the top of the NFU.