Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Farming life: I’ll be free for a beer next time it rains

In my profession, the weather decides when you get time off. But living at the mercy of the elements can bring unexpected joys
June 14, 2023

Why is everyone I meet so interested in what time I get up in the morning? Do workers in any other sector excite so much public interest in their waking and sleeping? The assumption is that I get up at some unimaginable hour, and I feel like I’m disappointing them when I break the news that my alarm goes off at half six in the morning and I’m rarely out of the door before seven.

Perhaps I should thank my dairy farming colleagues for instilling the idea that farmers are early birds—they do genuinely wake up in the small hours and complete their first milking before I’ve poured the milk in my tea. Perhaps it has stuck because we farmers have a tendency to complain about working long hours. Or perhaps it’s the culture within farming, one that inextricably links hard work with long hours and sniffs at the modern injunction to “work smarter, not harder”. 

I’ve often heard farmers ask each other, “Where were you at five this morning?” The thinly veiled boast behind this question is “look how hard I work”, and psychologists would—I’m sure—say that it comes from the deep search for purpose and assurance. Farming is a business, but it’s also an identity, and it’s all-consuming. Early on in my relationship with my then girlfriend and now wife, I told her about my mistress, the farm. It’s only right in a modern marriage to have open communication and give fair warning of late nights and weekends lost.

As a farmer, my workload is largely sorted into jobs that can be done at any time, and then those that require, say, dry weather or low winds. We really can only make hay while the sun shines. Planting seeds can only be done in dry conditions, though we can operate no matter how windy it is. Not so with the sprayer, which requires wind speeds of less than 10 miles per hour to operate safely; conditions that barely obtained in the month of April this year. Then there are urgent jobs. The sheep that is lambing, or possibly the sheep that is dying. An animal escaping. These take priority. 

With these competing tasks, I rarely end the day having completed my “to-do” list; in fact, the daily list is barely recognisable after a few hours of interference from weather, animals or breakdown, both mechanical and human. Important yet non-urgent tasks, such as filling in government forms, calling the bank manager, remembering anniversaries or writing my Prospect Lives column inevitably slip. 

And so, I have understanding friends who accept that farming jobs can steal my social time—that a break in the weather can trump a beer in the pub—and who are increasingly aware that I have a Saturday job. My Saturday job is that I’m a farmer. Granted, that’s the same as my weekday job, but it’s worth pointing out that the farm diary runs differently to the diary in most other professions. When asked recently when I’d be free for a meeting, I responded—only slightly in jest—“when it next rains”.

But after all of this talk of workload, and in full recognition that I have farming friends and neighbours who haven’t taken a day off in months and haven’t had a recognisable holiday perhaps ever, let me tell you about the joys.

I often document my delight in observing wildlife, in growing food, in caring for the environment, in seeing the seasons change; but my work sometimes brings an added benefit—the flexibility can allow for an unexpected mid-week trip to the seaside, spending extra time with my nephews, dropping in for a cup of tea with my parents or back in the farmhouse with my understanding wife. It’s a different culture, and there are ways in which we must modernise, but I love it. And I love sharing it with you, Prospect reader. I look forward to telling you more, next time we have a rainy day.