Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Farming life: Am I fit for the job?

A conversation with my father about life on the farm in the 1950’s has made me reflect on how the physical demands of the job have changed
January 24, 2024

My New Year’s resolutions for 2024 included losing a little weight and improving my fitness. I’m not alone—last year more than half of Brits resolved to work on their fitness, many of them wanting to shift pounds or drop a dress size. 

Making it happen has proved trickier than I expected. As a farmer I’m pretty active, outdoors every day, doing physical work, keeping myself in shape. Or so I thought. I have discovered that it doesn’t take much Christmas indulgence to make my coat look like a skin on a sausage and my trousers strain enough to throw a buckle.

I was talking with my father recently about working conditions on the farm in the 1950s, and he made me realise that we have it easy these days.

My dad describes the process of planting seed in the 1950s as involving two men: one driving the tractor, and the other standing on the back of the planter all day lifting sacks of seed and fertiliser to feed them into the machine. Fertiliser bags weighed what was then called “a hundred weight”, a whopping 50.8kg or 112lbs. Bags of seed weighing “a hundred weight and a half” (76.2kg or 168lbs) were also moved by hand. This is the same weight category as a “light heavy-weight boxer”; imagine lifting and shifting Sugar Ray Leonard (at his heaviest) or Evander Holyfield (at his lightest) all day long. Everything was unloaded, stacked, stored and transported by hand.

In the winter, men would dig ditches not with a mechanical excavator—a digger—like today, but with a spade. Hedges were cut or laid with a handheld billhook: back-breaking work in all weathers. One man worked on my dad’s farm 10 months of the year doing this, and for the other two he helped with the harvest. At harvest time there were more than 20 people on the farm, with some taking “holiday” from their usual workplaces to help out. Bags of grain would be filled by hand from a chute on a state-of-the-art new “combined harvester”, and dropped in pairs to be loaded onto trailers and taken back to the farm. Straw was bundled and loaded with a pitchfork, and men worked outside all day with scant protection from the dust or sun.

Working outdoors in all weathers was a common theme, and in practice there was no paid sick leave or holiday.

 Everything was unloaded, stacked, stored and transported by hand.

In the winter, cattle were fed in yards by hand, which involved carrying bales of hay and straw from the shed to the cattle and distributing it among them. Gender diversity was very much a thing in the 1950s, and women carried out hard, physical labour as well. One of the labourers, Annie Kirk, was in her 40s when my father first remembers her—“thin as a rake and fit as a flea”—feeding all the cattle in one farm through the winter single-handedly. 

Many men and women worked all week until Saturday lunchtime and would spend evenings and weekends tending their own gardens, growing vegetables, digging allotments, or doing household chores, which included bringing in firewood, taking out ash and boiling water to wash clothes by hand. Before 1934 in our village, people would fetch water from the well by hand, too.

The one job that persists in a low-tech style that would be recognisable to a 1950s farm worker is sweeping the farmyard, a job that I prefer to do in wet weather as it is easier with water and warms me such that I don’t feel the rain.

Today, on our medium-sized family farm that, just 70 years ago, required a workforce of up to 22, I complete almost all jobs myself, with help from my father (and a few others at harvest time). I expend a fraction of the energy of the average labourer just a few decades ago. Though modern technology would have amazed them, I’m sure men and women working in the 1950s would have found my contemplating a gym membership to be utterly shameful. Life at work and home was workout enough. Perhaps I should forgo the gym and get back to sweeping the yard…