First Day on a Farm

Ever wondered what it would be like to work on a farm?
What would that first day be like though?

I found out when I started my first full time job on a dairy farm in West Sussex. This is my account of the trials and honest failings of that day, and how it led me to realise that the most essential requirements of working in agriculture are a steady pace and resilience....
My painting of bales being loaded, this is the 'the boss' and I about a year after I started on the farm, and was made around the time.
My painting of bales being loaded, this is the 'the boss' and I about a year after I started on the farm, and was made around the time.

It is a glorious summer’s day, about 25 years ago and the start day of my first permanent, full time job. It is a small family run dairy farm in West Sussex. I am rather nervous, but also really excited. I had been coming to the conclusion that no-one would ever give me a job like this, that of a farm hand or ‘General Farm Worker’ (GFW) in the parlance of the time.

Paper qualifications meant little and experience seemed to count for everything, of which I had precious little, and ironically thus this seemed to be bar me from finding anyone who would employ me to gain such experience. I was fortunate that they gave me a chance on that farm, there must have been something in my enthusiasm which shone through my ignorance.

That first day though, what must they have been thinking? I mean I felt on top of the world, here I was doing an actual job, the one I had decided I wanted to do, working on a real farm, but to them? I mean, I had hardly ever worked with cattle before, I had only recently learned to drive a tractor and I had little notion of what the day to day realities of a hard working farm were.

The boss, who had hired me, was not there that week. I can’t remember why, but it must have been important, because I can’t think of another occasion when he was ever not there. Their previous ‘GFW’ had left, so there was just his son, who was about my age, but really very experienced and the much older (and very much wiser than me!) dairyman there. (I’ll call them Tom and Jim respectively as it’s not my business to give out their real names). So really, they were very short staffed and had to try and make the best of my presence. They were so nice to me and encouraging, but they must have wondered why I had been hired.

The first few hours of the morning were taken up with all the routine work around the milking and clearing up after, and feeding, bedding up and checking stock. One of the first tasks I was given was to use an old Fordson Super Major tractor to scrape the slurry off the collecting yards (where the cows wait to go in for milking) in to the slurry pit. I felt pleased to be doing something where I felt I could demonstrate to them that I could at least competently handle the tractor. So I got on very carefully manoeuvring the tractor around the buildings, with the throttle set to tickover speed just like we had practised manoeuvring them at college, being ultra careful not to slip the clutch (a big no- no on a tractor) or knock any fixtures around the yards.

I thought for all the world I was doing very well and reckoned that I was creating a good impression. I was genuinely deflated when 25 minutes in (I later realised it was probably about a 10 to 15 minute job at most), that Tom came over to me and with a very kind manner showed me where the throttle lever on the tractor was, thinking I suppose, that the only reason I could be doing the job so slowly was because I couldn’t find it. I explained that I did know how to use the throttle, but felt that I was going the right safe speed for the job. He smiled kindly and left me to it. The day had barely started.
The old Fordson tractor, which I drove oh so slowly!
The old Fordson tractor, which I drove oh so slowly!

The heat of that first proper day of Sussex farm work just seemed to keep growing. The other thing that kept growing was the apparent gradient of the tractor driving learning curve I was on. I had been a pretty good student on the college course that I had taken in the previous year and had achieved the tractor driving tasks we had been set without too much difficulty. Given this, I had thought that this side of things wouldn’t present too much of a challenge, but my confidence was ebbing a bit, having realised that my morning’s yard scraping hadn’t been quite the virtuoso display that I had felt it to be.

After a short morning break, Tom, as I’m calling him (the farmer’s son), explained to me that we needed to fetch in a few acres worth of hay from some fields they rented on the far side of the village. (Most of the near part of the farm was used for silage making, but they still cut a few acres of meadow hay to feed to the calves, who thrived much better on it).

So, Jim (the dairyman), helped me hitch up a trailer and I was to follow Tom down the road to the field a mile or two away. Jim had also seen my ultra-slow tractor driving demo that morning. It’s hard to describe the look on his face as I looked down to him from the cab and asked what gear I would safely be able to get up to on the road, thinking particularly about the seemingly enormous 25 foot or so trailer behind me. (These tractors- 1980s Ford 6600s, have 8 forward gears). “Top the whole way...” came the answer “... you’ll have the milk floats wanting to overtake you otherwise.”

There was a warm smile with it, not dissimilar to the one Tom had given after explaining about the throttle lever. These rather indulgent smiles were beginning to seem all too frequent that morning. But I think he could see my nervousness and added, over his shoulder, as he turned back to the dairy, “... you’ll be fine, just concentrate on doing the steering bit!”

He was right. I was fine, by the time I reached the field I was getting used to the dizzying (23 mph!) top speed. That achievement over, another loomed up. Before it did, I briefly saw that it wasn’t just me taking on new responsibilities. Tom started walking round the hay field when we got there, picking up wisps of the cut grass/ hay, reaching under lumps of it, feeling it and twisting it in his hands. Was it fit to bale, or not? I could see the indecision in his face. “ ...Dad usually makes the call on this...” and he looked across the field.

I know now, having had to make that decision myself many times since, how hard it is. Too early and your lovely hay bales are woefully heavy, and streaked with mould inside from the damp still stuck in it (or at worst it heats up in the stack and self ignites). Leave it too late and the hay has turned from a beautiful green, fragrant, mouth watering stock feed, into something that is probably more the livestock equivalent of ship’s biscuits, overdry, brown and to be eaten under sufferance, or even worse, ruined by unexpected rain as it still lies in the field the next day.

He went for it, and he got it right; I opened those bales for the calves on a daily basis later in the year and each one exuded the smell, and a moment, of a summer’s day into the cold winter’s mornings.

For me though, I had to master ‘rowing up’ next, putting the hay into narrow rows for the baler to pick up, using a hay turner on the tractor- another unfamiliar task. Tom parked himself inside the cab with me for the first couple of turns of the field and then left me to it while he set the baler up. I thought I was doing pretty well; there seemed so many things to get right all at once: turning the tractor just right to come straight on into the next row, controlling the speed of the rotors to be fast enough to move the crop properly, but not too fast that they smashed the hay up. You also had to lift the rotors out at the row ends so that the row was finished, but making sure you missed the ‘headland’ rows that ran in concentric circles round the edge of the field, otherwise you’d fling random piles of hay into the clean spaces where there should be none.

Halfway though, I saw Tom walking over to meet me at one of the row ends- I was not dropping the revs enough each time I engaged the drive to the machine. Another thing to add to the list of things to do during the 10 second turn at each end of the field! I got there in the end and it looked okay, fairly neat and tidy I thought.

Another one of those smiles for me from Tom - “yeah that’ll do” - and he set off baling, starting around the headland runs of hay that circled the edge of the field. I watched as the baler reached the first corner and then missed a whole swathe of my row on the corner ...that seemed pretty careless... same on the next corner... and the next. Then I clocked ... it was my corners at fault, I had turned too tight on each, making a sharp bend that was impossible to follow with the lumbering, unwieldy baler. Tom had been way too kind with his ‘that’ll do’. I spent the next 10 minutes dodging the baler’s circuits of the field, trying to push the recalcitrant corners into nice smooth curves using my hands and feet. It seemed to work and I gathered up the last few misses and stuffed them into the main rows. Another lesson learned.

Me baling hay at a later date, with very similar equipment to that used on the day I started on the dairy farm.
Me baling hay at a later date, with very similar equipment to that used on the day I started on the dairy farm.

Even so, the heat of that summer’s day felt like it would never end and it just seemed to keep getting hotter. When you talk about haymaking in summer to people, I think it generally conjures up an image something like Constable’s painting, ‘The Hay Wain’. Constable’s summer day looks lazy, the farm workers on the waggon indolent, bucolic.

This felt nothing like that. For me, the heat already seemed to be inside my head, the constant assault of the sun combined with the requirement to stay focused and keep doing lots of new things right, or not to really screw anything up at least. Time and experience since has taught me, I should have been wearing a hat, and I needed to drink more water.

Other things, no-one could have told me, they just needed to be learned or gained by doing. How to move bales with a minimum of effort, by using the knee to lift them and arms to direct the momentum gained thus. How to work on top of the bales without constantly moving around, thus avoiding the invisible gaps between the bales that constantly made you stumble. Rhythm. The need to gain a hard calloused skin across the middle of your fingers, that just slowly appears through repetition of the task, and avoids the feeling that each pair of bale strings is like two cheese wires on your hands (gloves were hopeless).

We loaded the bales on the trailer - Tom used a loader on the tractor to put eight at a time on and then they needed a certain amount of rearranging (by me standing on the load) into a well rehearsed pattern, which meant the whole load could be secured by one rope across the top from back to front.

He showed me the brilliant knot used to secure the rope. I later knew it well enough to tie it whilst hanging off the load with one arm crooked through the framework on the trailer to hold me whilst I tied it, but that day I couldn’t seem to copy Tom’s explanation at all.

The journey back went okay, much to my relief. With the bales on the load there could have been an eight mile traffic jam behind me and I wouldn’t have known most of the way, except on the sharper bends where you could briefly see the road behind (fortunately it was clear).

Tom and I unloaded the bales into one of the old farm sheds, off the trailer and in through a stable type door. It wasn’t an efficient form of moving bales, but this was where it had to go.

There were probably some forty or so left to unload, when Tom was called away to help Jim with something in the dairy. I was left to finish the bales off. Chuck three or four off the trailer, climb down, pick up one at a time, squeeze in with the bale through the door, across the shed and then haul it up on to the pile. Then, more often than not, I had to clamber onto the pile to get it in place properly, then clamber down and back do the next one. It felt like it would go on forever.

Tom returned as I finished. He took one look at me, the kind smile came out again and he said “you’ve worked really hard today...go park the trailer up and call it a day” It was only 4.30, my hours were 8 to 5, but I was all in. It seemed like a total blessing to be allowed to stop, and at the time I figured that maybe this was how things were done if the day’s work had been hard.

Of course, later I realised that it wasn’t. In the subsequent 3 years there, I never left early again. Many was the day I did similar tasks late into the evening, day in, day out, and just felt tired at the end of it. It should really have just been an average day’s work that day. But for me the combination of heat, constant learning, the strain of using lots of undiscovered muscles, despite being generally very fit (I was a keen walker, runner and cyclist at the time) had left me almost in pieces. What I had yet to discover was that unique skill of paced stamina required for agricultural work, a skill whose need could only be discovered by trying it out, and only learnt by persisting with it in the weeks, months and years that were to follow.

Thanks to Tom’s kindness I had made it through that first day though, and it would get easier. I had started, without realising it, to learn the art of ‘plodding on’, which might be the single most important qualification for working on the land.