The Harvest Heroes

For the world over summer is the chance to jet away to foreign climes, to journey outside the office to parks, music festivals and sun soaked beaches. You can kick back, relax and take the opportunity to wear some suitable shades.

But there is a small group of people who clog the airwaves with requests from their trac’or cabs during the long summer days. Late at night you may hear a shout out to ‘Dan in his John Deere’ via Radio 1. They spend the cream of the summer working 90 hours a week, with very little sleep, no days off and hardly a moment to get to the pub for a beer. Usually weighing in at nearly thirty tonnes and bearing down on you at thirty miles per hour on single track roads, they are the harvest heroes coming at you large, the bane of the road user. Without them we would be deprived of a necessity of daily life – food.

Most people who live in our fabled cities of commerce will have little idea of this lifestyle. It is, frankly, not one to be attempted without a fair amount of insanity. When I embarked on my harvest journey I had little to no experience. I’d spent summers at University working on a hop farm not one hundred metres from my home. I’d played about on dinky little tractors, had a good laugh with other like minded students and went out clubbing. I even became fondly known as ‘The Captain’. It gave me two things integral to a student lifestyle: money and a tan. But this all came abruptly to an end when I was persuaded by an old friend to dive into a real harvest. Certainly there are benefits to the change. When most graduates are earning 18 to 20 thousand a year I managed to rake in £8500 in 4 months. With no other job prospects on the horizon it made absolute fiscal sense.

After a brief introduction to the Working Time Directive, which was quickly torn up, and a perfunctory Health and Safety meeting, I went to face the monolith that is harvest. My allocated tractor was the trusted workhorse, sadly not new enough to avoid insult by the older hands. I didn’t care – this was the beginning of a personal challenge. Do or die.

From day one your tractor becomes your sanctuary, your radio the link to the outside world. And when your great machine falls by the wayside in a cloud of smoke and engine parts you salute it for putting up with your daily thrashing. The bond of chocolate wrappers, sweat and dust that smears the interior brings you closer.

The pinnacle of corn carting is always the perfectly executed night barn reverse. As the darkness creeps into the yard you watch as the veteran palms his trailer through the entrance at speed, with inches to spare. And then it’s my turn. It is here I’d like to add a caveat. In farming, people like you to fail. If you fail it means you’ve also learnt for the next time. You are also told as little as possible. I was never going to pretend I was gifted at reversing a tractor and trailer. Fortunately I am better than a great many road users who tend to prefer a ski slalom approach of hedge to hedge, which you always watch with a wry smile. So when I attempted that first time barn reverse and finally managed to get it through the doors, it was greeted with whoops and cheers – for the fifth time lucky.

The characters you come across are the main reason why you manage so well. Beyond the initial suspicion of the ‘newbie’ in the ranks you are greeted with advice and support, not always universally agreed, but usually with good intention. There was an old boy who, in the spirit of a true veteran, never rushed, swore like a trooper, smoked like a chimney and always had the job done better than anyone else. You realise the significance of this when you discover he was regularly doing a twelve-hour day at nearly eighty years old…

Daily you contend with factors which quickly drift out of your control – the weather, horse riders, the general public, breakdowns, cars, panic, discomfort, exhaustion, and a lack of food. You begin to forget what day it is and when you last had a day off. It becomes unimportant, when set against the task in hand. As the sun sets on the horizon and the darkness swamps view you begin to enjoy the peace that nightfall brings. The roads become a racetrack free from harassing traffic. You ramp up the radio for the seven o’clock slot of Zane Lowe and his psychedelic grammatical dexterity, wondering when you will be working until tonight.

But as the weeks pass, the mounds of grain begin to pile up and when the finish line hoves into view you’re sad to see it arrive.

It is truly impossible to describe the sense of achievement at the end of harvest. Not only have you shifted several thousand tonnes of grain and driven a few thousand miles in a few months but you have also survived it in one piece. Stories of combusting tractors and the tragic consequences of heavy moving machinery always plague your mind after a fourteen hour day. During those months you’ve developed a basic if not complete understanding of all the processes that get that seed from field to plate. You become adept at speedy reversing down a single track road, a quick hitch up of a trailer and tipping into pitch black barns. You’ve also forgone a decent night’s sleep for weeks at a time. And when it’s all over, it’s time to look back on all those near misses whilst breathing a sigh of relief. Certainly those panicked moments reiterated to me why agriculture is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world.

Unfortunately, trying to explain the sheer breadth of experiences from four months’ work to a recruitment agent or prospective employer usually falls upon deaf ears. A glazed look of boredom spreads across their eyes as you get into detail about oil seed rape and the logistical nightmare that is harvest.

Regardless, I will always look back on those months and cherish the achievement. And to all those who sit office bound, toiling away behind a computer screen, think on this. There are men and women out there who do what I did for those four short months every day of every year because they love their job. There is nowhere better than agriculture for promoting hard graft, a great deal of respect for your colleagues and endurance. You love it and you hate it. But it becomes your life very quickly, and letting it go seems harder than you first might have thought.

So when you are sitting in that park, crashing that festival or on that flight to sunnier climbs, take a moment to think of those men and women who put the food on your plate.

Here’s to those harvest heroes who taught me the prestige of seeing it through.

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