By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Prince Charles has turned his attention to food security:
“If we are to harvest British fruit and vegetables this year, we need an army of people to help.”
— Clarence House (@ClarenceHouse) May 19, 2020
The Washington Post) picked up the message:
Prince Charles this week implored workers furloughed by the pandemic to get out into the fields and “pick for Britain.”
“If we are to harvest British fruit and vegetables this year, we need an army of people to help,” said his ruddy-faced royal highness, wearing a tie and tweed sporting jacket, his hand jammed into the pocket of his wrinkled mackintosh, standing in his own well-tilled garden at Birkhall, his estate in Scotland.
“It will be hard graft,” the prince warned, “but is hugely important if we are to avoid the growing crops going to waste.”
The Prince of Wales hit the wartime trope, and called for reconvening the Land Army of World War II, where women and girls did agricultural work, as replacement labor after many men went abroad to war, to make sure those left behind had food to eat..
Most of Britain’s perishable produce is harvested by migrant workers, many from Bulgaria and Rumania, and the COVID-19 pandemic has so far blocked their annual migration to Britain to pick crops. The National Farmers Union estimates there are about 70,000 seasonal farm jobs that need filling, according to CNN.
Now, Prince Charles has been a figure of fun, a butt of jokes for my entire lifetime. I was delighted to see – but if truth be told, also a bit surprised – that many Brits seem poised to heed the call to action by their heir to the throne. Maybe the country hasn’t entirely abandoned its wartime spirit. In fact, the WaPo reported that “So many people answered the royal call that the “Pick for Britain” website crashed on Wednesday….”
Farm Work Is No Picnic
Alas, this is no laughing matter. And what those Brits who show up to do it will find, farm work is not only hard toil, but also requires a fair amount of skill – as I learned back in the summer of 1976, while holding down my first real summer job, as a tomato picker at Mr. Guidi’s farm in Green Township, New Jersey. Before then, my only work experience was as a baby sitter. That job was a bit of a doddle – 50 cents an hour, plus all the snacks one could scarf from the client’s fridge or the cupboard. As the eldest of five children, with an age gap of eight years between the youngest and me, none of my gigs was ever more stressful then a day in my life as the big sister. In fact, going to a gig was relaxing, a holiday from the chaos of a normal evening at home.
My motivation for becoming a farm worker? Art. As keen amateur musician, I wanted to buy a clarinet – a Buffet- Crampon model, which cost a bit more than $400, to replace the plastic jobbie supplied by the Mobile Music Man. This was lots of money for one whose only work was occasional, even weekly, 50 cents an hour babysitting gigs, which were my sole source of pocket money. At that time, I was less than 16 years old, so could not qualify for the work permit necessary to flip burgers at McDonald’s, wait at Dunkin’ Donuts, or serve ice cream at Dairy Queen.
I’m sure my Mother thought she was placing herself at no financial risk when she promised to give me half of the money needed for a new clarinet , if I could earn the rest. But she made the offer, because she was (and is) a good Mom.
Farm labor was exempt from the minimum age requirement for a work permit. So one day, at the crack of dawn – a significant hardship for me, as like most teenagers, I enjoyed sleeping in in the morning – I found myself hauling out my bicycle, and riding it the couple of miles to Guidi’s farm. There, I learned the ropes as tomato picker. The rate: 50 cents per bushel basket.
I quickly leaned I wasn’t very good at picking tomatoes.
The work was back-breaking, even for a supple teenage body. It got hot as the sun rose in the sky. Sweat and exertion attracted pesky insects. And, worst of all, my hands got filthy – so dirty that vigorous soaping and scrubbing didn’t clean away the grime. The only thing that worked to wash tomato gore from my hands was to crush a ripe tomato, and use it to clean my hands.
Good tomato pickers could make $3 an hour, but I was lucky if I scored $1 in that time. At this rate, I wasn’t going to make my target in that summer. But I persevered, and eventually,the Guidi family noticed my diligence – and promoted me to sorter. For that, the wage was $2 an hour, one started a bit later – which gave pickers time to pick something to sort – and one worked in a large, breezy shed that was shielded from the sun. Good pickers didn’t want such a ‘promotion’ as they made more per hour picking. I earned my share of the money required to buy my clarinet and my Mother made good on her part of the bargain – as I knew she would.
I imagine farm work has not got any easier and that picking some crops – berries, soft fruits, leafy vegetables – is even more difficult, requiring even more skill, than picking tomatoes.
Despite the enthusiastic response to the Prince’s call, I bet some if not many farmers aren’t all that happy at the suggestion that Britons should fill their farm jobs. And it’s not just because they will likely have to pay higher wages, and might not be able to treat Britons as harshly as foreigners. Farm work is a skill, and mere hardship alone even combined with enthusiasm, is far from ideal preparation.
As this former tomato picker can attest.