Topic: The British Farm Worker. Extinct or extanct?
Since the 1850s, the number of farm workers in the UK has declined dramatically, from approximately 1.7 million workers to an estimated 300,000 today. Contemporary research into farm labour tends to concentrate on seasonal workers, more specifically, migrant labour. But these only make up ⅓ of the agricultural labour force. Other farm labour contributors have become the ‘blind spot’ of agricultural research. But whilst attention has been diverted, patterns in farm labour have emerged which could have an enormous impact on the future of farming in the UK.
At the same time, despite some recognition in the past that the structure of labour organisation has transformed significantly within the average farm holding, causing important transitions concerning front-line workers who directly work the land and the soil, there currently exists little evidence as to how new interconnections formed between farmers, farm workers, agricultural contractors and other related agents might affect knowledge exchange, decision-making processes, motivation in the workplace and frontline activity on British soils. Although the traditional farm worker and the agricultural contractor are two of the most significant actors in the life-world of the farmer, their role within the sustainable intensification agenda has been almost completely ignored. The assumption that farm labour contributors who are not the farmer, lack agency in the workplace; that they simply act on the command, knowledge and direction of the farmer, is based on an archaic perception of the British farm worker as deferential, powerless, unskilled, or lacking ownership. The rapidity of technological development and transformations in types of knowledge mean that often farmers might no longer necessarily be the most informed out of the three cohorts. So identifying actual labour patterns and processes is a key step not only towards the goal of sustainable intensification, but also the sustainability of the agricultural industry itself.