Of all the jobs untouched by the new COVID-inspired vogue of working from home, farming has to be close to the top of the list, along with parcel delivery and quarrying.
Although some of us occasionally feel totally at home in our tractor cabs, the idea that we can farm without leaving the farmhouse remains largely an anathema. ‘Proper’ farming always requires donning a pair of stout boots and getting beyond the threshold of the back door to brace the elements.
But before we dismiss this trend to do work via remote internet linkage to the outside world as something reserved for ‘office-wallers’ not land workers, I’ve noticed how lap-top farming is creeping into the job more and more. Not long ago my August evenings used to be spent checking the drier every 20mins to make sure hoppers were at correct levels and augers were running free. I can remember only too well that late night temptation to let this static machinery look after itself a little longer than was wise, only to be greeted by the smell of burnt Kevlar as I belatedly entered the grain store to find the pandemonium of grain spewing everywhere and anywhere as seized outlet conveyors had jammed against overfull storage bins.
But now, thanks to strategically placed GoPro cameras linked to my iPhone I can stay on the sofa keeping a close eye on flowing grain as I watch the ten o’clock news. In so doing I’m technically at one with the commuters who are currently saved their trips into work by the ability to domestically engage with work colleagues through Zoom meetings. That said, I do acknowledge the length of my commute from front room couch to grain store is appreciably shorter than those poor souls who before March used to do a daily battle into the city every morning on some god-forsaken railway line.
It hardly needs pointing out that tractor driving will always need our physical attendance in faraway fields. Or will it? Perhaps it won’t be long before we can drill the bottom 30-acre field without leaving the office, like operators of unmanned military drones who bomb terrorist hideouts in the Middle East without leaving the barracks. With a couple of screens and a few keyboard buttons we may soon be able to activate and control our tractors virtually when miles away from the actual cab.
I’m reminded here of an incident from a few years back when spraying off some oilseed rape with pre-harvest desiccant. As my sprayer moved stealthily through a forest of seven-foot high pods and stalks, I suddenly came across a scantily clad couple who had made a secluded love nest in the middle of my crop. As I jammed on the brakes and switched the nozzles off, underwear was duly gathered up in front of me quicker than you could say “just get your T-shirt on and don’t worry about your bra”.
Had I been driving that tractor from my office remotely miles away from the field who knows what might have happened? While I’d nipped away from my remote controls to make a brew and retrieve a couple of Hobnobs, there might have been an occurrence more serious than Tractus coitus interruptus. No doubt I might have scratched my head when I noted my self-driving automation sprayer return to the yard with a pair of knickers hanging from its undercarriage.
Guy Smith grows 500ha of combinable crops on the north east Essex coast. @EssexPeasant