Dispatches from the Real World 02: Duchess Farms

This is the second issue of Dispatches from the Real World. For more about this new series from Doteveryone, read our introductory post.

What’s a “tech job”? And who gets to have one?

About 1.6 million of us — that’s 2.5% — work in the tech industry, according to the latest numbers from Tech City UK. However, those numbers are based on a strict set of classifications: codes with names like “IT engineers” and “satellite telecommunications activities”.

But just because you don’t make technology doesn’t mean you don’t rely on it. Doteveryone’s Irit Pollak recently visited a networked, GPS-enabled, multi-platform business: a farm in rural Hertfordshire.

Duchess Farms smells like hay and coffee and smoke. It’s been that way since the mid-1800s, when George Lancton first bought the land that would support his family for more than 200 years.

Back then they were dairy farmers— during the 1970s, they switched to wheat — but today, George’s great-great-great-grandson Oscar grows rapeseed. He’s the sixth generation to farm and the first to do so in a digital world.

The average British farmer is 59 years old, but Oscar Harding’s just 28. He looks like a hipster — scruffy hair, plaid shirt, bleached jeans — although, to be fair, it’s probably hipsters who are trying to look like him. He was born and bred on the land and, except for a brief stint in the City (“It was f***ing terrible”), he hasn’t left.

Oscar wouldn’t say he has a tech job. In fact, he’d say he’s a deliberate technophobe. But it’s hard to ignore just how connected he is, or how deeply the farm’s futures are bound up with the internet.

Oscar Harding

Wheat’s the most-grown crop in Britain, but it’s hard to make money from: £180 per tonne, as opposed to the £400 rapeseed can bring. When Oscar took over the farm in 2012, he started with some quick maths — that’s £4,000 in one ten-tonne trailer — and then pulled out his phone. “iPhone. Rapeseed. What’s it used for?” got him started; in less than two years, Duchess Farms was growing, processing, and cold-pressing all its own oil.

The transition from wheat to rapeseed hasn’t been problem-free. “You don’t get many goes at farming,” notes Oscar. “I’m what, 28? So let’s say I have 40 more harvests.” If the weather’s bad, if the prices drop, or if the crop fails — as one did last year — you need to figure out what happened, fix it quickly, and push on.

Most recently, that’s involved a load of videos. “YouTube is just full of people who will film themselves plowing a field,” says Oscar. “And when you’re trying to work out something, you go on there and think — oh, he’s got it like that, perhaps we’ll do that.” This past year Oscar and his childhood friend Max, a Silicon Valley escapee, built a new drill for rapeseed planting off the back of tutorial videos.

“YouTube is just full of people who will film themselves plowing a field.”

Max now runs all the farm’s “internetty things”: their online store, their Squarespace site, their social media. Without Max, says Oscar, “I’d just have a pigeon”. But he brings more than just tech skills to the farm; Max brings tech values, too. Setting up an e-commerce business in San Francisco meant he came back to Hertfordshire with a West Coast mindset on organisation and time management.

“Those are probably areas where Oscar is a bit…loose,” Max says mildly. “But there are also times where I’m probably too tight about it. There’s some things where it doesn’t matter. But there are some things where it does matter, and I’m like — sit down now, and I’ll stay with you until you sign this thing!”

Having that structure in place is what makes their partnership with Farmdrop, an online farmers’ market, possible. “They’re really, really cool,” says Oscar. “Really straightforward. They just take 25%, and that’s half of what most people take. And they’re really nice to deal with.” Their entire relationship is online: the farm gets an email with the number of bottles ordered, Duchess confirms a delivery date, and the process repeats each week.

“It’s one of them things where you think, like, what the f***’s been happening before? Why is everything not like this? Why is this not how the food system works?” says Oscar. Max agrees: “With supermarkets, they’ll slam your prices down to the bare minimum and they’ll put their markup on it so they can get profit. They won’t help you at all.”

“It’s one of them things where you think, like, what the f***’s been happening before? Why is everything not like this?” — Oscar Harding

As good as Farmdrop is, both men are quick to note its limits: between its price point and its shipping areas (it’s only available in London, Bristol, and Bath), Farmdrop is really only feasible for a small, urban elite. “It’s people who are a little more privileged who can afford it,” says Max, although he thinks that’ll change in the future.

The cold-press operation, the Farmdrop partnership, and a relationship with East London’s E5 Bakehouse are all part of what Oscar calls “conservation through commerce, adding value through acres”. The ethos he brings to the farm is simple: grow an environmentally friendly crop that makes money.

For E5, that’s ancient grains. Duchess plants a field, E5 turns their heirloom wheat into food, and the two of them send photos and videos back and forth via Whatsapp. It’s a bit like having a child together, Oscar laughs — watching it grow, making sure it’s doing well. Most of what he sends E5 he films while he’s out in the field; now that GPS programmes the best route, there isn’t much to do but sit and let the tractor do its work.

Not every farm can be like Oscar’s. He and Max readily admit that switching crops, bringing in new equipment, or building hyperlocal partnerships requires investment. But rethinking farm subsidies — or, for that matter, tech subsidies — could help make these new ways of working more achievable for farmers across the country.

Under EU law, farmers currently participate in what’s called the Basic Payment Scheme: an annual programme based on land and entitlements. (The head of H&M, the Queen, and Saudi princes are all recipients.) Big land owners tend to get more than small land owners, and while there are additional pots of funding — most notably, the Countryside Productivity Scheme — very few of them address farming in a connected society.

Investment in farming from the tech sector can be equally as challenging. Innovate UK’s investments are primarily around agri-tech, not holistic approaches; data, drones, and gene editing take priority over networking. And if experts from outside the EU want to come and work with Britain’s farmers, there’s not an obvious path for them under Tech Nation’s visa scheme, as it’s been built around people with either hard tech skills or experience supporting traditional tech companies.

So what’s the solution? Maybe it starts with reconsidering what “tech jobs” really are. You may not be a coder or an engineer, but if your business relies on elaborate machines, satellite positioning, social media, e-commerce and Silicon Valley mindsets, you probably deserve some sort of recognition — and the same support the rest of the sector gets.

Farming isn’t the only traditional industry learning to operate in a technological age. We live in a world where digital undercuts everything we do. So rather than asking one agency or another to manage everything, we need a joined-up approach that shares expertise and funding.

However that happens for agriculture, Oscar’s clear that it needs to be centred around farmers and not their tools. “Ultimately, technology isn’t going to put a seed in some mud,” he says. “A person is.”