1980s >> 1988 >> no-1004-april-1988

A hop picking

Over the past four years, like so many other students pressed to the financial limits by a government which apparently no longer values the “good investment” of a university education in political ignorance. I have been forced to sell my labour power in my vacations. One of the least edifying of the available occupations I have experienced is the ritualistic September exploitation of hop picking that this summer (as last) economic survival forced me into taking.

Hop production in England has in recent years been in decline largely thanks to the competition of the mechanised American industry and the ravages of the hop disease wilt, which has destroyed thousands of acres and forced many a poor hop farmer into early retirement in any of a number of tax havens. At a rough estimate around three hundred farms grow hops in England today, mainly concentrated in Hereford, Worcester and, of course, Kent. The farm where I worked was a moderate concern at around 300 acres, about 85 of which were set aside for hops.

Despite recent problems, hops are perhaps the most valuable crop a farmer can grow on his available land and large profits are still made on the backs of exploited hop pickers. Indeed, what better proof of the labour theory of value is there than agricultural production, for what value has a rotten, unharvested crop?

Hop farms, like all farms, tend to stay in the hands of the same families and as a result vast fortunes have been amassed, especially by those families who were in the industry during the boom years of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when hops were picked by hand, pickers were paid at most one (old) penny a bushel (a bushel is worth around £40 today) and workers were housed in sheds designed for animals and had to provide their own food. Some improvements have been made since then. As early as the nineteen thirties George Orwell was reporting such notable improvements as fresh straw to sleep on and a pay rate of two (old) pennies a bushel.

However, changes in the actual production of hops in the latter part of this century and consequently in the structuring of the labour process, have been massive. The invention and adoption of BRUFF hop picking machines in the 1940s and 1950s has reduced the number of pickers required from hundreds to dozens and the introduction of hybrid strands of hops has meant that less have been required to flavour even the increasing quantities of beer demanded.

The typical hop farm today has split production into three discernible processes: the picking and gathering of hops in the “yard” or field: the loading and sorting of hops on the hop-picking machine at the main farm buildings; and kiln work — the kiln being the place where the picked hops are dried, pressed and baled (packaged).

At each stage of production there is a group of workers with a foreman working long shifts. Many farms still work the old twelve hour shift, though the more enterprising have adopted 24 hour picking with two shifts – a response to American productive methods. The farm where I worked had two eight hour shifts: 6am to 3pm and 3pm to 1am. This compromise was probably worked out on the logic that with longer hours it would be a toss-up as to which would collapse first, the hop pickers or the archaic hop picking machine.

The jobs in the hop yard are probably the most strenuous. A gang of four men and a tractor driver cut down the hop vines for the tractor driver to take back to the workers at the machine. In most places this work is still done by men with sickles although the technology to eliminate this menial work has existed for many years.

One of the four men stands in a tower attached to the back of the tractor (called the “crow’s nest”) and cuts the hop plant away from the wire work on which it grows at the top, around ten feet up. while another worker walks ahead cutting the plants away at the bottom. The tractor is driven slowly through the middle of the row while the remaining two workers load the hop bines onto the tractor trailer. When four tractors are working in tandem the work is continuous, but so long as the weather stays fairly warm and dry it can be enjoyable. However since the advent of night shift work the opportunities for getting cold, wet and miserable have been greatly increased, as has the prospect of serious injury as the night shift is carried out in the totally inadequate lighting of a simple torch attached to the back of the tractor. Industrial injuries increase in number each year but very few workers sue for damages (excluding a few students) for most will have to find work on the same farm the next year. Our boss found it extremely amusing that we were “short handed” when the worker in the crow’s nest lost his finger in an accident.

Working on the hop picking machine is among the most boring experiences known. After the hops are deposited at the machine by the tractor driver, it is the job of three workers to load the heavy ten foot hop bines into the large metal hooks of the machine. Once the machine is in motion these hooks feed the machine constantly. With the regular supply of hops from the yard, the work for these three workers is thus both back-breaking and mind-numbing.

The hops are fed through various cutters, choppers and strimmers until reaching the open stage of the machine where two or three women workers sort the leaves missed by the machine from the hop fruit itself. It is a far from pleasant atmosphere, working with the steaming mass of rotting debris which is belched out as surplus by the hop machine directly behind them. The picked hops then travel along a long conveyor belt into the kiln to be dried, pressed and boiled.

Four men work in the kiln which, at my place of work, was a three-levelled building seemingly never below 90°C in temperature. The job of one of these men, the binman, is to fill 12 feet square bins with the hops emerging from the moving conveyor. Once the hops are levelled in the bins they are ready to be pushed into the kiln itself and dried. The drying process seems full of mystique and is usually entrusted to three workers close to the farming family. One more experienced worker is designated “hop man” and makes most of the decisions as to how long the hops should be heated and how many should be heated in one kiln. The three kilnsmen work two shifts a day and actually sleep in the kiln in order to be available at any time of the day or night. Their main tasks are to collect the dried hops on the second level, to feed them through a pressing machine and to sew them into square bales (packages), ready to be sold to the brewery.

Of the two shifts of workers, the student contingent made up most of one entire shift. Students are very popular among farmers as in the majority of cases they don’t have to pay employers’ insurance contributions. The student workers are housed in rickety, cold caravans on the farm and are fed (mainly potatoes) in the farmhouse. For both these delights a worker’s wage is docked over £3 a day. Very few of the students had any conception of how they were being exploited, most of them this year being local public school boys who thought it rather good fun to rough it for three weeks. The second shift of local agricultural workers understandably looked on the student shift with considerable suspicion and dislike.

Despite these facts most agricultural labourers, while they may dislike the farmer and his family passively accept the agricultural hierarchy as it stands. In fact, with the average agricultural worker’s wage being around £51 a week in normal times, most of them welcome and are grateful for the marginally less intense exploitation of hop picking.

Despite the general air of passive acceptance of a rotten and self-limiting system, in my second week of work one spark of light pierced the ideological gloom. I was talking to some of the machine workers about the need for them to join unions when one worker, a former hop farm manager recently made redundant by an alliance of families, turned on me. virtually shouting, “what we need is a revolution, not bloody trade unions”. I later handed him a copy of the Socialist Standard but I felt he knew through his own experience all he needed to know, without any help from me or anyone else. How long can it be before the mass of super- exploited agricultural workers like him achieve this realisation too?

Captain Swing