Over the past week, the nation has been celebrating the remarkable achievement of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. We have been looking back over the seventy years of her reign, how life has changed, which set me thinking about the evolution of farming over that time.
I can remember the Coronation. My mother made costumes for my sister and me from West of England sacks and we rode our ponies as red Indians in a procession through the village. This was in Bedfordshire where my father had taken the tenancy of a farm. One of the few memories I have from there is the night the combine caught fire. It was a Massey 780, a bagger, which meant that, as well as the driver, there was another man on the machine collecting the grain in sacks, tying them up and sliding them down a chute. The burnt-out wreck was taken away by the local dealer and brought back in a remarkably short time. However, not only was it rebuilt but it was converted into a tanker so the grain could be augured into a trailer alongside. Progress indeed!
We came back south that same year, in Michaelmas 1953, to the farm at Sydmonton, 750 acres of arable and downland. We had a Jersey house cow, milked twice a day by hand by Jim the stockman and my mother made cream and butter. Jim also looked after the pigs, around seven sows and their litters which ate all manner of waste, the pork destined for the newly acquired deep freeze. There were beef cattle roaming the park and downland, store bullocks bought in and fattened.
There was also a sheep flock of around 250 ewes which were lambed in a paddock near the farm. Jim had a shepherd’s hut in which he slept during lambing with a wood-burning stove to keep him and any weak lambs warm. Eventually Jim retired and the cow and the pigs disappeared. The ewe flock was sold but ewe lambs reared on as flock replacements for other farms. Even then, the sale of wool barely paid for the cost of shearing.
One the arable side, there was a rotation of crops to maintain fertility and limit disease. Winter wheat and spring barley as cereals and short term grass and clover leys for winter fodder, hay initially then silage. If conditions were right, the ley was combined for clover seed late in the year before ploughing in. It was not successful very often but was a big earner when it did.
In the 1970s, ADAS, the Government advisory service had a campaign to persuade dairy and beef farmers to grow maize for silage as a replacement for grass. It was barely economic to grow leys for winter fodder and maize for silage was introduced as the yield was so much greater and we took the advice. That left us without a break crop for cereals and the gap was filled by oilseed rape that became popular at that time. Later, we also grew ryegrass for seed, taking an early crop of silage before combining the regrowth.
By the time I was a teenager, I was driving the grain cart. Of course, I could not drive on the road so I stayed in the field or on farm tracks whilst another driver took the trailers to and from the grain store. In due course, I graduated to drive a combine, a major responsibility. The Ransomes Cavalier had a 12 ft cut header and no cab so the dust wafted up from the header into the driver’s face! To counter this, I wore an airstream helmet that blew filtered air over my head and down inside a visor!
Then came the Green Revolution! That was a very exciting time as new varieties were introduced and new techniques understood. Using fertiliser applied at different times with growth regulators and fungicides, yields improved dramatically. There was a great deal of free technical advice available and by following it we seemed to gain at least a 10% increase each year until 1984, still one of the best ever harvests. After that, yields plateaued as many farmers ignored the virtue of sound crop rotation and concentrated on those that gave the best return. Straw burning was banned in 1993, quite rightly as it reduced organic matter, but it did kill of problem weeds and pests and I always enjoyed a good conflagration, as long as it was controlled of course!
We took a neighbouring farm of 500 acres in 1971 and a further 1,000 acres in 1975. We reintroduced a lambing flock and employed a conventional rotation on the new farm. The drought harvest of 1976 was not a great start on a hugely expanded acreage!
I surrendered my tenancy in 1987 when the estate was sold with vacant possession. Since then, the trend towards larger specialised farms has continued with a genuinely mixed farm now a rarity. What we failed to recognise in those halcyon days of chasing higher yields was that soils were becoming degraded and wildlife decimated as habitat disappeared. The introduction of agri-environment schemes in the late 1980s was a turning point although far more needs to be done. The initial focus of the new Environmental Land Management Scheme is on the restoration of soils, a vital priority for the future. As farming goes through a very challenging time, it is certain there will be even more change in the next seventy years than the last.