Early Days on the Fruit Farm (1980-2013)

Location : Norfolk, Kent.

Stuart tells us about his life working on a fruit farm, teaching students in Kent and being a warden at Winterton Dunes.

School and agricultural college

I went to school in Costessey, it was a secondary modern school then, Costessey High now. It was really quite a low attainment type of school, you went there if you hadn’t passed your Eleven Plus. It was such a badly behaved school with poor discipline, people jumping out of windows during lessons things like that. I had low qualifications, CSEs not even O’ Levels and I liked doing things outdoors. If you said that, you were sort of consigned to horticulture which was a sort of lowly profession really.

It was the old sort of case of, you go along to see the careers advisor and I think he said, ‘What are you interested in?’ At the time I had an allotment, I was quite young to have one but we lived in Easton. Because of that he said, ‘Oh, well, horticulture might be quite good for you’.

I left school in about 1979, 1980 something like that and it was suggested that I went to Easton College or Burlingham Horticulture College. Easton does the agriculture and Burlingham used to have a market garden set-up, it had greenhouses with tomatoes and lettuces stuff like that. It had four orchards where you learnt about fruit growing and it had a teaching block too. So you had a mixture really, the course was just a year long and you spent the morning doing the actual practical side of things and in the afternoon you’d have lunch and then lectures.

I enjoyed gardening and horticulture from a young age really. As I said I had this allotment which I think even today sounds a bit unusual for young teenagers doesn’t it? You know, it’s not the sort of thing most teenagers do. I’m not sure where that interest came from. I know that my parents liked gardening but they weren’t doing anything like that. My father was part of the early computer generation actually, he worked with Jewson. I can remember visiting Jewson and the computer took up a whole room, it was a massive thing, with all these spinning discs and lights and so on.

I went into horticulture and life at college was fun. I loved growing tomatoes in greenhouses, that was just a very commercial sort of enterprise. They used to grow them in water, they had some in grow bags but mostly they were hydroponic, so they were grown in a film of nutrient-rich water that was continually topped up with these nutrients.

Fruit farming apprenticeship in Norfolk

The college had quite a good reputation so coming towards the end of the year there were a lot of people, employers, who used to write to them with their vacancies, even then people were always talking about times when you could pick and choose about work. But we literally could, you know. I really enjoyed the fruit farming side of things, growing apples and soft fruit like strawberries and raspberries and there was this job going at Ranworth. It’s pretty village on the Broads, not that far from Burlingham or Norwich really.

They were offering an apprenticeship in fruit growing. I had done the general horticulture studies for a year and passed quite well. I got a Royal Horticultural Society Certificate and various other certificates – City and Guilds Certificates they were then. Then again, though sitting here today it seems strange people doing an apprenticeship in fruit growing, that does seem like something from the past. I’m not sure if you can still do anything like that today.

What the employer was offering was an apprenticeship where you went away and did block release studies. So every six weeks or so I’d go off for a week and stay in Wisbech at the Isle of Ely College and we’d get our training there and then we would come back and practise the skills and basically work on the fruit farm. It was an unusual, well not unusual, but a difficult, place to work because the landowner owned big tracts of land, huge farms between Ranworth and Norwich. It was really stuck in the past in so much as employment relations and how you were treated.

The owner of the estate lived in the big house with lovely gardens and they had a gardener. The farm was all around them. I tend not to refer to people by name, but people would call him Sir. I can even remember some people calling him ‘Master’. It was very much a ‘them and us’ sort of feeling that you had and how privileged they were in comparison with workers on the farm.

It was so striking, it was almost, like, if the owner came round people would doff their caps to him. The main sideline was pheasant shooting. It was very much you being quite a lowly person.

So the farm that I worked on was 70 acres and it was just part of this vast farm. There was lots of arable land as well, where they grew crops like wheat, barley and sugar beet. If there was ever a quiet time on the fruit farm I’d have to go and work on the arable farm too. So in the summer it was lovely because when we weren’t harvesting apples and pears and so on we would be out with the grain harvest and loading bales onto wagons and so on and so forth.

I was living in Easton still, I think. I had a moped, a Puch Maxi Sport, which wouldn’t go any faster than 30 miles an hour. I used to ride it all the way to Ranworth, everyday, in all weathers and in the winter I used to arrive there absolutely frozen because it was an early start, you had to be there by 7.30 every morning.

I can’t remember exactly how much I was paid, I was a young single man and didn’t have many overheads as it were. But you can imagine that they were paying for you to go to college, to go away to Wisbech and I think that they must even have paid for my accommodation and food as I don’t have any recollection of my family having to pay for anything.

Working conditions

When I look back I think about how awful some of the things I had to do were, from a health and safety point of view. For instance when you were in the orchards, most apple trees would get sprayed with a mixture of chemicals and water every seven to ten days. You had to load the bowser on the back of a trailer which would get towed through the orchard, with you driving the tractor. You would have these huge, hard to lift, sacks of chemicals and you’d be scooping these chemicals into the back of the sprayer. So there was all this puffing up of the chemicals into the air and because of the nature of the fruit trees, they’re quite tall usually, the sprayer was actually a big fan on the back of the truck, blasting the spray up really high, like 20 feet, either side of you. So if you imagine the tractor going down a row you could just see these two big sort of curtains of spray falling down on top of the apple trees. But the worst of it was ‘cause you had to go quite quickly and the rows are narrow, to get in as many trees as they can, at the end you turn out of one row and turn as sharply as you can into the next. But because of all the spray that you’ve just blasted you would then just drive through it all.

All you had was this sort of waterproof suit on and a visor over your face and ear muffs because it was so loud. The tractor is on full pelt to pump the spray and as you turned into the next row you were literally washed with chemicals that would be just running off your face mask. The rows were too narrow to have cabs on the tractors, I can imagine in third world countries that’s just the same going on there today. But when I look back on it, I think, God wasn’t that awful, awful stuff that we used to spray on them.

The other thing that we did for probably getting on for near enough five months of the year was pruning fruit trees. When you do that month in, month out either by yourself or with another person it’s very tedious work and gives you a lot of thinking time. And when you’re a young person and you’re doing quite a repetitive job you start to think, ‘God I wish I wasn’t doing this’, or ‘There must be more to life than this’ sort of thing.

Whilst I love pruning fruit trees I can’t look at a fruit tree now without looking at how to prune it. I look at a fruit tree and I see instantly what has to be cut out and what should be done.

Basically because of that, that led me on to do other things. At the end of the apprenticeship you got a slightly higher wage, so for three years you did that and got the higher wage but nothing much changed in the work sense for me. I was still working on the fruit farm and the boss was a real tyrant, not the owner, the actual manager, I called him a tyrant, he would be so tight on your times. Say for instance we might be working all winter pruning these fruit trees, you were allowed 12 minutes for your break. Invariably he would turn up after 12 minutes and we used to laugh as he would say ‘Come on you’ve had your 12 minutes get on with it’. And it was that strict you know.

I can always remember one day, one winter’s morning, I’d ridden this moped on these icy roads from Norwich out to Ranworth and I’d be a few minutes late, because I’d have to go slow. I was frozen and he had a real go at me for having my hands in my pockets because my hands were so cold. I’d got off the bike and put my hands in my pocket and that was all about, you know, ‘You’re not showing the right attitude’.

Another time we were sweeping grain up in the big grain store and he used to say, ‘Oh we’ll have to get twice as much money for that now cause you’ve moved that twice, that’s double handling, that’s gonna be worth a lot more’. You can see he’s a quite a strict sort of a bloke, a bit of a bully actually. I think that he enjoyed the persecution. One of the hazards for fruit trees are bullfinches. In winter just as the buds are starting to fatten up these colourful little birds would go and peck out all the flowers and eat all the stuff. And so in the barn where I worked were all these cages, all stacked up. I said, ‘What are these cages for?’ this boss said. ‘They’re for the bullfinches’. Which they were, that was common practice to trap the bullfinches and he says, ‘You’ll put them out and you’ll have to go round and kill these bullfinches’. I was horrified. I don’t think I said anything at the time because nothing actually happened, they never got used , but in the back of my mind I was, all the time, I was thinking, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to start trapping bullfinches’ and I would have to kill them and I couldn’t do that. That would be horrible. So I think partly his way of going on was about that really.

Kent, the garden of England, teaching and showing fruit

I thought, well, what I’ll do is I can take an advanced fruit growing course. They operated that down at Hadlow in Kent, which has a very good reputation as a fruit growing specialist college. So I went down there and did the advanced course and at the end of the year a job came up for an instructor working in the college. So I applied and was lucky enough to get the job and spent another six years as an instructor. The other part of my job was to maintain the fruit growing area. So we would be instructing six or seven students in how to prune fruit trees. I started to find something that I enjoyed doing. I was able to do a bit of fruit growing and deal with the public so it wasn’t such an isolated life style and that was really nice.

I loved instructing, and facilitating, tutoring whatever you want to call it. It was a great place to work, it was lovely. I worked for this Scottish guy who had been part of the Argyll and Southern Highlanders, he fought for them, a lovely man, so it was a complete contrast to what I had been doing in Norfolk.

I loved it, the students were all young people who were there to learn about fruit growing and I was able to work with them. It was like any good education, it should be fun as well as educational as people learn better when they’re happy and enjoying themselves. So I really enjoyed working there. I think that this must be mid 80s right up till the 90s.

Every year we took part in the Marden Fruit Show, and Kent being the garden of England there was a great deal of fruit growing. All the orchards and people enter their fruit for this competition. My boss, he was a judge there and he had superb knowledge about how to present. You’d go into the orchard, select the fruit, perfect fruit, bring it in and with damp cotton wool you’d polish up all these apples all around the calyx. Then you’d pack it beautifully into boxes and you’d have these little brown pastry type things to stick in the middle just to keep them rigid. You’d have four rows of six apples all beautifully polished in these boxes. They were all special pine boxes issued by the fruit show people so everybody had the same exhibiting cartons as it were. It became a huge thing, it was fantastic and really, they looked superb. You can’t believe it but when you see them all polished up they really look superb.

We did win sometimes, not all the time, but it was prestigious to win these awards, we were representing the college. So yes that was a nice time, living down there.

Return to Norfolk

I got married and then we moved back to Norfolk, I prefer Norfolk, my family live here and I like the county. Kent is beautiful but I prefer Norfolk and I’d come back to work for a big fruit grower.

I had written to them telling them of my qualifications and so on and they took me on, I can’t remember if it was assistant manager but I was slightly higher up the pecking order and paid quite well actually, not particularly high but not too bad.

The thing about farm work is that you have to work such long hours you know. If the harvest is on you start work when it’s light and work until it’s dark. One memory from that farm that’s worth sharing is, there was a sideline of growing bean shoots, like Chinese bean shoots. It’s amazing, they’re grown in these big containers and in a watery bleach solution. That’s why they’re all nice and white. They grow them in really warm conditions and they grow very quickly and because of that fungus can grow and that’s why they grow them in a bleach solution. When they take them out of the drums they have to rinse them through with this bleach. That was horrendous, one of the worst jobs I’ve ever done. I ended up with a sore throat and I was coughing blood in the end, which was enough to make me decide I had to leave. So I did.

Warden on the dune

From that job I then went on to one of the best jobs you could imagine. I was the summer warden at Winterton Dunes. I worked just normal hours and was paid a very lowly sum, but I was paid to go to the beach every day for the summer. There is a natterjack toad colony on Winterton Dunes. It’s fairly rare and they live in these brackish pools, so slightly salty water but not sea water, there, just on the dunes, pools of water. These natterjack toads lived there and we had to protect them by patrolling, because dog walkers let their dogs walk there and lap up all the tadpoles.

We had to count the number of tadpoles and we also had to do things like moth surveys and just generally record stuff that was on the beach. There was also a colony of little terns that nest there every year and so your job was basically to go to the beach, do a bit of monitoring and make sure that the public don’t go and wreck the important bits of nature. So that was a lovely job.

I think that it was English Nature then I was working for, the conservation people. It was amazing that I got this job, I’d seen it in the job centre and they are highly sought after these jobs. I don’t know how I got it, I just think that I was lucky. I was there for a couple of years or so, it was just so relaxed, just like a doddle. There was a manager, but no pressure at all, and you would do things like cutting reeds from dykes and building bridges, stuff like that. That was wonderful work.

After the summer contract finished they took me on to work at Woodbastwick Broad, which was just up the road from Ranworth funnily enough. It was wonderful work and good to be away from that horrible, almost feudal if you like, management style and outlook. So that made it really nice because it instilled in me that that’s not the way to manage people, you can get the best from people by being considerate, and most people don’t abuse the trust.

It was a low paid job and despite it being a really good, easy going job, in fact it was too easy going. There was no pressure to really do much at all, so I was left with this feeling of drifting and I don’t like that feeling. I like to be making a difference if I can.

Combining skills – conservation and countryside management

So, I had seen a job working for the planning department at Norfolk County Council which combined the two skills that I’d sort of got really. The skills of working with people which I’d developed in Kent and the skills of conservation and countryside management.

There was a government scheme running for people who had been unemployed for more than six months, they had to go out into the countryside, and earn their benefits until they got a job. I went round the countryside collecting people in my mini bus and we would go out to the sites that the planning department, who were responsible for the footpaths in the county, deemed we ought to go to. Then we carried out the works in the countryside and it was a really interesting job because you’re meeting all these quite interesting people. There were some rough diamonds and we would go out and build proper bridges, good old boardwalks, do ditching work, cut down trees. Whilst people were in the group they were not only helping to maintain the footpaths but they were also being helped with their literacy and numeracy. This then developed into tutoring them and assessing them in countryside and forestry skills. So we were able to get people qualifications in countryside management and forestry skills and then with the permission of the Forestry Commission we would go on their land and do tree felling and stuff like that. That was a really interesting time again. I enjoyed that work as well.

Looking back and main memories of working on the farm

I suppose the main memories of working on the farm are just that it’s just different. It’s a very different world. I loved all the tractor side of things, driving, mowing. You would have a huge mower on the back of the tractor and you’d mow every row of the fruit trees on the 70 acre plot. It looked fantastic when it was finished, all beautifully trimmed and likewise with the pruning. After pruning there would be all this dormant, not dead, wood lying on the floor. You had a machine called a pulveriser on the back of your tractor and you’d drive right over the top of all this stuff and it would just shred it all, and we’re talking about huge big branches. That was a really powerful machine and would make a horrendous racket, but we did have ear defenders but it was quite good fun some of that work.

The nastier side is all that awful discipline and the cold in the winter. Wearing wellington boots, standing out there in all weather, snow, frost and your feet are absolutely stone cold. You could stamp your feet but when you stand in one place all day long pruning fruit trees your feet can be absolutely freezing.

Another interesting thing that changed gradually during my working life……we started off pruning with a saw and secateurs and we also had saws on poles, but then the new technology came along. We had pneumatic pruners, probably hydraulic, powered by oil. You had little a compressor on wheels, with long pipes full of oil and secateurs. You pressed a trigger and the oil pumped them shut. You would be lugging this big machine up and down these rows and it was an amazing job, so much quicker because you could go chig chig chig with this pruner, and it was no effort to cut any branches with it, none at all. Whereas with secateurs by the end of the day that’s getting hard on your hand or your wrist, on your muscles. You can imagine cutting branches all day with little secateurs, so these hydraulic things were really good.

Other than that the technology wasn’t great, you used to get covered in this oil when you unplugged the thing and they would leak. So an abiding memory of life on the farm was all these horrible sort of health and safety type things really. How vulnerable they made you in some of the things you had to do, and dirt and discomfort, not nice really.

But overall not a bad career!

Stuart Cullum (b. 1962) talking to WISEArchive on 7th September 2013.

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