The Mechanised Farmer (1930s-2007)

Location : Fakenham, Norfolk

George farmed at Aldborough Norfolk, and talks about changes brought by mechanisation to the farming world.

I left school at the age of 14 and that was in the summer term and straight away I started with the corn harvest, that was working for my father. There was one tractor only at that time on the farm and several horses. At this harvest time, if my memory was right, I just helped to move wagon loads of corn from the field to the stack yard . I wouldn’t have been strong enough to have been loading the sheaves but I wouldn’t have been good enough to stack them either.

After harvest you go into the autumn work. There wasn’t sugar beet grown on the farm in my first year. My father grew swedes for a jam factory in Wolverhampton. They were carted from the farm and put on rails at Aylsham and went up to Wolverhampton. I was actually told that to get the pips into raspberry jam they were no more than clover seeds, red clover seeds that were pink. Just into the War that all stopped.. The Minister of Food Lord Wilton, he brought in certain levels of fairness with rationing so that all classes of people could have their fair share of the rations.

Next spring time my father was told to grow sugar beet. That was the start of beet on this farm. Neighbours were growing beet, just a few acres. The sugar beet was hand hoed. Everything was done by hand. They were hand lifted and it was very hard work. Every plant was dug up by hand. They had no squeezer to squeeze them out the ground. not in those early days.

There was a good lot of live -stock on the farm. There was cattle, but no milking, pigs and sheep and some poultry as well. My father liked cattle. He fattened a considerable number. I didn’t follow that. Later in life when I started the farm properly I had just a few cattle but they soon went and I concentrated on pigs with a few sheep.

Going back to 1941 or 42 another tractor, a Lease-Lend tractor came to the farm and more ground was ploughed up so there was a need for the tractor with more arable farming, especially with the sugar beet. At the time the horses were leaving the farm. That was a sad sight, a very sad sight to see, not much for me but certainly for the men on the farm, especially my mother. To see the horses go was a bit heart-tearing. But that’s how it was.

And I remember looking up at the skies and seeing these Flying Fortresses and Liberators going over by the hundreds for the bombing raids. And you could see the planes was damaged when they returned home. They were flying low and bits and pieces fell out of the planes. I saw that happen many times. Some of the airmen were throwing gear out of the planes to lighten to load to get the plane home. Bits and pieces were picked up all over the place.

Farming life carried on during the war. And at the end of the war there were tremendous celebrations when that happened. Everyone had quite a holiday, a deserved holiday. And the Japanese war ended soon after and things were on their way. Then my father was encouraged to grow as much as possible. Ordinary ground was drained, meadow ground was drained to enable crops to be grown there. We did expand a little bit in those days by taking on the tenancy of a farm. At that time my father’s farm would have been about 450 acres, not very large. Then I played a bigger part in the running of the farm and if my father wasn’t about I was given a chance to work with the men. There were 12 men on the farm about the end of the war time. Half the men would have been looking after live- stock in the yards. They would be for ever walking up and down from the turnip house with food for them. It looks crazy now today how all those men were employed. There was straw to cart every day and a lot to remove too. Half the men were involved in live- stock.

Then, as I said, the farm was increased to grow more and more. I remember the lime coming on ground that was freshly ploughed up, and deeper ploughing. Better crops resulted from that. Yet more acres of sugar beet grown. So it went on that way until about 1950. I married in 1952. And in 1950 my father set me up away from him with 147 acres. That was on a hired piece of ground. I was pleased to be by myself and I think father was pleased to be back looking after his bit. We’d had a few misunderstandings about how farming should be done, trying to do too much myself and father wanting to do things his way.

I started off with this acreage and married in 1952. That acreage was kept for probably ten or fifteen years. We had three children, a boy and a couple of girls. Then the time came to take over the rest of my father’s ground as he wasn’t very fit at that time. More and more machinery was coming. I’ve forgotten to mention that we had a combine in 1949. That wasn’t the first one in this area. The neighbour had one. This was a Massey Harris 726 made in Kilmarnock, and that was something tremendous when that came. That altered machinery on the farm enormously. The tractor was brought bigger ploughs to follow the combine as soon as possible to get the ground in for the winter corn. The whole thing was stepped up. And still the farmers were being encouraged to grow where you could. And in fact I started to take road banks, took out a lot of road banks. And altogether that made quite a bit of difference. I know we don’t seem to have the snow today, but years ago with these road banks on our narrow roads, they quite often filled up with snow. So much so that you couldn’t even get a tractor up with a snow plough, so they had to be hand dug. These last few years we haven’t had big snow falls. It’s been a bit difficult at times when we have thrown out the banks and just left a small border. When there has been a little snow people haven’t quite kept to the road, which isn’t our fault, and they’ve got onto the land and now and again we’ve had to pull them out. Nowadays a bit more of a border has been left and a bit of planting to help the countryside.

Going on, we bought some land, a complete separate farm, not far away, and at the same time we were able to buy the land that we were hiring. That bought the acreage up to around a thousand, and today the acreage is about two thousand. just recently, not by myself. I haven’t been active in the farm for four of five years really, I understand very little about the office work on the farm, my son does that. And it’s him that in the last few years has been able to find a few more acres. But the farm is spread out a long way. It’s from a farm at Erpingham to a further one at Felbrigg. That is a distance of six or seven miles. The farm doesn’t always join up so there’s quite a bit of road work on the farm. Going back to the crops, I should have mentioned this earlier on, when I started the farm from my father I started to grow vegetable crops, starting with peas and they were first of all cut on the farm and loaded on a lorry and taken to the static viners before we had the mobiles. The mobiles were pulled by tractors, quite big machinery, difficult things to get about on the road. And then later on we had podders, self-propelled machines, but that wasn’t by ourselves, that was in the Group. We couldn’t afford that sort of machinery. A modern podder today is a third of a million pounds at least and they’ve been using them on the farm this year. We started to grow dwarf beans as the farm grew larger. At the time the cattle had gone and the sheep had gone and that meant all the arable land could be used in a good rotation for these crops. The pigs were still quite high in numbers. On three farms there are pigs, quite a lot.

Going back to these crops with the machinery. There was bigger combines and bigger trailers. If you altered the size of one machine you just had to go up. That’s how the farming has gone, hasn’t it? If I go right forward to this year, on the farm this year we’ve got a fairly large combine on tracks. That was bought just at the start of harvest. With the awful weather we’ve been having and wet ground it was thought that we were likely to get stuck. And to get a combine out when it’s stuck is some problem. We haven’t big enough tractors on the farm to pull something heavy like a combine out so the money was spent and the combine, a special one, was bought here from Germany on tracks. The machine has got a thirty foot cutter bar. Thirty foot is just about the width of a tennis court. That’s reckoning on a fairly large acreage. Not a whole two thousand because these are some other crops. But there is quite a large acreage of corn. But that was rather a marvellous sight to see it running this year on caterpillar tracks. And just recently I’ve seen a potato machine on caterpillar tracks. So those things are going to come, quite definitely, saving wheel damage on the lane. That’s the thing today. If you want to grow good crops the land must not be compact. So after harvest a lot of subsoiling is done that wasn’t done years ago. You’ve got to break this ground up, especially in what you call the tram lines where the fertilizer spreader’s been up and down the same wheel marks seven times sometimes, and there’s a huge pan that’s got to be broken up. And so that means on decent sized fields cross ploughing. So when you’re ploughing a field you might say north to south, the next year’s east to west. And of course you’re crossing the tram lines so the drilling has to allow for that. The drilling has to move from east to west and that sort of thing.

When I left school I would have been paid very little. It’s hard to remember exactly. I would have been living with my mother and father and that would have been for free in the house with food and everything else. I must have been paid something which would have immediately been put into National Savings. In war time there would be little occasion to spend any money. That was work, work. So I had to start saving and saving for later when you’d really want to buy something. And my mother would have been kind and bought all my clothes.

Talking about the men. My father paid the men. They met every morning at what we called the horseshop doors. The team would have been in before then to prepare the horses, an hour and a half before work started. The rest would probably start at 7.30. My father would have a word with the men about what work he hoped could be done that day. Then when it came to pay the men were paid on a Friday morning, just be cash. He would know how much each should have. There was nothing written down. The men accepted that all right because they had been used to it and knew how much they should receive. I just can’t think how it was done with overtime and everything else being worked in.

When I started farming by myself on the 147 acres that joined up with father’s land I started these men off with an envelope and it was clearly written down on the envelope what the wage was and the deductions with insurance and stamps and all the rest of it. But I do know that in the area smaller farmers were still on this cash business. How much the men were paid was really very little I should think in the 1950s, about £12 or £14 a week. Really it was nothing. And gradually it crept up, the wages crept up, because at the peak time on the farm when the men were on long hours on the pea harvester the wages were enormous. With over time at the higher rate, with eight of them, the wages had gone up to £600 a week. That is very high. Then we’ve gone right through from that lower level. The men have got to be well treated today. On the farm years ago there was no toilet and no place to wash. Nowadays the modern tractor cabs all have radios. Men have always got radios in the farmhouse. We’ve got good washing facilities and cloak rooms and one thing and another. It’s all as it should be. You need all that for the men else they wouldn’t be here.

The men are quite extraordinary in these quiet cabs. I haven’t done that much lately. I can go back just a short while, a year or two years when I had a word with the men. I wasn’t running the farm then. My son was. You open the cab door and the wireless would be blaring away. And I’d say ‘Can you turn that down and we’ll have a word?’ And there’s all the noise in that quiet cab. That’s interesting for them to have news bulletins and one thing and another. The modern tractors records so much. There’s a small type of computer arrangement in the cab, especially the combine. The combine records the amount of grain going through the combine and the amount of grain done on a field in a day. Everything except moisture. And in the combine there’s a wash basin in one corner of the cab. The cabs are quite large. And the combine’s fitted with the satellite navigation and it will even drive itself for a certain amount of way. But the man needed to be in the cab.

I was talking about what the wages would have been. The wages must have gone up from my early days of £12 to £400 and £500 a week now. The men must have been hard done by years ago and they were long hours. You’d work Saturday morning up to 12 o’clock. In the winter time, when I was a boy, there was two hours less because of the winter conditions which meant there was two hours more in the summer time. There was very little holiday. They might have had a week’s holiday. I can’t remember now if they really did. Today they have over a month’s holiday. So things have altered. They simply had to. From the men’s point of view I wish it had been better for them earlier on, I really do. They must have been a very loyal lot to stay and work on the farm.

That’s a one to one thing. My father and I have always talked to the men and discussed what we were growing and the way we were growing it. And that was rather important a few years ago when we were growing seed corn. That’s finished now, for various reasons. We did seed corn for a couple of firms. One firm had their experimental plots on the farm for several years running. It’s drilled and harvested with their help in recording the way it’s growing and everything else that goes into that. That was quite interesting but it took quite a bit of time.

The farming today’s with very little labour. The machinery for the sugar beet harvester is a contract job. We can’t afford one of those big machines ourselves costing a third of a million pounds or more. It’s the same with the lorries. There are seven lorries in the Group. This farm had a lorry until a few years ago. That was 16 tons. That wasn’t a sensible proposition. The lorries today are carrying 28 tons. The lorry came to an end in the seed growing time because to deliver 16 tons of seed wasn’t enough. They wanted a larger quantity to save them changing from one variety to another. That was the beginning of it and it certainly was with the sugar beet. Its thirty three miles to the factory from here. To cut the transport allowance you’ve just got to have a bigger load. That’s why the lorry went. And at the same time the lorry driver retired.

Quite often when the live-stock was going down in numbers men were retiring. No man has been asked to leave the farm in my father’s day or in my day. The changes due to the increased mechanisation fitted in well with the time for their retirement. In my early days the men didn’t really retire. At the age of sixty or sixty five they were worn out. Three or four died at that time. Those men were my friends and that was a bit of a blow as a young boy, to find that a man had died. They finished at the most at sixty five. Hopefully today they’re going on to enjoy another twenty years on top of that. because of better working conditions. The men were all ruptured years ago. I’ve had two operations for ruptures. The poor men were, through all the heavy sacks they used to lift. Today, hopefully, it shouldn’t happen at all on the farm now. With the fork lifts and everything you shouldn’t have to hurt your back either. Many of them had a bad back and I have as well and you just live with it. But today the men are so much better off. They look better. They are more tidy, don’t look old. The men years ago had beards and whiskers and old clothes. These chaps today look quite smart.

Going back to talk about the days of thrashing. The farm didn’t have its own drum. Very few farms did. So the contractors came. There were plenty of those about a few miles away, like at Aylsham, seven miles from here. There was a good engine man there with seven drums and of course seven engines and straw-pitchers and bunchers and chaff cutters and the whole lot. When the engine came to the farm with the drum with the thrashing outfit for corn stacks they usually did two days, sometimes three because you need a bit of room in the barn for three days thrashing for the sacks. All the corn was in sacks. Some might have been possible to cart away at thrashing time. Small lorries might have taken some corn to the mill. I remember some going to the mill. It gets put in the barn, sometimes even three sacks high. You’d make them two high with the men lifting them and the third one was a smaller bag. That was to get it all in.

The thrashing in my early days as a boy, in fact my first memories of thrashing, that would be when I was six or seven years old, I was about there with a stick to kill the rats and mice. There were so many in those days. I have seen mice and rats go up a man’s leg and it was a devil to get out. So usually a bit of string would be used to tie your trousers at the top of your boots. You wouldn’t be wearing rubber boots much except the man who was carting water for the engine. You needed to be in leather boots. So string was put round to stop the mice. But there were so many on a corn stack that the mice were running about all over the place when you got lower down and they could easily run up your leg. I’ve seen an awful situation where a rat went right up a man’s leg and that was pretty awful for him. So those were the days of using the stick until the sensible thing came when the Government stepped in in 1940 and that was the law then that netting had to be put round the corn stack starting at the engine wheel right round the corn stack to the straw stack and sometimes even to net the other side. And the idea of that was so that the rats couldn’t get to their holes in the hedges. They’d hit the netting and then you could get them. Sometimes at the end there would be eighty or ninety rats. The madness of it, I can’t understand it, to have all these rats. There wasn’t much in the way of poison, I suppose. But you could trap rats. You could trap rats easily enough in water. You put a rat trap in water in a run. The rat would come along and stand on the plate and they usually get caught. I’ve caught masses of rats in a drain where the rat run crosses the drain, easy as anything.

So this netting came and after that the combines came on this farm in 1949 and when that came the binder was stood up. I’ve a binder in the yard now because I’ve cut some corn this year with a binder, and using some of my own machinery I thrash and I shall be thrashing next Spring time with the corn. I’ve cut this harvest time. I do that by arrangement with my son because he runs the farm and I can’t get in the field with the binder until he’s got in with the combine. That’s a bit late for the binder because the corn is right fit and ready and that corn going through a binder shells quite a bit. When the sheaf is chucked out of the knotter on the binder that hit’s the ground that shells indeed, but you can’t help it. That part of thrashing and all the lifting that went on at the end of the day these men were very tired. And then the engine would move to a neighbouring farm. Not all the neighbours had the same contractor to do the job but the engine wouldn’t move very far. At four of clock time in winter when it was getting dark these engines had to be got away from the stack and the drums hooked on and the whole lot taken down the road. And the gateways years ago were very small The engines couldn’t drive in without unhooking or putting the pole on the drum and pulling them in without hitting the post. Because these post were very necessary years ago because of the live stock.

As soon as the combine came with the delicate part of the combine, the cutter head, these posts were lifted out over night. The live- stock was missing on the farm then. The way it was you used to have to have the posts. But I’ve lifted it out with a small loader, a small fork lift on a small tractor, many gate posts, and some of them took some heaves to get out. They tended to rot through on the surface where they got wet, then dry, but some of these posts were put in to a hell of a depth and they took a bit of lifting out for the combine.

The enjoyment of the farm. I was meant to be on the farm through my parents and it just came naturally to me through being in the school holidays and seeing how things were altering all the while and was encouraged to have a few rabbits or poultry or pigs and working that way brings you in to the life of the job. I just wouldn’t change one thing. It’s been hard work at times and long hours and if things go wrong with the live stock and they get out it’s bound to be on a rather difficult day, probably driving snow. Just the same with pigs on a Sunday morning they’ll be short of water so you know the system’s gone wrong. You’ve got less labour on a Sunday. You get days when you’ve got a cold or flu and you’re meant to be feeding live- stock and you don’t feel well, then there are some bad days, quite stressful. But you live through those and you enjoy seeing the crops go in the ground and come up and watch the growing of the crops, the different varieties of corn. I look out for how they are progressing right up to the yield.

We’ve quite a number of plots on this farm drilled in the autumn, all autumn drilling, barley and wheat. And you watch the growing and at the harvest stage the corn was weighed and that was probably some benefit on what to grow next year. By then you had to have your seed order in. If you’re growing for seed you have to have good quality seed, that’s C1, say. We’d grow a lot like that on the farm. Then the crop itself could be grown again for another year, then next year raised for seed, and that’s about as far as you could really go for sensible cropping. So life is good. No holidays earlier on but later on I think the first holiday I really had was when I got married in 1952. In those days there was quite a bit of cricket in the village and football. When I went to school there was soccer or rugger type football, or hockey and athletics In those days Saturday was great fun at the end of the day.

George (b. 1926) talking to WISEArchive on 24th October 2007 in Aldborough, Norfolk.

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