40 years of changes on the land

Ascott under Wychwood. "Warners and self prop combine"
How has British farming changed since The Wychwood was first published in 1980? The history of farming has always been one of ups and downs. In the depression of the 1930s British farmers struggled to survive financially. It was said the more you did the more money you lost, and many farmers turned to low-cost ‘run of the mill’ farming. All changed with the Second World War when the country needed farmers to produce more and more food. This continued into the 1950s and this trend of maximising food production still persisted in 1980. Peter Walker was Minister of Agriculture then, and I remember he stated that as populations grew across the world, power in the world would belong to those countries which produced the most food.

This was mirrored on our farm, where the shepherd ceased to rule the roost and cereal production was the main farm enterprise, alongside a pig unit and also turkeys fattened for Christmas.  From 1980 onwards, however, it became apparent that farmers had become too productive with grain mountains and milk lakes. Milk quotas were introduced to cut milk production and ‘set aside’ came in, where 15% of a farm’s arable acreage had to be left fallow. Also, the emphasis of farm support began to move to environmental schemes.

The most visible change in farming around us here happened during and just after the war, with mechanisation and the disappearance of heavy horses from the land. Some carters found this change difficult, and tales were told of tractors crashing through hedges with the driver shouting “whoa, whoa” at the unresponsive machine. By 1980 we thought we had a pretty sophisticated fleet of farm machinery. Judged by 2020 standards these machines now look pretty basic. Our combine still did not have a cab. Roy Souch, our combine driver, would get off at the end of the day, covered in black dust and looking like a panda as he removed his goggles and face mask. We thought things improved with an enclosed cab that kept out the dust, but on a hot day it was like sitting in a greenhouse with just a small fan blowing a slow stream of hot air on the sweltering driver. We now have air- conditioning, a sound-proofed cab with radio, and a confusing array of controls and alarms. And, of course, GPS which can steer the machine while the driver eats his sandwiches. 

I had better stop before I write ‘not like in our day’.  But it is, as farming really is a case of ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’.

Mike Hartley

August – September 2020