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With so much uncertainty in the farming world today, it's sometimes good to listen to my old friend William. He is 90-years-old and still... William’s story

With so much uncertainty in the farming world today, it’s sometimes good to listen to my old friend William. He is 90-years-old and still wonders where we are all going.

Having left school at 14 to go straight on the land, William’s first farm job was picking up potatoes into a basket. It was back-breaking work, he tells me. But the reward for his endeavours was to get to drive the tractor.

An old John Deere with three wheels pulled the trailer when full. William still has the old metal basket somewhere in his shed. On the back of this, his first full time job was with a local landowner who had several farms spread over the county.

Standard pay was £7 per week with plenty of over time if required. William repeats that the work was hard – but the days were short or long depending upon your appetite for work. If you wanted to earn more than £10 per week, you put in the extra hours.

Some older workers were regularly on £16 per week. One of his first jobs was beet drilling – a four row Webb drill with an electrical warning system which comprised one red bulb which lit up in a box.

If the bulb stayed on, it meant one of the units had stopped. But you didn’t know which one. William had given the Stanhay drill a go but the belt-driven model was too erratic when it came to seed spacing so the Webb won the day.

The required speed was 2mph. Any faster would compromise the seed spacing. Beet drilling was a responsible job and paid a few shillings more. It meant the 2mph speed limit was adhered to – as advised by his employers.

William was a spray man in the spring and received a bonus if he completed 25ha (60 acres) a day. He also worked with horses briefly. But – in his words – he never really could control or understand the things.

Hard work

The best job in the six years he worked for that particular farm was learning to drive a lorry. Autumn meant taking three loads of beet daily to the nearby factory. In those days, it also meant loading lorries with a fork.

Driving the lorry all day meant a quick return home for tea before leaving again for the market run. As best as William remembers, this involved delivering vegetables to somewhere near Fleet Street in London.

After the market run, you had to drive the lorry home at 4am. Then it was two hours sleep before getting up to load beet again. The money was good, says William. But it came to an end when he became a father and saw his new born baby only once in the first month.

Winters were cold in those days. So cold one winter that the parsnips were frozen solid in the ground. It took 20 men with hammers and crow bars to break the ice while the rest looked after the single row harvester. 

The chain was more off than on and only half a trailer load of parsnips was ever collected in a single day.

Little progress

Yet William looks back on his first county council tenancy and the progression to his 120ha (300 acre) farm fondly. He wonders why today we need such big and heavy machinery.

No wonder we have so much soil compaction and water laying on the land. A two-furrow plough, single roll with harrows and a Dutch harrow to finish. That’s all he had.

Back then, there was little artificial fertiliser. Instead, manure was carted from local cattle and pig farms and spread on the land so thick it would suck your boots off.

These days, applying natural fertiliser seems back in fashion – and William wonders why it ever became unfashionable in the first place.

Quite a mechanic in his day, he remembers driving a Clayson combine through his local city with the 10ft header on. It took a police escort and all the cars moved to one side. But imagine doing that today, he says with a smile – and all at 20mph.

He also remembers his neighbours making a good living off 2ha (5 acres) of land. Growing an array of crops, he asks about the minimum amount of land required to make a living today. Has it reached 400ha (1000 acres) for combinable crops? Or even more?

William believes we need to go backwards today to go forward tomorrow. He doesn’t advocate a return to such small farms but says they do still have lots to offer – and deserve a well-earned place in the farming world.

He might be 90 but William still leads a full and active life – and sits on a tractor seat when required.

Maybe more people should listen to the older generation. Their experience and views are often still relevant today.