Farming needs a future in Cambridgeshire as well a glorious past

12:25 28 June 2014

A Marshall threshing machine owned by Brian Spiers, of Wyboston. William Hickling is on top of the machine.

A Marshall threshing machine owned by Brian Spiers, of Wyboston. William Hickling is on top of the machine.


Six weeks from ear to shear. This old saying has caused panic in our household this year as much to our surprise, our winter wheat produced its seed heads in mid-May, and thanks to the wet and warm weather, the crops have been racing ahead and maturing very quickly.

I am not entirely sure that we will actually be harvesting on July 1, but we are certainly in for an early harvest if the current warm weather continues. The winter barley is already changing from green to a yellowish tinge, and the winter wheat is following suit.

Our panic stems from the fact that we are caught up in the middle of hay making, having had to start slightly earlier than usual so that we do not end up trying to cope with hay and harvest together. June is always a fickle month as regards the weather. It often seems to rain when we least expect it so we are currently trying to get the hay made quickly, and stored safely in the barn. However, because the grass is still young and rather full of sap, it takes longer to dry than it would if we made it a couple of weeks later.

Rob had an unusual experience whilst cutting the grass in the first hay field. He was astonished to find that the tractor was being shadowed by a kestrel, a buzzard, a red kite, some crows, jackdaws and seagulls. They were obviously on the lookout for small mammals and insects as the grass was being mown down and he said that whilst he was used to seeing one or two of the birds about, he had never seen all of them in one field together at the same time.

Although things are incredibly busy on the farm at present, we did manage to snatch a couple of hours off and visit Bolnhurst Vintage Machinery Rally last weekend. There was some fascinating machinery on display but, for me, the highlight was the wonderful old Marshall threshing machine which was being operated by a Case tractor. The exhibit belongs to Brian Spiers from Wyboston, and he and his family have shown it at the rally for the last 22 years. Threshing machines have always held a great attraction for me as I well remember one operating in our farmyard when I was growing up. (Whilst you are all frantically doing your sums, yes, I am that old! However, in mitigation, my grandfather was not keen on new-fangled farm machinery, and we were one of the last farms in Huntingdonshire to regularly use horses to work the land).

If you look closely at the old threshing machine, it is possible to see echoes of its design in a modern-day combine. Thankfully nowadays, the really hard work is taken out of separating the corn from the chaff as everything is done mechanically, including feeding the corn into the machine. Years ago, each sheaf of corn was either cut by hand or more usually, by a binder, and the resultant sheaves were then fed into the thresher by a couple of men using pitchforks. It was very tiring and skilled work as it was essential to establish a good rhythm to ensure that the sheaves were fed in evenly and did not block the machine. Instead of pouring the corn into a handy trailer and tipping the trailer up in the nearest farm building, the corn was collected into 16 stone sacks and these then had to be man-handled across the yard and into a barn. There were no forklifts to help – usually just a couple of men and half an old broom handle which they used to support the sack whilst they moved it about. Farming pressures have changed over the years, the only constant is concern about the weather.

I suppose that we all have romantic views of the past and, for some reason, the public perception of farming has hardly moved on from when I was young. Whilst it is fun to look back at life, the reality of farm life then was that it was incredibly hard work – long hours, often in hostile weather, and very poor pay. Today, farming is a high-tech, cutting-edge industry. Manpower has been replaced with machinery and, in many ways, we are as advanced as the space industry. Whilst not everyone who works in the agriculture industry is actually based ‘on farm’, there are tremendous opportunities for young people in related research and development, crop science, machinery technology and the food industry. It saddens me, as another academic year is over and many children are coming into the job market, that they have such a negative and old-fashioned view of what the agricultural industry can offer. With so many millions of mouths to feed, and the average age of farmers in this country being 60 years old, we need bright, young people to be encouraged to think of careers in agriculture and allied industries if this nation is to continue to feed itself in the future.

1 comment

  • I can only applaud the observations in this article. My eldest son works in agronomics now, having grown up here in an ex-tied cottage. I am not in the farming industry but our neighbouring farmers were a wonderful family who indulged his curiosity and encouraged him. He would love to acquire a small tenancy of his own, but they are so hard to come by. Meanwhile, he thrives being employed on the land and, I suspect, the pleasure of working under an open sky.

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    Geoff Hartley

    Sunday, June 29, 2014

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