Monday, 2 April 2018

Nearby farms and farmers

Our holding sits right in the middle of arable farm land. It’s of constant interest watching the changing agricultural scene during the year and seeing the farmers do their work. The farm landscape is typical of the area: flat land traversed by fenland drains to the north of us. To the south the fen landscape edges into the sandy brecklands with the characteristic lines of Scots pine trees, whose growth leans with the prevailing winds, marking the field boundaries. This is a solid and productive agricultural area. It is very different from the more picturesque agricultural scene, punctuated by quaint villages, to the south of the county or the somewhat over manicured countryside found in the affluent areas of, say, rural Kent or Surrey.

There is very little livestock farming where we are. It is almost exclusively arable. The main crops are wheat, sugar beet, potatoes, onions, salad crops and, a bit further away, carrots and other root crops. There is hardly any of the otherwise ubiquitous oil seed rape brightening up the early summer scene. I gather this needs more moisture retentive soil. One interesting crop near to us is amenity turf. The flat, sandy and virtually stoneless soil provides a perfect growing medium. It can look a bit incongruous to see 40 acre fields looking like bowling greens. I gather that one time the turf from Wembley was sourced locally.

Sugar beet is a very important crop for local farmers, grown under contract with British Sugar whose nearest factory to us is in Bury St Edmunds. The beets are harvested in late autumn and early winter and the familiar great heaps of them are stockpiled on field edges ready to be collected by big lorries. If you buy sugar and want to buy British, then it is bags of Silver Spoon you are after, rather than Tate and Lyle that uses imported cane sugar.

The surrounding farms are mostly small, perhaps 200 to 400 acres. They have been in the same family for three, four or five generations. Typically they were started small as an additional sideline by someone who worked a trade, then, as the years passed, additional land was acquired to allow them to eventually become full time farmers. During, and immediately after the Second World War was often the time of expansion as land was still relatively cheap. Some of the poorer land was brought into cultivation by the War Agricultural Executive Committee as part of the war effort to maximise food production. 

This was the case with the field on the other side of our eastern boundary. Our neighbouring farmer told me it was once water logged land and the AEC helped drain it for his father to start growing crops on it. (Potatoes are going in this year). One of the old drove roads nearby is concreted and this was laid during the war to help improve efficiency for the local farmers to get to and from their fields. 

The farms, being small, are invariably farmed by their owner on their own and in one case by a father and son. Contractors might sometimes be brought in for some operations. Virtually everything is done sitting in a tractor which travel up and down our road front all day. In the past, when farming was less mechanised and labour much cheaper, they would have employed help either regularly or seasonally. There is a larger farm not far away where the tractors and harvesting equipment are much bigger and more sophisticated. A big machine edges slowly along the rows cropping, cleaning and packaging the crops as it travels along. They also employ migrant labour to hand pick the coriander and salad crops which I assume can’t be machine harvested. 

When I bump into the local farmers I often stop and chat. They are all friendly and are interested in what I’m up to in the smallholding. If they are passing in their tractors they always wave. They work very hard, sometimes late into the evening, headlights on. So much farming is time-specific and if a crop needs drilling the task has got to be finished. Crops have to be harvested before the weather turns so they can't stop until the job is done. 

Last summer was quite wet and it was a tricky time for farmers choosing the moment to combine the wheat. One morning I came across my neighbour with his elderley but serviceable combine harvester testing the moisture content of some wheat grain samples. “I should be able to make a start this afternoon” he said. Once started it was flat out until all the grain was in, leaving big straw bales dotting the field to be collected later.

Our neighbour's elderly combine harvester

The straw is used for bedding in another farmer's pig unit. It has now been returned as manure back to the same fields and is being being ploughed in to beef up the otherwise light soil ready for planting the Maris Piper seed potatoes.


  1. We were in the middle of big arable farms at the smallholding. Which was fine except for the 2am fertiliser spreading! and the bird scarer explosions when the timer went wrong and fired like a canon all night!
    We are still in the middle of arable here but the farms are smaller and the farmers still actually live in the area rather than 20 miles away. Rape all round this year, looking very sad and waterlogged at the moment.

  2. Yes the bird scarers can be a little trying when they go off.