It’s 54 years this month since I brought my new wife to this farm, having secured the tenancy the previous Michaelmas (I was 10 at the time… I was a precocious child!). In all that time I have never seen the land so wet for so long.
The water table has been higher, it’s true. But incredibly, after the wet summer and autumn and the highest annual rainfall ever recorded in England, the ditches and ponds are not full to the brim. I can only assume three dry winters on the trot created such a moisture deficit that it has taken all that rain to refill the aquifers. That and the fact that it fell faster than the land could absorb it.
The topsoil is where the water seems trapped so that in places it’s like quicksand and you can’t walk across it without sinking up to your knees. I suppose the moisture will get away in time, but not before it has done incalculable damage to soil structure and prospects for crops.
Back in that autumn of 1958 when I started farming here, it had been a wet harvest after a series of summers similar to the ones we have endured in recent years. As I walked the farm with the landlord’s agent to talk rent we came across plenty of wet places that I later drained with the help of government grants. You seldom see draining machines today since those grants were abolished, it being more fashionable to leave wet patches for wildlife.
It’s a vain hope but wouldn’t it be a good idea, after 2012 and considering the production challenges ahead, to reinstate such grants?
My other memory of that walk with the agent was of tripping over the abundance of twitch, or couch grass. Most of the fields were carpeted with the stuff and the wet summers had encouraged its interlocking rhizome roots to spread beneath the surface and thrive. As one wag tractor driver we later employed remarked: “If I had a big enough tractor I could pull the whole farm to Norwich.”
This was pre Roundup, remember, and we had no alternative but to plough it in as deep as possible in the hope it would not re-emerge too soon and create competition for crops. It so happened that summer 1959 was hot and dry. Our first year crops were reasonable under the circumstances and I finished combining (with a second-hand Claas SF bagger with a 10ft cutter bar) on 28 August, a date we’ve matched only a few times since.
More importantly, autumn 1959 continued hot and dry and we were able to cultivate all the stubbles several times with Ransomes Dauntless cultivators and the 50hp tractors then available.
In that one year we exposed those rhizomes to the sun and virtually sorted the twitch problem, without chemicals. What luck!
During my time here I have experienced many other weather records – for cold, for heat, for snow and drought and I record these anecdotes to suggest you can’t rely on the weather. This was true long before we’d heard the phrase “climate change”. I give no guarantees but we are certainly due a decent farming year or two after what we’ve been through. We still have to recover from the legacy of 2012, of course, but perhaps the jet stream will return to its normal northern trajectory and give us an ideal summer or three.
Perhaps – but that’s what makes farming so fascinating.
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