Last week, my friend Tim introduced me to a charming old film narrated by AG Street that depicts the wheat harvest in 1938. It documents the entire process from manually scything a path for the horse-drawn binder through stacking the stukes until finally the horse-drawn plough prepares the ground for the following year.
The footage captures the spirit of that age in a way that I had been unable to fully imagine before. I know there is a distinguished body of readers for whom these methods are still a part of living memory but for my generation this film vividly evokes the atmosphere of the period. It even has the rousing soundtrack that we have come to expect from modern videos of farmers in action.
You can find the film easily by searching for “English Harvest 1938” on Google and, even if you have utter distaste for computers, I heartily recommend that you ask a relative or neighbour to find it for you.
Many aspects of our job have changed in the past 75 years but the virtues of good husbandry, careful planning, skilled operation of your tools and a willingness to work hard are as necessary now as they were then.
The most striking difference between the 1938 film and the modern farm is the attitude to food. The pre-war farm places great emphasis on mealtimes. There is a midday interlude when the foreman appears with a watering can filled with ale and everyone sits on a log and makes merry. There are bonny-looking ladies with long skirts and rosy cheeks, walking the green lanes carrying baskets of food.
Historically, the power on a farm came from men and horses and the way that they were fuelled must have been critical to their performance. It is humbling to think that where we now burn diesel, once these same kilojoules of energy were generated from hay, bread, cheese and beer.
The modern farmer devotes their life to producing and promoting food but I’m not convinced they derive as much joy from consuming it as their forebears. Farms have fewer staff and the social experience has certainly been lost; many people who work on farms eat their lunch alone. Now that we have tractors that steer themselves, some of us don’t even stop work to eat.
The biggest irony, perhaps, is that “townies” now have access to finer-quality food that those who live in isolated rural communities. Food is rarely processed on farms these days; it is shipped off in its raw state to be distributed to cities where most people live. This means the urban dweller chooses from artisan breads and exotic vegetables in a supermarket while his country cousin is restricted to a sad-looking, long-life sliced loaf or a pasty from a petrol station. Paradoxically, it is those of us who produce the food who have been most adversely affected by the centralisation of the food system.
There are still excellent businesses in rural communities producing great meat, cheese and vegetables but, despite what the TV chefs say, these are exceptional and not commonplace. Where once we might have killed a pig and cured the meat, we now require an online grocery retailer to deliver it back to the countryside.
The glory of big machinery is all very well but have we really moved on at all? Wouldn’t we all secretly like to have beer from a watering can at lunchtime, too?
Matthew Naylor farms 162ha of Lincolnshire silt in partnership with his father, Nev. Cropping includes potatoes, vegetables, cut flowers and flowering bulbs. Matthew is a trustee of LEAF and a Nuffield scholar.
Matthew is on Twitter at @matthewnaylor and you can reach Farmers Weekly at @farmersweekly