8 January 1999

They adored our field-fresh spuds

TAKE several acres of early potatoes, a drizzly Cornish mist and one extremely stressed brother, Nigel, with tractor bogged down in the gateway. Mix in half a dozen Portuguese labourers, whose knowledge of the English language is zilch. The result? A perfect recipe for an average day on the farm.

Very slowly I repeated again, to the rather sodden huddle of men: "Potato, pick up, put in bag."

At last I felt as if there was a breakthrough. Instead of looks of bewilderment, there were willing smiles and much

nodding of heads.

The only cheerful (or should I say smug) face to be seen was that of my father, John, chugging up the track on his trusty old Fordson Major. I could faintly hear mutterings from his direction.

"Forty years weve been together, never let me down, cant beat a good old fashioned workhorse". This all accompanied by the occasional pat of affection on its rusty bonnet. Of course true to form it gave one easy pull and Nigel was mobile again. With a look of glee Dad drove back to the yard, savouring his moment of glory.

So we picked and bagged, the sun shone and Nigel stopped holding his head in his hands. After three days the Portuguese had got into the swing of things. They plodded along quite happily as long as I kept them fuelled with coffee, black as tar and sweet as syrup.

With much relief the transport lorry was finally despatched with our precious load. But would they be our nuggets of gold? Several days later we learnt that our hopes had been swept away by the wind and rain that had blighted us. The price had plunged. Our earlies were too late.

Intense family discussion

followed, digesting the fate of the crop lying untouched in the ground. Rather tentatively our ever helpful mother, Yolande, suggested we set up shop and sell by the roadside.

I have to admit we all thought this idea might move a molehill, but not the

mountain.

The next day was a flurry of activity as advertising boards were designed, scales checked, and van loaded. Eventually, Nigel trundled off to seek out a pitch. Three hours later he was home again. Van empty. Face smiling. Over the following weeks sales grew, the field was cleared and even the bank manager was smiling.

What a wonderful time we had. It was such a pleasure to sell our produce straight from the field to the consumer and take part in good old fashioned marketing. Ill always remember one of our regular customers rolling up. This rather portly

lady heaved herself out

and ambled towards

me. Very sombre faced,

she bellowed: "Ive got a

complaint about your

tatties."

"Awfully sorry," I squeaked, my face paling and body tensing. "Im trying to diet and all I can think about is your wretched potatoes. Put on half a stone because of you." Her face now gave way to a beaming smile.

Our customers seemed to

really appreciate being able to buy local produce, fresh from the field and at a fair price. The majority feel aggrieved that the multinational

retailers are abusing their power at the expense of the poor beleaguered farmers.

So, now its time to lift the maincrop, Desiree. Nigel is still smiling. Just dont

mention blight, scab, rust spot or wire worm – we need these potatoes. Our customers are waiting.

Ms J A Fincham-Drayson

Selling off the back of the van…

FOR ten years my point of sale was the back of a van. In my efforts to be the sole provider of dairy chemicals to farms in and around Warwick-shire, I set off as an extremely naive 19-year-old, misguidedly believing I was unique in my quest.

Looking back I am appalled by my lack of knowledge. Could this have been my saving grace? Perhaps it was the sympathy sale that put my foot in the door and my mark on their cheque book. Being female also had its advantages. The "no" I received was usually polite. Occasionally the female factor worked against me – several sales were conducted with the bulk tank between me and the farmer!

My map reading skills went from poor to quite reasonable.

My knowledge of lanes

and public loos was

substantial.

I soon learnt

not to ask the

milkman for the way to a dairy farm.

The cold was the biggest downside of the job. No matter what I wore, nothing beat it. I have spent many a half hour, nose dripping, trying to

negotiate a sale on a drum of hypochlorite while still

maintaining a margin, with a farmer, who, impervious to the cold, was keen to have a break from strawing the yards. Those warm kitchens with steaming cups of coffee and my bottom against the Rayburn were such havens.

Dogs played a big part in the excitement of the day. I only got bitten the once. I tended not to count the collies snaffling round my ankles.

My most embarrassing moment involved the fire brigade. A tub of milkstone remover and a pot of bleach fell off the shelves in the back of the van and split. Their

contents, when mixed, gave off chlorine gas. My only option

was to ring 999. The local

fire brigade used it as an

ideal opportunity to

practise their

chemical spillage

drill, sealing off

the entire village

and talking to me,

and the dog, through

loud hailers. The local paper enjoyed the story.

I will never forget the fear of cold calling. Going back and forth past the end of the drive thinking of 101 reasons why I should not go up there, and the sheer exultation when a new customer was cultivated, only to realise I had got the bad payer and had to spend the next three months chasing his milk cheque.

I made a lot of friends over the years. I was party to a lot of peoples lives. There was many a kettle put on as I pulled in the yard. Of course there was the odd romantic involvement but discount was usually curtailed after a few months.

Eight years, one husband (yes, hes a farmer, though not a customer, although he does claim that during the first dance we had, I was trying to sell him a wax jacket) and two children later I am firmly on the other side of the fence. I do try to be exceptionally nice to reps, after all their point of sale is to make a crust and pay the mortgage. However the more I comprehend the business we are in I understand the responses I got. I do have the decency to cringe when discount is requested.

Now with both children almost at school and farming on the decline an outside income is needed. Will I do it all again? I wouldnt be brave enough!

Julia Sessford

Step by step, up the farming ladder we go

THERES no feeling quite like it; the absolute highest of the high. Numb and dizzy, too spaced out to stand up – needing a chair quick! The next minute doing a rain dance around the car park and then ending up in tears. Thats how it felt buying our first farm.

After five years of looking, different jobs, tied cottages, trying to get on the bottom rung of the ladder, we finally succeeded.

No bank wanted to take us on, but no other life seemed acceptable. We eventually persuaded my familys bank to listen. They gave us a limit. On no account could we go over it!

On a cold November evening we set out in our trusty old diesel Golf, departing our dreaded farm workers bungalow. I couldnt get warm all day and took a hot water bottle to hug on the journey. Half way there – an omen. The trusty old Golf boiled over. Was she dead? No, not quite. George, my husband, emptied my hot water bottle into her. Back in action, we arrived at the sale.

The farm in question was 16ha (40 acres), with quota for 16 cows. But the house was delicious, a Victorian country gentlemans residence. "Its much too nice for us. Well never get it," I thought.

The bids started low. George couldnt get his fingers to work – so good old Mum had to get hers in action on our behalf. We had one more go left, then we were out of steam. The room fell silent. We couldnt believe it. Minutes later we were ushered into a room to sign. Were we signing our lives away? It didnt seem so.

Peeling ourselves off the ceiling we ventured into the cold rainy night and danced around the car. Laughing and giggling we loaded up. We hadnt gone 50 yards before getting a puncture. Oh no! We got out to change the wheel. It was throwing it down with rain but we were laughing as we were getting soaked.

We lived at this particular abode for five idyllic years. Long hours brought family, two dogs, three cats and happy times. We ran a tight ship looking for more opportunities, aware if you didnt grab them, they passed you by. Any farms coming on the market we looked at, just to keep ourselves on the ball. It almost became a hobby. Scouring "For Sale" sections of the newspaper we noticed an advert announcing free valuations. Out of curiosity I rang. The valuer came out immediately. George had already gone relief milking (needed income).

After a quick look around he said he had prospective buyers. Should he send them round? No sooner said than done. They came, viewed and offered, all before George returned from milking. We didnt know what to do.

There was a dairy farm of 73ha (180 acres) wed viewed, which seemed "pie in the sky". This was being sold the next evening. The decision was made. We would go along, see what happened, come home and ring our prospective buyers and tell them yes or no.

George was ready this time and sprang into action – well over our agreed reserve. I couldnt make a decision – nine-months pregnant, my brain didnt even work. He did it – total shock.

Returning home, tears again. Mum said, "Never mind. Better luck next time." It took a while for her to realise what was happening – it had all been so fast. The tears were because we had to part with our beloved home, not because we had moved another step up the farming ladder.

Ruthe Durose