For some reason, that probably lies deep in my subconscious, I think about Dad a lot at harvest time. He died in autumn 2007, so this is the ninth harvest without him.
As I sit in the solitary confinement of the combine cab or minding the dryer, I find he still speaks to me. Just to be clear, I’m not one of those ouija board types who thinks they get visits from “the other side”. It’s more just the imprint that someone I miss very much still leaves on me.
When discussing harvest yields with the neighbours, Dad was always wary of disclosing actual yields. He liked to use phrases like – “it yielded more than we were expecting but we weren’t expecting much”. I always thought this was a master stroke because, like a champion poker player, he was still in the game but hadn’t showed his hand.
The thing with Dad was that, in the 1950s, he installed a proper weighbridge on the farm so he knew exactly what his yields were.
By contrast, his neighbours were just counting trailer loads. Another ploy was, if a neighbour proudly announced they had achieved a certain high yield figure, Dad would reply “my goodness, you have done well!”.
See also: Agriculture at historic fork in the road
The neighbour was thus left wondering if his yield was really one to be proud of or just a reflection of his usual poor performance. Another harvest memory of Dad I have is his curious personal relationship with certain fields on the farm, which all had individual names.
The field called “Coldhearts” was one he never liked. As the name would suggest, it was heavy clay and north facing.
Dad would treat it like a least favoured child. It would be sown last with seed taken from a heap at the back of the barn, then fertilised last and harvested last. Sure enough it would usually yield least and be duly cursed to ever further neglect.
Guy Smith comes from a mixed family farm on the north-east Essex coast, which is officially recognised as the driest farm in the UK. He is also vice-president of the NFU.
“Smokey” on the other hand was 19 acres of south-facing, free-draining loam and was a firm favourite.
Dad positively spoilt this field because, in his words, “we looked after it because it looked after us”. It got extra cultivations, extra lime and fertiliser and the newest varieties. He liked to walk this field the most.
Many years later, in harvest 2016, I find myself combining this field and looking at the yield meter in the combine cab.
As double digits flash up I find myself saying out loud “Don’t worry Dad, we are still looking after Smokey and Smokey is still looking after us”.
As a point of idle curiosity, I once researched how Smokey field came to have such a curious name. Apparently, other farms have similar sounding field names.
The theory is it derives from “Smok acre” which is an old Saxon term for land from where the local church took its tithe payment. You can trust the vicar to have worked out exactly where the good Lord’s most rewarding land would be.
In further contrast, the field we call “Fuzzy Camp” was always the maverick of the field family. Its name derives from the word “furze”, which is an old Essex name for gorse.
Gorse prefers light, sandy soil. In drought years Fuzzy Camp would yield little, but when we got enough spring rain it could be our best performing field.
Today I tend to treat the field as a bit of a barometer. If Fuzzy Camp is doing well in terms of yield then the rest of harvest will probably be encouraging.
The mixed news for me is that this year Fuzzy Camp has yielded satisfactorily but quality is disappointing.
The five inches of rain in June is the main explanation. That’s more than double the meagre two inches we normally expect here on the driest farm in Britain.
And that reminds me of another of Dad’s sayings that went “Rain in May will give an extra bale of hay, but rain in June will give a silver spoon.”
This June we got so much rain we should probably expect the whole cutlery draw. The problem was we also saw very little sunshine, which has negatively neutralised what the grain-swelling rain gave us.
So, I imagine for us in Essex and across the country that the Harvest of 2016 is going to be a mixed bag. Some crops will be above average while other will disappoint.
Multiply that by some indifferent prices and, all in all, I doubt this harvest will be one to remember.
But I’ll leave you with just one more of Dad’s sayings: “First rule of farming. Forget last year.”