Pleasure, pain and Poldark: What harvest means to me

Harvest on Guy Smith's farm

As a child, I always knew that harvest time was sacrosanct.

From starting the barley though to the last bean plant – nothing was more important than getting the harvest in.

One suspected that even if the Queen had paid a visit to the farm, Dad would have insisted on keeping the combine going.

Guy SmithGuy 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

I remember fondly his disapproval one November when I told him proudly that my wife, Julia, was pregnant.

Obviously he had no issue with me having children, it was my timing he had concerns about. Mercifully, my first and only son arrived on 11 July – four days before the combine rolled.

I enjoyed explaining to Dad that I was clearly an exponent of precision drilling but I will confess that, even now, I’m still wary of having sex in the weeks running up to Christmas.

Similarly, when my sister announced she was thinking of having her wedding in late August, Dad’s negative reaction wouldn’t have been any stronger if she had announced she was marrying a lifer in prison.

Finally, and in a maudlin sort of way, I like to think that the fact Dad passed away in late September was in part due to his determination that his funeral wouldn’t interrupt harvest.

Births, deaths and marriages – they all had to be planned around the important things in life.

Adrenaline v exhaustion

But Dad was right, this is a special time. The adrenaline provided is necessary to anaesthetise the exhaustion. It is, after all, the culmination of a year’s work.

“My son arrived four days before the combine rolled; I’m still wary of having sex in the weeks running up to Christmas”

As a teenager, it seemed appropriate to me that I got news of how I’d done in my O-Levels and A-Levels during the harvest month of August.

The timeline was the same. You worked all year from the autumn onwards and in high summer you got the results.

A wheat crop that yielded 4t/acre was the agricultural equivalent of an A grade.

As for that appalling barley crop we grew in the lower meadow in 1977, that’s firmly bracketed alongside my memory of the F that I got in chemistry the same year.

Forty years on, as I sit high up in my combine cab cutting my way like a sailing-ship through thick seas of wheat, that same sense of satisfaction of knowing you are harvesting a good crop still burns within me.

Guy Smith

Guy Smith

You wonder if a thousand years ago your forefathers took the same pleasure when they reported back to the village elders that the harvest had been a good one and no one in the community would go hungry over the coming year.

As I drive the combine through the village from one field to another, I’m not sure if the looks I get from my fellow villagers are always ones of appreciation for the man who puts food on their plates – although the sight of a combine does seem to inspire a bit of respect.

Road menace

If there is one aspect of harvest I’m not keen on, it is the knowledge you are a bit of a menace on the roads.

Combines, after all, can have backsides the size of Bournemouth plus the top speed of a milk float.

But what is pleasing, if not a little touching, is how polite other motorists are as you bear down on them while taking up, not just all your side of the road, but 50% of theirs as well.

Apart from the odd pillock with two fingers pressed charmingly against his tinted windscreen, most road users can’t wait to pull over to get out of your way.

Usually, they are only too happy to give you a wave. I like to think such obliging people share the same harvest priorities my father did. They recognise the urgency of your task.

Meerkats and superheroes

For the kids who poke their heads over back-garden fences like curious meerkats, there is no doubt that the combine driver is a superhero, and if he waves back then that’s just the best.

The same cannot be said of the Mamils – the middle-aged men in Lycra – who bike along the highway at 15mph until they hear a combine approaching from behind, at which point they accelerate to 20mph, which is just under the top road speed of my combine.

The result is the weirdest peloton in the world.

Two miles later, they exhaustedly pull on to the pavement, meanwhile a substantial tailback has amassed like some sort of dull but extended carnival.

It is a remarkable thought that to achieve the work rate of a modern combine with just manpower alone, armed with scythes, flail and winnowers, you would need between 500 and 1,000 men.


“As for Captain Poldark’s bare chest, that’s about as historically accurate as suggesting he was joined in the field by a topless Demelza doing some winnowing”

Inevitably, some suggest that machinery and technology have taken some of the romance out of harvesting.

In some people’s minds, a bare-chested Captain Poldark scything his way through the Georgian countryside is more noble than a modern-day combine driver.

But the thing to remember about scything is that it is most appreciated by those watching, rather than the poor souls labouring away at this cripplingly hard job under the summer sun.

And as for Captain Poldark’s bare chest, that’s about as historically accurate as suggesting he was joined in the field by a topless Demelza doing some winnowing. But obviously these things boost viewing audiences irrespective of their veracity.

As to whether modern machinery has improved farm work, I’m guided by the judgement of the old boys I grew up.

They were the generation of men who had seen the end of the pitchfork, the scythe and the one-hundredweight hessian sack and none of them wanted to go back.

Harvest on Guy Smith's farm

Not that the combines of yesteryear weren’t health hazards.

With their lack of cabs, drivers worked in clouds of choking dust that seemed to be fanned into their faces by the design of the reel directly beneath the driving platform.

The 10-hour days, the soundtrack of which was the constant sonic barrage of the clatter and roar, soon dulled the hearing.

With scarves wrapped over their mouths and old flying goggles keeping the gunk out of their eyes, they looked like extras from Mad Max.

At the end of the day, the harvest gang looked like Dickensian chimney sweeps.

Pork pies and wi-fi

Today, our sound-insulated cabs don’t just have air-conditioning and hi-fi-cum-wi-fi, they even have a little cooler drawer under the seat for cold drinks and a chilled lunchtime pork pie.

Do I feel in any way overcosseted in my part-cab, part-boudoir? Not a bit. I just feel happier my lungs are full of filtered, clean air and I’m not deaf as a post.

But while I’m not sentimental about harvests past, I occasionally have a fleeting moment of nostalgia.

Sometimes during the long evenings while harvesting a cracking cereal crop, my mind goes back to my old primary school classroom where there was a large poster of a bucolic Victorian harvest scene of cheery men pitching golden wheat sheaves on to a heavily laden cart.

Underneath was written a brief phrase that comes back to me whenever I achieve a top grade with a 4t/acre wheat crop.

It read: “The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.”

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.


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