Opinion: The good old days of farming

My first combine was a second-hand, silver-painted Claas SF bagger with a 10ft cutter bar. My first harvest driving it was in 1959, which was one of the driest and quickest ever.

The driver’s seat was immediately above the intake to the drum and chaff billowed up in clouds to where I sat.

To protect myself, I wore a pyjama jacket buttoned up to the neck, a baseball cap, a silk scarf over my mouth and stone-breakers goggles over my eyes.

My colleague, Kenny, supervised filling the sacks behind me. There was less dust where he was but he had to move 18st sacks of wheat or 16st of barley across the bagging platform and push them down a chute, where they lay on the ground waiting to be lifted on to trailers by two men, who took them to the barn.

Looking back from the perspective of today’s air-conditioned cabs and bulk handling, the work was hard and the conditions appalling. It would not be tolerated today. But I loved every minute on that seat because I had come from the age of the self-binder and stooking and stacking sheaves.

What I was doing was real progress, despite the muck.

Only the year before, between milking our cows twice a day, I had carted corn from a threshing drum, also in those heavy sacks, climbed up steps with them on my back and tipped them beside the hopper of the hammer mill.

I was in my late teens and was proud I could do the job as well as the men on the farm. But pride comes before a fall. When I was 20 I developed disc problems and had to wear a plastic corset.

So much of what we now do by machine had to be done by hand. Singling sugar beet with a hoe, one row at a time, half bent forward, was bad enough. But lifting roots in the autumn, two beet at a time, knocking them together to clean off the mud, laying them down with all the leaves pointing in the same direction then returning to pick them up with the point of a topping hook, cutting off the leaves and throwing the roots into heaps was even more punishing because it was winter time.

But the work had to be done and there was seldom any problem persuading men to do it.

Most farmers paid peace work rates and the best workers who could lift, knock and top more than an acre a week could supplement their weekly rates at the job. But it took a heavy toll on their bodies and old farmers and farmworkers could usually be identified by their bent frames and arthritic hands.

In those days, because we had cattle and pigs on the farm, I was in the habit of attending Norwich cattle market every Saturday, as did most other farmers in the area. Many of them, who I regarded at the time as old men but were probably only in their 50s, would walk round the pens with one or two sticks, clearly in pain from collapsed hips.

Then a Norwich-based orthopaedic surgeon called Mike McKee invented hip replacement surgery, and over the course of the next few years most of those walking sticks disappeared. What a hero that surgeon was to respond to what was very much a farmer’s problem.

It surprises me some people still refer to those times as “the good old days”.

David Richardson

David farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife Lorna and his son Rob

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