Ever since I learned at grammar school about the agricultural revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, I have been proud of Norfolk’s farming history.
My county and its agricultural inhabitants can boast of many contributions to farming progress. Turnip Townshend, for instance, who is credited with initiating grazing sheep on stubble turnips sown after harvest – and Coke of Norfolk, who built on Townshend’s ideas and formalised and publicised the Norfolk four-course rotation that has formed the basis of good husbandry ever since.
Coke also revolutionised the way tenant farmers on his estate were treated, and those who rented land from his Holkham Estate erected a richly decorated column to honour him. He introduced marling, or liming, to sweeten acid land; designed and built model farm buildings and introduced annual sheep-shearing competitions and exhibitions, which arguably became the first agricultural shows. Some say Woburn deserves that accolade but I have always believed the credit should go to Coke.
The first Norfolk Show proper was held in 1847 following the formation of the Norfolk Agricultural Association. Next week, on Wednesday and Thursday 27 and 28 June, 165 years later, the still-thriving show will open its gates to around 100,000 visitors. It claims to be the biggest two-day agricultural show in the country and it’s one of the few that can still claim to be mainly about our industry and the countryside.
One of the highlights for me at this year’s event, reflecting my love of farming history, will be the publication of a book by Alec Douet entitled Breaking New Ground and subtitled Agriculture in Norfolk, 1900 to 1970.
The author is a retired grain merchant who has devoted much of the last 20 or more years to researching and recording this momentous period of farming history in the county. He did it in the form of a thesis for the University of East Anglia with the support of the now Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association, which organises the annual show. He has decided to publish an abridged version, copies of which will be available at the event.
As well as being a good read, the book is an historical tour de force, recalling many of the details and personalities of those who maintained Norfolk’s agricultural leadership through times of war, depression, austerity and finally prosperity. And I defy anyone who farmed through some of those years not to be fascinated by the facts and the opinions expressed by the 50 or more colourful characters that Alec Douet, through patient research, has dug up.
There is insufficient space on this page to do justice to such a comprehensive work of scholarship and information. But, as Alec Douet himself says in his introduction, it covers a period of unparalleled change. Traditional farming practices were discarded as new crops and livestock enterprises were introduced, while tractors replaced horses as mechanisation took over. Research, experimentation and education became new priorities and farming’s perspectives widened.
The book also emphasises the diversity of Norfolk’s agriculture over the period – from running sheep over big areas of light land, to growing blackcurrants in the Fleggs; from struggling to scrape a living from cereals and break crops on the heavy clay’s of south Norfolk to growing salads in the fens. There is no such thing as a typical Norfolk farm. Variation is the rule and, as Alec Douet concludes, the abilities and dedication that have helped develop the county’s farming has been consistently nurtured and encouraged by the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association.
David Richardson farms about 400ha (1000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.