I came across a dusty old hardback in a Norfolk bookshop called Cabbages and Committees by Duncan McGuffie.
Cabbages and Committees? I thought. My two favourite subjects in a single volume? Is it Christmas Day already?
I recommend this book to anyone who thinks it is tough to start out now. McGuffie was a first-generation farmer during the Second World War. He grew vegetable crops and marketed them himself under the “Skylark” brand in Midlands towns.
This book, written in 1942 when the author was 30, reveals the challenges of starting up during the war years. The problems of finding land, labour and capital existed just as much in the 1940s as they do nowadays. McGuffie was passionate about increasing productivity.
Like many of the well-known farmer/writers of the past 200 years, McGuffie wasn’t particularly modest but he comes across as an effective, admirable and inspiring character.
I finished reading with a strong desire to learn what became of him. I was hoping he might still be around as a chirpy centenarian with whom I could have a cup of tea and one of those pink wafery biscuits that old people like. Unfortunately I can’t find a mention of him anywhere after 1943.
McGuffie farmed at Kings Coughton Farm in Warwickshire. He was granted the tenancy after the original occupants, the Griffin family, were evicted by the Warwickshire War Agricultural Executive Committee. It was a strange time in farming’s history. The WWAEC had the power to turf out “inefficient” farmers on to the street.
The Griffin family ended up living in their chicken coop while McGuffie took their Georgian farmhouse.
The war ag committees made several such interventions. These committees were run by progressive farmers with tough principles. They were empowered by the Ministry to take “firm measures against the recalcitrant or hopelessly inefficient” and were permitted to take “all necessary measures to secure that land [was] cultivated to the best advantage”. There was no third party to whom appeals could be taken.
The most extreme case seems to have been in Hampshire where the local war ag committee insisted that Raymond Walden, a 65-year-old bachelor farmer, should plough up 30 acres of grassland or face eviction. He refused and resisted the inevitable attempt to evict him. Armed police were sent in to remove him and Walden was shot in the head and killed.
The Second World War claimed many lives, but I find this one especially chilling. I have a taste for melodrama so, to me, this is the tale of an old man being executed by the state for poor productivity. Some young farmers reading probably think this is a jolly good policy and that DEFRA should reinstate it immediately. I’m sure that they would put me in a chicken coop, if they had their way.
We all need regularly reminding of this shocking chapter in farming history. We have lived through a long period of stability but rising land values indicate that land is becoming very precious.
Decades of discussion about grain mountains, subsidies, biodiversity, diffuse pollution and food flavour have obscured the main function of a farmer in society.
A farmer’s primary responsibility is to manage the factors within his control to continually increase productivity. Very few farmers stick to this with the determination that they should. It is worth us remembering that land tenure, title deeds and tradition can count for nothing if we fail to meet the nation’s needs.
Matthew Naylor farms 162ha of Lincolnshire silt in partnership with his father, Nev. Cropping includes potatoes, vegetables, cut flowers and flowering bulbs. Matthew is a trustee of LEAF and a Nuffield scholar
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