Opinion: 30 drilling seasons and 17,400 miles

Field being drilled

© Tim Scrivener

A little milestone was reached this spring, as I finished sowing the beans in Kilmeston Road field: it was the end of my 30th season of drilling. 

In modern farming, though, there’s no-one around with whom to share the moment. There’s no group hug or lunchtime pub trip – no champagne or party poppers. The buzzards didn’t care, the red kites were too busy, and the lapwings, not uncoincidentally, just weren’t there.

I finished my Thermos, shook the dregs on the soil for good growing luck, patted the John Deere on the mud guard, gave the depth wheel of the Horsch a congratulatory kick, and headed home.

See also: Seed bags give me the hump

Some occasions merit more extravagant behaviour. If you’d been in Hurst Down field on 24 August 2009, you’d have seen me shimmy down the combine steps and do a little boogie. Not a pretty or elegant sight, but England had just won back the Ashes.

My fancy footwork and leaping about went entirely unnoticed, except by a technician at the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh, whose seismometers were picking up a magnitude 3.2 quake in central Hampshire. The meters were at once sent away for a service.

On the long drive home through inquisitive sheep and multiple locked gates, I got to thinking. The arable area here is about 800 acres – let’s call it 323ha.

Charlie Flindt is a tenant of the National Trust, farming 380ha at Hinton Ampner, in Hampshire.

There have been “total sowing” years when every acre was done, 10% set-aside years, and some years with more than 10%.

Neighbours, contractors and employees have done fields occasionally, so an average of 300ha over the years would be about right.

The first eight seasons were done with a Bamlett CD 4-metre grain and fertiliser drill, hand-loaded with 50kg sacks. Oh, to be that fit and strong again. Eight years, 300ha, 4m drill? 6,000kms driven.

In 1995, we switched to a power harrow/combo unit, a 3m Amazone RPD – the wonder drill of the era. Remember the packer roller: a row of used car tyres with rigid plastic bracing rings inside? Fantastic, until the tyres disintegrated on the Hampshire flints and they needed replacing.

Long days surrounded by old oil drums half-full of hot water, desperately trying to soften up the plastic. Mind you, the local dealers were thrilled to get rid of some part-worn 175/70 R13 tyres.

About now, back pain forced a switch to 500kg bags, but the RPD’s hopper was too small. The next packtop held more, and was also 3m.

It was slightly lower maintenance, but also less reliable, and only lasted five years. It was chopped in for a pre-loved Horsch CO3 four years ago.

Out went ploughing and drilling, in came “a get out there, get it sown” vari-till policy. Twenty-two years with a 3m drill? I make that 22,000km.

Total over the 30 years – 28,000km. That’s 17,400 miles spent staring at a line in the soil. Odd – it feels a lot more than that.

All this mental arithmetic kept me busy as I threaded my way home past dozing lambs and chaotically parked National Trust visitors – I suppose I should have been grateful that I didn’t meet one on the sunken lanes. They can never find reverse gear.

Last job: cleaning out the dregs. It came as a bit of a shock to find a good 200kg still in the bottom. I could have sworn I’d run it empty. You’d think that after more than 17,000 miles I’d have got the hang of it by now.

See more