The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

A story told by a British farmer

Category: Economy

The corn harvest ofBritainis now in full swing: in the South it is nearing completion; in the North, just starting.

With the crops now dead ripe, every hour of dry weather must be seized and the combine harvesters work late into and through the night. The wet spells must be turned to ac­count, drying wet grain and organising storage, and reparing the machines.

Fortunately, this is the most mechanised branch of farm­ing: 60,000 combine harvesters, supported by scores of thousands of balers, driers, tractors, trailers, elevators, and bale handlers will deal with the crops in a matter of a few days if weather is fine or if weather is bad a bit longer, but at much greater cost.

By breeding new varieties, utilising chemical fertilisers, better control of weeds, and new techniques of cultivation, average yields of wheat have risen from 18 cwt. per acre pre­war to 30 cwt. today.

Farmers have to face great risks. Even the arable farmers, who are the most mechanised and prosperous, need a life­time of experience, through many years of varied condi­tions, to acquire that perfection of technique that results in the super yields, freedom from crop diseases and pests, and maintenance of fertility.

A whole year’s work has to be done first, in the hope of income next year. The crops are never safe, and the returns are never certain until the crops are safely in, stored and sold. Lack of frost in the winter can mean poor soil structure. Drought in spring stunts the crops. Heavy rain at the wrong moment flattens the crops. Hail can wipe them out in a few seconds.

Last year we had the latest and wettest harvest in living memory. This followed the coldest winter in living memory. It was a battle against the clock to get the crops sown in April and a monumental struggle to save them in late Sep­tember. Two-thirds of my crops were flat on the ground and 90 per cent had to be dried.

This year, so far, I have 30 per cent in safe and dry. For most arable farmers this will be an easier year, with good yields, but not a record.

And once it is over we have to start the annual struggle to secure £20 a ton from the merchants and millers, who com­bine to exercise a monopolistic control over prices. Most arable farmers who can afford to, hold their corn in store for 8—10 months to obtain the higher prices. There are 101 easier ways of earning a living inBritainthan by farming.

It is now quite common for an arable farm of 400—500 acres to be worked by two men, producing crops to the value of £ 12,000 or more. They are handling machines costing several thousand pounds, like combine harvesters and driers and have to be versatile and adaptable to many machines and opera­tions. Careless or inefficient ploughing can ruin the year’s work and crops. At the peak time of sowing and harvesting, they work unlimited hours, sometimes weeks on end without time off.

And for all this the average earnings are about £b per week less than the average in other industries.

But in spite of all difficulties there is a wonderful satis­faction to farmers when the job goes well, when the machines work properly, when the combines sweep over the land, and the grain rattles into the tank. There is pride and pleasure in mastering a tough job and seeing the culmination of a year’s work, in spite of all the hazards of weather and the frustra­tions of machinery breakdowns.

Daity Worker, Aug. 29, 1964

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