Home & Shop Companion #0033
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
This morning I harnessed Lucy and Molly, hooked them up to the ridging plough and ploughed out the single row of potatoes which I had left for us to eat over winter. I do have a fishtail attachment for digging potatoes, including the funny shaped ones, which replaces the ridging bodies with two sets of backwards facing rods which allow the soil to fall through so most of the potatoes are left on top, but for one row it wasn’t worth changing the parts. Using the horses for this job took just a couple of minutes, a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but while they were harnessed I brought the water bowser home to fill it up, which at this time of the year will keep them going for three weeks or more. While they were tied up waiting for the water to fill, I rasped their hooves, rounding the edges and correcting the balance when necessary. This is a job I tend to do when collecting water, the frequency of the water filling visits, depending on the time of the year, roughly coinciding with the speed of hoof growth.
Now the potatoes are lifted, three of the four beds are now cleared, and except for the uprooted weeds from the onions and the last potato row, they now look pretty clean, but I am aware how bare earth is deteriorating earth, so after one more pass with the cultivator the cover crop will go in. Except for the few mangels, and the parsnips and beetroot which I will dig as we need them, the potato picking was the last of the harvests from the field, excepting the wild blackberries, a sign that the year is changing. On farms around here however, there are still fields of small grains still to be cut, due to the wet weather, a sorry sight with the straw breaking as the grain prematurely sinks back towards the soil.
Although I don’t grow cereals, it still is part of me, my father having run a farm which was largely arable, and later I was involved with harvesting on the farm where Molly came from, where most of the crop was cut with a binder. Although we started cutting 10 days earlier than everyone else with their combines, before the grain was dead ripe so it was still firmly attached and would not shed as it went through the binder and was put into stooks, we still finished later than the neighbours, usually in the first days of September. It took two and a half weeks to cut and stook, followed by three and a half weeks of ‘leading’ – loading the sheaves onto wagons and stacking it in the Dutch barns, so we were usually still harvesting as the neighbours were starting their autumn cultivations. But not always; in a year like this with frequent rain we would finish about the same time, and one year we actually finished a week earlier. Although there was some satisfaction in being the tortoise that beat the hare, the muscle of man and horse overcoming the infernal combustion engine, the sight of huge ruts left by the heavy combines, with some crops not being harvested at all, is not something to fill anyone’s heart with joy.
The reason we could continue during catchy weather was that compared with combined grain, the grain in the sheaf does not have to be as dry when it goes into the stack, where it continues to dry out over the following months, and wagon loads that are a bit damper than ideal can be put at the top of the barns where the increased air flow and the lack of anything on top of them allows quicker drying. Whereas the combine needs dry weather every hour it is working, in times of alternating wet and dry days we could keep going, all working in the field when it was dry to load up every possible vehicle, so we might have a dozen wagon and trailer loads to stack, in two gangs, for the following wet day. Then as soon as ever it was dry enough again, some of us would go off to load again.
Like making hay on tripods, fences or racks, harvesting by hand with low tech equipment might not answer the need to farm quickly, but it does offer advantages not usually considered nowadays, especially in marginal areas, and in adverse weather conditions.
In other news from here, the number of new Corona cases in the UK has risen to twice the level of two weeks ago, so to reduce infections we can now only meet in groups of up to six, except for work and school, funerals and weddings. And by the time you read this, we will have been to one such occasion, my niece’s wedding. But there is another smaller news item which caught my attention this week, the resignation of the public servant who is the chief legal advisor to the Government. He resigned because he couldn’t countenance the Government’s illegal decision not to honour an international agreement with the European Union. On its own, this is perhaps not significant, but over the last few months there have been other cases where senior civil servants have been sacked, scapegoated, because the policies put into place by their political masters failed, and this month is also the first anniversary of our Government shutting down Parliament because it wanted to avoid discussion and scrutiny, a decision our Supreme Court later confirmed was illegal.
This week also holds a family anniversary; had he lived past his 92 years, it would have been my father’s 100th birthday. My father’s calling was farming, his spare time passion was sailing, and, as we heard numerous times at his funeral, his character was marked by fairness and a respect for others. But before he could start his farming career, at the same age as I started learning my trade, my dad volunteered to join the Navy to help overcome fascism which had overtaken Germany and was engulfing Europe. We probably think we know something about the Second World War; the words Dunkirk, Pearl Harbour and D Day all have immediate resonance, but few of us know how things got to be so bad. In 1930s Germany, as the Nazi party came to power, it started with blaming others, with attacking journalists, by labelling anyone with a different view as unpatriotic, by discounting anything foreign, by seducing some of the less privileged with nationalistic hopes while ignoring the aspirations and hardships of others. When crimes were committed against ‘less desirables,’ they were ignored or tacitly condoned, and if anyone stood up to disagree, they were reviled, attacked or spirited away. As groups of thugs in homemade uniforms roamed the streets causing disorder, the politicians called for greater powers to stop the chaos their own adherents had created, and as soon as they could, they shut down parliament and ruled by decree. The rest, as they say, is history. We all know what happened next, the death and destruction of the war, but as in any area of life, knowing ‘what’ is never as important as knowing how or why.
And if you are wondering what any of this has got to do with farming, well the answer is simple – nothing whatsoever, and at the same time, absolutely everything, as my father discovered when his life was put on hold for six years. But he was lucky, he survived. He finished his studies and at twenty-eight started work farming, and in time, started his own family. In a couple of days, those of my family who can travel will gather together, at an appropriate distance, to celebrate the next chapter at my niece’s wedding. Perhaps it’s a sign of my age, but thinking about it, I am tearful and excited all at the same time.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.