In 1819, John Keats wrote the poem ‘To Autumn’, where he described it as ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.’ And although I’m certain that this wonderfully evocative description will never be bettered, for myself and most of my fellow farmers, this time of year is anything but mellow. Because the Autumn is sowing season.
And for me, that means ploughing. Lots of ploughing. Turning over the earth to make a seedbed for next year’s crops. Driving up and down large flat fields on your own for days on end until you turn into a slightly less manic version of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (‘You talkin’ to me?) might not float a lot of people’s boats, but I’ve always found it evocative, comforting, and yes, kind of romantic. Let me try to explain..
On many days from mid September to the end of October I kiss my Wife and Daughters goodbye and leave the farm in the misty early morning, lunch box and flask of strong coffee in my hand, and I’m in the fields ploughing as the Sun rises in the East, and I’m still there as it sets in the West. In the hours in-between, with mostly only seagulls & the odd hare for company, there’s plenty of time to think. To contemplate.
I often turn up Horseshoes, and sometimes old clay beer bottles. Physical connections to the generations of ploughmen who’ve come before me. The last people to touch these things were the village smithy who shoed the Shire Horse or Clydesdale, or the farmer who carelessly tossed the bottle away after his thirst was quenched. Earlier this year, a man with a metal detector found a Roman silver denarius from 68bc here. I ploughed that field just last week. Has it been worked for over two millennia?
I think about these men as I drive. I think of my 94 year old Grandfather who started ploughing as a 15 year old with a horse before the War. He often tells me that back then he’d do an acre a day – hard physical work tramping through the clay in all weathers, and then marvels when I tell him that now I do 30+ without breaking a sweat from my air-conditioned cab.
As a boy in the early 1930’s he and his best mate knew that his hard of hearing neighbour had trained his horse to stop on his whistle whilst ploughing. They’d hide in the hedge and give the same whistle so that the horse would stop suddenly half way up the field, causing a kink in the previously arrow straight furrow and laugh uproariously between themselves when the confused neighbour turned the air blue. I think about this, and smile.
During my own childhood I’d sit on the tractor with my Dad for hours whilst he ploughed with our Massey Ferguson 290. Eventually I’d fall asleep on his coat behind the seat. If I close my eyes I can still smell it. I can hear the perkins diesel engine. I can feel the vibrations underneath my small body. Happy & content just to be in the presence of my hero.
This year it’s my 3 year old Daughter’s turn to ride on the tractor with me whilst I plough. As I drive I look at her beside me, resplendent in her shiny wellies and overalls, her beautiful tiny button nose wrinkled in thought as she pauses before asking me her 347th question of the day, and I feel comforted. This has happened before, over countless generations, and it will happen again.
My family have always tilled the earth, since time immemorial. It’s been fertilised with our blood, our sweat, and yes, sometimes our tears too. There’s a connection between us, and a fierce determination to leave this land in better condition for the next generation to work on. If you ever get the chance, get down on your hands and knees and smell freshly ploughed earth. I’m not literate enough to describe it well, but to me it smells of both the past and the future yet to be written.
Technology, is moving rapidly in Agriculture. It has to, we’re going to have to feed a hell of a lot of people over the coming years, and with far less resources too. We’re going to see innovation and advances that our forefathers could only have dreamed of. Driverless Tractors aren’t far away. We’re going to have to look at less tillage to help to preserve the carbon in the soil, and reduce erosion. There’s going to be big changes on our own farm, and across the industry. I know this, and accept that that’s the way it has to be.
But despite all this, I hope that the simple pleasure of turning up lucky horseshoes continues. And I pray with all my overly-emotional celtic heart, that the romance remains..