Brian Ostler - Farming & Countryside
My name is Brian Ostler and I come from Boston, Lincolnshire. I left school at fourteen and went to work on a small mixed farm just the other side of Skegness of about sixty acres, with a bit of arable and about a dozen milk cows. There was only myself and the boss on the farm at that time. It is amazing to me how things have changed in as much as a lot that was done by hand has been taken over by machinery such as ditching, hedging and that sort of thing. In the winter you were fully employed, for instance seeing to the drainage. All the land drains were put in by hand. There was a lot to be done when you had horses. You had to be up by half-past five or six o`clock to feed them and to get them all harnessed up ready for work. That was before your day started. The ploughing of the fields was still done by horses then. We used to use Fordson tractors but hydraulics hadn`t come in then. So they were ploughed as near as you could get to the edges, but even then the corners were missed so we went in the winter and dug the corners of the fields by hand. People wouldn`t believe it if they were expected to do that today. Now the hydraulics lift and the plough can go tight into the corners.
Machinery and mechanisation has come on so much and things like these hydroflailmowers for doing the hedging may leave a bit blasted when they have finished but if the hedge has been laid properly in the first place, they do make a good job. And it is a one-man operation. A bloke can do in a day what would take two or three men a week to achieve the same. It is an art, hedge-laying. The idea behind hedge-laying is that when you`ve got three or four years growth, the hedge is laid right down to the ground so that there were no gaps. The idea was to make it stock-proof. Basically, that was what hedges were for, to keep the stock safe inside the field. It was certainly an art, but it was very labour-intensive. Then, of course, they seemed to have plenty of time to do it. Now the machines go along and lop it all off and it`s done in no time. Milking was a full-time job, seven days a week, night and morning. When I first started working it was all hand-milking. We had 12 cows and followers ( heifers not yet in milk). Of the calves that were born on the farm the male calves were sent for veal. My boss always tried to get me onto hand-milking but I seemed to make hard work of it somehow. He used to say,` I don`t know, boy, you don`t seem to be getting very far with that. I`ll be thinking of getting a machine in`. So he had it all set up and we had two units and a cooler and everything to get the milk ready to go into the churns. Now it all goes by lorry in bulk, but then we had to carry the churns down to the road and set them down by the gate ready for the lorry to collect them and take them to the local dairy. The cows had a sort of walking order which they kept to. One cow was always the leader and the rest followed in their turn. The milking parlour had six stalls down each side and when the cows came in they all knew exactly which one to go in. Each one knew which was theirs. They all had names of course.
When I worked a t John Saul`s at Leverton part of the land was close to the shore there. He had beef cattle and he used to run them out on to the out-marsh and they used to love to go right on the outside because they used to graze on the green sward right to where the sand started. When the sea came in and covered it, it was salty and the cows did very well on it. The danger was that the tide could turn so quickly and rush up the series of creeks and water ways but those cows knew exactly when to start coming back. I never knew one get drowned. Some of the wild-fowlers used to get into trouble because although they were on ground that was above the sea, the water came in so quickly and they could get cut off very easily. The creeks could be twelve feet wide and too deep to wade. But the cattle never got cut off. They would be right on the sand or on the out-marsh and suddenly up would go their heads and they would turn and walk slowly back. Men were told, if you are ever in trouble follow the cows and it probably saved more than one life. Occasionally we used to work with the bigger farmer next door, at harvest times perhaps or hay-making time. He was in his seventies and he used to harrow the corn field with two horses and he used to pull them into the side when he went for his lunch at midday. He would leave the horses tied to the harrow, and he used to walk across the field and get his lunch, and those two horses just stood there for about an hour, not jingling their harness or fidgeting or anything like that. They never moved until he came back, just stood waiting and then they would get on with the work.
On the farms now, they have bigger and bigger units and in the winter a lot of people are just laid off. The farmer can rely on contract work. The combine for example, is usually brought along by contractors. When I was younger, the fields would be smaller than today. The biggest would be about 8 to 10 acres. Now you are looking at huge fields Having said that, I can remember going to harvest and we used to go in with the old binder - which had a tractor to pull it -but the boss I worked for wouldn`t let you go in with the binder to open a field out but insisted on mowing round the first breed all the way round by hand with a scythe. A breed is a Lincolnshire word for a width of 5 feet, the width of a binder. I would follow him up and rake it up and tie the sheaves by hand and stook it all up. He would not let anything go to waste. Now, an 18-foot combine would hardly be able to turn found in an 8-acre field . One man would clear that in an hour comfortably. It is amazing. After the edges of the field had been cut by hand, the binder would be let in and it would go round and round working towards the middle. It was great fun because when it got to the middle everyone turned up with their guns looking for rabbits for the pot. As the machine had gone round, they had been driven towards the middle of the field. The rabbits would stay until the end and then make a dash for it. I have seen foxes run out.
The corn was taken to the local miller. There were windmills at Waynfleet, Friskney, Burgh-le-Marsh, Heckington and others. The barley went for cattle feed but the best quality wheat went for flour. Oats were mainly for the horses. Nothing at all like oil seed rape or flax that they get a grant for growing now. Harvesting is done by contract now, but in my day the combine harvester would go round the different farms in turn. Some big farmers may have had their own, but on the whole the combine was shared. I can remember the old cultivators working , the steam cultivators . The threshing machines used to come round as well. The corn would be stacked in the yard, some of it two or three years old with a thatched top on to keep the rain off. It was quite a thing when the thresher turned up. We would need extra labour then to carry the corn and feed the sheaves through and stack the straw. One chap had a boar which he used to bring round to service the sows when they came into season and he had a little trailer he towed behind his Land Rover.. The boar could just about fit into it and he would sit with his legs over the front, not fastened in or anything and you would see them coming down the road. Out it would get, do its job and go off with his feet over the front again with a smile on its face.
The house that I lived in had no electricity, there was just Calor gas and Tilly lamps for lighting and candles for upstairs. The privy was round the back of course. It is amazing how things have altered. Hair cuts were very cheap down on the farm. One of the farmers would say, ` We`ll get you sheared off`, and out would come his cow clippers and he`d give me a short back and sides. It didn`t take long. Pig-killing was a big occasion. A lot of people kept a pig, and there would be a big gathering when it was killed. All hands to the pump to help dress it, make sausages and brawn. The only thing was, from my point of view, this brawn had to be eaten at once as there were no freezers then. So we had to have brawn for breakfast, dinner and tea! I didn`t mind it in small doses, but all the time for days was just too much to stomach. The hams would be salted and hung up. People ate a lot of fat in those days but then again people worked a lot harder physically. This way of life went on until about the 1950s. By the time of the 70s, eating habits had changed. people became aware of what was good and what was bad for them A farmer I worked for died of a heart attack but he was tremendously strong, though only about 5 foot 4 inches. We used to get the seed potatoes delivered. They came down by train from Scotland to the nearest station and were delivered by little three-wheeler lorries. We used to box them up in the barn into seed trays. I would get on the lorry and he would carry 3 hundred weights at a time, one on each shoulder and one across his back and think nothing of it. He would keep going until we had emptied about five ton off the lorry. The wheat was put in 18 stone sacks and he would carry them up to the loft. Not many people could do that now, not as a regular thing.
My older brother also went in for farming. He had a council unit of about 50 acres and it was getting harder and harder to make a living. Things like sugar beet have all gone out to contract and a small farmer can`t get the contracts. When people died, the small units were gradually broken up and added to the other units to make them more viable but those small units have just about gone away now. The idea of the council units was to get people into farming who didn`t perhaps come from a farming family, to learn farming and to give them a chance to get a foothold on the land. They might get to the stage where they could purchase their own farm eventually. But that`s all gone by the by now. A big majority of the land isn`t owned by farmers at all. It is owned by big companies and the farmers are managers. My son considered farming but as he said, he couldn`t see himself owning his own farm. He would end up as manager for one of these big companies. So he went into the building trade where he could be his own boss. A lot of those small units were into mixed farming which to my way of thinking is the sensible and the right way to farm. The manure went out of the farms onto the land which put the humus back into it and kept the land in good heart. Now they rely so much on artificial fertilizers. If they didn`t the land wouldn`t produce anything at all. They are paid to do set-aside now and just try to keep it weed-free but grow nothing on it. The old farmers used to say that a good farmer left the land in better heart than when he took it on. Now, they just try to grow as much as they can, certainly on the Fens where they grow cabbage after cabbage. Everything is grown to a standard size for the supermarkets, even the apples. If you have children, you might like to have a few apples that are that bit smaller.
There is so much waste in farming these days. Most of the stuff is grown on contract. After I left the small farm, I went to a lot bigger unit at Leverton, John Saul`s Ltd, and there I specialised in bulb growing, tulips and daffodils. At that particular time, they were only just beginning to grow them in Lincolnshire and the business went very well. I did do other farm work as well and I could see then that they were getting on to a completely different scale and in how things were being managed. It was a very interesting experience. We used to grow acres and acres of celery, self-bleaching celery for Smedley`s and people like that for soups and that kind of thing. The fieldsman would come along and say,` Right, yes, I`m happy with that. That`s ready to go`. So we`d start and if we couldn`t clear it perhaps because of a wet week , they`d come and say, `Leave it and go on to the next lot`. Often there would be about a third of the crop that just got left and ploughed in. There was a tremendous amount of waste attached to this manner of farming but the buyer was happy, he got what he wanted and the farmer got his quota for his acreage. The same thing went for the peas. We grew acres and acres of peas for Eskimo Frozen Peas who sent the fieldsman along and he would say,` Right, I want you to grow so many acres. Start planting on such and such a date`, so that the harvesting of them would carry on through. But again they never accounted for the weather which when it went against you, you couldn`t get the machinery onto the fields so they would tell you to forget about that and get on with the next lot because a crop has to be ready by a certain date and if it wasn`t, it was just abandoned. Acres and acres of good quality peas were just left because they were not ready at the exact time. It is the same if you go on the Fens now with the cabbage cutting or the cauli cutting. They will send the gang in and there will be a lot of the veg that are ready but there will be some that are not quite ready and some just slightly gone over but there would be just the one cut and the ones that are not exactly right will be left to rot. That`s the way it is I am afraid. It is all done on a big scale.
I worked on farms for about twenty years. I did four or five years specialising on this bulb growing , and then I moved on to a poultry unit which was Jane`s father`s, after which I worked for the Prison Commission for thirteen years first at the North Sea Camp, Frieston and then at Stocken Hall Farm( Ashwell Open Prison) where I taught the prisoners who came out onto the farms to learn farm crafts and to operate farm machinery. I used to teach them how to plough and things like that. Then for a complete contrast, I worked at Stoke Rochford Hall for twenty years. I was in charge of twenty-five acres of sports grounds and ornamental grounds but I also worked inside, setting out conference rooms, dealing with the video equipment and such things. It was a complete change for me. I kept my eye on the outdoor work, but I concentrated on the Conference centre really. It was interesting to see how it expanded from when it opened in 1978 when they first took it over and started building it up. The terrible thing that has happened, was that fire over a year ago which destroyed a lot of it but hopefully it is all going to be rebuilt. It will be very difficult to put it back just as it was. So I started on the farms in a small way and worked myself up and ended at the conference centre. I certainly enjoyed the farming but I don`t think I would enjoy it to the same extent if I did it today. My eldest brother has two sons who both work for contractors and it is all go or no go. When they want them in, they are wanted Saturdays, Sundays, working all night with the lights on, getting the job done in a rush . Then it is, right we don`t need you any more , that`s it, finished, go and rest on your laurels until something else comes up.
Our sort of farming was a way of life. We used to be able to look after the live-stock and then take one job at a time without all this harassment of working all the time non-stop and then nothing. Even with the horses the work got done just the same. There is so much pressure in this having to get things done by a certain time and when its done, it`s `Right, there`s nothing for you now`. I much prefer the old way of farming, with live-stock and mixed cropping. You could see the work through to the end results. It was much more interesting. Now its just a business. A lot of the hedges have been removed making the fields bigger and bigger. It was supposed to make them more viable. but then they got into drainage problems. Still, with the big machinery they have got now, they can overcome most of these problems. But it is all rush, rush, rush! They used to say, one man to one acre but now it is one man to seventy or eighty or even one hundred acres. There is no call for a large workforce on the land now. A lot of the old skills have gone which is very sad. They get better yields but at a price. I look back on those days as happier times. We seemed to work away steadily and things got done just the same.