Peter Everitt - Farming & Countryside
I am Pete Everitt, a relative new-comer to Colsterworth. I was born 54 years ago in High Wycomb, Buckinghamshire. I didn't stay there very long. My parents moved up to a place called Coddington which is north of Newark on the A17. I spent most of my formative years there. I grew up next to a farm and went over to the farm in my spare time and I never wanted to do anything other than farm. My father wasn't a farmer. He was actually a sales rep and my mother was a tailoress. After school I went to agricultural college, the local Lincolnshire college at Caythorpe. My gap year was spent down in a village called Clipsham (where the Yew Tree Aisle goes up to the Davenport-Handley's house). I worked for a gentleman called Ralph Featherstone.
I had a very good year with Ralph Featherstone and then went back to college and was offered a job on the strength of what I had done in my gap year and went down to join Ralph Featherstone again for a further six years. That was work mainly on the arable side of the farm although it was a mixed farm. I did a little bit with the sheep and also with the cattle, but it was mainly on the arable side. After being there for six years I looked to improve my position and I moved up to Birkholme Farms which is two miles to the east of Colsterworth before you get to Corby Glen. I started there as a farm manager. When I first moved there we had just over 500 acres. There had been four men employed on that farm but when I came there was just myself and one other guy. We have since expanded our acreage and now the two of us are cropping about 1500 acres. We can do this because the machinery has improved tremendously. Everything we use is much bigger than it used to be, much bigger and much more efficient. For example the tractor sizes we were using then - this was in 1979 - would be around 100 horse power, which was regarded as fairly big tractors then. We have just had one delivered today that is 200 horse power and that is by no means the biggest tractor around.
On bigger units than ours, people are using 400 to 450 horse power tractors. One man with a big tractor and a big cultivator can cover so many more acres and more efficiently than in the olden days with smaller tractors and more men. The biggest expense on farms now is the cost of labour. So the machinery has been geared up to minimise the labour costs. At one time a combine harvester went round the farms in turn with its own team but they don't do that now. We have our own combine and our acreage is enough to sustain a large machine. If we get the opportunity we'll combine other people's crops as well but generally by the time we have finished, everyone else has finished. These big machines now use modern technology such as satellite navigation incorporating yield mapping on the combines. Farmers welcome these new technical innovations. It also helps with operations like spraying and drilling. We are close to, but not yet, having robot tractors that drive themselves. At the moment you just need someone who is competent and can work the electronic equipment. We also do whole farm contracting at other farms which means that you take the whole lot on from what we call stubble to stubble.
Then we do individual jobs such as ploughing or whatever is wanted. We are quite busy. When we are harvesting or drilling we will go right through until 9 or 10 o'clock at night with the headlights on. Some people go on even longer than that. It is a lot of hours. We have a very busy period from the middle of July when we start combining the winter barley and, unless we get a very wet period, it is all go until the end of August, or into September depending on what crops we are growing. We may start drilling the next year's crop before we finish harvesting the last one. So the harvest and the drilling periods run one into the other. Then it slackens off a bit and we can take a holiday usually to coincide with the schools` half-term when Rosemary, my wife who is a teacher, has a break. This is at the end of October. As my children grew up they tended to go on summer holidays with their mother whilst I stayed at home and worked on the farm. We are cropping all combinable arable crops on the farm - the ones suitable for harvesting by combine harvester. The main crop is winter wheat which is sown in the autumn, usually in mid-September and that will be harvested around the first week in August.
Then we grow winter barley which comes to harvest slightly earlier around the middle of July and then oil-seed rape is also grown and is harvested about the same time as the winter barley, sometimes just before and sometimes at the same time and sometimes a bit later. We also grow oats which is a more traditional crop. When farms were powered by horses the oats were bio-fuel if you like as the oats were used to fuel the horses. Today the oats would go for human consumption. We grow on contract for a firm called Morning Foods who manufacture porridge and oat biscuits. The farms that grow vegetables for tinning like peas have to stick to a tight timetable for sowing and harvesting but you can't be so specific with cereals. The wheat crops we grow, we have grown them for milling wheat to make the flour to make bread, but most of the wheat varieties that we grow now are out - and - out feed varieties, mainly for chickens. All the intensive chicken farms in the area provide us with a ready market for our feed wheat. We grow barley which is mainly destined for malt, going to make beer or increasingly now lager which is far more popular. Most of our malting barley goes to Burton-on-Trent to Cors Brewery whose major output is Karlsberg lager although they do make other beers as well. Other crops we grow, we are growing at the moment some winter beans, again a traditional food for livestock. They are ground up and incorporated into rations. They are called horse beans and are rather like broad beans.
If they are of the right quality, these beans are exported to the Middle East and also the Far East where they are used as a type of snack. They are cooked and eaten rather as we would eat peanuts. In the countries where Ramadan is observed, these beans are highly prized because they have what is called 'slow-release' so one would be able to eat the beans in the dark of early morning and they would keep you going until dark at night. Linseed we grow obviously for its oil. There are other types of linseed that are grown for food. On some speciality bread you will see linseed oil sprinkled on top of the loaf just to make it look attractive. Flax, which is the straw part of the linseed crop, used to be grown years ago but that is no longer viable in this area. You can still see the pretty blue fields of linseed but we'll take the seed out for the oil but the flax, the extra straw part, won't be used. This year we did bale the straw up and that will be used as fuel as it does burn quite fiercely and gives off quite a lot of heat. We have grown peas in the past; they have been either marrowfat or large blue. Marrowfat peas are for the chip shops as in mushy peas. Large blue are processed and go into soups and that sort of thing. That seems to be just about all of our cropping. When we are harvesting or drilling we will go right through until 9 or 10 o'clock at night with the headlights on. Some people go on even longer than that. It is a lot of hours. We have a very busy period from the middle of July when we start combining the winter barley and, unless we get a very wet period, it is all go until the end of August, could be into September depending on what crops we are growing.
We may start drilling the next year's crop before we finish harvesting the last one. So the harvest and the drilling periods run one into the other. Then it slackens off a bit and we can take a holiday usually to coincide with the schools` half-term when Rosemary, my wife who is a teacher, has a break. This is at the end of October. As my children grew up they tended to go on summer holidays with their mother whilst I stayed at home and worked on the farm. There is a movement in the supermarkets for organic foods. We have considered this but it would not be a runner for us because we have great difficulty in controlling weeds. It would be very difficult to grow our crops organically. The yield difference between organic and what I call conventional farming is so great that it demands a very high premium. Now people who are growing organic crops hopefully are getting that premium but unfortunately too many people jump on the band-wagon and that premium will erode and that will make organic growing non-viable. For us, we are not an organic farm. If we had livestock it might be a different matter. We would be able to incorporate the manure from the livestock and the organic matter would help. We actually do import some manure from the local poultry farm. We take the poultry litter and spread that on the fields after the harvest and plough that in to build up the reserves of manure. I do agree absolutely that a good farmer leaves the land in better condition than he found it. We are not mining the soil, we would be wrong to do that. The last thing we want is the dust-bowl situation like in the 1930s in America.
It is in our interests to keep the soil in good condition because that is what we work with and if it weren't in good condition, we're finished. So it is very important. But each crop brings its own problems and weeds are getting very good at becoming resistant to whatever chemicals we throw at them. You can have some wonderful chemicals to control certain weeds - our biggest problem is what is called 'black-grass'. Imagine trying to control a grass weed in a cereal which is essentially a grass! It is pretty tricky so you need a specific chemical to hit that particular weed. Black-grass has become resistant to a lot of the new chemistry which is applied. The bugs too. They become resistant as well. They do indeed. Though we try to avoid spraying bugs whenever we can because without the bugs we wouldn't get the birds and we do like the birds. We are very keen on preserving the environment and the bird count. Since I have been here we have planted about 5,000 trees and put in more hedges. Despite what you hear about farmers taking hedges out, we have actually put some back. We look after the woods- we are quite a heavy wooded area around Birkholme. We are now in a situation where the Government is wanting us to buffer our hedges. That is to leave or to sow strips of grass up against the hedge bottoms, a bit like the old headlands. This is so that the chemicals are kept in the centre of the fields and not allowed to get into the hedge bottoms where most of the wildlife is. Not all of it, birds like skylarks and the hares you'll find right in the middle of the fields.
We are slowly seeing an increase in bird life in particular. Unfortunately we are seeing an increase in the larger predatory birds as well such as red kites, kestrels and sparrow hawks. They are actually keeping the small bird population down because they are going for them. Magpies are a nuisance, especially to young birds. We do have a shoot at Birkholme and magpies are one of the species that are controlled. If it weren't for the shoot there would be a lot fewer small birds around. We get buzzards too but they are carrion and they feed of creatures that are already dead. The small birds? well, we get a lot of chaffinches, tree and hedge sparrows, linnets, finches and skylarks - plenty of skylarks - and lapwings, a great many different species. We are getting a lot of owls and woodpeckers as well. As well as putting down the grass strips along the hedges, we are being paid to put down what are called areas of pollen and nectar mix, and wild bird feed mix to encourage the birds to come in. In these areas we put seed bearing plants like grasses and linseed and we would sow some barley in a corner and leave it so the small birds can feed there during the winter-time. One of the reasons that numbers of birds went down ( especially sparrows), there used to be an awful lot of what were known as crew-yards at one time where beasts were kept in yards all round the place, out in the middle of the fields sometimes.
This was particularly noticeable out in the Fens where there used to be the labour needing to be employed throughout the year so they would fatten up beasts in the yards over-winter to give the labourers some work to do when they had finished working on the vegetables. The animals were kept on straw and fed grain and feed with a roof overhead giving lots of room for birds to shelter and get plenty of food. The crew yards are not there any more and with them disappearing, so did the sparrows. Minor changes in what we do in agriculture can have major effects on wildlife. We get a lot of guidance and directives from the Government. The paper work is horrendous. I have a stack of books in the office more than a couple of feet high and that is only over the past few years. They just keep coming and coming. Initially the guidance comes from the E.U. but what our Government tends to do is what they call `gold-plate` it in that if a law comes through from the E.U. our Government makes it a much more onerous a task to abide by it. I don't know why they should do that but it makes it very difficult for those involved in farming. We are quite heavily policed as well. If we should fail to keep to these rules and regulations our payments will be stopped. I will give you an example. We are supposed to have a 2-metre buffer zone from the centre of each hedge. Now if I employ a casual labourer to go and cultivate a field and he happens to err within that 2-metre, then that is my fault for not directing him properly and we could lose some of our payment, depending on how much he has taken out.
There are dates when we can and can't do things, not so much planting and sowing but cutting grass strips and also hedge cutting. There are quite tight rules to which we must adhere. We have always kept records but now the records have to be so detailed. It is a big task. It is not the job I first started on. Also the Environment Agency is getting very keen on water pollution. One of the things deemed to be a great polluter is nitrate. Yet nitrogen on a crop is probably the most efficient inputs that we can put on it. Although it is quite expensive, it does pay back quite handsomely in the way of the yield. There are very stringent rules on how much one can apply to a certain crop, given its previous history, what it is grown for and if you are in what is called a `nitrate sensitive zone`. If you are in a nitrate vulnerable zone, an NVZ, then you are closely monitored. The Stubbs` farm is an example of an NVZ. We did a contract farming there. They are in the River Witham catchment area as the Witham flows through their land which is a fairly thin limestone brash (?) soil and in theory what we put on the land can soon be washed into the river. So we have to be very careful how much nitrogen we apply there. On that land we are growing crops that suit the soil such as malting barley which require less nitrogen. On other soils that are in nitrate vulnerable zones you would find it difficult to justify the amount of nitrate you would need to get a reasonable yield on milling wheat, for example. In milling wheat it is important to get the right protein into the grain and to get a high level of protein you have to put extra nitrogen on. It is difficult to get a balance. Now I probably spend 40% to 50% of my time in the office whereas it used to be about 10%. That is within 27 years.
We have one regular hand and we employ extra harvest help from the middle of July to the end of September, say 12 weeks. There are agencies where you can get this extra help from, but we have been recruiting from the Harper-Adams agricultural college. We have been fortune enough to have my sons helping for the last few years. Last year we had another student and this year I have managed to pick up an experienced chap who had been made redundant. I thought it might be better to have someone a bit steadier than a 19-20 year-old student who thinks that it is a good idea to go as fast as he can. I have not gone down the route of having foreign workers by choice although I did employ a Hungarian once but it was not too successful - we had a bit of a language problem - and a very attractive German girl. Essentially growing things has not altered and the crops themselves are the same although the yields have gone up as breeding techniques have improved. Unfortunately the price we get for the end product has gone down so we have to be more efficient. It is quite tight at the moment. We do not sell to the supermarkets. We sell all our stuff through the grain agents. We try to get a contract whereby we get a fixed price for our product before we put it in the ground so that we can budget accordingly. But it is not always possible to do. If we can see a bit of a profit in it, we will go for it, but if we can't see a profit then the land may lay fallow, which is happening with difficult fields or parts of fields.
When set-aside was brought in in 1992 what we did was to put the worst areas of the farm down to grass. We are supposed now to have 8% of our cropping area for set-aside. We get EU money for this. Well, the EU money goes to our Government and our Government should give it to us. But this year they have been very, very slow in doing that. Where traditionally we had our aid round about December, might have been November, could have been January, they employed a new system and a lot of people didn't get anything at all until the end of March. It is estimated that we have had 80% of our allocation at the moment. We are still waiting for the rest of it. The Government are hanging on to it and collecting the interest. A lot of people are farming on overdraft and this delay is costing them at the moment. Neither of my two sons intends to take up farming. Number 1 son is a management consultant and is working down in Surrey. He deals with Government contacts for building roads and schools and the like. Number 2 son is about to start his final year at agricultural college but he won't go into direct agriculture. He will go into environmental management. There could be a shortage of people who want to work on the land before long. As I have found out this time there is a shortage of students who are interested in farming. I like the life of farming. At this time of year I am usually in the office for 7 o'clock.
I am not a super early riser like the milkman. I like being outside - I don't enjoy the paper work so much, but being out in most weathers is pretty good. A freezing morning when the sleet is coming at you at 45 % might have its charms somewhere, but a spring morning is beautiful, and in glorious end - of - June weather like we are having now, it is superb. It is very nice to get out early in the morning checking the fields to see what the birds are doing.