Wednesday, 17 August 2011


When I was a little boy Dad used to work for Old Tom Ayers, one of the last farmers in Cambridgeshire to use a reaper and binder. I remember seeing Mr Ayers, dressed in his farmer's smock, inspecting the sheaves being brought in on the trailer. But I was more interested in what was going on in the field next to our bungalow, for two combines had entered by the gap near the big oak tree and were progressing slowly around the headlands. One, going at a little under walking pace, said Massey Ferguson on the side, while the other, going even slower, was a Massey Harris; you could just make it out through the dust and rust.

My brother and I sat all morning at the side of the field watching the coming and going of tractors and trailers. Later that week we saw the field near Highfield Farm being cut using a combine which was operated by two men, one driving and one filling the sacks with grain and sliding them down a chute. Meanwhile, back in the other field, the baler was in use. A man drove the tractor and a young boy stood on the sledge behind the baler, stacking bales into heaps then pushing them off the back. The next afternoon men came with pitchforks and loaded the bales onto a trailer, secured them with ropes and carted them away.

By the time I was old enough to join in things had changed a bit. The combines were a little larger and faster, some even had cabs. The sledge behind the baler now had a gate on the back which was operated by means of a cord by the tractor driver and simply dumped the bales in rough heaps around the field. I got the job of stacking the bales up tidily till they could be collected.

Improvements happened every few years. The farm where I now worked in the school holidays bought a bale elevator which was a great improvement on pitching the bales up by hand. Red plastic string was now used to tie the bales. We tried plastic sheeting to cover the straw stacks but it was not a success; the sheets used to split and the rainwater poured into the middle of the stack ruining many bales. Then we got a "flat-eight" loader, which meant that the bales could be loaded with a tractor rather than man power. A huge straw barn was built, which kept the straw dry but it was extremely hot, dusty, unpleasant work to stack bales up under the roof. Yes, I'd stacked the bales in the field so tidily that I'd now graduated to stacking in the barn!

In the early days the boss used to bring us bottles of beer during the afternoon. Later it changed to a jug of tea, which was just as welcome. Dad and I always got a little extra in our pay packet at the end of harvest "for making a good job of the stacks".

Al that ended twenty years ago when Dad retired and I decided to try a different kind of work. I can't say I miss the work at all and I'd much rather watch someone else doing it.

Some interesting comparisons:

According to Rowland Parker in his excellent, though sadly out of print, book "The Common Stream", in August 1885 twenty-four men with scythes were able to cut a thirty acre field of barley in a day. In 1970 that same field was harvested by 3 men in a day. Using a combine harvester the grain was all in a silo in the farmyard, whereas the 24 men of 1885 still had to turn, rake, heap, cart, stack and thresh their harvest. Nowadays bigger combines, tractors and trailers would make the operation even quicker.

Farm workers wage 1945 - £4 for 48 hours         Price of loaf of bread 1945 - 4d
Farm workers wage 2011 - £260 for 39 hours     Price of loaf of bread  2011 - £1
This means that in 1945 a man had to work for 15mins to earn the price of a loaf. Nowadays it takes a man only 10 minutes to earn his loaf - though the pay's still awful! 

Just out of interest I looked online to find the price of a modern combine. I found a two-year old second-hand Claas combine going at £157,000. You can buy a house for that!

Take care.


  1. Seems to me, the more progress we make in "cutting a job's time down", the lazier we've become in relying on machinery to do the work for us...and the more bread we eat to make up for the boredom of watching the machines!! Did you get that John? :) LOL

  2. Interesting comparisons. My best schoolfriend lived on a farm so I've done a fair bit of lugging straw bales around - they're heavy!

  3. Yes, mechanization has reduced the cost of food, and has also reduced the numbers of workers needed to produce the food. The machines keep getting bigger and faster, which means they cost more, so farms have to become larger to pay for them. It's a cycle that has all but eliminated the small family farm and its way of life. I'm glad I got to experience it in my childhood; wish my children and grandchildren could have. Jim

  4. Thanks for the comments. There was a lot that was good about the lod ways but I certainly don't want to return to the hard labour and drudgery that went with it. There must be some way of retaining some cake and still having enough to eat. OK, Liz, you can have bread if you insist!

  5. A really interesting look back at farming methods. I'm remembering the threshers who came each autumn to my Grampa Mac's farm. He refused to learn to drive a tractor and kept a team of work horses til he was well into
    his 70's.


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