by Philip Dodd
Herefordshire, along with Shropshire has, perhaps, one of the last vestiges of the traditional English mixed farm, crops and livestock economy.
For many agriculturally-interested the big day of the month is when the 'tractor book' comes out (the monthly 'Tractor and Machinery' magazine). Of interest in July's magazine was the announcement of a sale at the start of August of someone's collection at Bridgnorth.
It is a sad day when someone 'sells up' because, with them, goes their experience. The farmers who have been selling-up in their droves over the past few years, or indeed going bankrupt, or worse, have been the small farmers in their 40s and above.
The 'experience' which disappears along with the older generation in terms of machinery concerns the finer points of simply operating that machinery. Anyone can attempt to drive a modern tractor the size of a lorry, with 15 forward and 5 reverse gears, air-con and a stereo, but do they know what goes on under the bonnet ? The Dextas or David Brown Cropmasters of previous generations might seem tiny, rusty and very outdated by comparison, but their owners knew how to keep them rattling along. There were no mobile phones or service contracts in those days.
More to the point, and even more important, are the implements towed by tractors. There is a hay-field near me which has never been ploughed or sprayed within living memory of the oldest inhabitants of the village - possibly as close to an organic hay meadow as one is able to get! The only problem with trying to tackle such a field with machines is that it is full of undulations which can wreck equipment designed to work on the flat.
Along comes the young lad - not long out of agricultural college - with a tractor and a device on the back which will first cut the hay, and the next day turn it immediately before it is baled. None of the tractor equipment is set up right, so after a disasterous start he hands it over to the retired farm-hand. "Sort that out - I've had enough !" Then we find out what's wrong...
The oil and hydraulics in the tractor need topping up. The implement behind it is dragging along the road, even in the retracted 'up' position. It, too, needs greasing and oiling. It is also set for 'pre-baling', even though the hay hasn't been cut with it yet. Furthermore, tines are bent, as are the fingers which channel the hay in rows ready for the baler.
The old chap has to virtually rebuild the machine and service the tractor before he can go on and cut the hay. The result is that he has to do in 48 hours what would have taken a week in times gone by. In a few years time, when there is no one like the retired farm-hand to sort things out, what is going to happen ?
Whilst it is great to see the current enthusiasm of people to buy up little grey Fergies and take them on tractor runs - as many photos in the 'tractor book' each month attest - one aspect of the agricultural recession in the UK which is causing all those tractors to be for sale in the first place, is that we are already missing a generation of 'experience'.
Are the next generation of farmers going to have to re-invent the wheel too?
Philip Dodd can be reached by e-mail or you will find him on the uk.local.herefordshire newsgroup.