Changing times: A life on the land

Agriculture - like life itself - is in a constant state of change. Suffolk farmer's son Arthur Staniforth knows that better than most. STEVEN RUSSELL spoke to him and read his bookBRITAIN has long enjoyed a schizophrenic relationship with those who tend its soil and rear animals.

Agriculture - like life itself - is in a constant state of change. Suffolk farmer's son Arthur Staniforth knows that better than most. STEVEN RUSSELL spoke to him and read his book

BRITAIN has long enjoyed a schizophrenic relationship with those who tend its soil and rear animals. Sometimes we embrace our farmers, showering them with money to keep the shelves stocked. At other times we berate them for stripping out hedges, polluting the countryside with pesticides, failing to move with the times, and for whinging.

Arthur Staniforth has seen it all. He was born in Framlingham in the summer of 1921, when agriculture was lifting itself out of the depression of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. With barely pause for breath came another depression, in the 1920s and '30s, before what he describes as “an extraordinary reversal in public attitude to farming” during and after the Second World War.

British farming became highly efficient, and production rocketed while prices were kept under restraint. Now, Arthur notes wryly, obesity is a more pressing dilemma than food shortages and agricultural production appears less of a priority than safeguarding the environment.

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Arthur worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food until 1983, and until last Christmas was still doing work for a firm of agricultural consultants.

The face of farming has, he recognises, changed fundamentally. Smaller producers can make a go of it, but need to be ever-inventive and diversify imaginatively. “I know of one chap who has a big barn and uses it to teach people mountain climbing!”

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He states in his book, Farmers - From Food Producers to Park-Keepers, “Ever since society became divided between food producers and the rest, there has been an uneasy relationship between the two sides. Shakespeare wrote his snide comment on the farmer who hanged himself in the expectation of plenty - but he did not say whether this was because the unfortunate cultivator feared low prices or the pitiful esteem in which he would shortly be held.”

Sir Richard Body, the former Conservative MP from an agricultural background, points out in his foreword: “Once parochial, the food business has become globalised, putting the farmer somewhere in the middle of the food chain. It has made him very vulnerable.”

Before and during the First World War, Arthur's father farmed about 100 acres at Oaks Farm, Framlingham. Shipping losses during the conflict had reduced Britain's bread and food reserves to about six weeks' supply, he explains, and in 1917 the Government passed the Corn Production Act, which guaranteed cereal prices and supported farm wages.

On the strength of this his father bought the neighbouring 186-acre D'Urbans farm in 1920 - “he was to pay for this in high mortgage costs throughout the depression years”.

Arthur's birth virtually coincided with the repeal of the Act and the start of a steep decline in farming. The price of wheat halved within two years and many bankruptcies followed.

Early on, D'Urbans farm had four full-time men, but as the price of wheat tumbled in the '20s and '30s Arthur's father had to cut the regular labour force to two. Tasks such as keeping the hedges tidy and field borders mowed annually by scythe were given less attention as a result.

The tithe didn't help. “To this day I do not know how my father dealt with the tithe charge on the farm . . . A much simplified description of the charge would be that it required landowners to pay one tenth of their harvest to the established church for the maintenance of churches and the payment of stipends,” says Arthur.

“By the time we farmed at the D'Urbans, tithe had become a straight financial charge on farm land, often calculated in abstruse ways. There was countrywide resistance to paying an anachronistic tax.”

Farmers who could not or would not pay “had their farms invaded by bailiffs who seized livestock or other moveable assets to be sold on the spot”.

His parents nevertheless kept farming through the years of deep agricultural depression and gave four children a wonderful upbringing, says Arthur, despite the lack of mod cons.

One of the four farm ponds dug from boulder clay provided the domestic water supply, via a pipe to the big hand-pump next to the stone scullery sink. The wood-fired copper was filled by hand on wash days. A big rainwater tank supplied soft water for washing clothes, though this dried up in dry spells.

There was no gas or electricity. “However, we did have paraffin in those days and my mother did most of the cooking in a paraffin-fuelled Florence stove with oven.”

In cold weather the family would sit around the inglenooked open fire in the living room. The old house was extraordinarily draughty, “and when the wind blew, the heavy curtain strung between the living room and the scullery door would shiver and shake as if at sea”.

A farmworker's regular weekly wage was 30 shillings for a 60-hour week, though foreman Frank Banthorpe got 32. “Even allowing for their rent-free cottages, free firewood and well-kept kitchen gardens, the wages were pitifully small. Requirements and expectations were also small in comparison with modern needs, but it still astonishes me that David Smith, the horseman, had never seen the sea - only 14 miles away at Aldeburgh.”

With cereal crops losing money, his dad decided to try his luck with a poultry enterprise. The roaming farmyard flock was moved into huts in the meadow, in pens surrounded by chicken wire. He concentrated on Rhode Island Reds, which were considered the best layers of fine brown eggs.

“It was the end of true free range, but they had the run of their pens, being prevented from flying over the wire by having their wings clipped. It was the first move toward the environmentalists' anathema - intensification.”

The farm initially hatched its own chicks but then started buying day-old young from specialist breeders. They arrived in little boxes.

“It was another steps towards 'unnatural' poultry husbandry that seemed to us at the time to be a very logical move, but we did not foresee that incubators would increase in size until they were as big as rooms and hatched tens of thousands of chicks at a time,” writes Arthur.

Electric light and indoor housing were later seen to be the answer to the seasonal variations of egg production - eggs being plentiful in spring and summer, when the days were longer, and scarcer in the gloomier autumn and winter. “This was the point at which truly intensive egg production came logically upon the scene. At the D'Urbans we never had more than about 500 layers, with only a few of them in cages.”

During the war there were tight restrictions on poultry feed, but as soon as it was over the revolution resumed and huge factory-farmed flocks sprang up around Britain.

“The transformation of a branch of farming, which poultry keeping was in my father's day, into a distasteful form of factory production, with caged flocks in their tens of thousands, and 'broilers' on deep litter in units of 100,000 birds or more, was largely an outcome of the advantages of scale. But it was also encouraged by our system of taxation . . .” says Arthur.

He also points out that in the 1920s and '30s the farm could sell eggs for about three shillings a dozen. “Taking account of inflation, this would now amount to about £4.50. In winter, today, the consumer can buy eggs in the supermarket at £1.40 per dozen, an extraordinary reduction which has been made possible by the application of science to poultry production and the take-over by 'factory farming'.

“How many of the general public would want producers to go back to the old free-range flocks and rearing methods if it meant a tripling of the price of eggs in the shop?”

Another change: Arthur regrets the passing of the farm horse and its replacement by the soulless (but more efficient) tractor. “It is small wonder that official statistics show that the number of horses used for agriculture dropped from almost a million in 1921 to around 20,000 in 1972. The number of tractors increased correspondingly from about 30,000 to around half a million over the same period.”

He went to Hitcham's Elementary School in Framlingham.

A sad incident he remembers is the death of little Tommy Rose, killed by a van as he ran across the road to school. “His small body was carried in and lay under an overcoat in the dark cloakroom until, I suppose, an ambulance came.”

Today, a road death toll of 2,500 is rightly considered appalling, he says, but in the five years up to 1934 it averaged 7,000 a year.

Arthur passed the entrance exam for Framlingham College, a mile from home, and went as a day boy. He spent nine years there and won a leaving scholarship from Framlingham and a County Major Scholarship from Suffolk. These led him to the South Eastern Agricultural College at Wye in Kent at the start of the war.

Arthur was there just long enough to pass the intermediate exam on the way to a degree. The phoney war was coming to an end: students saw dog-fights in the sky and trainloads of exhausted soldiers coming back from Dunkirk. Bombs fell on the cricket pitch. It was time to move to Reading University.

The next two years were a mixture of lectures and other activities, with a brief time in the Home Guard. As an agricultural student, he was roped in by the Somerset War Agricultural Committee to carry out farm survey work. “In a volte-face from the general disinterest in farming between the war, it was now government policy to scrutinise every individual farm in the country with a view to increasing output.”

The state of farming “had fallen so low that there was no question of a magic wand quickly transforming the countryside into a well-farmed domain, and the renovation was still in progress when I returned to the scene after the war. Farmers were still being evicted after 1945, causing great and lasting resentment.”

During his last year he took a radio-location course and was called up for army service at Hyderabad Barracks in Colchester.

Arthur was in Africa for five years, from 1944, and describes his experiences in an earlier book, Imperial Echoes: the Sudan - People, History and Agriculture, published five or six years ago.

Back in Britain, food was still in short supply despite the war being over, and the Government forged ahead with plans to raise agricultural productivity. Arthur was posted to Lincolnshire. His patch included the vast Smiths Potato Estates, of crisps fame.

MAFF gave grants or subsidies for improvement schemes, such as field drainage or hedge removal, to improve production. (About 50 years later, MAFF's successor is now giving farmers grants to plant hedgerows - “improved 'habitat' for wildlife is now more important than agricultural output”.)

Arthur says one thing is certain: “The policy of successive governments and of MAFF during those post-war years - a policy of growing more at home to save foreign exchange, while keeping down the price of food - was successful.

“The infrastructure which had been so long neglected was vastly changed with the help of grants, and the adoption of new techniques revolutionised the productivity of the industry so that it became a European leader in this respect.”

Arthur and wife Mary - they have four sons - now live in Oxford. When he went back to visit Framlingham, after many years away, the centre had hardly changed over 50 years, though it looked more prosperous than in the 1930s.

There were 26 farmers listed in the parish in Kelly's Directory in 1937 - generally small operations by present-day standards. “Today, although most of the units remain, they are often run in amalgamation with other farms, the farmhouses used as residences by businessmen, or else they depend substantially on various forms of diversification,” he observes.

Part of the farm where he lived is used to manufacture farm machinery sold around the world. “Getting sufficient trained local labour has been a difficulty and some of the work has been outsourced to Lithuania! What would my father have made of that?” The land farmed in conjunction with two other farms.

His father had sold up at the beginning of the war and downsized, to use modern parlance. “He always had a bit of a yearning to live in the West Country and got this small place near Ilminster (between Taunton and Yeovil),” Arthur tells the EADT. “He had several acres and did quite well. Apples, for instance, sold at a high price. Well, it was wartime and you could get a decent price for food then.”

And what about Arthur having a farm of his own? Was that ever a possibility? “After I came home from abroad, working in the Sudan, I had the chance. I would have been tempted, but it was a big capital outlay and I was offered this administrative job in the ministry.”

In the 21st Century, agriculture is effectively the plaything of the politician, he says, without rancour.

The new Single Payment Scheme - designed to take away the kind of incentives that led to overproduction, and instead link subsidies to environmental and animal welfare goals - “depends on farmers doing a whole lot of things to please the public” -having a proportion of land in setaside, for example; planting trees and maintaining a “beetle bank”.

On the subject of organic production, he points out: “We were actually farming in this way at the D'Urbans farm before World War II, though perhaps our use of copper sulphate as a seed dressing might have disqualified us, in strict Soil Association terms, from membership of the modern club.”

And he adds: “Lip service is still paid in many quarters to the virtues of non-chemical, organic farm production, but the vast majority of the public continues to buy food on price and will not pay for the extra cost of old-fashioned methods.”

Farmers: From Producers to Park-Keepers is published through Trafford at £10.50. ISBN 1-4120-5534-2

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