At the end of my second year at the Royal Agricultural College, I worked for a young arable farmer called Bob Burdon. His small family farm was located on the perimeter of Kemble Airfield, a few miles south of Cirencester. It was an alien world for a boy from Cumbria. Thin Cotswold brash, more rock than soil. Fields of swaying, ripening barley baked in the hot summer sun and a few moderate Heinz 57 bred sheep to eat the rotational grass. There were few fences and I often wandered the airfield in search of sheep. No one seemed to mind!
Bob and I dipped the sheep with Chris De Berg blasting out “Lady in Red” over the radio. Then a battle damaged USAAF A10 “Warthog” aeroplane flew low over the farm trying to get back to the airfield where they were stationed. It might have been returning from a raid on Libya, for that and Chernobyl were the two crises of the summer.
“See that plane” I said to Bob, “it is built to withstand 70% damage and keep flying”.
“You’ll be withstanding 70% damage if you don’t dip those heads” he replied with a thick west- country burr. It was so hot the Ministry man who had come to inspect us downed tools. He went home promising to come back at 6 o clock as the evening cooled. By the time he did, we had finished the sheep and moved on to the Combine. We didn’t get in to trouble. These were more pragmatic times. Life seemed somehow easier.
Day after day I carted corn, operated an unfathomable grain dryer and after harvest bounced around on a tractor pulling a plough or harrows. I set fire to fields of stubble including a hairy moment when in a field next to the ancient Fosse Way, the wind changed and I had to get my tractor off the field rather sharpish. Wouldn’t that have been a moment? “Sorry Bob, I torched the tractor”……
I worked throughout the summer with only two wet days off and made enough money to make my final year at college more comfortable. It was a long monotonous summer and it made me realise my heart and my future remained up North, where the grass was greener, the weather rather wetter and the sheep far better!
The hot summer of 86 is now thirty three years distant. Gone in the blink of an eye. The total UK population was 56M people. Today it is 66M. In another 33 years- time the UK population is forecast to be the largest population in Europe at over 75M. Whichever way you look at it, we are going to need more fields of golden barley, more sheep, in fact more of everything. This is one half of the coin. On the flip side, we have to look after our planet far better than we have in the past. Unlike the A10 Warthog, Planet Earth cannot withstand 70% damage and keep flying.
Now more than ever we need a Rural Grand Plan. Farming, food and conservation must work side by side in one sustainable and viable business. Without this, we will be, to quote another 1986 classic, “living on a prayer”…….