Posts Tagged ‘on-the-farm’

August on the Farm (2023)

Wednesday, August 16th, 2023

Sloes (Fruit of the Blackthorn). Photo: Colin Wootton

Richard Fonge writes:

The month of August is the main harvest month, and this year like many in the past it has been so far a month of poor weather for both farmers and holiday makers. When there are short spells of fine sunny days it is essential to be able to harvest as much as possible, but it also means that the Farmer cannot wait for the grain to dry naturally to the 14% required for storage, hence it has to be dried artificially, increasing the cost of production, not cheap at today’s energy prices, unless solar panels have been installed on the grain store.

August 1st is Lamass day in the Church calendar. On Lamass day in years gone by when a village like Sulgrave was very dependant on a good harvest, a loaf of bread was blessed in the Church as a prelude to the harvest. This ritual is still observed by a friend of mine at her Church in Warwickshire.

Observing the crops around the village, the wheat looks as if it will yield well, as has the barley this year. The spring barley up the concrete road which has suffered from the heavy storms more than most, now needs fair weather to ripen off and yield well.

A comparison. Sixty years ago wheat yielded 1.5 tonnes /acre on average and ten acres a day could be harvested. 15 tonnes a day. Today 3.5 tonnes and eighty acres a day harvested. 275 tonnes a day.

Last month I referred to Banbury Market and how it was a stockyard of England. It seems incredible to think today but stock was driven through the streets of Grimsbury to grazing on the fields up Overthorpe hill. Once a month there would be a consignment of cattle from Ireland, which would come by train from Holyhead straight to the market and then to those fields, before their sale to local farmers. Markets provided not only a place for farmers to do business, but also a place to share experiences and socialise. So important when often living on a lone holding. Today so few are involved in the industry, due to the great advances in technology and specialisation that loneliness is a problem.

People used to whistle when working, a sound not often heard now. Indeed, those of us of a certain age can remember a radio programme on the Light Wave called “Whistle while you work”. The light wave became radio 2 in the late sixties.

Looking forward rather than back, the hedgerow harvest looks promising, with plenty of blackberries ripening, crab apple trees laden to the limit, and plenty of sloes for the gin, particularly along the old railway line.

Richard Fonge


July on the Farm (2023)

Thursday, July 13th, 2023

Banbury Livestock Market in 1906

Richard Fonge writes:

This month sees the start of harvest, with the winter barley likely to be ready first in the field off Park Lane. The oilseed rape crop follows and then the wheat, and spring sown crops.

Most grain is sold to a merchant, unless it’s been grown for home use where the Farmer has stock. Selling is now done mostly over the phone with a Merchant and a price per tonne agreed dependant on quality and month of collection or it goes into a Farmers’ co-operative for storage and is then marketed from there.

Up until the mid sixties there were four grain merchants in Banbury, where you could take a sample of barley, wheat etc, and agree a price. Lampreys had a mill by the canal, which is now the Arts centre and Clark’s who were taken over by Lampreys in the ‘60s had a mill as you went to the railway station. Watts and Goodenough were the others. In those days there was also a corn exchange at the Banbury Livestock market, where you could take your grain sample on market days .Midland Marts.

The original livestock market was in the town centre as it was in most towns, but in 1925 Mr Mcdougal set up the market in Grimsbury off Bridge St, and by the 50s it had become the biggest market in this country, if not in Europe and was to remain so until it closed 25 years ago in 1998. Also during these times there were five agricultural engineers in the town. A market town that changed so much after the M40 was built and the market closed. At the same time agriculture made great advances in modernisation, through science and technology.

An interesting footnote is that Mr Mcdougal became the father in law of The Right Hon Richard Crossman M.P., a fellow of New College Oxford and a prominent Cabinet Minister in the Labour government of the 60s, but perhaps most noted for his diaries revealing the inner workings of Government.

Many of you have heard of Stuchbury. Where is it? Stuchbury is one of the lost villages of Northamptonshire and was once a parish in its own right, but now in the Greatworth  Parish. Today it has three farms and two cottages. Two farms Stuchbury Hall and Stuchbury Lodge are accessed from the Sulgrave Helmdon Rd and the old Parish boundary runs along to Peter’s bridge on the south side of the road and then south to the Welsh lane. Stuchbury Manor is now part of the Marston Estate and is accessed from the Welsh lane or B5425.

See here for more about this lost village.

We have many good footpaths in our area but please remember that the concrete road leading eastwards from Rectory Farm, is not one of them. We walk and ride it with bikes and horses by the kind permission of the farming tenant.

Richard Fonge.


June on the farm (2023)

Saturday, June 17th, 2023

Dog rose in a Moreton Road Hedge

Richard Fonge writes;

The buttercups in Madam’s Close were quite an astounding sight this year. A real centre piece to the village. The two other pastures to admire are on the Barrow hill footpath, where a wild flower mixture was planted many years ago and are now a blaze of flower. Walking along the railway line are more wild flowers. As you climb the recently made path to the old line there are broom bushes with their lovely yellow flowers. Broom has a smooth stem, gorse has spines. Dog daisies or oxeyes are abundant, and the dog rose with its white or pink flower can be seen intermittently. The dog rose is often found in our field hedges, with it’s vicious thorns. The fruit of this rose is called the hip, a red oval fruit full of vitamin C with noted herbal cures for many ailments when cured into a syrup. Another delicacy is rose hip tea.

Wild flower names were once used as names for milking cows when herds were small and milked in cowsheds, so buttercup, daisy, dandelion, cowslip were the favourites. I named a cow Up and Downer as a boy after her horn got caught in my trouser pocket and she tossed me up and down a few times when I was untying her chain!

The many flocks of sheep have now been shorn, and this hard, back bending job is often done by young New Zealanders who come over for the season. Wool is not of great value with the shearing cost hardly covered by its sale price. Man made fibres have seen to that. Sheep shear best when the grease is rising, the grease being Lanolin which when extracted is used in many ointments and creams. Go handling fleeces for a day and you will come away with soft hands. 

Of course it was wool that made the Washington family of Sulgrave Manor fame great wealth in the Middle Ages as it did many other families, with the Cotswolds in particular thriving on the wool, with towns such as Chipping Norton and Chipping Camden becoming centres of the trade. Chipping meaning market of course.

The recent storms will be most welcome to the crops, especially the late sown maize and barley up the concrete road. A late lamb has been born to one of the young sheep on Castle Mound. They are called cuckoo lambs (although we sadly don’t hear the cuckoo now). This sheep has “stolen the ram” as we say. Rather like a teenage pregnancy with Father unknown!

Richard Fonge.

May on the farm (2023)

Friday, May 26th, 2023

Cow Parsley  (Photo: Colin Wootton)

Richard Fonge writes:

May the month of the bluebells in the woods, and the May blossom of the whitethorn, much in evidence in our hedges and along the old railway line.

The oil seed rape is in full flower, and the barley off Park Lane has come into ear.

Spring barley has been planted up the concrete road, much later than ideal because of this late wet spring, but it has germinated quickly and will soon catch up with this warmer wet weather. Also to its advantage it was sown into a fine tilth of soil. Maize has been planted in the big field on the left of Magpie road.

The seasons have always varied, and invariably nature evens things out in our climate .

The spring season is all about new life, and that also means it’s bird nesting time. This means it’s so important to keep dogs under control as many birds nest low in the hedges and others on the ground such as plover, snipe and curlew. With such good footpaths in our parish there is no need to stray, and to clear up a misunderstanding there is no right to roam here.

One sound that I find quite evocative is the call of the rooks in their rookery. The nearest one to the village is in the small copse or spinney at the bottom of the Big Green.The field off Little street. Rooks nest high in the trees and need to be near grassland and stock as they feed off the dung and pasture. These small copses and woodlands across our parishes were planted in many cases , or left when the land was cleared for cultivation for sporting purposes and wildlife habitat.

So here is the connection. Without the woods, no rooks, who depend on the grassland to be grazed by cattle and sheep. Who are reared for meat.Take these pastures out (and this land is not the best for crop production) and you upset a delicate balance. This is a small example of the interconnection between the natural world and land use, a healthy balance in our area.

There are many ewes and lambs in the fields around the Parish, and note how those once small little lambs have now grown . Their mothers are injected six weeks or so before birth with a vaccine which gives their lambs immunity from the seven clostridia diseases through their milk. Hence it is vital that a lamb suckles within an hour or so after birth. At a couple of months of age the lambs need a small drench to prevent coccidiosis. This parasite can cause significant damage to the intestines and stunt growth.

This is the time of year when the grass verges grow tall with the cow parsley or Queens Anne Lace . So called as it reminded the Queen of lace pillows so it’s believed. The verges are full of a variety of fauna, insects and small vertebrates and are best not mown till the autumn, except for that narrow width mown for safety. Years back they were a source of grazing for the village small holders with their few cows. Where there was width the grass would be scythed and made into hay. When you had to “scratch for a living” nothing was wasted.

Many a successful farmer started out this way.

Finally. A Greatworth man called Ernie Isham (a very common name in these parts) was always known as Samson, because as a youngster he was helping out at threshing time when the machine got stuck. The cry went up “Give us a push boy,” and as he did the threshing machine moved.

Richard Fonge.


April on the farm (2023)

Friday, April 14th, 2023

Blackthorn Flowers (Photo: Colin Wootton)

Richard Fonge writes:

April’s showers have been more like heavy rain, and are delaying the planting of spring sown corn along the concrete road, which should ideally be in by now. April sees the blackthorn in blossom, a sure sign of a continual nip in the air and wintry conditions. The saying “Blackthorn Winter” is one that always resonates. Do note how much blackthorn there is in our hedges. The white blossom is very prominent. A field of grass opposite the Magpie has been ploughed up as has the remainder of the field where the HS2 compound is situated, and it highlights to me as a farmer what a travesty it is to see such good agricultural land being turned into a railway!

All the pasture fields around the parish are now stocked with ewes and lambs, so making it imperative to keep dogs on leads. It is easy to forget during the winter months when some of these fields are empty of stock that their prime purpose Is for the feeding of sheep and cattle.

I started writing these notes to inform people a little of what is happening in the countryside that surrounds us, as I think it is of interest and importance to the community . Especially if you are new to rural life. You cannot sanitise rural life, as it comes with its distinctive smells, sounds and at times plenty of mud. When spreading cow manure once I was asked by a local dignitary in all seriousness if I “could mix lavender with it”!

Agriculture is the business of producing wholesome food whilst maintaining the countryside which we all love and appreciate. Farming means that we have to work with nature not against it as the land is our income. That means managing nature from time to time. Vermin such as rats and mice in farm buildings have to be controlled and their extermination is part of Farm Assurance schemes. A box that must be ticked.

Pigeons are great menace to oilseed rape growers as they are to anybody who grows brassicas in their garden, and have to be controlled or scared away. Foxes also pose problems at lambing times and for those who have hens. It must be remembered that a fox is a serial killer and nothing preys on the fox, so to keep the balance in nature there has to be some control. As can be seen if you watch any wildlife programme it is the survival of the fittest of any species that keeps that species strong and eliminates the weaker genes.

I saw my first swallow today the 13th, but they were first seen on the 10th going into the barn by the stream up the Moreton Rd.

The weather has been very variable and it reminds me of a villager I knew who when asked about his health always replied “Like the sparrows up and down”!

Richard Fonge

March on the farm (2023)

Monday, March 13th, 2023

Richard Fonge writes:

With hopefully the last of the snow behind us, we can look forward to more spring like conditions, with warmth and sunshine and some much needed rain to counteract the very dry February.

Lambs are now being seen in the fields around the village. Vital for their survival is colostrum, which is the first milk of the ewe. Provided they have this milk in the first few hours after birth, (and most lambs will be up and suckling within the first hour) they will thrive. The milk is full of anti bodies and lines the stomach to retain body temperature, which combined with their coats allows them to withstand cold weather. Putting coats on them is a bit of a gimmick. It’s not practical for most farmers and if the ewe has been prepared for birth properly she will have the milk to rear her lambs. Late winter, early spring lambing is done indoors, with the ewes and lambs turned out at a few days old when the shepherd knows they are fit to do so. By late March/April, outside lambing is more common and in many ways more natural as the ewe finds her own place to lamb and there is not the risk of infection you get inside. One downside is the taking of lambs by the fox at birthing or soon after. A real problem at times.

Talking of the fox, it is always noticeable how much healthier the rural fox looks to the urban one. The former lives off grubs, rabbits (and there are plenty of those on our disused railway lines), pigeons, and your hens if they can. Natural food. The urban fox lives off scraps mostly from bins etc. 

The very smart fencing is now completed up Barrow hill, with new footpath gates, which will be much appreciated by all those that walk that path regularly. Now wait for the sheep to arrive to graze the new conservation pasture.

A true story of a very brave and determined man:

My parents moved to Stuchbury Manor Farm in the Autumn of 1947 and employed a youngster who was just short of his fifteenth birthday. Dennis had been evacuated from Balham in south London to a farm in Lancashire with his mother during the war, and he decided to make farming his career. He took a three month Y.M.C.A farming course at Stratford-upon-Avon and then placed with us.

He was in digs with a Mrs Wade, whose cottage was where the entrance to Mayfield is now. Between the Old Chapel and Apple Acre in Manor Road.

He walked to and from work every day, until he was called up to go in the army in 1951, where he opted to do a third year as he had passed his tests to join the parachute regiment. On demob he returned to the farm staying with us till 1973.

So when I take that footpath off the Helmdon road to Stuchbury, I often think of that fifteen year old boy walking up there in the dark in all weathers that first winter. What determination and resilience! You can see why he became a parachutist. 

To finish. Ernie Baylis, a local farming character, wore his cap backwards for work, and then turned it peak forward for best..

Richard Fonge.

February on the farm (2023)

Thursday, February 16th, 2023

Aconites on Moreton Road

February filldyke is the saying, meaning it’s the month of rain filling up our ditches. This year we have had very little rain in February, with the ground relatively dry. Firm enough for some early spring operations with tractors to take place.

Early applications of nitrogen have been applied to some of the winter sown crops, and up the concrete road it looks to me that the black grass I noted last month has been sprayed with roundup. Those fields on both sides of the road were cultivated to form a “false seedbed” last autumn. This fine tilth of soil allowed a good germination of the black grass seeds. A good control of the grass now will allow the spring crop sown, whatever it might be, to grow without the competition of this weed which stifles the crop and reduces yield considerably.

Whilst on the subject of weed control, I would like to put into perspective, the use of sprays in agriculture, the industry that feeds us. Herbicides are used to control weeds so that the crop can grow without competition. Fungicides are used to keep the leaf clean of the many diseases that attack the plant. A clean green leaf allows photosynthesis to take place to an optimum, thereby producing a good fruit. Insecticides, contrary to many reports are only applied when absolutely necessary. The control of flea beetle in Oilseed rape being the main one.

I can assure one and all that Farm Assurance Schemes monitor the use of all these applications very diligently, and the cost per acre alone means that any spray is only used when needed.

On the top Stuchbury footpath an electric fence has been put up to hold a flock of sheep in. They are grazing the autumn sown grass down before maize is planted in April.

Sadly despite many reminders from farm organisations, sheep and cattle worrying by dogs is on the increase. As recently as last autumn a sheep in our parish was mauled to death. It is essential to have control of the dog at all times .

It is great to hear the woodpecker tapping away, and it is wondrous how the hole they make is so perfectly round. On another nature note, the aconites up the Moreton road are still in flower, some five weeks after first appearing. I am sure this is due to the many hard frosts we have had, making our winter weather as it should be. These successions of hard frosts do a great deal of good, especially to the earth. Take note of how easily the soil breaks down after being dug in the early winter.

Cold weather and outdoor work used to be a recipe for chilblains. An old and effective remedy was to make an ointment from the elderflower.

Richard Fonge

January on the farm (2023)

Tuesday, January 10th, 2023

RAF Camp at Greatworth – 1940s and 1950s

Richard Fonge writes:

The New Year has started with a lot of rain, thereby making the ground quite sodden. The winter corn is looking very healthy, and this is the time of year when the pigeons start to ravage the oilseed rape crops, hence the sound of the gas bangers to frighten them away. 

At the start of the year, there are certain dates to note . For a farmer the 25th of March is Lady day when rents are due, as is the 29th of September Michaelmas day. It is usual for farms to change ownership on these dates, more especially Michaelmas day. February 2nd is Candlemas day the 40th day after Christmas and the official end of that festival. But there is a wise saying. “Have half your hay on Candlemas day”. Meaning a stock Farmer should have half of his winter feed left on that day. Spring can be late quite often.

Other dates are: Jan 10th for the first aconites up the Moreton road, although this year I saw them out on the 8th. The first swallow 10th of April. 10th September for their flight back to Africa, and to many of us of country origin the 21st of December, the shortest day. Always so glad to get that past us and look forward to longer days.

HS2 is re shaping the countryside around us to put it politely, and one set of buildings that have been demolished recently have been on Greatworth Park, on the south side of the Welsh lane. Greatworth Park was once an R.A.F station, starting with a few Nissan huts during the Second World War , transmitting messages from Bletchley Park, and then until it’s closure in 1988 it played a vital part during the Cold War . There used to be wooden towers and steel masts in the surrounding fields. The buildings just demolished were built for the single servicemen originally, when conscription was in place complete with mess room etc. The married quarters were the row of houses as you enter Greatworth from Helmdon, with the C.O’s house the detached one.

I well remember many of those doing their National service coming up to the farm looking for work on their days off. Very handy at haymaking and harvest time in those days when most of the work was physical. 

The land up the concrete road was cultivated last autumn and left unsown, and large green patches can now be seen. This is a horrible weed called black grass and the reason why the land wasn’t sown. The farmer can now treat this spring before planting and try to get the better of a grass that reduces yields so much.

Have you ever wondered why a milking stool has only three legs?  It’s because the cow has the “udder”.

Richard Fonge

December on the farm (2022)

Monday, December 12th, 2022


Beef cattle safely in for the winter

Richard Fonge writes:

A month where nothing much happens in the countryside and the agricultural world. It is a month when the maintenance of hedges and boundaries are trimmed and repaired. Please take note of the excellent workmanship that can be seen in the erection of the new stock fencing up the Moreton Road and on the Barrow hill footpath in readiness for sheep grazing next spring.

We live in an area where there is a great patchwork of fields, divided by hedges .

At times landowners and farmers are blamed for the removal of hedges, but as with so many other things in life, there needs to be perspective. 

In the late sixties and early seventies as the size of machinery grew, and Government was concerned about growing enough food, they produced a ‘ White Paper’ named “ Food from our own resources”. as they were concerned that within twenty five years, we would be deficient in food. To that end one of their initiatives was pay farmers a grant of up to 30% in the cost of draining, and hedge removal. In some cases it was more, as I can recollect. This increased efficiency of power and labour and increased the area of cultivatable land.

In the last twenty years a great many hedges and trees have been planted by landowners, as they are the true guardians of the countryside and feel a great responsibility to it. Please note what seems like a total disregard of our countryside by HS2 (High Speed Rail construction), where hedges and trees are bulldozed out of the way at random!

The beef cattle seen in the fields until recently are now housed for the winter, where their main food will be silage, supplemented by manufactured cake or a home mix ration. It is important that they are fed a balanced ration, for their growth and maturity into a finished product for the consumer.

Grass is analysed for its energy and protein levels, and then a supplementary feed is added accordingly. Animal nutrition is a complex subject so I will leave it at that.

I do hope these monthly notes are of interest, as my reason for writing them is to try and inform those of you new to the countryside, what is happening around you, with hopefully a bit of inside information

A true story of a retired local smallholder who was deaf and wore a patch over one eye. His two younger brothers bought him a colour television when they first came out, and when asked why: they replied. “ Our Charlie be deaf and blind so us bought him one to keep him happy.”

Finally may I wish you all a happy Christmas, with the hope that the New year is not as grim as the forecasters predict.

Richard Fonge.

November on the Farm (2022)

Wednesday, November 16th, 2022

Rare albino squirrel seen in Sulgrave

Richard Fonge writes:

This November we have had some Autumn mists in the mornings, a natural weather occurrence, as opposed to the thick fogs we used to have years back, caused by factory chimneys and household fires. So our air is much cleaner, but the one negative for plant growth is that the sulphur emitted by all those factories is no longer freely available.

Sulphur now has to be applied to our crops to keep them healthy. All crops whether grown organically or inorganically need phosphate, potash, nitrogen, etc plus the necessary trace elements to grow and produce fruit. A good example of the lack of sulphur in the atmosphere is the need to spray the roses for black spot. The food we eat should contain all the necessary elements for a healthy balanced diet.

This has been one of the best autumns ever to sow and establish crops, and this can be seen across the parish. Those of you who take the Stuchbury footpath will have noticed that two fields have been sown into grass, after the maize. This has been done firstly to keep the soil structure together and secondly to feed back to the soil some organic content when it is cultivated back in next spring before the re plant of maize.

The oak trees have produced an abundance of acorns this year, making plenty of food to be stored by the squirrels, of which there are many scampering about.

The grey squirrel can be quite a destructive animal, especially to young trees, where they strip the bark to get at the sap, and in forestry situations they need controlling. Don’t them let get into your roof space as they will chew through electric cables.

Finally, I was told always cut your cloth to the situation. Seeing all those earth moving trucks parked up on the HS 2 site reminds me of this story.

A country parson had invited his Bishop to stay the weekend and preach at the Sunday evensong. However it snowed heavily and only a local Farmer turned up. The Bishop proceeded to take a full service lasting nearly an hour. As the farmer left he turned to the Bishop and said a word of advice .”When I go to feed my cattle and only one turns up, I feed accordingly, I don’t give them the blooming lot”

Richard Fonge.