When farming was close to the hearts of Norfolk families

PUBLISHED: 10:31 09 June 2018

These children in 1959-era Norfolk didn't need to guess where their daily milk came from.

These children in 1959-era Norfolk didn't need to guess where their daily milk came from.


Despite much effort by many farmers, Norfolk people have largely lost their age-old link to the land, says Keith Skipper.

Renewed alarm about boredom and loneliness blighting young lives in rural areas has to be tied up with regular calls for farmers to open up pastoral secrets to children who don’t know where their food and drink comes from.

It all underlines a tragic loss of contact with the real world around us, especially while thousands of hungry field-eaters are poised behind remaining hedgerows to charge in on the back of a highly dubious “build-out-of-recession” gospel.

As a lad of post-war years illuminated by gratitude for chances to rebuild families and communities at the heart of agricultural Norfolk, I hold dear countless impromptu outside lessons as much as the homely education on offer inside our small but vibrant village school.

Collecting eggs still damp and warm and fetching milk straight from a bustling dairy contrasted starkly with singling sugar beet along endless rows and muck-spreading on mornings full of frost and chores. We knew bread and beer were glorious prizes for helping to bring in the corn harvest as well as money towards a new school blazer.

Failure to put bullocks ahead of books or chickens in front of cricket could incur the puckish wrath of venerable sons of the soil anxious to convince errant rustic apprentices how three milk bottles in a hedge was tantamount to a cow’s nest.

At least we avoided those chortles of derision saved for young lads from London who were evacuees on a Norfolk farm shortly before I came across the headlands. The farmer promised to take them to market by horse and cart. They waited expectantly by this new mode of transport before one little boy rushed into the barn yelling: ”Come quick, mister, the flippin’ ‘orse is losin’ its petrol!”

There are other yarns designed to emphasise the sheer ignorance of city and town dwellers when it comes to life down on the farm. Laughter is laced with pity rather than malice. But just how honest is that laughter these days?

The drift from our land has turned into an unstoppable charge. So, how many people now living in Norfolk, still seen as a predominately agricultural county, could pass a simple test on farming matters? Precious few, I suggest, could argue coherently for or against set-aside schemes, milk quotas or nitrate levels.

Does it really matter while supermarket spring up like weeds after a good rain to sell us everything we need at prices we can almost afford? Depends on how you rate the role of the farmer in any continuing story of “dew diffrunt” Norfolk.

Long gone are the days when the bulk of our rural population would need merely a glance over a hedge to identify rye, oats, wheat or barley, to weigh up the state of that crop and to make instant comparison with yields of the previous five years.

Virtually every family had close links with the land, some of them sinking deep into Norfolk’s past. Few of those roots remain in a world where the prairie and lone ranger in a covered cab have taken over from the meadows and posse of country thoroughbreds.

You can travel miles without spotting a single worker in the fields. Even the corn harvest, for so long our Coronation of the Year, can disappear in a brief squall of noise and dust somewhere over there. “All is safely gathered in” sing folk who have never had their toes tickled by stubble.

The farmer’s status in our community has diminished alongside traditional dependence on him or her for employment and shelter. Mechanisation has hauled down history’s hedgerows. Ironically, advertising agencies still feed us rustic goodness, rustic freshness and Mummerzet magic till it comes over the top of our new green wellies.

It’ll need more than cosy images to carve out a worthwhile footpath into a rapidly-changing farming arena. Perhaps a need to explain modern methods, especially to the young, is now much more important than a need to employ them just to keep up with demand.

I suspect some farmers of the old school are too eager to condemn any criticism as nothing more than crass ignorance. Of course, some stage open days - such as this weekend’s national Open Farm Sunday scheme - and forge close connections with local schools.

Farmers all like to be called “custodians of the countryside”. However, are too many involved now with scary schemes for more massive housing developments for us to take that title seriously?

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