Local Farming: Past, Present and Future

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old tractor

Village talk provided fascinating information 

This combined talk by Colin Hedley and Doug Jones attracted almost 50 people to Buriton village hall in April and gave a flavour of how farming has changed in the parish over the last 100-150 years as well as an insight into potential changes to come.

Doug used over 70 wonderful old photographs to lead the audience through the decades, from the 1880s to the period after the Second World War. He also described the importance of the seasons within the farming year and managed to visit virtually all the farms in the parish on his journey: including the Manor Farm, Nursted, Bolinge Hill, Weston, Sunwood and Coulters Dean.

He began by explaining that farming has been a huge feature of the parish, with census figures from about 200 years ago showing that the vast majority of families were in agriculture. Whilst this had declined a bit after the railway came (with the chalk pit quarries and the limeworks also providing employment), farming didn’t lose its dominance for quite a long time.

And life was ruled by the seasons - from one harvest to the next. Soon after harvesting had been completed in around August, ploughing would begin, winter corn would be sown, a range of jobs would be necessary throughout the winter and spring, and then there would be the huge annual hay-making effort in around May, followed only a few months later by the big annual corn harvest when all hands would be required in the fields again for long days, working from dawn to dusk, weather permitting…

Doug explained that before the Forestry Commission had taken over some of the hillsides above the village in the 1930s, hundreds of sheep had grazed the downs with several flocks being in sight of each other as downland stretched all the way to Butser Hill. Old photographs illustrated important seasonal events in the shepherd’s calendar (lambing, dipping and shearing) as well as the daily movements with sheep spending the daytime on the hills but being folded in lower fields each night.

Many photographs emphasised the vital roles of horses (the main engine of work) in ploughing, sowing, hay-making, and harvesting – as well as hauling timber and many other tasks. 

A series of photographs from 1907 showed a blacksmith in Weston making horse shoes and shoeing horses whilst a carpenter repaired farm carts and a cobble repaired boots for all the farm workers.

Around the time of the First World War, occasional steam traction engines were used to help with another important seasonal activity: the thrashing of the corn harvest (oats, barley or wheat).

Photographs from the inter-war years showed similar, seasonal activities but with the introduction of the community’s first ever tractors and some other early mechanisation in the form of milking machines. 

Although the use of horses continued after the Second World Way, more and more tractors were apparent in the old photographs: gradually replacing the roles of the horses. 

The diversification of the farming practices at Weston Farm in the 1950s and 60s were illustrated by a series of photographs showing cheese-making activities and Doug’s presentation finished with a brief glimpse into the hop-growing industry which was another huge part of the parish’s agricultural past – meriting a separate presentation of its own …

As well as summarising the current state of farming, Colin Hedley identified a number of future pressures and opportunities before explaining the role and aspirations of the local ‘farm cluster’ group: the South Downs Farmers Group (SDFG).

Colin described the current state of farming as diverse, complex and changing. Since the Second World War there had been a massive decline in the numbers of farms, farmers, staff and livestock; huge increases in the size and complexity of farm machinery; major increases in the use of chemical sprays and fertilisers; a general increase in the size of crop blocks (ie. less complexity); much “cleaner” crops; an acceptance that farm diversification is often vital; and a green revolution via agri-environment schemes, organic production, FWAG and LEAF with GPS, satellite mapping and vari-spreading etc.

Looking to the future he foresaw a number of pressures: plateauing yields; climate change and extreme weather; higher input costs; shortages of staff (which would continue to break the ‘bond with the land’); uncertainty due to Brexit and the changing of farm payment arrangements; and a feeling that food is too cheap, undervalued with no incentive for higher standards.

But he saw opportunities, too: with funding focussed on environmental delivery; more diverse farming systems (including regenerative grassland and arable); new partnerships for the industry (eg. with water companies and others); new funding streams from private sources (eg. Biodiversity Net Gain); the role of ‘Farm Cluster’ Groups; and the role of the South Downs National Park Authority (including its role in the Farming in Protected Landscapes (FiPL) programme.

Colin explained that the South Downs Farmers Group now had over 30 farm signed up, covering over 10,000 hectares of land. The group had managed to attract Portsmouth Water as a key partner, offering some facilitation funding for the group as well as individual farm payments. The group’s funding was enabling training & workshops and the identification of actions for target species, with guidance for future land management to achieve landscape-scale improvements as well as an aspiration to deliver both economic and environmental benefits.

The group’s Targets and Aspirations included: some individual, indicator species (such as Barn Owls, Hare, Lapwing, Grey Partridge and insect rich habitats); reducing the level of nitrates in local drinking water through land use change, cover cropping, technology and trial projects; providing bee-lines corridors of insect rich grassland or margins from Kingley Vale to Old Winchester Hill; and initiatives to encourage woodland management and hedge restoration.

In summing up, Colin stressed that: the majority of farmers are professional, environmentally aware and committed to their roles as food producers and custodians of the countryside; they are also generally positive, which is also important; farming can deliver a range of positive gains for the nation; but caring for the environment would need to be funded adequately.  At the local level, the support from the South Downs National Park Authority is widely appreciated and it is helping the SDFG in its aims to be on the front foot for environmental delivery. The Group has started its journey to secure funding to make caring for the environment rewarded as it should be.