September 30, 2008

Technology advances on a Tyneside farm

By Dr Deric Charlton

As the country picked itself up after the Second World War the innovations to improve farming efficiency gradually appeared in our area. Of course some of them weren't actually new to farming but the farmers in our area had either been unable to afford them or they had resisted progress and didn't fancy the "new fangled gadgets" but preferred the "owld ways thet wore aalweys the best onyway."

The first I remember was when Grandpa Charlton bought his first tractor, a Standard Fordson. He must have used the same principles he applied when buying his cows – go for the lowest price! While the tractor did perform most of the time, it obeyed Murphy's Law and would develop a fault at the worst possible time.

I remember that it only had one foot pedal and that acted as a clutch as well as a footbrake. I also remember the first time – and last time – that Grandpa ever drove it. My father had joined him on the farm by then and he usually drove the tractor, and was ploughing with it one day when his father decided to have a go. Well, he steered it straight, which is desirable when you are ploughing, but when he approached the tall hawthorn hedge, he reverted to his old ways and yanked back on the steering wheel, yelling "Whoa! Whoa!" only to find that the tractor continued on its path and ploughed through the hedge.

My father came to the rescue and brought the machinery to a standstill, whereon my grandpa turned around and told his son, "The owld bugga is deafer than I am!"

But when this tractor appeared on the scene, the non-farming village experts, who frequently called in to offer heaps of useless advice, shook their heads and said, "Only the little bordies was meant te fly." Now this confused me, as the tractor was meant to replace horses on certain jobs around the farm, but it wasn't meant to fly us around as well. However, when other innovations arrived, the same experts would come along, take a look and repeat, "Only the little bordies was meant te fly." So I gathered that they had been so shattered when Orville and Wilbur Wright took to the air that this had tarnished their thinking.

The electric fence made its appearance when I was a teenager, and this will live in my memory forever, as a mate and I went walking in the Roam Wall country one day, just north of Hexham, and came across this very flimsy-looking fence. Well my mate had an urgent call of nature and proceeded to relieve himself by this fence. He received a rather strong shock in the wrong part of his body and took a while to recover! It made me respect electric fences to this day, I can tell you!

Then there was the milking machine, which we resorted to as cow numbers increased. The villagers were really stroppy when they first saw the new-fangled pipes and rubber teat cluster sucking away on our cows, and guess what? They shook their heeds and muttered, "Ownly them little bordies was meant te fly." Of course my father had to pay some attention to them, and forever after he insisted that every cow had to be "stripped to the last drop" as he had to pay for the new-fangled contraption somehow!

The machine worked really well (when it worked!) but the old limestone byres were not the best place to install and maintain electrical connections, and yours truly was the one who was persuaded to climb a ladder and renew the connections. It was a shocking experience when one day, my father assured me that he had turned off the electricity, so I duly grabbed both wires and suddenly danced at the top of the ladder. He stood me my first pint of ale that evening at the golf club – it was a pint shandy of course, and he was mortified when I was sick on the way home!

Then the weedkillers and pesticides came along, and they really made the villagers say, "Ownly them little bordies was meant te fly." On reflection, they were nearer the mark this time. The cornfields of my youth were really colourful swards of oats, barley or wheat containing an attractive mixture of poppies and other wild flowers, and I daresay that the stock enjoyed the results, or never suffered as a result of such mixtures.

However, the experts told us that we had to spray to get rid of these weeds and so we started using the new-fangled hormone weedkillers that smelled "worse than muckin' oot the pig stye" – and that was really saying something! They had a chemical smell that travelled in the air, and a lot of early spray jobs didn't even kill the weeds, as they were sprayed at the wrong growth stage. The villager never saw the insecticides – mostly seed dressings that my father applied to the cereal seeds and stirred in with his had in the seed drill box. It stained his hands a purple colour and it made me cringe when he ate his packed lunch with the hands still coated in this powder. However, he lived to a ripe old age and didn't glow in the dark.

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