Bringing in the wheat - COTSWOLD FARMING WITH Adam Henson
PUBLISHED: 18:36 17 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:51 20 February 2013
'Harvest is the pinnacle of the farming year. The gathering in of the crops is not only important to people who earn their living from the land but it also acts as a marker in the year'...
Harvest is the pinnacle of the farming year. The gathering in of the crops is not only important to people who earn their living from the land but it also acts as a marker in the year
Over the last month or so the soft, undulating fields of the Cotswold hills have been earning their keep. Harvest is the pinnacle of the farming year. The gathering in of the crops is not only important to people who earn their living from the land but it also acts as a marker in the year. The tractors working late and the bare fields of stubble tell us that summer is coming to an end and winter is just around the corner. For me and the hard-working staff on the farm, harvest actually began in July and continues well in to September.
Traditionally the Cotswolds have been known as grassland and grazing territory but arable farming has also had an important part to play. In recent decades the main crops in the region have been oats, wheat and barley, but now theyve been joined by a relatively new kid on the block; oilseed rape. Its one of my principal crops; we sell the rape seed to my neighbour Hamish Campbell where its cold-pressed to make rape oil for cooking and dressings. If the weathers fair then its hard work all the way through summer. Early mornings and late nights are what the harvest is all about. But its worth it when you consider that the future of the farm and the livelihoods of the whole team rely on getting the best quality grain, in
good quantities and sold at the best possible price.
The fields, which are changing colour rapidly at the moment as the machines combine, bale and plough, also tell a story about the importance of agriculture. If you get to high ground such as Broadway Hill or Cleeve Cloud youll be rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding countryside. Its also where youll hear the biggest rural myth in existence. When visitors get their breath back theyll gaze at the panoramic view and say something like isnt nature wonderful. Well I can tell you that theres nothing natural about that patchwork quilt of fields and farms, dry stone walls and hedgerows, woods and waterways. Its a managed landscape which is all down to the hard work of generations of local farmers whove tended and toiled the land. Harvest is a big part of that rural legacy.
Of course summer and early autumn arent just about long hours and hard labour. Theres also the feasts and thanksgiving. Mind you, Harvest Festival isnt as old as youd think. The annual church services were a Victorian invention, created by a Cornish clergyman in the 1840s. They replaced the older, and much more raucous, Harvest Homes when landowners and their workers would eat, drink and make merry together once the last sheaf of wheat was safely brought in. Thankfully the tradition is making a comeback in Gloucestershire with a well established Harvest Home now taking place every year on Eric Freemans farm at Taynton near Newent.
Eric is a great champion of our rural heritage and an old friend of the Henson family. Although hes principally a livestock man, that doesnt stop hundreds of people converging on his farm to mark the end of harvest, share food and celebrate into the early hours. In our corner of England, theres always been a certain significance given to the last of the crops to be brought in. When horses worked the fields instead
of combine harvesters, they would be decorated with ribbons and posies as they pulled the last load of corn back to the farm. The wagons were likely to be crowded with tired and relieved farm hands and sometimes whole villages would congregate to cheer home the final cartload.
Just like today, that final load was often cut late at night. So it must have been quite an experience for the locals as they listened for the sound of horses hooves in the gloom and then welcomed the workers home by oil lantern and candle light. This fascination with the last of the harvest still survives in the making of corn dollies. Today these plaited decorations are a common sight in the craft marquees at events like the Three Counties and the Cotswold Show. But originally they were created from the last stalks to be cut in the field. It was a more superstitious age when country folk thought the dollies contained the spirit of the corn and held the secret to a healthy harvest the following year. Im not sure I believe in the spirits but Im certainly starting to think about next years crop. In fact it wont be long before were sowing once more. Perhaps life on the land hasnt changed all that much after all. n
Cotswold Farm Park, Guiting Power, near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL54 5UG
Tel: 01451 850307; Fax: 01451 850423