The Farming Ladder, 1944



Probably the biggest problem farmers have to face is labour. With enough good and efficient men a really capable farmer could manage a thousand acres as it should be farmed.

The writer studied the matter very closely while learning, both where he was employed and on the neighbouring farms, but never came to any satisfactory conclusions. Some farmers bullied and drove their men, doing them down to the last halfpenny in paying their wages; working on the old principle

’T is the some with common natures,
But be rough as nutmeg graters-
Treat them kindly, they rebel.
And the rogues will serve you well.

This type of farmer got quite a lot of work done, as long as the men were watched, but of course never kept their labour very long. On the other hand some farmers treated their employees with every kindness and consideration which their means and the state of farming would allow, but this I noticed was almost invariably abused. If the men were late owing to bad weather and travelling conditions, and the farmer said nothing, you would not find them stopping a little later or coming earlier when conditions improved. No, they would come trailing in as late as they were when the roads were blocked with snow. If in the kindness of his heart the farmer sent them beer or tea out into the fields in hot weather, they accepted it as a right, and would hang about if it was delayed, instead of getting on with the job. In winter, if they were provided

with a warm room with a fire in which to eat their meals, they would not even keep it tidy. If a man was receiving milk, firewood, and a free cottage, he would grumble if he heard another man was receiving an extra couple of shillings a week, but without that payment in kind.

Either type of farmer, the bully or the Christian, would tell me his whole time was taken upin supervision, and this on three or four hundred acres employing six or eight men. Assuming the farmer’s income to be £1 an acre, or £300 to £400 a year, then each labourer earning say thirty shillings a week in those days, required £1 worth of supervision weekly.

Other farmers, of course, devoted their attention to hunting, shooting, fishing, tennis and golf, balls, garden parties and cards, leaving their men to do as they liked; and who could blame their men for a ‘bolshy’ attitude, if the farmer was not attending to his business, a state of affairs which was reflected in the output of work, and sooner or later in the bankruptcy of the farmer?

There were, of course, a few good, conscientious men, who served their employers faithfully and well, and there were a few employers who abused their service. The best cowman I ever knew, who taught me much of value, had not missed a single milking for forty-three years, yet received ten shillings a week less than the other men on the farm, because his employer knew that the old man was afraid of being unemployed. Actually he could have got a job anywhere, and compared with some cowmen I have met would have been cheap labour at double his wages. An extreme case which labour leaders would seize upon with glee to press their case; although they should also explain away why a farmer of my

acquaintance paid to a labourer’s widow the wages which her husband would have earned, for seven years, to enable her to keep her family of five children together, while the trade union to which he had paid in for years did not refund a penny. Probably tlE:y would say that such is not the function of a trade union; the same could be said of the farmer who hires his labour by the day or week.

Summing it all up, it seemed that a farmer either had to drive his labour and lose workers frequently, or accept a very low output of work and tolerate much that was slack or careless to keep his men, and pay them as little as possible, for they could not justify good wages. We had got to have something very different at Oathill.

In this district farm work was regarded by many of the villagers as the last refuge of the inefficient and mentally defective, for the others could obtain work in the towns. I remember a lorry driver coming into the farm and, finding another who had skidded off a slippery stretch of ice into the ditch, saying in terms of deepest disgust, ‘Why! You ought to be at plough’. As if ploughing were a far less skilled occupation than lorry driving!

A local boy, who had come to us straight from school, gave notice after a couple of years. Asked for his reason, he said he liked the work, was very fond of the animals, could not better his wage, but the other village boys laughed at him for working on a farm.

Not only has the shortage of labour become more acute as the years go by, but the standard of work has steadily deteriorated. True, Shakespeare said that servants were not so good as they used to be, and I am glad to say something in common with him in my literary efforts,” but it can be measured by output of work and the skilled labour available. It is quite common in this district of big farms for a farmer to have only one rick builder and thatcher on the staff. We know one farm employing twenty men, not one of whom can carry sacks of wheat from the threshing machine to the granary; and other where a local smallholder has to go to do the sheep-shearing. We ourselves have been ’phoned on a Sunday morning by a farmer who wanted to know if one of us could go to milk his cows. His two cowmen had met with an accident on the way to work, and neither the farmer nor his other eight men had ever milked a cow.

At the present time I do not know of a young, really good, all-round farm worker who can turn his hand to anything, in any of our local villages. There are a few skilful tractor drivers, but where will I see a well-turned-out team of horses? But it is in hand work that the loss of efficiency is most marked.

I have before me the recommended piecework rates for Oxfordshire, issued by the War Agricultural Executive Committee, agreed between representatives of the National Farmers’ Union and the National Union of Agricultural Workers for 1943. I have also a wages book kept on a local farm over a long period, which shows most striking differences between day work and piecework. I take mangel-hoeing, thatching, and manure-spreading as typical examples.


Year Per day Per acre
1857 2/- 4/-
1913 2/6 7/6
1923 5/- 15/-
1943 l0/- 60/-


Year Per day Per square
1857 2/- 6d.
1913 2/6 8d.
1923 5/- 1/-
1942 l0/- 4/6


20 loads per acre

Year Per day      Per acre
1857 2/- 1/-
1913 2/6 l/3
1923 5/- 2/6
1943 l0/- 12/-

It will be seen that while the daily rate has increased to five times, the cost per acre for hoeing has increased to fifteen times, thatching per square to nine times, and manure-spreading to twelve times, which clearly illustrates the falling output of work per man on piecework against day pay. Since 1943 wages have doubled again and piecework rates, in some cases at least, have gone up by three times.

For our first year at Oathill we employed a good old-fashioned labourer; he was getting a little slow, but took a real interest in his work and served us well. Then for the next five years we did not employ any labour except a gang of casual workers for threshing; and how casual they were. A lot of sympathy was given to the unemployed in those days, and it was said that the greatest service one could render to the country was to provide employment, yetin our experience most of them were mentally and physically incapable of anything like a day’s work. We used to watch them coming in the morning, and at a slight rise in the road leading to the farm they would flop off their bicycles and walk up the slope. If a man feels like that in the morning, what will he be like by night?

On one occasion the threshing-machine engine broke down on its way to us, and as the casuals had been engaged to start on a certain day, and we did not wish to turn them off, we set them to work ditching. They worked fairly well and had half-finished by the time the thresher arrived. On the completion of the threshing they all lined up for their money, and although they would all be going back on the dole, not one asked if he could have the job of finishing the ditch.

When we had sufficient stock to need labour, we found the only way was to have boys from school and train them as we wanted them. They were quite easy to get, as few farmers will be bothered with boys of fourteen, whom they will lose into local industry after a year or two. We did our best to teach them, and they served us quite well. We also tried to interest them in a profit-sharing system, but in their lack of general education, and their inbred suspicion that farmers exist for, and by, doing down their employees, distrusted it and preferred to have a shilling or two above the standard rate for the district, which they could spend by the next Friday night, rather than draw a substantial bonus at the end of the year.

While I was learning farming I made up my mind that when I became a farmer I would take pupils, not with the object of obtaining big premiums or cheap labour, but really to teach them their trade as I would like to have been taught; I also intended to remunerate them at the real value of their labour, so they could get a better start in farming than I had had. I believed then, as I do now, that the only thing wrong with British agriculture was the lack of really capable and progressive farmers, and well-trained workers. I believed too that the solution of nearly all the farmers’ difficulties lay in their own brains and within the boundaries of the farms; and that far more could be achieved at home than in passing resolutions at the local meeting of the National Farmers’ Union, designed to bamboozle the Government into bolstering up inefficient methods at the expense of the taxpayer. At the same time I felt that no one is qualified to teach until he has proved his own theories. So we did not take a pupil until we had established ourselves as tenant farmers and then bought the farm freehold by our own efforts.

So carefully thinking out a fair system, we started with one boy. The difference was so striking between him and the local labour that for several years we have run the whole farm with pupils. Our normal staff is three. We set out to give them a really straight deal, and have been repaid a hundredfold by their loyal and wholehearted service. Most of the credit was due to my mother and sister, who kept them happy, comfortable, and well fed in the house. Outside, we teach them their job, pay them on the profit-sharing system, in which we tried to interest the local labour without success, and by which our pupils can earn sufficient in a few years to take a farm of their own, if necessary with financial assistance from us: for where could we find better investments than in backing those we have learned to know and trust, and who have thoroughly mastered our foolproof methods of making money in farming?

Dr. C. S. Orwin, one of the great authorities on agriculture, says in his book, Speed the Plough, that ‘farming is closed to all who would pursue it other than as labourers, unless they have money to invest, while in industry education and technical ability is sufficient to reach the heights’. Our pupils have proved otherwise. Personally, I believe there is more scope and less competition in farming, for a man with a well-stocked brain, than in the whole of British industry; in fact I believe it is easier to obtain an independence on the land, providing a man is master of his trade, than it has ever been before.

How do we select them? In the early days an advertisement in the Farmer and Stock-Breeder or Farmers’ Weekly would bring in a good bunch of applicants, nowadays, recommendations from ex-pupils or those who make the direct approach on their own initiative, saves the necessity of advertising. Any who wrote a letter showing thought and care are interviewed. Suitable applicants are given an opportunity to come for a month on trial pending a suitable vacancy. What are the qualities we look for? Average height, build, and

weight for his age; that he has not suffered from any serious illness or accident, for those who are taking up farming for the sake of their health have not the drive and energy necessary for the job; having worked on a farm during holidays, or kept small animals or poultry as a hobby, is a good recommendation; manual dexterity, indicated by a fondness for woodwork, or interest in science or biology–for agriculture is an applied science, also help. An enthusiastic Boy Scout, other things being equal, is almost sure of the job, for there is much in the scout training which is invaluable on the farm. We have always regarded Lord Baden-Powell as the greatest educationist in the world. Sometimes, of course, an applicant has had experience elsewhere for a short period, in which case we like it to have been a very good or a very bad place. If the former he can carry straight on, if the latter he will see the contrast. While a good general education is desirable, academic standards count for nothing. Of six boys, three of whom had obtained School Certificate, and three had failed, the last proved most successful. This is remarkable in view of the requirements for most trades and professions, and the examination is really only a fair test of general knowledge, though it does tend to select precocious children who can trot out the right little answer as required, against those who learn slowly but never forget what they have been taught. I think the real reason is psychological; the certificated thinks what a wonderful fellow he is, and is disappointed that the farmer does not share the same opinion, while the unsuccessful boy has been told so often by his schoolmasters that he is utterly useless, that he is gratified to find that the farmer looks for very different qualities which he usually has in full measure. In the same way the boy who has come in conflict with school authority is sometimes a great success, for he finds in farm work an outlet for his physical energy; while the good little boy who tells you he has never had a light in his life usually gets homesick, and wants to run home to his mother after three days. Yet while I specify what I like and look for, human nature is so variable that even some of the most hopeless cases, which I have chosen with my heart rather than my head, have proved themselves worthy of the training.

To have been to a farm institute or agricultural college is a disability which few boys can overcome on this farm; either they look on agriculture from the detached academic point of view, or they are looking for the opportunity for fooling about, which we will not tolerate. Our pupils usually feel the same. I remember overhearing one saying to another who was here on trial, ‘This job may be the only opportunity I shall ever have of becoming a farmer and I intend to make the best of it; if you want to play the fool go back to college where there are two hundred more like you.’

Sons of farmers, business, or professional men have done best, and for that reason are favourably considered, though we have no social or religious prejudices. Individual merit is the only consideration. With sufficient money anyone can boast that he was educated at Eton and Balliol; only a boy of character and ability can say he learned his farming at Oathill.

We do not always ‘rind all the good qualities in any one individual; one does not when buying a horse. Horse-buying seems to me far easier, for in twenty years of farming I have only sold one horse for less money than I gave for it, while I have often been mistaken in selecting a pupil.

A pupil lived as a member of our family, with free board, lodging, washing, and insurance stamps. He received ten shillings a week for the first six months, rising to £l. In the second year he received in addition a bonus based on the previous year’s output. So that in pre-war days a boy of seventeen or eighteen in his second year received the equivalent of £3 a week, allowing £1 for board, lodging, etc., against the minimum agricultural wage of 35s. for a man. In wartime the bonus was as high as £90 per annum. One boy told me he had saved £150, after keeping himself in clothes and travelling expenses in twenty months. In recent years their earnings have more than kept pace with the general increase in wages. Not only do we pay good wages, but the learners actually earn them. A good boy after twelve months’ training in our methods is far cheaper labour than any we can hire locally at half the money; without exception they all grow and put on weight, which would indicate that our high-speed methods have no deleterious effect on health. It is an interesting sidelight, that while more time is lost in agriculture through strains first, and vicious animals second, no one trained in our methods has even hurt himself or been injured in that way.

Not only do we teach the practical work, but the scientific and “economic aspects are carefully explained. It is quite common for a boy to acquire a better knowledge combining practice with theory in a couple of years, than by four years in an agricultural college. How much better he learns all the names of the weeds that grow in the fields, and the families to which they belong, if he is told them day by day while hoeing roots all summer; the points, bones, and organs of the animals as he grooms them each morning; meteorology, if he is asked his weather forecast for the day at breakfast-time.

I always tell them the labourer should know how, the farmer should know why; that there is a reason for everything we do on the farm, and it can be given, whether it is the way to litter down a loose-box, or the order in which a horse’s harness is put on; that a penny-worth of thought is worth a pound’s-worth of manual labour; that the correct way is the easiest in the long run; that one should visualize the whole, but concentrate on the details; that everything I teach is the recognized standard practice of the best farmers, and by following it they will be accepted as good farmers from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. For that has been my experience.

What a difference we find between these boys and the ordinary run of labour. How often, in the past, I have had a local boy doing something quite wrong and thought to myself, ‘Now I don’t want to upset this chap, but I must go and carefully explain where he is wrong’. Result? I get the reply, ‘If I’m not doing it well enough for you, give me the money due to me, and I’ll clear out’. How different with the better type of public or secondary schoolboy. He says, ‘I’m sorry. How foolish of me’, and he does the job as he is shown. To some people, of course, we would seem very fussy and particular in the way we have things done. But good work is only a matter of habit. We have all been told the old proverb, ‘Sow an act-reap a habit. Sow a habit-reap a character. Sow a character-reap a destiny.’,I give just one example of care and attention to detail which is typical of our farming, and applicable to any other job on the land-and the results achieved by it.

Everyone is familiar with how sheaves of corn are set up in the field after cutting in shocks or stooks. When we do this each pair is set with the knots of the string outside, for the sheaves stand and drain off the rain better this way. Then they are pitched in pairs to the wagon, the man on the load taking one in each hand, opening the pair, and the knots are up, thereby making a compact and tidy load. At the rick, the sheaves are pitched the same way and built into the walls knot up, while in the roof knot down. In this way, with a suitable slope on each sheaf, you get a weatherproof rick. When you come to thresh, the knot comes into the hand of the man cutting strings, which are saved and can be used for other purposes, and thus is avoided the danger of stock being killed by eating string in the straw. Now many farmers will say there is no time for these refinements. Yet our harvest is invariably finished first in this district, and a threshing-machine proprietor has told me that we thresh cheaper per quarter of corn threshed than any other farmer he knows. Some people of course, buy dyed string, so that it can be picked out daily when the cattle are fed or littered, yet it is far better to keep it by means of a little efficiency in stooking, stacking, and threshing. In the wartime I saw many illustrations in the papers showing soldiers and land girls helping with the harvest. In not a single instance were they pitching the sheaves correctly. In five photographs showing members of the Women’s Land Army being specially trained as forewomen, these being all carefully selected, in three cases they were doing something which was demonstrably wrong.

All the pupils we try are not a success. We can only teach when people are interested. We cannot help the lazy or dishonest, for there are some who would be quite happy to let others earn their bonus for them, and accept a free hand-out. But nothing is too good for those who are looking for the thorough training which will enable them to become capable and successful farmers, and who will help us run our farm as it should be run. We share our knowledge freely, will give any assistance they require to gain more experience or take a farm of their own.

While we prefer boys, we have had the pleasure of training others. A really capable man, who has made a success of some other career and is taking up farming later in life, can master in months the basic principles which it takes a boy years to learn, although he never achieves the manual dexterity of youth. Ex-officers and ex-servicemen generally, who are the most deserving of any assistance we can give, are terribly handicapped against business men. They have never had to think for themselves, everything is laid down in the Queen’s Regulations or Admiralty Instructions, if any new work has to be taken up they receive a special course of training lasting perhaps several weeks, and they find it very difficult to adapt themselves to farm work and its entirely different outlook on life, where apparently one has no leisure, but has to study the theory and science while learning the practical work. The three fatal ‘S’s’-Smoking, Swearing, Standing about-are as common in the Services as they are inefficient farms. To me they indicate lack of self-control, and betoken the man who cannot think or act without lighting a cigarette, the man who shows his irritation when things go wrong, and the man who cannot tell himself to get on with the job.

But under our system it is not all work. We allow one clear day a week, seven days’ holiday first year, and a fortnight the second. These days may accumulate if desired and be taken as short holidays from time to time, which our pupils invariably prefer. With fifty-nine days the first year and sixty-six the second., they can fit in several little holidays at home, and any days they have not taken by the end of the year are compensated for by extra money. Generally speaking they take say a week every quarter, just to go home and see their parents, and cash in the rest, for they are usually saving hard for the day when they can take a farm of their own. Sundays are our equivalent of a half-holiday, for there are the animals to look after. We have never believed in Saturday half holidays either for ourselves or anyone else. If they want to do any shopping, and are prepared to go between milking and feeding times, on days when no urgent field work is in hand, we do not count it as time off. Though it is our rule that anyone doing his full share is always given any time off he asks for, we know that he will not ask unless it is really necessary. For it must be remembered that a farmer can take time off, providing he is not neglecting his work, and our whole system is based on teaching each individual to think like a farmer. When this is achieved, he is more than half-way to being a farmer, for he has developed a sense of personal responsibility towards his work, and he does not have to be ‘clocked-in’ or supervised.

The holiday system is also valuable because it gives each a change of responsibility, inasmuch as he has to take charge of stock for someone else, and also leave his stock in someone else’s care. By the end of the year any pupil can take charge of the daily routine, or instruct others in the care and management of the stock. On the farm we try and arrange that each shall do his share of the seasonal work, ploughing, hedge-laying, sheep-shearing, stacking, thatching, and the rest. With a fully equipped workshop many other useful things can also be learned, for a farmer can save a lot of money if he can build his own poultry houses, repair his implements, and execute the hundred and one little repairs which are so often neglected on the general farm. The accounts, records, and books are also available, so that each pupil can learn how, when, why, and where the money is made or lost. The standard textbooks on agriculture and stockbreeding can also be studied. Now this is not a prospectus, designed to obtain pupils. I have described our system in detail simply in the hopes that other capable and successful farmers will do their share in teaching the rising generation to carry on their good work. We have found it well worthwhile. While the farmer’s first duty is to the land, his second is to share his knowledge freely, so that other land may be better farmed.

If my varied experience in learning my trade, experience in interviewing applicants, and teaching is of any value, perhaps I may be qualified to advise those who wish to take a post as a pupil. My advice is as follows. Learn on a small mixed farm, where the farmer is a real worker, and making a financial success of his business. Beware of the gentleman farmer, for if the man is not working himself you seldom get enough to eat. Only those who have worked all out between the age of sixteen and twenty know how much food a growing boy requires. Beware of the man who is chairman of lots of committees, for he will be far too busy to teach you anything. Do not accept a situation to lodge with a farm worker, for you will begin to think like a labourer, but only where you can live with the farmer, for you must learn to think like a farmer. Be prepared to take responsibility, if it is only seeing that you keep your time in the mornings; whoever else oversleeps you should be up and doing. Do not bother how hard or how long you work, as long as you are learning. It isn’t the smooth or the easy which will make you a capable farmer, so never dodge the unpleasant task, just master it. Make it a rule to do just a little more than you are expected to do. Keep a diary and notebook, for there is so much in farming which you cannot carry in your head. My notes on farming in the four years I was learning ran to a hundred thousand words, so you should be able to jot down something interesting and useful each day on the farm. It is a good plan too to put a plus or a minus according to whether you were praised or blamed during the day, remembering that there is a reproach in unmerited praise, and it counts against you if that horse bumped his foot against the gate when you were taking him through-even if the boss did not see it. If you do this, and are really giving your whole mind to the job, you will see how the plus marks increase and the minus decrease. To become a farmer within four years by your own efforts is possible, both I and my pupils have proved it, but to do it you have to fill the unforgiving minute every day. But believe me, it’s well worth while–so good luck and good farming.

Now in 1955, when I can look back over the years, how gratifying it is to see the success so many of my pupils have achieved. It sometimes surprises even me to see their books and learn how well even a little supremely well-managed stock can pay, and what a good living can be derived with a little land intensively farmed by youth and enterprise, and although some of them have much larger holdings than the one on which they were trained, extra land confers no benefit. I have also learned, although I was always told in my youth that ‘farming was a man’s job’, that girls can make an equal success of it. I was reluctant to take girl students at one time-but they have proved me wrong. I have had many good boys, but I have never had a bad girl-but then, bad girls do not take a job where you have to get up at five o’clock in the morning!