Monday, 16 April 2007

A day in the country

Although I was brought up in the countryside, I am at heart a townie, and cannot bear to be parted long from the many amenities of urban life. But a small notice in the local newspaper for the annual meeting of the Steam Plough Club immediately put me into the rural frame of mind. I thought of the village where I grew up, where the local blacksmith kept a traction engine and fired it up for the village fete, I remembered the smell of freshly ploughed fields, the flocks of lapwings wheeling overhead, the gently rolling vista from hedgerow to hedgerow, and the great elms standing out amongst the blackthorn.

Steam ploughing is one of those Victorian techniques with a logic all of its own. A pair of traction engine stands, one on each side of a field, and they haul between them a double-ended plough on a steel cable, with a driver steering. Steam ploughing only works effectively on large rectangular fields, within large estates with plenty of money and manpower. Although the actual ploughing is very quick there are a number of disadvantages of operating on a small scale - the margin where the engine stands is not only unploughed, but because the weight of the engines compresses the soil, is made unsuitable for growing crops. Normally a five-man team is used, two at each engine and one riding the plough, and the engines need to be kept supplied with coal and water, in practice requiring a horse-drawn cart and driver. Smaller farms with smaller, irregular fields kept to the more flexible and less costly attentions of horse plough teams, until the internal combustion engine was brought to the point where it swept away both horse-drawn and steam ploughing.

The steam plough club in full flight is a magnificent sight. Along a huge rectangular field there is a line of ten or twelve traction engines, each paired with another on the opposite side. Some are in steam, emitting a faintly intoxicating mixture of sulphurous coal smoke and hot oil-vapour, others are standing in position, having ploughed their competition piece, or waiting for the tender to bring them coal and water.

To complement the picture there are a couple of horse-teams performing, demonstrating the difference between man and beast and man and machine, in terms of power and efficiency, but also flexibility and teamwork. And in the next field, petrol and diesel-engined tractors also hauling ploughs, conquerors come to gloat over the vanquished.

After a stiff walk up and down the line to inspect the machines at close quarters, inhale their vapours, and criticise the straightness and regularity of the furrows, it is time to find the refreshment tent. Here we are offered mostly the products of the renascent rural economy - farm-made ice-cream, hand-raised Melton Mowbray pies, courtesy of pigs from a named farm only a few miles away, and beer from a microbrewery not much further distant.

It has been a grand day, and an interesting one from the point of view of an amateur economist. You have to wonder, would steam ploughing have lasted longer but for the boom and bust caused by government actions during the 1914-18 war ? Will the charming niche products we ate today flourish, or will they be washed away by the tide of low-cost commodity foodstuffs ? Will estates like the one in use today remain in productive use, or will they be forced by the weight of subsidy to covert to wasteland (set-aside) or woodland ? No-one really knows what the future holds but at least today brought a whiff of a glorious past and a taste of the best of the present

© steve_roberts 2007

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