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From the NS archive: An East Anglian squire

23 July 1927: Why even the most enlightened farmers found it hard to make land pay its way.

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Nearly a decade after the end of the First World War, an anonymous writer, SLB, travelled to East Anglia and spoke to the proprietor of a seemingly model farm and estate. The man was patriarchal, tied to the land and his workers, a good employer and alive to the financial needs of all those involved in the enterprise. Even he, however, was finding farming a difficult economic challenge in straitened times. Talk of nationalising farming was in the air and the squire cautioned against taking the nation’s agriculture out of the hands of those who understood the land and into those of theorists.

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Now and again on the road through rural England the traveller finds men who, if they cannot command success, contrive to deserve it. When any of the great storms of depression blow and the agricultural craft are sinking in all directions, they contrive to ride out the gale. When prosperity comes they are waiting to take advantage of it, generally by strengthening the foundations of their undertaking. They have a quick eye for a new process, they keep in touch with scientific development and research, they are men of single purpose and the land holds them in a grip that is never relaxed.

Such a one I met lately in East Anglia, engaged in the administration of a considerable estate on lines that arrest attention. His tenants rent their farms on seven-year contracts, with a sliding scale based on the published cereal prices in the county markets during November. If cereals are dear, their rent goes up; when the market is bad, rent goes down. The result is that all the tenants share the help that the landlord gives when times are bad, and the farmer has no need to disguise his prosperity when times are good. On the upland farms the fencing and draining are done by the landlord, who charges about two shillings an acre for the work, and neither makes nor seeks to make a profit out of it. Every drain on an estate of several thousand acres is mapped, so that trouble can be located without loss of time. Four men are in permanent charge of the hedges, each takes his quarter of the estate and has personal pride in its condition. There is a certain co-operation between farmers and landlord; one helps the other. When they are all working on a certain crop, say sugar beet or mustard, they will divide certain services in connection with transport and river work.

Bricklayers and a carpenter have permanent jobs, so that the buildings are kept in good condition; there is nothing here of the neglect that paves the way to heavy bills for repairs. The landlord is a game preserver and raises several thousand head of birds on some 300 acres of well-tended timber. For this work he keeps about eight men in permanent employment; extra labour being taken on in certain seasons, as necessity arises. There is a costing system that reaches even to the sporting side of the estate, whereby it has been discovered that pheasants are put over the gun at eight shillings, nine pence per bird: the profits, which are not inconsiderable, go to the maintenance of the series of woods, which are run in strict accordance with modern methods of forestry. Sport is a business proposition here, it distributes a four-figure sum in wages, without reckoning the payment to beaters. Farmers receive half the profit on the sale of hares in return for relinquishing their rights under the Ground Game Act, and the estate provides lads to keep pheasants from young crops.

The woods produce more than timber and game; many years past their floors have been planted with bulbs. At the back end of winter and in early spring the flowers go off in vanloads to all the leading markets of northern England, where they can compete best with imported blooms. In many parts, the woods provide certain seeds for which there is a brisk world-demand.

Along the river banks of all the clean-flowing streams are planted cricket-bat willows (Saliili Alba, var. Caerulea); the best and most marketable type having been arrived at after long years of experiment and research. Rapidly maturing varieties of poplar are grown extensively for the chip baskets demanded by the Wisbech fruit trade; they hold their own in competition with the Polish aspen. The best variety seems likely to be a comparatively new one. Larch is grown for pergola poles.

The squire makes experiments and some of them succeed; others are not so fortunate, but every acre of ground is tested for the discovery of latent potentialities. By the aid of a bonus system men participate in the fortunes of the estate. At the same time the staff is regarded as a unit and the whole programme of the year is mapped out in detail as part of a campaign.

Throughout May and June, for example, everybody with the exception of carpenters and bricklayers is busy chopping out and singling the sugar-beet crop, which, here as elsewhere, has saved the situation in East Anglia and will be the mainstay of many farmers for the next few years, if the factory owners do not combine to squeeze growers who will not unite to assert their real control of the situation. So important is this singling that haymaking does not start much before July, when naturally much of the quality of the grass has been lost. The cereal harvest may be said to tread on the heels of haysel; it closes down about mid-September, when all hands are engaged on raising the sugar-beet crop. This work ends with the year and in January and February the staff turns to timber felling and replanting in the woodlands.

The crop rotation is five course – roots, barley, potatoes, beans, wheat. Of these, the roots are essentially a farm crop. Barley is grown for the maltsters; potatoes, long the mainstay of Eastern Anglia, have suffered an eclipse and prices have gone down to about £8 a ton, though they must cost nearly £4 to produce. Beans are consumed on the farm, and wheat hovers in the balance between profit and loss. Where the yield is five quarters to the acre there should be no loss if the price is round about 55s., but here, as elsewhere, probably much of the corn that is kept in stacks through the winter pays heavy tribute to vermin. It is fair to add that for certain weeks in the year the duty of the keepers consists in laying down poison baits throughout the estate, no hedge or run being neglected. But beyond the boundaries there are smallholdings whose owners or tenants take no heed of vermin and when these multiply and send out their legions in all directions the cleanest ground becomes liable to infection.

The estate is within easy reach of a sugar beet factory, so that the cost of transport is quite moderate, but these factories tend to have a demoralising influence because they engage men for their brief season at high wages on 12-hour shifts. From the beginning of October to the middle of January the seasonal work goes on. Then the staff, or a great part of it, goes on to the dole and is probably without regular employment until the factory opens again.

The problems of estate management, ever varying, calling for swift decisions and often for large outlays, become very grave in times of crisis, when broad views and general principles must be associated with infinite attention to detail. It may be doubted whether anything save a long inherited tradition and a feeling of responsibility both to forbears and descendants, would urge any man of marked business attainments to labour daily throughout the year for so modest an interest on capital as even a good year yields.

Difficulties on an estate like this are manifold, for part of the land runs into the fens and all the intricacies of the elaborate draining system must be mastered. An estate in this country must have its own system of carrying away surplus water, quite apart from the system or systems for which the land is rated, and the question of drainage with which the Ministry of Agriculture is now endeavouring to grapple is more than ordinarily complex. It may be doubted whether some of the fenlands are good enough to justify proposed expenditures; they sink about half an inch a year, and in many parts of them the humus is disappearing and in place of cultivable soil the farmer finds white sand.

Engineering, housing, repairing, draining, tree planting, the development of fresh industries, the constant supervision of all acts of husbandry, occasionally experiments which, though perfectly justified and even necessary, may prove uneconomic in the end; these are part of the price that the squire pays for his lordship of manors, and his “right and left” in due season at high birds, a privilege shared with a syndicate. He has no illusions. “If farmers will not take land at a low price under a good landlord,” he will tell you, “I don't think any change in the political situation is going to abolish us, since we are forced to take what other men leave and farm it on our own account. But if nationalisation comes let us hope for the sake of those who have to pay for it, that the estate system of keeping a permanent staff for building, repair, drainage, water supply, vermin destruction, fencing and forestry will be maintained and that the work will be controlled by a resident land agent who or by the land owner himself, the only two people who have the necessary knowledge and are in touch with actualities. To put in men whose knowledge is purely theoretical is to invite a large expenditure and endless series of expensive blunders. If there are those who can do better with the land, let them have their chance.”

In point of fact no estate can be administered by rule of thumb; it is only those who have grown up on it and have mastered its every detail who can hope to establish it as a paying proposition, or at least as near to a paying proposition as modem conditions will permit.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)