Thirty Years Farming on the Clifton Park System

How to supply Humus, Texture, and Fertility by the Aid of Deep-Rooting Grasses

by William Lamin

Chapter 2

Working the land under potatoes -- Cleaning and harrowing -- Getting the potatoes up -- Making a pie -- Selling

After a field had been down with a four years ley and had grown a crop of oats, we would plough it for potatoes a bit deeper than it was ploughed for the oats and also subsoil it at the same time by having three scuffler tines with standards. They were shaped like the standards on an ordinary turnip horse hoe, but instead of having blades on the bottom they were all in one piece and curved gradually at the bottom and flattened out like a chisel pointed about two to two and a half inches wide. When we were ploughing like this we used a big single furrow digger plough and fastened the tines for sub-soiling on the plough hales [plough handles] as near to the shaped breast as possible with couplings made for the job. The middle tine was straight and the two side tines were cranked sideways, more or less so that they would be an equal distance from each other at the bottom of the furrow and you could just set the tines what depth you liked by unscrewing the couplings and knocking them up or down. It was surprising what a lot of hard pan [the hard crust on the surface of the subsoil] you could loosen up that you did not want to bring up to the top. After being ploughed and left for the winter, as soon as we could in the spring, we would scuffle it about several times [stir up deeply by using an implement fitted with tines] to pull the half-rotted turf to pieces. The ordinary wooden drag that farmers use for light land was not a bit of good for pulling it to pieces, as it would have bunged up every two or three yards. There was nothing for it but to scuffle with the tines set far enough apart to allow the turf to get away.

After pulling it about to get the old turf to pieces as well as we could, we drilled ten or twelve cwts. of burnt lime to the acre and ten cwts. of kainit to the acre, sooner more than less, on the top of the land before it was ridged. For we considered the ten cwts. of kainit would be too much for the seed potatoes, if it had been down in the ridges before planting them. But we drilled eight cwts. of steamed bone flour in the ridges before we planted the potatoes, mixed with two cwts. of sulphate of ammonia and when the potatoes were up about a foot we gave them a top dressing of two cwts. of bones and one of sulphate of ammonia and no farmyard manure. After it had grown one crop of corn, after the four years ley, we put some tins on the wind board, when top-dressing the potatoes, to keep the sulphate of ammonia off them.

After setting the potatoes we used to cover them up with the ridge ploughs as deep as we could, as I always believed in having a good high ridge to harrow down. When the potatoes had been set about a week or a fortnight we had three one horse wooden frame horse hoes, fitted with five tines, chisel-pointed, about two inches wide. The first tine would be fixed in the beam about one foot behind the wheel. The second tine would be fixed to cross-bars, the same as on a horse hoe, one a bit in front of the other; and the last two tines at the back of the triangle-shaped frame. We used to put the front tine in deepest, the two middle tines not quite so deep and the outside tines shallower still. The last two tines were curved a bit more at the bottom, so that they would not pull into the ground too much and make it too much for a horse to pull without the man having to lift at the hales.

Mr. William Lamin in his eightieth year, during which year he wrote this publication.

After scuffling between the ridges, the next job was to harrow the ridges down; we always liked to harrow them three times if possible., If you have a field with a lot of rubbish in and want to clean it as much as possible, you must not use a harrow with too much weight the first time, as if you harrow the ridges too flat you cannot harrow as much the second time as you might.

When harrowing the ridges the first and second time, we used a set of four light iron harrows, which are fastened together so that each harrow keeps equal distance from each other and takes one row each. If any rubbish got in the harrow we did not lift them up and miss some ground but tied a rope in the centre of each harrow and had a man walking each side of the harrow holding a rope in each hand. One watched two harrows next to him and instead of lifting them up to liberate anything that was on the tines, he pulled the harrows sideways and the rubbish dropped off between the ridges, so that you have no occasion to miss an inch of the ground. We liked to have an interval of about two weeks between the harrowings; this allows the annual weeds to germinate and then those that have germinated get killed by the next harrowing, and some more annual weed seeds are brought to the surface to germinate and be killed by the third harrowing.

We had a set of very light wooden harrows made specially for harrowing the third time, and we liked to put this last harrowing off until the potatoes were coming up. A lot of the potatoes might be about two inches high and some just coming up, but as long as you had a slow horse and the man on each side kept a keen eye on his two harrows; if a bit of straw or manure got into the tines, instead of lifting the harrows up, he could pull them sideways and let it drop off into the hollow between the ridges. But you must have a slow horse; as if you are going slow and keep the tines clean that are going through the potatoes, you will only knock a very few shoots off. And what is more, you will have moved every inch of soil and killed the last lot of annual weeds that had germinated; no man in England could flat hoe the potatoes a quarter as well, and you have got a field of potatoes cleaned at very little expense. I may say we never had to weed our potatoes, or only for thistles, and we used to pull them and carry them off. But later on when the potato tops had done growing and the tops had fallen, sometimes there would be an odd 'fat hen' sticking up here and there. ('Fat hen' is a name for the common weed Chenopodium Quinoa). They would not be left there to seed, but pulled up and carried off before they had time to seed. I may say that when the haulm had fallen, so that you could see if there were any weeds, there would be scarcely an annual weed in the whole field.

Of course, a farmer growing potatoes on land with more body in it would have to use heavier harrows and use his own judgment what weight of harrow was most suitable; but he must have harrows just the right weight or he will either be doing too much at the ridges or not enough. In Professor C. S. Orwin's report, for the Royal Agricultural Societies Journal, 1915, when he and the late Professor K. J. J. Mackenzie came to look over the farm, he remarked on the farm being extraordinarily clean, even annual weeds being entirely absent. Professor Orwin thought the absence of annual weeds was due to working stubbles after the harvest. There is no doubt working the stubbles has something to do with the absence of annual weeds, but the chief reasons were the four years ley, which gave you such a turf that there was no room for annual weeds to grow and reseed themselves, and the thoroughness with which we cleaned the turnips and potatoes. But the potato crop was a long way the best and cheapest way. The potatoes want cleaning before they come up. If the ridges are opened out and covered in straight and even as they ought to be, you can scuffle close up between the rows without catching any potatoes and then they only want harrowing; but you must do your cleaning before the potatoes are up.

When getting the potatoes up we used to reserve six of the fastest and most suitable horses for the potato spinner and work them half a day each team; it would have been too much for one team all day, day after day, as we wanted them to walk on and get four acres a day done and often four and a quarter acres a day. The potatoes on our light sandy land took more getting out than on land with more body in it, as the land being soft the potatoes would grow deeper and consequently we had to run the spinner deep enough to get under the potatoes without cutting them. That would mean we had a lot more soil to move and there was often a lot of potatoes with just a little soil covering them, so that if a picker did not want to see them he needn't. So to have them all picked up, we used to run two sets of harrows after the pickers had picked most of them up. The first harrow after the spinner was one big wooden harrow, which was wide enough to harrow just where the spinner share had gone and also wide enough to catch most of the potato tops that had been spun out. We used to have rope tied to the harrow, so that when it had collected some tops, the youth that was working the harrow would give it a pull with the rope, which he always kept in his hand, and turn the harrow on to its side just long enough for the tops to drop off. The rope would have a noose at the end of it, just long enough for the youth to always keep it in his hand. These harrowings would be picked up and then the next set of two lighter wooden harrows would come along and bare a few more potatoes, which would be picked up before the spinner came along.

Sometimes we had a lot of tops to contend with and then we would have a lad following after the first harrow and throw the tops out of the way, so that the second harrow could make a better job. This harrowing with two sets of harrows was another way that helped to get rid of the last bit of twitch or thistle, as the last odd bits of twitch or thistle thrown out by the spinner would be harrowed together with the potato tops and cocked up in handy heaps up the hollow where we had finished, and as soon as they were dry they would be burnt. When we had run two sets of harrows after the spinner every round, there were very few potatoes left to bother about.

When we first started to grow potatoes we could get plenty of lads, but you could not depend on them as every now and then the whole gang would turn back when they had come halfway and you lost a day. One year when we could not get enough lads we rang up the Labour Exchange at Nottingham and they sent us a gang. But we never had to bother with the Labour Exchange after, as some of the casual workers, who did very little work all the year round, would always come a week or two before the potatoes were ready for getting, to see when we were going to start, and then they would tell the others. Some of them would come year after year.

We found it best to fork out every seventy-first row by hand before we started to get, as this gave a clearance way for the horse-drawn potato spinner. Then we could orve round each seventy rows and the potatoes would be spun out to the right on to the alleyway that had already been cleared by the forking. [When a ploughman wants his horses to turn to the left, he calls out 'Orve!' Hence, to orve is to turn to the left.] In this way the land would be set out for the ploughing for several years. When getting potatoes up, we were able to get a gang of pickers from Nottingham for a nice few years, and it was not a big job to get potatoes up when you had got plenty of pickers, usually about forty. Sometimes we had thirty-six or thirty-two or twenty-eight picking: I knew how many yards it was across the field and measured the stints out, so many yards for each two men. We used to gather them in handy buckets as we used to bag them. Two men would work together side by side, and if each man kept his bucket on the outside of the potatoes, they could reach all the potatoes without turning round, and when each had got a bucketful they would empty them into a bag, one man holding the bag open and the other man emptying the buckets into it. We found it a lot better for men to work two together than singly. Sometimes we had more than forty men, but I seldom sent any men back. We could set some to cock the tops or scout some of the ground over that we had done. I always liked to have a few men in reserve, as if a picker wanted his money, which he sometimes did, you could call another man to put on his stint without holding the potato machine up. I always liked the pickers to be able to get a rest when they had got their stints up, while the machine came round. We used to pay them every night, so there was no wondering how many days they had made. I may say, that unless it was a wet day, I never went to Nottingham for four or five weeks, as no ordinary man could gang them. I would be up in the field at eight o'clock in the morning and stop at four-thirty P.M. The work would go on like clockwork when I was there, but there would soon be something up if I was not there.

We used to bag the potatoes and load them up into the carts. We always had plenty of carts, as it was a deal better to hill the potatoes as near to the homestead as there was an arable field convenient for them; it only wanted an extra cart or two, according to where the field was. We usually had four men chucking the bags into the carts. We usually had plenty of artificial manure bags and insisted that the pickers did not fill the bags too full, as the men could chuck the bags in the carts a deal easier when not too full. It was not necessary to tie the bags when only about two-thirds full, and they were a deal handier at the pie.

When making a pie (another term for a potato clamp), we would get a grip out one spade in depth and four foot wide at the bottom of the grip and would bank the soil on each side, slightly sloping the side so that the soil would not fall into the grip. I may say that we had one of the best men I ever saw with the spade and if the pie was a hundred yards long it would be as straight as a gun stick; he used to get the grips out at a 1d.[one penny] a yard and cover the pie with soil about a foot thick at 3d. per yard. When we were getting potatoes he would be getting the grips out and putting about two inches of soil on the pie to keep the straw from blowing off and to keep the rain out. He left a foundation at the bottom to keep the final foot of soil from slipping down, which it was liable to do after a lot of rain and frost. He would also slope the ground outwards at the foot of the pie as if you had the soil straight down at the bottom it would very often slip and want putting on again.

We always believed in putting plenty of straw on the potato pies; I would rather put too little soil on the pies than too little straw. The frost seldom got into the pies if there was plenty of straw on and I always kept telling the man who was rounding the potatoes up and strawing them down, to be sure and put plenty of straw on; I would often test it by just pressing the straw down with both my hands and I could tell at once whether there was plenty on or not. The man that was soiling would not try to put all the soil on at once, as he had plenty to do to keep getting the grips out, and putting the two inches of soil on while we were getting them. When we had finished getting, he would have a man to help him finish them off. This same man that did the soiling down would also get the ends of the potato rows so that we could get well out with the machine without leaving any in the ground. He would also get the seventy-first row up and he would regularly fork two tons a day up, with two lads gathering them. He used to have five shillings per ton for forking them out and pay his own lads. And this same man would also put all the potatoes up for market at 3s. 6d. a ton and 3d. a ton for loading them on the carts.

When we first started growing potatoes it was a big job to sell them: I have seen the time when I have been out all the morning in a pony and tub all round Nottingham, Basford and Bulwell and when I had got home at dinner-time I hadn't sold any. Of course I could soon have sold them in the wholesale market if I had been prepared to take a low price for them, but we did not sell them for very little if we could help it. Sometimes in the spring when we were fast -- that is, when we had a lot of potatoes on hand and there were few buyers -- we had to go to the wholesale market and there was one merchant in particular who would soon buy the lot if you would take his price which was always a very low one. Then one day, a friend of mine said, 'Why don't you call and see the manager of the Co-operative Society?' Of course in those days it was nothing the size of what it is now. The Society in those days used to buy potatoes from farmers who were members of the Society. Well, I did call and see the manager and I had to take the price he offered me; and while we had only one farm they would take all the potatoes we grew. One year we started to sell potatoes at £3 a ton, and I did not want to sell them under £3. So I called on the manager and said I should like to start and send in at £3 per ton. He said, 'My price is 55s. per ton' [£3 = 60s. or shillings] and I said, 'I am not taking that price.' So I waited about a month and then called to see him again and told him I would take 55s. and he said, 'My price is 50s.,' and I said, I would not take that. After waiting a bit longer I went to see him again and said I would take 50s. and he said, 'My price is 45s.' We started sending in at 45s., and that year we sold a lot at the finish for 40s. which was a very bad price.

When we first started growing potatoes they were inclined to be a bit scabby from the gravelly, sandy soil, especially in dry years, but when we got the rotted turf from the four years ley mixed with the soil, we were not much troubled with the scab. When the Society got used to a bit of scab, there were never any complaints, because our potatoes were always very sound and very good eaters. We never cared to rush our potatoes off at getting up time and we always got more out of them by keeping them. I said we never had a complaint about our potatoes, but we once grew three or four acres of Royal Kidney potatoes to try them and they were a very good crop and I don't think there was a diseased potato in them. We sent a few tons of the Royal Kidneys and word came back one day, 'Don't send any more of those potatoes.' However, this did not bother us as we had some British Queens which were showing signs of disease and wanted selling first; they were not good eaters after Christmas, as there would be odd ones that would cook black, but they were very good croppers. One reason why the Co-operative Society would take our potatoes was they were very good eaters and they could depend on having the same sort every week: they would not have been able to depend on this from a wholesaler, as they might get some good ones one week and bad ones another week. I have often known them double their sales in a month. Once, after we had been selling our potatoes to the Nottingham Co-operative Society for a few years, we could not agree with the manager about the price. I said, 'Let's have a look what the Wholesale Co-operative Society are quoting you'; and I said, 'I will always take 10s. less than the C.W.S. are quoting.'

We never sold the Co-operative a stated quantity, but would continue sending what the foreman thought was enough for one week and have a few in hand, and we went on sending until the price went up or down, until we thought the price ought to go up, or the manager thought the price ought to come down. But the C.W.S. quotation would soon put things right and they continued for years to have all our potatoes except during the war years when the Army commandeered them. After the last war Nottingham Co-operative Society bought two farms and started growing their own potatoes. But they could not grow any without a lot of disease; they had so much disease that their sales went down to a few tons a week and they didn't dare buy any until they had sold all their own. So we started to sell our potatoes to the C.W.S. and we continued to sell to the C.W.S. until after the war.

One year, when the slump came, we got a nineteen-acre field frosted. The men that we used to get before the war would not come back to pick potatoes as they could get more money on the dole without work. So we gave up growing potatoes because we could not get any pickers to pick them up.

Next: Chapter 3

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