Emily Scaife meets farmer and force of nature Joan Bomford.
She may appear to be your typical little old lady, albeit with a tomboy streak, but Joan Bomford commands quite a presence.
When I first arrive at her farm and riding school, I struggle to find her. After asking a couple of farmhands across the road if I’m at the right place, I retrace my steps and eventually find her at the top of a field, hand-feeding a calf.
None of this is particularly out of the ordinary, until you consider that Joan is 84 years old, and has been working on farms for the best part of 80 years. Her dedication and long affiliation with the countryside was captured in her book Up With The Lark, which details her lifelong love of farming and horses.
Diminutive in size and hard of hearing, she steadily makes her way across the field to me. Decked out in working clothes, she is warm and honest and it soon becomes very apparent the great loves of her life – husband Tony, her family, her farm and her horses.
Sitting down in the living room of her bungalow, which was quickly put up when Joan and Tony moved onto the site, the room is brimming with flowers from her recent birthday alongside images of her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and horses.
Joan first came into the public conscious when she was named the Countryfile Farming Hero in the 2015 BBC Food and Farming Awards.
Her story was so inspiring the book offers quickly came rolling in from publishers keen to tell a bigger audience about her life.
“Being a farmer is all I ever wanted,” says Joan. “I was really naughty and ran away from school.”
Born in 1932, Joan was brought up during the Second World War on Quarry Pits Farm in Dormston, near Inkberrow, Worcestershire.
“I loved growing up on a farm,” she says. “Of course, as it was during the war we had to work – I was milking cows at eight years old.”
Her father, who was also an agricultural contractor, was used to working with steam engines, so when the first tractor arrived on farm in 1940 it was down to Joan to drive it, after previously learning at the farm next door.
“I was quite a good hand at tractor driving and I’ve been at it ever since,” she says.
“I remember the blackouts more than anything – we hadn’t got electricity, only candles, but even that could show a light if there was a split in the curtains, so I was sent out every night to check them,” she says.
The landscape surrounding Joan’s farm in South Littleton, near Evesham, has permanent reminders of this turbulent and terrifying time. The German pilots unloaded bombs on the landscape on their way back from bombing Coventry, not wanting to be weighed down on their journey home.
“I was topping a field once and I got a bit close to the brook, where another crater had suddenly sunk,” she recalls. “The water was running over the tractor tank, but I just did what they tell you to do and clung onto the steering wheel.”
Joan left the family farm in 1954 when she was 21 years old after marrying Tony, a local dairy farmer. Sadly, Tony passed away in 2014 after suffering a stroke - just one year after Joan’s brother was tragically killed by a bull. Describing the period as ‘horrendous’, she has carried on despite losing those closest to her in quick succession.
She now farms single suckler beef after leaving the dairy sector and has no regrets since.
“It is just as well we got out – the milk price now is lower than what my father in law was getting in the 1930s.”
In addition to the farm, Joan and Tony also set up Moyfield Riding School as a testament to her love of horses, which began when she was 14 with the purchase of her first pony called Sparks after saving up for it herself.
Her father in law turned an old shed into a stable so she could relocate Sparks to be with her when she moved, and word quickly got out among the local children.
“When the pony arrived all the nearby kids were asking if they could have a ride,” Joan explains. “Tony said that if there was an accident I would be in terrible trouble but I knew insurance would cost an awful lot of money. So he came up with the idea to charge them two shillings at hour.”
Despite starting out with just one pony, the business today has 74 horses on site – more than half of which have been bred by Joan.
“There are 700 names in the book that we’ve had since I started on the premises – but we reckon there have probably been 2,000 through here over the years because I used to do a lot of breaking.”
"I'd tell young people to start small, it's no good starting above your means. Once you're in debt, you never get out of it"
Joan has seen a lot of changes to the countryside and farming in the past eight decades and is in now the privileged position of being able to look back and consider whether the changes have been for the advancement or detriment of the agricultural industry.
“Farming with animals can’t change – there are a lot of modern medicines we’re told we should give them, but it’s only someone trying to sell something,” she says.
“You could more or less say we’re organic – we don’t give ours anything really".
“Arable is the side that is so modern. I can see why farmers are embracing it but none of the machinery is owned by them, and they all have that debt coming in every month".
"They get to the point when they don’t know how they’re going to pay".
“I know all my stuff is old, but at least it is paid for. Other people have machines that are dearer than a house. You can’t make that money farming".
"I just sold four cattle for beef and they came to £2,200. When I think of that and the machinery – some of what it does is incredible but I can’t see where it is going to end. We were brought up that unless we could afford it we didn’t buy it – we made do".
“I’d tell young people to start small – it’s no good starting above your means. Once you’re in debt, you never get out of it.”
Encouraging young people is something Joan has always done on farm and she is happy to give nearby children odd jobs.
“I’ve got two little girls who come and help in the evenings, straight off the school bus,” she says. “Their dad is a keen countryman and they’ve adopted me because their mother has left. They’re lovely kids and they’re so interested - but that’s two out of how many"?
“Years ago kids would come from local houses and ask for a job. I started off with three lads out of the village when I first came here. I gave them lots of little odd jobs and those three lads have now got three good businesses, because they learnt at a young age how to work.”
"And, for a woman whose motto in life quickly became ‘If you can do it, I can do it better!’ she is keen to encourage young girls to give farming a go. “Girls are told they can’t do it, or they can’t manage,” she says. “But don’t forget – the Land Army worked on farms and quite a few of them stayed back.
“A lot of farmer’s daughters don’t seem to take an interest in what their parents are doing, whereas I was always with my dad and with the men who worked on the farm. I didn’t have much to do with women – only my sister and mother".
“I spent most of my upbringing with men and I remember ploughing for the young farmers and I was the only women ploughing. When a girl beat boys that was quite a thing!”
Well, this girl has been beating boys for the majority of her life, she shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
In her living room filled with birthday flowers and photos of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, it’s clear she has left an indelible mark on many people’s lives and we can be sure her tales and legacy will continue to inspire many for years to come.