As Farmers Guardian’s Farming: The Backbone of Britain of campaign gets underway, we hear from 90-year-old Selby Harwood, who explains his enduring passion for agriculture.
Emily Ashworth reports...
To look at the change in agriculture over the last 90 years, and your place within it, must be a truly overwhelming experience.
Having grown up on a family farm near Milton Keynes, Selby Harwood, 90, has taken sincere pleasure from his time in the industry, but has also witnessed hardship and great loss which has helped shape him as a person as well as a farmer.
In his life, he has seen the industry change to become much more mechanised, and he recalls how manual everything was and yet, as he remembers, he almost revels in the hard work he, and many others, had to put in to make a success of their farm.
He says: “It is so remarkable how farming production has increased. There was not even water or electricity when I was growing up, so we had to get water from the well down in the village for cows.
“Years ago, farming was very, very hands on, and very hard work. Everybody had the same problems though.
“I would go as far to say I think farming chose me. I was just brought up that way.”
Naturally then, Selby took over the farm in 1942, but says at that time there were not the sort of opportunities there are today, referring to the endless reems of technology and array of machinery available.
But his passion was, and still is, for livestock over anything else.
Selby says: “I have always loved animal welfare and taking care of livestock, although I am not entirely sure of the methods these days.
“I feel the personal touch and human relationships with the animals is diminishing. You can get such pleasure from having healthy stock and draw strength from the problems you encounter.”
Like most people, Selby can recollect the lows as vividly as he can the highs, such as the drought in the 1970s.
He says: “It was one of the worst times in my farming life. It did not affect everyone, because some of the bigger farms had silos to keep their early crop of silage, but to us small farmers, this was inaccessible. We just did not have the machines.
“Small farms were selling their stock because they did not have enough to feed animals over winter, so the price of animals halved.
“It even became so bad that some farmers were taking their stock to the market and simply leaving them. I could not even get £1 for a calf.
“I would normally have harvested 4,000 bales of hay for winter, but that year we only had 1,400.
“Good practice would have been to keep a reserve for a bad year like that.”
With hindsight, Selby can now see his downfalls, but working at full capacity and farming on a shoestring worked against him, he says.
Selby learned, however, that to move forwards he needed to put aside his emotions to safeguard the future of the farm, for the sake of his family too.
He says: “We could have sold the milking herd and cattle earlier and got a decent price, but we waited too long and had to feed them over winter.
“I grew to understand to best look after animals, and my family, I had to lead with logic as well as my heart.”
Selby says the problem was the imbalance. He felt they all deserved better and did not have the heart to sell his animals for such low prices. Perhaps ruled too much by the love for his animals rather than logic.
He says: “It clouded my judgement and the fact is, sometimes, you have to get rid of things.
“It is hard when you have lovely animals which have produced lovely calves. They have been good to you, but you have to bite the bullet.
“This is not to say I no longer use my heart for making decisions, but rather I understood better that logic is sometimes just as important.”
In jest, Selby claims he is a little more hard hearted now, but the underlying adoration he has for the life he has led is apparent in all the decisions he has been forced to make.
After almost a century in farming, what would he say to his younger self, or to those just starting out as a young man like he did?
“I would say start with a great base, wife and family. They are the most important thing.
“Financially, only have what you can afford. And have faith. Whether it be religion or positivity, we certainly survived because of it.”
Selby has now handed over the reigns to his daughter Sarah, who runs 150 sheep and 75 cattle, as well as chickens and geese on the 60-hectare (150-acre) farm.
And like her father before her, it would seem Sarah too has inherited the innate passion which has given this family business its longevity.
Selby says: “I feel proud to say me and my wonderful wife are still here living on-farm and it is still in full flow, despite my retirement.
“I am so proud of Sarah’s achievements. We never had money to pay wages, but Sarah does everything for the love of the land and the animals. This is the only reason she is still here doing it.”
Such a life Selby has led, riding the everyday rollercoaster that is farming. Sat now, able to relive his journey once more, what does he love most about it all?
He says: “I love the fact in farming, every year is completely new. There is new growth. You watch things get stronger and nurture your animals and your crops into the world. I could not have done anything else.”