It must have been an autumn, winter and spring exactly like the one we’ve just experienced that finally broke my family’s centuries-old tradition of farming on the Sussex Weald. In 1872, my then 21 year-old paternal great-grandfather, heir to Church Farm, Maresfield, Haywards Heath, piled all his wordly possessions onto a horse and wagon, declaring ‘enough is enough’. He left his father heartbroken.
The farm comprised three acres of heavy Wealden clay of which the family had been proud owner-occupiers for 298 years. It had been a sodden bog for six months over the long wet autumn and winter of 1871/72, but an intense March and April drought turned the land into three acres of rock-hard concrete. It became impossible to prepare a decent seedbed for the crops, there was no grass on which to turn out the cattle, and that summer they made next to no hay.
And so my great-grandfather hitched up his wagon, loaded up his wife and young son – my grandfather – and headed for the South Downs, and my family has – more or less – stuck to farming chalkland ever since. I say ‘more or less’ because I have erred in the course of my farming career and recklessly taken on some clay land with a distinctly Wealden character.
You know what is coming next. Last October, I sowed one 40-acre field of clay with wheat. Initially I congratulated myself that I’d managed to get the field seeded before the heavens opened with a biblical deluge. That smug attitude soon dissolved as the seeds were submerged by four months of endless rain and simply rotted in the ground. The whole field became so wet that, even where seed did emerge successfully, no sprays of any sort could be applied, so blackgrass spread over the land like a modern plague.
Cut to March, and on went the glyphosate to kill off all of the blackgrass and the few stalwart wheat plants that had survived. My big fear was that the land, worked to a fine tilth in the autumn and saturated all winter, would now, in drought, more resemble an asphalt road than a potential spring barley seed bed.
And so it did. We had to pass the field with all manner of cultivators. We drilled the barley. We Cambridge-rolled the field to crumble some of the remaining clods. We flat-rolled the tilth to seal in any hint of remaining moisture.
At the time of writing, I’m still anxiously awaiting a first proper rain to germinate all the seed. May is fast approaching, and I’m rapidly giving up any hope of a harvest I’ll want to remember. For solace, I retreat to my chalkland spring and autumn crops, which look full of promise.
From those same fields, high up on the Downs, I can see as far as Maresfield on a clear day. It lies shrouded in oak trees, a mere 13 miles to the north, yet, in some ways, another world away. A dozen times this spring I’ve paused to offer heartfelt thanks to my great-grandfather for having had the courage to break with the Maresfield farming tradition 148 years ago. If only his great-grandson had stuck a little more rigidly to his golden rule to ‘stay on the chalk’.