Interview: Award-winning farmer Joan Bomford

The 83-year-old beef farmer and winner of Countryfile’s Farming Hero 2015 discusses ploughing with steam engines, Dutch elm trees and the importance of get-up-and-go

JoanBomford_web2-652c8ec

I was born on my parents’ Worcestershire farm in 1932. Farming has been in the family’s blood for generations. The biggest change in my lifetime is the difference in manpower and machinery. When I started farming as a young girl, my father had handfuls of men to work the land – we were still using horses for many tasks. Machinery progressed over the next 70 years to such an extent that one man and one machine can do the work of all those men and more in a far shorter space of time. It is much less arduous.

Advertisement

A new life being born is a beautiful sight, be it a calf or foal – the flick of its head clearing its airways and taking its first gasps of air; its mother now standing in good health, cleaning her infant. Within minutes, struggling to its feet and as nature takes its course, it finds a teat, a tail happily wags and, before you know it, that young life is skipping around a field.

This generation of children, both rural and urban, have grown up with technology that can keep them tied to computer, phones and gadgets. They tell me it is educational but some are missing out on fresh air, exercise and fun. Why play a game of football on the computer instead of in the park?

If I were a British wild animal, I think I would be a fox – totally self-sufficient.

My favourite memory is of ploughing with steam engines in the autumn. The smoke flowing from their chimneys, the bark of engines pulling hard, the unwinding of the drum, the smell, the sound of plough shears cutting turf and the slight jingles as pebbles are hit. Those sights and smells, long since gone, are recalled when I attend ploughing fairs and see those iron giants once again at work.

Apart from the tragic loss of my brother John in a farming accident, the worst thing I’ve experienced in the countryside was the loss of a young man’s life whose parachute failed to open after exiting his stricken glider. It was in one of my fields and I was the first on the scene. Sadly, there was nothing anyone could do. Quite often my horses or cattle stand around the little group of stones that I erected to mark his memory.

We welcome all those who, at weekends and holidays, seek out the country. We are fortunate to live in such beautiful areas – we are but custodians of the land and it should be open to, available to and respected by everyone.

The advice I would give to budding farmers is: get up early and keep going.

In the 1970s, the countryside changed forever with the loss of millions of trees. The Dutch elms, once standing tall and proud around fields, were attacked by a tiny beetle. In one of our fields, 80 elm trees – each 200 years old – became beetle-infested firewood. If I had a magic wand, I would replace them all and magic the beetle to the Sahara!

Being a woman in farming made no difference to me as my father brought me up as a boy.

It’s important for people to be aware of farming and food production. They ought to know their food is safe, where it has come from and, if the product is meat, that the animal’s welfare has been a priority. This country has strict rules on animal husbandry that most farmers here adhere to.

My rural hero is sadly no longer with us. Tony, my husband, was as hard a working farmer as I, he devoted his time and energy into helping create everything I have today. Often singlehandedly and with worn-out tools, he built a school, barns, stables, shelters and cow sheds. This he did in his spare time when not managing his own dairy and arable farm and helping raise a family of four.

I most enjoy dawn breaking on a glorious day, the chorus of birds, the flurry of wild animals. A time before the intrusion of manmade noise.

Joan Bomford’s autobiography Up with the Lark: My Life on the Land is out now in hardback (Hodder & Stoughton, £20)is available in paperback now (Hodder Paperbacks, £8.99)

Advertisement

Photo: Cristian Barnett © Hodder & Stoughton.