Early Days on the Fruit Farm (2013)

Location : Norfolk, Kent.

School and agricultural college

Can you tell me about your school experiences?

Yes I was at
Costessey – it was a Secondary Modern School then, Costessey High now.

It was the old sort
of case of – you go along to see the Career’s Advisor and I think he said, “What
are you interested in?” At the time I had an allotment – I was quite young to
have an allotment but I had (one) because we were living in Easton, which is
near Costessey. Because of that he said, “Oh, well, horticulture might be quite
good for you”; but also because the school I was attending was a really quite
low-attainment type of school. You went to this school if you hadn’t passed
your Eleven Plus: and then also it was such a badly behaved school and poor
discipline. It was like people jumping out of windows during lessons and things
like this.

So basically I left
school with just GCSE’s – not GCSE’s. They were CSE’s then, not even O levels,
that was the lower grade and because I had low qualifications and I liked doing
something outdoors … if you said you liked being outdoors, you were sort of
consigned to horticulture which was a sort of lowly profession really.

So I left school and
it was suggested I went to Easton College or Burlingham Horticulture. Easton
does the agriculture and Burlingham used to have a market garden set-up, it had
greenhouses with tomatoes and lettuces and stuff like that. It had four
orchards where you learnt about the fruit-growing and it had grounds all around
the teaching block so there’s classrooms too. So you had a mixture really, you
spent the morning in the actual practical side of things and in the afternoon
you’d have lunch and then lectures.

So in terms of date we’re talking the late 70s early 80s?

Yeah, about 1979,
1980 something like that.

It seems that you really enjoyed horticulture and garden-related
things from an early age?

Yeah I did. As I said,
I had this allotment which I think even today seems a bit unusual for young, teenagers,
doesn’t it? You know, it’s not the sort of thing most teenagers do. I’m not
quite sure where that interest came from. I know my parents liked gardening but
they weren’t doing anything like that. My father was early in computers: he was
part of the early computer generation actually, worked with Jewsons. I can
remember visiting Jewsons and the computer, which perhaps today is the size of
this recorder, took up a whole room, it was massive with all these spinning
discs and lights and so on.

So I went into
horticulture and life at college was fun. I loved growing tomatoes in
greenhouses, that was just a very commercial sort of enterprise, they used to
grow them in water; they had some in grow bags but mostly they were hydroponic,
so they were grown in a film of nutrient-rich water that continually was topped
up with these nutrients.

How long was the course at college?

That was just a year.

Fruit farming apprenticeship in Norfolk

And then what did you do after that?

Well, coming towards
the end of the year – because it had a quite good reputation, the college –
there was a lot of people, employers, used to write to them with their
vacancies and even then people were always talking about times when you could
pick and choose about work. But we literally could, you know. We had several
vacancies that we could do and I really enjoyed the fruit farming side of
things, growing apples and soft fruits like strawberries and raspberries and so
there was this job going at Ranworth. Which isn’t that far from Burlingham and
not that far from Norwich really, it’s on the Broads, a pretty village.

When you say job going, what was that?

That was an
apprenticeship actually. They were offering an apprenticeship in fruit growing
so I had done the general horticultural studies for a year.

And you passed those?

Yes, I passed those
quite well and I got a Royal Horticultural Society Certificate and various
other certificates – City & Guilds Certificates they were then. Then again
– though sitting here today it seems strange people doing an apprenticeship in
fruit growing – that does seem like something from the past. I’m not sure today
if you can still do anything like it. But what the employer was offering was an
apprenticeship where you went away and did block release studies. So every six
weeks or so I’d go off for a week and stay in Wisbech at the Isle of Ely
College and we would get our training there and then we would come back and
practice the skills, basically work on the fruit farm. It was a really unusual
– well not unusual, but difficult – place to work because the landowner owned
big tracts of land, huge farms between Ranworth and Norwich. And it was still
really stuck in the past in so much as employment relations, if you like, and
how you were treated. The owner of the estate lived in the big house with lovely
gardens and they had a gardener and the farm was all around them. So the fruit
farm that I worked on was 70 acres and it was just part of this vast farm. There
was lots of arable land as well, where they grew crops like wheat and barley
and sugar beet. So a part of my role on this farm was, if there was ever a
quiet time on the fruit farm I’d have to go and work on the arable farm too. So
in the summer it was lovely because when we weren’t harvesting apples and pears
and so on we would be out with the grain harvest and loading bales onto wagons
and so on and so forth.

In terms of payment, how much were you paid, can you
remember?

I can’t remember
exactly but it wasn’t very much. I was a single young man and didn’t have very many
overheads as it were, but you can imagine they were paying for you to go to
college, they were paying for you to go away to Wisbech and I think they must
have even paid for the accommodation and food and stuff because I don’t have
any recollection of my family having to pay for that or anything.

Do you know where you were living?

We were living in
Easton I think still. I had a moped, a Puch Maxi Sport and I used to ride my
little moped, that wouldn’t go any faster than 30 miles an hour, all the way
out to Ranworth every day in all weathers and I used to arrive there absolutely
frozen in the winter because it was an early start, you had to be there at 7.30
every morning. But the thing that was so striking was this whole system of …
it was almost like if the owner would come round and people would doff their
caps to him. They did pheasant shooting, that was the main sideline going on. It
was very much you being quite a lowly person.

How did you refer to him when you saw him?

I tend not to refer
to people by name anyway but people would call him Sir, the other farm workers
would call him Sir. I can even remember some people calling him ‘the Master’
because it was a very much a ‘them and us’ sort of feeling that you had on this
farm and striking the difference in class, if you like, and how privileged they
were in comparison with the workers on the farm.

What were the work premises like?

I think they were
appropriate to the time, but when I look back how awful some of the things from
the health and safety point of view that I had to do. For instance when you
were in orchards, most apple trees get sprayed every seven to ten days with
chemicals and water mixed together and you had to load up a big sort of bowser
on the back of a trailer which would get towed through the orchard, you driving
the tractor. And you would have these huge sacks of chemicals, really big old
sacks, hard to lift and you would be scooping these volumes of chemical into
the back of the sprayer. So there was all this puffing up of chemicals into the
air and then you’d mix it all up and because of the nature of fruit trees – they’re
quite tall usually – the sprayer was actually a big fan on the back of the
tractor, so it blasts the spray up really high, like 20 feet into the air on
both sides of you. So if you imagine the tractor going down a row you could
just see these two big sort of curtains of spray falling down on top of the
apple trees. But the worst of it was, ‘cause you had to go quite quickly and
the rows are very narrow (‘cause they tried to get as many trees in as they
can), at the end you turn out of one row and you turn as sharp as you can into
the next row. But because of all the spray that you’ve just blasted over that
way you would then just drive straight through all this spray. So all you had,
you had this sort of waterproof suit on and you had a visor – like a face visor
– little piece of plastic that goes over your face and you had to wear ear
muffs because that was so loud. The tractor is on full pelt to pump this spray
out but as you turned into the next row you were literally just washed with
chemicals that would just be running off your face mask, running down your –
you had gauntlets on and wellingtons. Because you didn’t have a cab – because
the rows were too narrow to have cabs – and I can imagine in third world
countries that’s just the same going on there today. But when I look back on it
I think, god wasn’t that awful, this awful stuff that we used to spray on them.

The other sort of
thing we used to do for, probably getting on for near enough five months of the
year, was pruning fruit trees. ‘Cause every fruit tree had to be pruned. Whilst
I love pruning fruit trees – because I can’t look at a fruit tree now without
looking at how to prune it – I look at a fruit tree and I see instantly what
has to be cut out. If I’m sitting here looking at a fruit tree I know instantly
what needs to be cut out and what should be done. When you do that month in,
month out, usually on your own or with one other person, it’s very tedious
work; it gives you a lot of thinking time. And when you’re a young person and
you’re doing quite a repetitive job, you start to think “God I wish I wasn’t
doing this”, or there must be more to life than this, sort of thing. Basically
because of that that led me on to do other things.

So what happened at the end of the apprenticeship?

At the end of the
apprenticeship you got a slightly higher wage. So you’d do that for three years
and you got a slightly higher wage and nothing much changed in the work sense in
so much that I was still there – I was still working on the fruit farm and the
boss was a real tyrant. Not the owner, the actual manager of the farm was a
real tyrant – well I called him a tyrant, thought of him as a tyrant. He would
be so tight on your times, say for instance we might be working all winter
pruning these fruit trees and at break time you were allowed 12 minutes for
your break. Invariably he would turn up after 12 minutes, ‘cause he wouldn’t be
with you when you were doing it. But we used to laugh because he used to sort
of say, “come on you’ve had your 12 minutes, get on with it”. And it was that
strict you know. I can always remember one day, one winter’s morning I’d ridden
this moped on these icy roads from Norwich out to Ranworth and I’d be a few
minutes late, because I’d had to go slow. And I was frozen and he had a real go
at me for having my hands in my pockets because my hands were so cold. I’d got
off the bike and put my hands in my pockets and that was all about you know,
“You’re not showing the right attitude.”

Another time we were
sweeping grain up in the big grain store, part of the arable, and he used to
say, “Oh we’ll have to get twice as much money for that now cause you’ve moved
that twice; that’s double handling, that’s gonna be worth a lot more.” So you
can see he’s quite a sort of strict sort of bloke and I think he’s a bit of a
bully actually. I think he enjoyed this persecution because one of the things
with fruit trees is – one of the hazards for them is that bullfinches,
colourful little birds, in the winter just as they’re coming out, starting to
fatten up, these buds – the bullfinches would go and peck out all the flowers
and eat all this sort of stuff. And so in our barn where I worked there was all
these cages, all stacked up and when I got there I said, “What are these cages
for?” This boss he said, “They’re for the bullfinches.” Which they were, that
was a common practice to trap the bullfinches, and he says, “You’ll put them
out and you’ll have to go round and kill these bullfinches.” I was horrified. I
don’t think I said anything at the time because nothing actually happened, they
never got used, but in the back of my mind I was all the time thinking, “Oh
god, I’ve got to start trapping bullfinches” and I would have to kill them, and
I couldn’t do that. That would be horrible. So I think partly his way of going
on was about that really.

There’s just one more
memory about that. I can remember where we had a young tree nursery, me and a
colleague we were out there hoeing the weeds around these young trees. It was
overlooked by a country club; it had a swimming pool, a bar, a restaurant thing
and my colleague and I were sweltering out there. It was a boiling hot day and
we’d been working away and there was no shelter from the sun because they were
young trees, and we sat down just to take a breath I think, and we’d seen him
sitting over by the swimming pool in this country club and he came round and
tore us off a strip for sitting down. The cheek of it, you know – God what a
man!

Kent, the garden of England. Teaching, and showing fruit

So, what happened next in terms of your jobs?

I thought, well what
I’ll do is I can take an advanced fruit growing course, believe it or not. They
operated that down at Hadlow in Kent which has a very good reputation as a
fruit growing specialist college. So I went down there and did an advanced
course in fruit growing and at the end of that year there was a job came up as
an instructor working in the same college, for fruit growers. So I applied for
that and I was lucky enough to get that role and so I then spent another six
years as an instructor and the other part of my job was to maintain the fruit
growing area. So we would be instructing groups of six or seven students in how
to prune fruit trees. So I started to find something that I enjoyed doing. I
was able to do a bit of fruit growing and deal with the public so it wasn’t
such an isolated life style, and that was really nice. I loved the instructing
of other people and facilitating/tutoring whatever you want to call it. And it
was a great place to work, it was lovely. I worked for this Scottish guy who
was part of the Argyll and Southern Highlanders;, he fought for them and he was
a lovely man and so it was a complete contrast really to what I had been doing
in Norfolk.

So meeting the public you enjoyed?

Yeah, I loved that. Well
they were students really; they were all young people who were there to learn
about fruit growing and I was able to work with them. It was like any good
education, it should be fun as well as educational because people learn better
when they’re happy and enjoying themselves. So I really enjoyed that work
there.

So this was the mid eighties was it?

Yes, it must be mid
eighties I suppose and then right up till the nineties. That was an interesting
period working there, because every year we took part in the Marden Fruit Show
and because Kent is such the garden of England. There is so much fruit growing
there isn’t there, traditionally, although it still happens today I think. They
have the Marden Fruit Show, all the orchards, and people enter their fruit for
this competition. My boss, he was a judge there and he had superb knowledge
this Scottish guy. He had superb knowledge about how to present, so you’d go
into the orchard, select all this fruit, perfect fruit, then you’d bring it in
and you’d get damp cotton wool and you’d polish up all these apples all around
the calyx. Then you’d pack it all beautifully into boxes and you’d have like
those little brown pastry case type things to stick in the middle just to keep
them all rigid. You’d have four rows of six apples all beautifully polished in
these boxes. They were all special boxes issued by the fruit show people that
were pine boxes so everybody had the same exhibiting cartons as it were. It
became a huge thing, it was fantastic and really, they looked superb, you can’t
believe it but when you see them all polished up they really looked superb.

Did you win?

We did win sometimes,
not all the time, yeah we would win prizes ‘cause we were representing the
college. So again that was prestigious to win these awards and to be
represented at these shows. So yes that was a nice time, living down there.

Then we moved back up
to Norfolk because I married Sarah and I wanted to get back to Norfolk because
I prefer Norfolk; my family live here and I like the county. Kent is beautiful
but I prefer Norfolk and I’d come back to work for a big fruit grower. I had
written to them to tell them my qualifications and so on and they took me on
as, I can’t remember if it was an assistant manager or something, but I was
slightly higher up the pecking order. Paid quite well actually; not
particularly high but not too bad.

But the thing about
farm work is that you have to work such long hours you know. If the harvest’s
on you work until its dark, you start when its light and work till its dark. One
memory from that place that’s worth sharing is, there was a sideline to this
particular farm that I came to work on, which was growing bean shoots, like
Chinese bean shoots. It’s amazing they’re grown in these big containers and in watery
bleach solution. That’s why they’re all nice and white; and they have to put
the bleach in there because they’re grown in really warm conditions. They grow
very quickly and because of that fungus can grow in them – so they grow them in
this bleach solution. And when they take them out of these drums they have to
rinse them through with all this bleach. That was horrendous, one of the worst
jobs I’ve ever done, I ended up with a sore throat and I was coughing blood in
the end which was enough to make me decide I had to leave. So I did.

Warden on the dunes

What did you do after that?

I then went on to one
of the best jobs you could imagine. I was the summer warden at Winterton Dunes,
and so I was paid a very lowly sum but I was paid to go to the beach every day
for the summer. On Winterton Dunes there’s a natterjack toads colony, it’s
fairly rare and they live in these brackish pools – so slightly salty but not sea
water – there just on the dunes, pools of water. These natterjack toads lived
there and we had to protect them by patrolling, because dog walkers let their
dogs walk there then they lap up all the tadpoles. We also had to do things
like moth surveys and count numbers of tadpoles and just generally record stuff
that was on the beach. There was also a colony of little terns that nest there
every year and so your job was basically to go to the beach, do a bit of
monitoring, make sure the public don’t go and wreck the important nature bits.
So that was a lovely job.

Were the hours long or variable?

No, they were just
normal hours because I think that was English Nature then I was working for,
the conservation people. It was amazing that I got this job because I’d seen it
in the job centre they are highly sought after, these jobs. I just think I was
lucky, I don’t know how I got it, but it was just luck. I was there a couple of
years or so working for the conservation people which was just like a doddle. Just
so relaxed and virtually, there was a manager ,but no pressure at all; and you
would do things like cutting reeds from dykes and building little bridges and stuff
like that. That was wonderful work.

And this was all the same job?

Yes, after the summer
contract finished they took me on to work at Woodbastwick Broad, which was just
up the road from Ranworth funnily enough. It was wonderful work and the thing
for me that made it wonderful work was just being away from that horrible
management style, being away from that awful feudal, almost feudal outlook if
you like, philosophy. So that made it really nice because it instilled in me
that that’s not the way to manage people, you can get the best from people by
being considerate and most people don’t abuse the trust.

Sounds like a contented time of your life?

Yes it was good – other
than it was very low pay.

Where were you living at the time?

I was living in
Norwich.

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

Yes, because it was
low paid, despite it being a really good, easy going job, in fact it was too
easy going. There was no pressure to really do much at all, so I was left of
this feeling of drifting and I don’t like that feeling, I like to be making a
difference if I can.

Combining skills – conservation and countryside management

So I had seen a job
working for Norfolk County Council which combined the two skills that I’d sort
of got really. There’s the skills of working with people which I’d developed
when I was in Kent at the college, instructing people and the skills of
conservation and countryside management. The job that I’d seen was working for
the planning department at Norfolk Council. You had a van and it was part of
the government schemes then that people who were unemployed for more than six
months had to go out into the countryside, or they had to earn their benefits until
they got a job. And so people who had been out of work for six months or more.
I went round the countryside collecting these people in my mini bus and then we
would go out to sites that the Planning Department, who were responsible for
the footpaths in the County, deemed that we ought to go to. Then we carried out
works in the countryside and it was a really interesting job because you’re
meeting all these quite interesting people. Anyone who’s not worked for six
months they’ve usually got some kind of story about them, and they were in
various states of motivation. There were some rough diamonds who had criminal
pasts and we would go out and we would build proper bridges, good old
boardwalks; we would do ditching work, cutting down trees. Whilst people were
on the group not only were they maintaining the county’s footpaths they were
also being helped with their literacy and numeracy. So I’d either do that back
in the yard, in an area, we had a little office bit. Or even sometimes when the
main group was working on the countryside stuff I’d be working with them in the
van on their literacy and numeracy, getting them through those sorts of things
and then that then developed into tutoring them and assessing them in
countryside skills and forestry skills. So we were able to get people
qualifications in countryside management and forestry skills and we’d go on to
the Forestry Commission land with their permission and do some tree felling and
stuff like that. That was a really interesting time again, I enjoyed that work
as well.

Obviously you learned these skills from various jobs
you’ve done, management of people, being outdoors and skills development and
obviously you formalised these through your early apprenticeships and things.
What sort of abiding memories do you have of those early days, working on the
farm?

I suppose the main
memories of working on the farm is just that it’s just different; it’s a very
different world. I loved all the tractors side of things, tractor driving,
mowing, because you’d have a tractor with a huge mower on the back so every row
of fruit trees on this 70-acre plot need to be mown. So you’d go along with
this big mower and it looked fantastic when you’d finished, all beautifully
trimmed and likewise with the fruit tree pruning. Once you’d pruned all these
trees, there is all this dead wood lying on the floor – dormant wood, not dead.
So that would all be lying down the middle of these grass alleyways and then
you’d have this machine called a pulveriser on the back of your tractor, so
you’d drive right over the top of all this stuff and it would just shred it
all. It was like a flail mower and it just shred everything and we’re talking
about huge big branches. That was a really powerful machine and that would chew
up all this stuff and make a horrendous racket.

Did you have ear defenders?

Yes, you had ear
defenders but it was quite good fun some of that work. But the nastier side is
all that awful discipline and the cold in the winter, like when you wear a
rubber boot, wellington boot, I mentioned before you know you’d be standing out
there in all weathers so you could be standing there in snow or frost and your
feet are absolutely stone cold. We had this tiny little room, more a portable
shed, that we used to carry along the rows in case it absolutely tipped down
and that was there for the break. But what we’d do with our flask of coffee,
because coffee out of a flask can be horrible after weeks of use, we used to
pour this coffee on to our wellington boots to warm our feet up ‘cause that was
the only thing we had to warm our feet up. Yes, you could stamp your feet but
when you stand in one place all day long pruning fruit trees your feet can be
absolutely frozen.

Another interesting
thing was gradually during my working life … We started off we used to prune
with a saw and secateurs and we also used to have saws on poles but then new
technology came along and we had pneumatic pruners – probably hydraulic because
they were powered by oil. You had this little compressor on wheels, this little
engine on wheels and these long pipes which were full of oil, and secateurs.
You pressed a trigger and the oil obviously pumped them shut so you can imagine,
if it was your thumb, up to a thumb size the secateurs would just pshhht instantly, they would just lop it
off, no effort at all. So you would be lugging this big machine up and down
these rows and it was an amazing job so much quicker because you could go chig, chig, chig, chig with this pruner
and no effort to cut any branches with it at all, none at all. Whereas with the
secateurs by the end of the day that’s getting hard on your hand and your
wrist, on your muscles, you can imagine cutting branches all day with little
secateurs and so these hydraulic things were really good. Other than that the
technology wasn’t great, you used to get covered in this oil whenever you
unplugged the thing and they would leak and be spraying out the handle. So an
abiding memory of life on the farm was all these horrible sort of health and
safety type things really. How vulnerable they made you in some of the things
you had to do; and dirt and discomfort, not very nice really.

But overall not a bad
career!

Comments are closed.