Working Lives

Third generation Broads farmer (1950s to 2020s)

Location: Broads

Richard’s story is part of the Norfolk Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) interviews with Broads farmers conducted under the Water Mills and Marshes project.

I have lived on The Broads all my life, from birth, and my childhood memories are of being on the farm.

I am the third generation here on the farm. My grandfather bought the farm in the 1950s when the Langley Estate sold up, he bought two farms and we’ve been here ever since.

In school holidays I worked on the farm, with the farm workers, stacking straw and hay.

It was very busy at harvest time, but also during the winter time too as the cattle were in the yards. At that time it was dairy herd and milking was done before breakfast. The farm workers all used to sit down for breakfast in the farm building and my parents would give me a packed breakfast to have with them. At that time we employed eight people on the farm so it was quite the workforce.

Mum and Dad only provided my breakfast, the workers’ wives gave them theirs and they would sit and chat and then go off to work, some with the herd some on the land.

You’d not only have the milking to do, but the young beef animals would be looked after too. Some of the workers who had started early for the milking would finish early and the rest would then move on to the arable side of things. You would have teams, either working on the sugar beet, hoeing the beet and then winter time taking up the beet.

All this was done by hand, the lot and also a job that you don’t see now is trimming the hedgerows using a scythe. This was then cleared up on a trailer and would go on the top of the straw stacks like a thatch.

You had a more diverse range of flowers in the verge then than now.

The workforce has changed over the years. Women’s roles tended to go in waves. Slightly before my time when we had a large workforce of farm workers and their wives would have helped out at peak times.

In my time it has been basically been men, as the workforce got smaller you lost your paid workforce, replaced with family workforce with boys and wives would help out. Now we have been through another change with more modernisation and the workforce has been cut back again, The farmers’ wives do less on the farm apart from the paperwork, which is definitely no small task.

My mother did a lot of the paperwork but now with all the rules and regulations I tend to do it myself. You need to have the hands on experience with the farm as well as knowing how to do the paperwork.

There used to be wildfowling on the marshes, some people still try. I’ve been sitting down on the marshes in my younger days and see two, three thousand ducks feeding on the corn grown on the marshes. But now the emphasis has been away from growing corn on the marshes and replaced it with grassland and you don’t see the same numbers now. Same with geese on the sugar beet, there has been a gradual decline, we’re obviously doing conservation and trying to turn it around.

The whole scenario of the marshes has changed, I have seen two hundred, three hundred swans on the marshes, now, you might see a dozen.

Going back there used to be two or three people with eel traps but there’s no eels in the dikes now, they’ve all disappeared, and no one is asking why. It was fascinating to watch the old boys catching the big eels.

Hardley flood used to be there, but again it’s slowly declining, it’s had different management schemes looking after it. Some have encouraged fishing, some have not. As children we used to go out fishing with the farm workers. I remember going on a Saturday, about 12 of us and we used to catch eels, then we’d have a big get together and my grandmother, she would cook them, fry them in flour.

They used to have an old out house and they use to nail the beam and then cut around the head, the gills and then pull the skin off and just dice it up and cook it. We used to have fantastic meals.

Changes to crops and livestock at Chestnut Farm over the years

There have been massive changes over the last few years in the way that the farm has been run. Traditionally we had dairy cows, arable, sugar beet, wheat and barley. The dairy cows have gone, replaced with just a standard beef herd.

We used to keep pigs, but I’m afraid that the recession in the pig industry finished those about 12 years ago. We also did poultry as well, intensive poultry but I am afraid that that has got to the stage too where it was unsustainable so that had to be dropped too. Cheap imports and government policies have hit the industry hard, as well as economy of scale.

We have gone more into conservation now, we’re in a very high, rural area which lends itself to conservation. The downside is that to a certain degree we’re tied to political whims with conservation. If the political agenda changes with regards to conservation then that will just disappear.

Arable is still primarily wheat, barley and sugar beet which works well here on the farm. The beef is on the grassland and everything is entwined and links together. There will always be a demand for food so your main production of cereals, there will always be a demand for that. But basically it’s gone from intensive to an emphasis on conservation.


For the livestock feed we used to grow old turnips and mangles, kale for the beef side, but they tend to be very labour intensive crops so we’ve stopped growing them now.

Years ago we used to grow sugar beet and clean the tops of the beets, but again that was done by hand and as the labour force dwindled jobs like that finished.

With the wheat and barley if we don’t have a full load of wheat we will grind the surplus corn for the beef and that works well. The straw that we get from the cereal crops is used for bedding for the beef and in return the manure from the beef gets put back into the land, so it’s a continuous cycle which works well.

The future lies in keeping the organic matter and soil fertility up but you’ve also got to balance that as the labour on the farm has gone. In my grandfather’s day when he first bought the farm there were 14 people working on the farm. Now there’s basically myself, two elderly, my father and his brother who are way past retirement, but they help out a busy times and that is now the workforce.

I have three daughters and we have encouraged them to do their own thing. Farming has been through a massive recession and they’ve seen the not so good side of farming so they have got their own careers and can come back if they need to.

On our farm we do traditional farming which is helping to keep our soil structure but you have to recognise that machinery is getting bigger so it’s heavier and causes a lot more compaction. So we’re doing more work to the subsoil and help break up the soil. We also keep the rotational system, not just crops but also with livestock using manure to put back onto the land to improve the soil structure, all efforts like that. We now grow green manure where we grow crops which will be reintroduced into the land.

We have cover crops through the winter but it also has the knock on effect that it benefits the wildlife through the winter. We don’t have to but we paid and put mustard seed in with the cover crop which will benefit the bees in the autumn and winter.

The change in markets and ways of selling produce

The way we sell our produce as totally changed in the last 40 years or so. My grandfather was a great believer in places like Norwich Market. He told tales of walking there from here, which is about 11 miles away.

I used to go with him, on a Saturday and it was a very social affair, he used to have lunch with the other dealers and it was a big thing to have a roast lunch at the market.

There were some characters there and you used to see some sights. I can remember one day, standing in the queue with my grandfather who had bought some cattle. He had bought a lot of cattle, about £8,000 worth which 40 years ago was a lot of money. He opened up his coat up and each pocket inside was stuffed with bundles of notes and he just paid with cash.

The market has obviously gone now, we have contracts now with large slaughterhouses and it’s done direct with them.

The grain marketing now, where you would have had a representative come around and a merchant, now it’s all done via the internet.

It is efficient, my grandfather would have been told the price of corn, like once a month, when the merchant come. Now I’m told the price of corn every hour, every hour I will get a report through and I can track the price a lot more efficiently. If the price has a sudden jump, I can sell, at a profit hopefully.

Diversification of the farm business

We have had to diversify in whichever way we can. Tied cottages where the workers would have lived are now rented out, long term rents, not holiday lets, so that’s another source of income.

We have manufactured oil lamps using products off the farm and have sold them at gift fairs and farmer’s markets. We have had to have a go at anything to find another income source to cope with the recession we’ve had in farming. Farming has gone from farming the land to farming your assets, it’s a different asset management, different way of life now.

We did do packaging too, but that’s on the back burner, it’s a very demanding business and we have had changes with family members retiring so I have had to do more and more on the farm. At the moment the farm has had to take priority so that diversification is still there but it’s been put on hold.

It’s very demanding, with a reduced labour force and the way things are, farming used to be classed as a lifestyle, it no longer is. Where people would say that you know, you enjoyed your time farming, now I just look at the field and they are just another asset to be managed.

Machinery has obviously changed, on the old tractors you just had a few levers and a crank handle to start it. Now it’s all computerised, you just sit there in a luxury seat, air conditioned, stereo. I have even just purchased a tractor with a chiller box built into it so I can keep a beer cool.

We hire sugar beet harvesters, they’re so big now, one beet harvester can do in six hours what would have taken four or five people on this farm 40 years ago.

Things will get more mechanised but I doubt that the machinery will get bigger. The soils can’t cope and when working on the grassland you can’t really use the massive machinery.

Community life and social activities in the village

Social activities have greatly changed over the years. My earliest memories are of the village pub, the landlord used to double up as the local barber. I used to go down as a child and have my hair cut and I was allowed to drink sitting in the little porch outside. The pub is now gone, as have most Broadland pubs, brought about by the decline in the holiday industry on the Broads. We have got a village hall which has replaced it to a certain degree, but that’s now gone into decline.

We used to have a lot of events, church festivals, everyone went to church then. We had a Methodist church in the village and we used to get a yearly visit to Great Yarmouth, and we’d hire a bus.

We had barn dances in the village hall and when they were raising money for the hall we’d have barn dances in the big poultry sheds. We had three, four hundred people and bands. We’d line the shed with straw bales but that sort of thing is rather frowned upon now, health and safety, but yes they were very good times.

As well as the fishing competitions and dances we had clay pigeon shoots.

These events paid for the village hall to be built, paid for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations here.

I had my 18th birthday party, they decided to hold it in one of the poultry sheds and invited 100 plus people, everybody brought so much drink, very good times, but unfortunately you don’t see things like that happen now.

The social community has changed, we used to do fishing competitions and all manner of events like that. Now though, a lot of the people who live here work in Norwich and there is less of a community spirit.

I would say that my interaction with people is now with dog walkers and joggers, they come over and say hello. I always make a point of having a chat. People have very little knowledge of the countryside, what we do on farms, but once you engage with them they tend to become friends.

We basically have to a certain degree of an open farm, we allow people to walk some of the private tracks, providing they behave with the dogs, we can engage with them that way. It’s year round, instead of giving a snapshot on one day, they can see the whole farm evolving.


Obviously with the big push for conservation we have enhanced this on the farm and it’s one of the biggest changes that we’ve had over the 30 years in my opinion. We have gone in for the Higher Tier conservation and work in target species and we class it as one of our crops. Conservation is worked around the whole farm because we’re in an ideal position being a mixture of marshland and upland and it works well with the farm.

We are in a unique situation here as the marshland is suitable for growing crops. It’s well drained and it’s not peat land. The River Yare moves so we’ve got some clay land which is suitable for arable and less suitable for grass, it’s part of the mosaic. But the ESA [ environmentally sensitive areas] did bring a stop to things, one of the biggest being straw burning.

One of the rotational benefits of growing on the marshland was that they used to burn the straw and it would sterilise the soil. It would kill off the weeds, put potash back in to the ground and then they would get very good crops and that was where we used to see thousands of ducks.

It works on a similar principle to the pampas grasslands in Argentina.

The grey partridge has taken an upturn in numbers as have hares and we do have to do predator control. We have a problem with foxes, not only natural foxes but the city councils also dump foxes because they’ve got problems with them. You also have crows, rooks and magpies, there has been a massive upturn in magpie numbers and we do control them. To look after the songbirds and with conservation you’re to a certain degree paid on results so you do need to control predator control to protect your target species.

In the future the government is saying that farm payments will be based on results so predator control will become a major issue.
We were in tier two for grassland and I wasn’t involved in that too much, but it was a fairly relaxed conservation scheme.

Rabbits are a keystone species, but about three years ago myxomatosis went through the rabbit population and rabbits virtually got eliminated from this farm. We then brought in a blanket ban on rabbit shooting and ferreting which we’ve done for years to control the numbers, to allow the numbers to come back. This might sound weird, we had an ideal chance to completely eliminate every rabbit from the farm but that’s not farming. Some species rely on rabbits, they’re useful in terms of grazing and creating swards for wildflowers. So it’s balanced it’s not just elimination.

We are seeing an increase in some bird life, mammals, we’re getting more water voles. The problem with conservation at the moment, there’s a drive for raptors. So where you see some bird life increase, which we’re targeting like the lapwings, basically we’re providing more food for raptors and the only thing which is really benefitting at the moment is the raptor population. Okay, top of the food chain, highly protected, highly encouraged and very little regard for the species lower down.

So you are finding now with conservation, some cases it’s working, some it isn’t.

Lapwing or as they are also called peewits, were seeing an increase but the numbers are now slowly declining again. This is mainly on the marshes where they nest, we now have peregrine falcons which we didn’t have. We also have buzzards and marsh harriers, I mean where you would have seen 2 or 3 buzzards 10 -15 years ago now you will see 30 – 40 buzzards.

So it’s about how conservation has been pulled in different directions and that’s becoming a major problem.

But we do have our success stories, we have orchids on the marshes which is encouraging. The insect life is improving things out there, but it’s getting the balance.

Coypu were also a major part of the farm. The first time I ever shot a shotgun I shot a coypu. The damage that they did was to the banks.

I can tell you a funny story about coypu. There was a group of girls from London down on the boats at our local pub. As country lads we tried to chat them up, and weren’t being very successful and then we mentioned to them that when they were going back to their boat to be careful of the coypu. They had never heard of a coypu so we explained that it was a very, very large American rat and then they needed to be escorted back to the boat, so coypu had its good points.

Grey squirrels and mink have been a problem but I think that we’re slowly getting to grips with mink. It was the animal rights group of protestors who released the mink and it’s not talked about too much.

Egyptian geese have become an issue, a lot of those getting about. They are a non native species which is being monitored , they will force out other native species.

The future of farming and wildlife on The Broads

This is interesting, it’s changing rapidly especially the grassland in the Broads area. It’s becoming very dominated by large charities, conservation charities who all want to pull in different directions. You’re seeing that any marshland which comes up for sale has been bought by large conservation charities for vast sums of money which is stopping the youngsters getting a foothold into it.

The farming, that’s the biggest change we see in this area, and it’s only going to get worse, the large conservation charities are becoming the land barons of the 21st century.  Everything is dictated by these charities and the farmers are having less and less say in what they do and what happens with their land

That’s becoming a major issue and that’s how in my opinion things will continue to deteriorate in the future if it becomes a battle between conservation and farming. It should work together but it could end up fracturing against each other.

We live in a unique part of the world so we do need to be supported with conservation as well as farming. The population of the world is growing so you need food and that demand for food is going to increase. But, you also need to improve those measures dictated by the big charities which don’t appear to be working totally for the benefit of all wildlife. It needs to work for everyone and farmers need to have a greater say in what is happening. We are the biggest landowners, we do do conservation and we live in the areas, we do not want prairie farming. We have to be able to produce food and to produce an income for farmers because we have to be able to live.

Recreational shooting is a big part of country life and it’s the second biggest employer here after farming and it’s a major contribution to the village. Although we haven’t got the pub here neighbouring pubs benefit from it and it helps to keep them going through the winters, the lean times. It also helps that the conservation and shooting works hand in hand in this village, It’s a big part of the village.

We don’t employ a game keeper, I’m hands on and rated as a temporary game keeper. It’s in the winter months when the shoots are on that we need the beaters, they tend to be, in the main, elderly people from the village who are retired. It gives them exercise and a gives them a social life, it’s a good day out and at the end of the day they get a few pounds for it and a brace of pheasants.

It helps to keep the community spirit going, which is good especially after the decline of the pub, but you tend to find a lot of community spirit on the shoots.

It’s a case of balancing everything out. We would like to put more manure on the land but there are issues with the smell. The increased city population in the village, the neighbours don’t like the smell. But you have to create a balance. Soil structure has become a very, very important issue now, especially with the weather and the drought that we have just had, the hard winter that we have just had. The better the soil conditions the better you can ride out the climatic conditions. So crop rotation to stop soil erosion and livestock management, moving the stock around too.

Interview with Richard Wright at Chestnut Farm Hardley, edited by WISEArchive © 2024.