Third generation marshland farmer with Scottish roots (1920s-2019)

Location : Norton Subcourse
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Peter farms on marshland in Norfolk. Like many others, his grandfather came from Scotland in 1922 and farmed the marginally better land to be found in Norfolk. Unusually he is a commuting farmer, living in Norwich and going to his base in Norton Subcourse every day.

 From Scotland to Norfolk

My grandfather came from Scotland, from just near Stonehaven, in 1922, and took up the tenancy here at Norton Hall which is part of the Raveningham Estate. The landlord at that time was this current Sir Nicholas Bacon’s grandfather Nicholas Bacon. The farm was found for him by his brother Charles who had come down to Norfolk and Suffolk during the First World War purchasing horses for the army. Shortly after the war finished, he took Walnut Tree Farm on the Benacre Estate and then found this farm for my grandfather.

Probably the most pertinent reason for the move from Scotland to this area was pretty tough times. It was marginally less tough here. And they brought a way of doing things that allowed them to thrive where others perhaps didn’t. My grandfather had been a tenant on a relatively small farm in Scotland and my understanding is that his farm had something they called horse sickness which meant that they couldn’t keep horses. My sister likes to suggest that my grandfather was an economic migrant from Scotland to England. Rents were cheaper here in Norfolk and again I’m led to believe that this farm was taken for the first three years free of rent. It was in a bit of a mess and he was given the opportunity to turn it round.

Initially Norton Hall Farm was a pretty traditional farm of its time of about 280 acres on the edge of the marshes. Poor quality land, marshland to the North and sand and gravel to the South. Grandfather initially brought down his Ayrshire cattle from Scotland for milking. They fed out on the marshes but he didn’t milk away from here so around the yard there were all sorts of little cubby holes with five cows in this one and ten cows in that one. He built up this farm and with his brother acquired interest in other farms either by way of tenancy or purchase over a period of I guess 30 or 40 years. He also took on the tenancies (at Raveningham) of Carr Farm, which is only about half a mile down the road, and High House Farm. That took the holding up to about 688 acres or thereabouts.

At that time there were other Scottish farming families moving down to Norfolk and my understanding is that a number of the Alstons were earlier whilst I think the Pattersons were a bit later. So it really was a changing feature in the Norfolk farming landscape with quite a few Scottish families taking up tenancies. They brought a different way of doing things and that enabled them to find a way to make a profit ‑ different rotations, more potatoes. I think as a collection of people they did bring with them a willingness to co-operate and share. I think that was something that was perhaps not so prevalent in this part of the world at that time. Brothers and cousins and other families would collectively do things together and out of that any number of co-operative organisations eventually appeared. More recently Loddon Farmers for example.

Earlier, grandfather, his brother and a variety of other persons got involved with breeding of cattle. The original AI Centre, prior to being at Beccles, was at the farm at Benacre. The young gentleman they took on to be their vet and look after their organisation was Geoffrey Smith who subsequently became chief vet at the Milk Marketing Board. My grandfather retired in the late forties.

When grandfather came down from Scotland in 1922 for his first winter he stayed in a pub called the Cockatrice which was just on the side of the River Yare. He filled the farmhouse up with seed potatoes that he’d brought down from Scotland to plant in the spring, so I’m guessing he took the tenancy in the autumn. His wife (I’m not sure whether he was married already or married subsequently) came down in 1923, by which time the seed potatoes were discouraged from being in the house! He lived at Norton Hall until about 1966, when he moved into Norwich to live a few doors up from his brother. My father was born and grew up here (Norton Hall) but when he first married they lived in the house at High House Farm on Raveningham Estate.

Peter at Reedham Ferry overlooking land he farms

The next generation in Norfolk

Father was born 1926, was educated locally in Beccles, and then went to Culford which was a Methodist boarding school near Bury. He came home to the farm in about 1943 or 44. The first farm in his own name was when he took over the tenancy at Carr Farm from his father (my grandfather) in 1948 or thereabouts. In 1952 he took on the tenancy of Oaks Farm at Bixley, on the Crown Point Estate which was owned by Timothy Colman. Between the two he farmed about 700 acres in his own right.

His older brother George was born in 1924 and served during the war in the RAF as an aircraft fitter. When he came home he took on a tenancy on the Kirby Cane Estate, Loddon Hall, in the mid to late 1940s, as well as the High House tenancy which my grandfather had from the Raveningham Estate.

Dairy was a feature on all of these farms and Friesians became a principal interest. Indeed my father was quite successful showing in the late ‘50’s early ‘60’s. I always find it interesting that during my grandfather’s time, in some respects, the cows were there to scavenge the bits and bobs that were left over from the arable crops – strawberries, raspberries, broad beans, runner beans. In my dad’s time the emphasis changed and the cows became the main concern of the business, and the rest of the farm was there to serve the cows rather than the other way round.

Grandfather had some of the marshland in arable cropping. In wartime if it could be turned into arable it was grown on. The 1953 flood did a lot of salt damage out on the marsh and it took a while to get it back to grazing.

At one time the family farmed about 750 to 800 acres of marsh. I now only have about 450 acres that I have the tenure of one way or another. Here at Norton they’re a mixture – there’s some clay marshes but there’s also some fairly deep peat marshes. There are also fringe marshes, particularly up the Chet.

I suppose one of the big changes on the marshes was 1970’s FHDS (Farm & Horticulture Development Scheme), the alterations to the drainage and drop in the water levels and bringing a lot of the marsh back into arable production. Indeed we’ve got marshes on another farm over at Caister which are still in arable and it is beautiful dirt. My ones here have run into various problems both economic and in terms of structure, and they’ve gone back to grass. Over time the marshes have been included in a variety of environmental schemes.

Third generation

I was born in 1955 and brought up and spent my childhood at Oaks Farm, Bixley and was there until I was 21. It was predominantly arable, quite light land towards the river and a bit stronger up towards the Loddon Road. It had a chunk of marshland that my dad brought back into production in the ‘50’s just after they took it on. The Whitlingham Marshes were actually on the bombing run down into the Laurence Scott Electromotors factory in Norwich, which was attacked on numerous of occasions. Somewhere there is a picture of a pile of perhaps a couple of tons of incendiary bombs all piled up waiting for the ordnance guys to come and sort them out. I definitely did not play with them though. It was before my time…

That marshland was quite deep peat and we used to grow potatoes. As a lad I used to go around with my father on the marshes. The family thing during the summer would be to have a picnic lunch on a Sunday and do the rounds of the marshes looking at cattle. As well as the home marshes here at Norton. there’d be young stock out on the marshes on the Island at Haddiscoe, and what we referred to as the Dam at Haddiscoe. The family also farmed on marshes behind Caister, which at that time were still in grass. We had a suckler herd there. So in the early days on the Island, in fact through the Nova Scotia marshes at Caister, us kids used to get paid a penny a gate to open the gates. If we did the full tour it would be, with lunch, well a sort of four hour job with 30 or 40 gates. But later the traffic access was put in down the Island and cattle grids were put in.

I went to school locally but I did also go to Shuttleworth in Bedfordshire for a year as a teenager on what was referred to as the Farm’s Course. This was about 1973. Most of the people at Shuttleworth were like myself with family farms, but there were also a number of chaps from other walks. I remember two who were ex RAF: the services sponsored people through different education to retrain. They were certainly more interested in education than I was, quite rightly. But I learnt more about life than I did about farming during the course of that year. I didn’t get my certificate from Shuttleworth; I was a keen participant in all things apart from the educational side. I’m afraid education came a bit later.

I came back to the farm and at that time we had a farm manager who was employed by all the family to look after the cattle businesses. I was effectively apprenticed to him, a chap called John Francis, who I owe a considerable amount to. We worked with the suckler herd at Caister, Uncle George’s dairy herd at Loddon Hall and one of my dad’s herds at Bixley.  Also the other herd at Carr Farm, and grandpa’s two herds here at Norton Hall and at Heckingham Hall. So there were about 750 cows or thereabouts in five or six herds.

My education on the farm prior to going to Shuttleworth was that I could deal with any sort of muck one cared for. I could dig it, push it, pump it – all the things that one ended up doing as a lad on a farm. Tractor driving came later.

Around this time my father made some changes. Whitlingham Broad came about because the Norwich Southern Bypass was going to cut through the farm whichever way it went. My grandfather had died and Crown Point offered father the opportunity to surrender the tenancy, which we did. We left the farm in 1975. I suspect some of the gravel for making the Southern Bypass actually came out of what were the marshes. There was gravel extraction out of there and that’s how Whitlingham Broad was created.

Dad was involved with the Muckfleet and Flegg Drainage Board. The area around Caister lay a third to Waveney and to a whole ream of them. He was also involved in the local Land Drainage Authority and was chair of Norfolk and Suffolk Rivers Authority, prior to that becoming part of the Environment Agency, and government appointee on the Broads Authority. I did not get involved in these sort of things apart from the Drainage Board, the more serious and worrying end of the water industry. The Muckfleet and Flegg is now part of a Broads consortium run by the Water Alliance based out at Kings Lynn. Twelve of them amalgamated together to form the Board in this locality. I was once Vice-Chair of the Drainage Board and still serve as an ordinary member.

I work the family farm at Caister with my cousin David – he is lead and I assist where required. Nova Scotia Farm at Caister Castle is a pair of farms that grandpa and his brother Charles were originally tenants on and then managed to purchase. That is farmed under the business name of CW and J Cargill which is Charles, William and James. The soil there is so good for potatoes, very fertile – that wonderful combination of land that will hold moisture but also drains. I like to joke that the subsoil there is better than the topsoil here. That wouldn’t be unfair.

Changes since ploughing up the marshes

Going back to ploughing up the marshes at Caister, and the FHDS through the 70’s, the suckler herd went and the marshes were then turned into arable. The number of drainage pumps there increased and the bores amalgamated. Some had new Archimedes Screw type pumps put in to increase the efficiency of the water management. There was a big chunk of land there that went in into arable and some very good land too. After my Uncle George, (father’s brother) died, the Loddon Hall tenancy was surrendered back to Kirby Cane Estate, and that herd was also sold. So we then amalgamated in that we had one herd here at Norton and one at Heckingham. At that stage we were milking about 350 cows, quite a big reduction, but these 350 cows gave somewhat more milk. With the milk quotas and various other things there was a bit of a boom, but then we got to the stage where the price that we received for milk didn’t match our needs to cover our overheads. So we took the pain for a little while and then sold the herd and stopped producing milk.

The marshes are now managed for suckler cow grazing. The sucklers herd here started in about 1989/1990 thereabouts, and was originally my first wife’s enterprise. It works well. Absolutely traditional, low input, extensively grazed because of the environmental set up.

Going back to my grandfather, his best friend from Scotland, who was his best man at his wedding and probably also his best friend through life, a chap called Douglas Thompson, also took a farm on the estate at Hales Hall. His great nephew Hamish Carey takes all the calves off me. So we run through to weaning, I don’t fatten but Hamish does. But here at Norton now it is in total about 900 acres of which about 450 is permanent pasture. And those permanent pastures are managed under a variety of environmental schemes.

Some of them are under the old HLS (Higher level Stewardship) system and some of them under the new Countryside Stewardship, which is now in its second year. We grow malting barley but we gave up growing sugar beet on this light land. We have a company that grows potatoes and we supply the water. Another company grows carrots and we also supply the water. So that really is our main rotation. In 1974 when I first started working on this farm there were 24 of us, there’s now two of us!

Towards Raveningham 2019

Changes through the years, arable farming and conservation

Looking at the period of time from grandfather coming down to now, well, when he first came down and started farming in Norfolk they sort of grew everything, diversified into anything and employed a lot of people. The world has changed and you now have to be more specialist. So having a four acre plot of strawberries is no longer economically viable in the context of things. Hence we concentrated more and more on smaller areas. We’ve gone through from grandfather growing everything including bulbs, daffodils tulips, you name it. My father for a period of time at Oaks Farm Bixley grew mint for Colmans, and mustard in its day. We’re now down to a very simple rotation in terms of the arable side on this farm. We have a pretty good irrigation licence so that makes the land attractive for growers of salad potatoes and as I say for carrots. We have an eight year rotation.

The irrigation licence is something that that started in about the ‘50’s. I have memories of growing potatoes and having lines of irrigation sprinklers with the chaps moving the pipes and then setting it all going again and all of that. We had a live pivot at first, and I remember the rain guns. But things have moved on although at Caister we still use guns. There is also an area that’s under tape irrigation still because you know the tape allows you to use the water more efficiently and more effectively.

We have built up over time. We have effectively here on this plot three licences, which give us sufficient water for our needs. The licences are drawn from surface water not from an aquifer, so we are picking up out of streams and dykes.

Of the stewardship schemes, the first one that I was aware of was the Broads Conservation Grazing Scheme, which was a trial environmental scheme. We first encountered it when we had the marshes out on Haddiscoe Island. That subsequently became the ESA schemes. My last ESA finished about five or six years ago and that land on which it was based transitioned into newer ELS/HLS schemes. There was a Countryside Stewardship scheme which we missed first time round because the HLS was coming in, and that looked to suit us better with our grassland. All of our grass is covered either by Countryside Stewardship or HLS. Now in the arable areas, those that I can plough, it can be somewhere around 20 percent taken up with a variety of margins and corners and various other things. Overwinter stubbles as well, the ones that we’ve been doing for a fair time. So going into a spring crop we will leave the stubble over winter to provide food source.

We do not plough any of the marshes here at Norton now, only at Caister where the main business is potatoes. These are main crop potatoes which predominantly go into storage for crisp manufacturers. I have an agreement with the grower, whereby they grow the potatoes and predominantly on this light land they are salad potatoes. This company is AP Greenvale which interestingly is the successor to the original Anglian Produce, of which my father was one of the founding members. So things do tend to go round in circles one way or another.

There’s a great tendency to look at marshes and to think of them as being flat, all the same, but it sort of isn’t. You know, there’s quite a difference in the freeboard and also the land type. So when we turned the marshes that we had here into arable, we had issues with the clay fraction becoming deflocculated. It ends up like slurry. So we stopped inversion and then did all cultivation. Then we ran into problems with sterile brown, and then the original IAT Scheme came in which required set-aside. So it seemed to us that the ideal opportunity to stop beating our heads against a brick wall was to put the land in set-aside, which we did and it reverted back to grass.

I was working with ADAS (the UK’s largest provider of agricultural, environmental consultancy, rural development services and policy advice) for a time. Mike Trendall was the guy we did our FHDS with. He was well involved with the number of farmers that took marshland back to arable. Anyway we used to go and look at each others’ farms and discuss the issues and problems and Mike was very instrumental in driving that. ADAS was in its heyday then. It was interesting in a slightly controversial way. It was at time when it farming was good career to get involved in, and good people did get involved with it. There were some really top class people that we worked with. Lots of enthusiasm.

Peter on the marshes 2019

Birds are one of my crops

It’s Natural England that we’re involved with now. The people that I meet and work with now are by and large of a mind to make various schemes work. And indeed some of them are very pragmatic in that respect. The people that you talk to on the phone don’t always understand what it is you are asking them. But the schemes are well thought through but not necessarily well joined up.

My current officer who I work with understands my view, that the object of the exercise is to get a result and it’s not to tick a box. If we’re just ticking boxes I’m not interested. If we’re looking at finding ways to get a result I am. And she brought into my mind the term that I have to remember that one of my crops nowadays is birds – which is fine! So if I’m going to grow birds I’m going to do it as well as I can. And the implication for future is that this may become even more important. This is a completely personal view but there will be periods of time where world population demand for food outstrips our ability to produce it, and that will put things that are not producing food under a considerable amount of pressure. And there will periods of time when technology will recognise that this is a very good place to grow food and this is a very good place to give the environment the room it needs to do its thing. And, you have to recognise that both have their place but finding where that balance is I don’t know.

Two of the indicator species that get picked up on are the brown hare and the grey partridge, both of which we’ve always had, interestingly, because it suits them. Some of the breeding waders that we have on the marsh, well I think we’ve seen numbers come back up again.The lapwing and redshank are the two that have been looked at particularly on my patch. There was a project with UEA and the RSPB in this area investigating their numbers. Prior to that my first contact was the BTO – the British Trust for Ornithology, who were doing a whole load of trial work around understanding survival of small birds and various other birds through the winter hunger gap. And they were doing replicated trials of feed/not feeding over winter. So that was my first contact with the bird world if I might refer to it as that. I then got involved with the project the RSPB had asked the UEA to do around predation. So it was looking at what it is that that either increases or decreases the likelihood of getting successful breeds away from nests, in particular with redshank and lapwing but also snipe.

I don’t think I’ve seen a wild mink for twenty years, although a gentleman who lives down the road looks for them I’m told. I have seen one in Sussex but not here. Coypu was a big issue here at the time of the Coypu Eradication Scheme. Considerable damage was done.

BSE in total with the cohort cull lost us 480 head of stock in total, something like that. This was from the dairy herd, not so many from the suckler herd, but from the dairy herd. It put us very much on the back foot in terms of where we ended up with the whole herd health. We finished up not being able to choose which animals to keep. And therefore we hit a bit of a plateau.

Distant view of farmed land from Reedham 2019

Making it work today

With the abolition of the Milk Marketing Board, there was a bit of a price hike at the time. And then slowly but surely the price became more difficult to be sustainable. When we got out of milk we were getting about 50 and a half pence a litre. And I used to jokingly say to people that at 50 and a half pence a litre we cannot even afford to change the light bulbs.

We’ve had hard times and so did my father. There is a photo of my father and his brother in a WW2 American Jeep and it looks like it’s floating because they are on top of what they call Boyce’s Dyke. And the level was across the top of it. This was in the 1953 floods before my time.

Unusually, a commuting farmer am I. Sadly my first wife died and my second wife, although born on a farm was wedded to the idea of living in the city, so I really had no choice. Hence I’m now a city living commuting farmer. I have two young children so I do the school run and then drive over to one of the farms. I’m normally at one of them by 9 o’clock something like that. Although we no longer live at Norton Hall someone is here a lot of the time. Living in Norwich my family’s life is based around this fine city and are therefore not immersed in the farm as I was as a child. My daughter likes the animals so will come to see them, particularly when the calves have been born. And you’d have thought that on other side of that, my son would like to come and look at the machinery. But it just depends how he feels. He’s interested when he’s interested but he has his own life.

I think in terms of Norton Hall, because I’m a tenant I honestly don’t know if either of them will take over from me. They’re very young still but I would like to think that I can leave doors open for both of them, and if they choose to step through great, and if they don’t also great.

Looking back to my grandfather’s and father’s days, I guess the really interesting comment is that nothing stays the same. It is circumstance, and technology, and world politics that dictate change. And you know, you either bend or you break so hopefully we’re bending as much as we need.

Going back to my old manager John Francis again, I quote him often because he’s worth quoting. John used to say to me, ‘If you do what you’ve always done about once every 20 years you’ll be at the forefront of fashion.’ I think he’s probably right, although, you know, with a modern touch.

So on to the future

I do not really have any modern Scottish connections, but I am teased by my wife when I say I am a Scot. And I have the classic dilemma that if England are playing Scotland at rugby I will support England. But if Scotland are playing anybody else I’ll support them!

I would like to just leave the farm in better shape than I had it a few years ago. Well, we struggled a bit, and we’re just beginning to make the place look, not tidy, because I don’t think tidiness is necessarily the important thing, but to look productive, and to look environmentally pleasingly scruffy where it needs to be, and prosperous and straight where it needs to be.

Peter at Norton Hall 2019

Peter Cargill (b. 1955) talking to WISEArchive on 15th April 2019 at Norton Hall.

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