Robert Brown's article published in The Gazette September 5, 2003


THE recent news that this year’s harvest has been one of the best for years has brought the hardworking farmers into the limelight.

Over the years, their work has often been fraught with problems, such as bad weather, faulty machinery or a lack of farm workers, but the crops and livestock are still tended to.

Farming locally has a tradition stretching back to the times before written records. However, in a publication dated 1794, describing the general view of agriculture in Hampshire, the area around Basingstoke was “deep, strong land, with chalk underneath which produced large crops”.

The usual crops in the area were wheat, peas and oats.

The wages were quoted as being £5 per annum for local labourers, such as head carters, £10 per annum for shepherds, and £2 per annum for milk boys.

In 1794, the local area had some 1,400 sheep grazing in the meadows – nearly the population of the town!

The construction of the railway between 1839 and 1848 gave the farmers the chance to travel further afield with their goods and sell them at more distant markets.

The setting up of a cattle market near Basingstoke Railway Station in 1873 allowed all sorts of produce, from cows and goats to fruit and vegetables, to be sold to anyone who would buy them.

Meanwhile, industry in the town was growing and farm workers in north Hampshire were attracted by the higher wages, such as at Wallis and Steevens, the agricultural machine manufacturers, resulting in a shortage of staff on the farms.

But, at the same time, the machines that Wallis and Steevens were making helped the farmer to get his work done more quickly and easily and thus did not need so many people to help him.

Nevertheless, several wet seasons hit the farmers badly, such as in 1852, 1860 and 1878. To survive the bad years the farmers had to sell cattle and machinery at the sheep fair which was held annually in Basingstoke, with lambs being sold for £2 or £3 each and ewes at £3 to £4 each in 1885.

British agriculture in the early 20th century began to recover from the 19th century depression by pleas to the Government for financial aid, and from the 1930s quotas and subsidies were issued by Parliament to farmers in dire need.

When the Second World War began in 1939, Great Britain’s economic situation was in a better position than during the First World War. The country had about a million more cattle, and over a million more sheep and pigs than in 1914.

The Second World War saw the creation of the Women’s Land Army, the “land girls” as they became known – based on the First World War women’s force, which helped the farmers while many of the workers were serving in the war. The Land Army was disbanded in 1950.

The death knell for many of the local farms came when the Town Development Scheme declared that much of the farmland around Basingstoke would be used for housing estates or other purposes.

The farms which closed down during the 1960s were South Ham, Buckskin, Down Grange, Eastrop, Hatchwarren, Jay’s, Merton, Oakridge, Popley Fields, Viables, Vinces and West Ham. A few managed to keep their land until recently, when further development took place.

One crop that has increased in recent years is the plant called rape, which is known as coleseed. The yellow is very prominent, as can be seen every year on the hills at Farleigh, south of Basingstoke.

Given the right weather and good conditions, farming is a very enjoyable profession, according to a recent survey, but the early hours and strenuous work at times can “weaken a man’s soul” as one retired farmer once said.

The aim of the farmer is to help to produce enough food to give health and strength to the people of this country.

The advances of science combined with years of experience in farming techniques makes the farmer a unique person and we should be proud of these hardworking people who keep this country provided with the food we need.