The following is a transcription of Ray Bond’s audio tape of a talk given by Frank Palk, local farmer, entitled “Farming In The Area Over The Past 40 Years”
First of all I’d like to tell you that I have no experience in public speaking whatsoever. I expect some of you would say what a lot of rubbish and I expect some of you will fall asleep while I talk.
Born at Avonwick, I was taken to Tedburn St Mary when I was 3 months old. I left Avonwick in the January and went to Tedburn in March. I went to school at Tedburn St Mary, an old Parish Council School. I learnt my ABC, I learnt my timetables, inches, feet and yards, how many yards in a furlong and apart from that very little else! In those days they just taught you what you needed to know to get through life. The master would go up to the blackboard with a cane in one hand and a piece of chalk in the other. There was no vandalism, bad behaviour, bad language it was as you wanted it to be.
Anyway moving on from there (about 1939) farmers had a concession to get their sons off school to help with the harvest during the war and we thought that was a fine job. In 1940 my father was taken ill and as special release I was able to leave school and come back and work on the farm at the age of 13. During the early part of the war we had people coming to the farms who knew nothing at all about it. They made my father plough up some old pasture and marshy land that should never have been ploughed. It was either plough it or you lose your farm. He agreed to do it and because he agreed to do that they sold him a tractor (you couldn’t buy them). The Ministry got hold of these tractors and placed them where they thought they would get most benefit. I learnt to drive this tractor at the age of 13 and I did a lot of work with it. My father’s health deteriorated and it was 1940 (Sept. ?) when he died. There were 8 of us in the family, Mother with all the pressures of the war didn’t think we would be able to carry on. We left September 1942 and originally the tractor list price was £126 but by the time the farm sale had come the price had risen to £190, but they weren’t allowed to auction it. So all those interested in the tractor had their names put in a hat and the lucky one had the tractor. Because if it went to public auction the Ministry thought there would be profiteering involved. Anyrate that’s enough about Tedburn St Mary.
We moved to Cockington to a cottage in 1942 and I went out to work as a farm labourer. The second day I was at work the horseman went sick and the farmer said to me you can take the team and go up to Ash Barton and carry on ploughing where Walter was yesterday. I was 15 and I had to do it and I done it! Since then the 12 acres I bought the field and ploughed it in a day. And on that particular day when I had the horses, I struggled to plough an acre because the fields were so steep the poor horses were absolutely worn out at the end of the day. And that’s what they called progress!
Anyway moving onto working on the farm I did all the usual things that you did on the farm but I was getting fairly disgruntled, I was getting nowhere. In December 1944 at the age of 17 I heard on the grapevine that Stantor Barton’s tenant was quitting and the farm was going to be let. I went straight to the Estate Office in Cockington and saw the boss man in the office, apparently he used to live in Millman’s Farm here in Marldon. He was evacuated from London, he was a speculator and then he came here to the safety of farming and that if anything happened he would O.K.. Before my 18th birthday a message came from him to come and see him. I couldn’t wait to see him irrespective of the result and he asked me into his office and said I’ve decided that I’ve left the farm to you if you’re interested. I put my hand out and said “yes please”! I went home and told my mother and she burst into tears crying and cried all night. She said you will never make it do. Whatever are you thinking about. Now you stop crying.
We moved in on the 29th September 1945, we bought some cows in outgoing tenant’s sale, and milked them by hand, me and my brother, and on the 1st October we bought an old car from Jack Ackro ?(or Ackroll?) for £126.00 up at xxx anybody remember him? We made up a trailer and took it down to the dairy at Preston, I forget how many gallons. He wanted the milk by 8 o’clock in the morning while it was still warm because he had customers coming to his dairy begging for warm milk and that continued and we increased our herd. At the time I think we were getting three shillings a gallon for it and we were buying petrol from Bridgeman’s down at Compton for one and ten pence a gallon. Wind it up by hand, half way (mimes). Today I think petrol is round about 70p a litre and milk is about 18p a litre. I think it was in 1954 the newly formed MAFF implemented different roles and restrictions etc.etc. and all milk had to be pasteurised so they came to the farm, tested our water – we had marvellous spring water. When we went to Stantor there was no electric, no mains water and no drainage system at all, all very basic. They tested the water and they said it’s not up to the standards, it’s alright for you to drink it but you won’t be allowed to wash your dairy with it”. Anyway by the time they brought the restrictions into being, and they did some estimates regarding bringing the dairy and the shippons up to scratch we decided to give up milking and with all the restrictions that have been introduced since, it was a very good thing.
My first appreciation with Compton was taking a harvest wagon there from Cockington and the wheel came off and I was going down Widdicombe Lane and one of the iron bonds had come off and the wheel was jogging along on it’s axle. When I got down to Bridgeman’s, I was only a boy in those days, “What do you expect us to do with this heap of junk” he said. “It’s not my junk” I said, I was only told to bring it here. I think at the time he had 5 men there working and he mended the harvest wagon. And when I went to collect it the new combine was all painted up smart and he’d done a first class job. It’s a pity he’s not still down there, I’m sure there would be a living still there for his descendents if there are any. His wife used to keep a shop up here.
The chairman mentioned bell ringing – it’s a disappointment really because our road lengthsman used to do our roads around Stantor, and at that time the boundary thataway was Gallows Gate. He used to walk through the farm to the top of Scadson and pick up his length to come back and he used to walk through the farm and have a chat and tell us how to do our job and he said I’d like you to come bell ringing. You look a strong chap so we came and this was about November time with the dark evenings and we used to walk there. We were just getting the hang of it when the Spring came and the days got longer and there was a lot more work to do on the farm and sadly we had to stop, we couldn’t find the time to do it. That was the bell ringing enterprise that came to an end unfortunately.
Another little story I’d like to tell you was in 1947 when we had a bad winter, we didn’t have many sheep of our own up to then and we took in a lot of sheep to keep for the winter and I think it started snowing Boxing Day and there was snow drifting at Stantor (12 feet high?) and these ewes that we took in to feed were due to start lambing 1st February. We didn’t have any buildings, we had hundreds of sheep and made shelter with straw and galvanised sheets we done all we could to save as many lambs as possible. The owners were on Dartmoor, they couldn’t get them back, we did our utmost to save them and we did. But when it started to thaw we had 5 days of east wind and rain and that was a killer. I went around one morning with a horse and cart and picked up a cartful of dead. That was the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life regarding farming, I remember drilling the corn in one of the fields there in April, driving around in drifts of snow that hadn’t melted in April. That’s the worst of it.
Moving on now to a flock of sheep. Our forefathers always said that sheep have golden feet, they fed you and they clothed you. And I’ve always been a stockman more than a mechanic. I’ve always enjoyed looking after stock although machinery did come into it as it got more modern as there was more work to do and less staff on the farm. In those days on a Saturday morning we often had 2 or 3 boys ( 13 or 14 yrs. old) knocking at the door “have you got any jobs we can do at weekends?” We took on several who came holidays and evenings, Saturdays and Sundays, and really into it some of them went further and done farming. But today, the last 10 years, we haven’t seen anybody and if you ask anybody to do anything on the farm it’s getting now a dirty word to work at farming, but I’ve got a feeling it will alter.
Moving on now to 1956 I started growing vegetables to supply at local shops. I worked hard at it and I was quite successful. I came here with 16 acres of potatoes, 7 acres of cauliflower, sprouts and cabbage, put them all into an old van and sold them round the corner shops; and I’d never leave home half full and never get home half empty. I used to try and leave home full and come home empty. It was quite successful until Mr Tesco and Mr Sainsbury came along and they killed the corner shop stone dead, and they killed me with it. A sad thing really because the farms are lending themselves to doing it . We used to get quite a lot of callers coming to the farm for veg. and plants, but then they put the ring road through and they’d go straight past us. We hardly got anybody down to the farm that was the reason for that. As we expanded to add a bit more land here and there, I had a sheep flock and cattle, lambing 600/700 ewes and 394 cattle( that’s 100 cows). As for staff one man’s been with us for 28 years, and 2 casuals, since then I’ve become a casual worker, I don’t know so much about it these days .
In the 1990s we had the BSE and that was a catastrophe. The price of beef hit the floor, stock values fell by half and it became difficult to pay bills. A lot of people went to the wall, a lot of people couldn’t sell anthing, but sat it out and just when things were improving a little bit and could see light at the end of the tunnel a terrible thing – foot and mouth – arrived last year. And this was a nightmare . Some of the forms we had to fill in you could never believe, worded them the way they are and made them so difficult to fill in. In one of our farming magazines there was a farmer write in who had an up to date fax machine and he applied for a licence to move some cattle across a 15′ highway and the length of the paper which came out of his fax machine giving him permission to do it was 18 feet long. It is unbelievable what this government has done regarding the paperwork!
Now I haven’t got a lot more to say but I would like anybody who has any questions to ask some.
I could elaborate a little bit more on prices regarding livestock. Off the top of my head, I haven’t got my figures written down, the cheapest price I sold was £5 and my dearest price was £270. So you can see how farm prices fluctuate and high prices bring low prices and low prices bring high prices. So you have got to stick it out and take a level average. As regards the cattle prices when we started in 1942 our chairman picked up one for £52 and that would be over £1000 now. £52 in 1942 would be over £1000 now. Well it would be impossible to do that at today’s market. Regards the sheep, back in 1970 I started a new enterprise breeding rams for stock breeders. And I continued with it and they’re still doing it, and it’s turned out to be quite a successful enterprise. But until this year and then it was a disaster because if you bought anything or sold anything you were on a 3 week standstill and if anything arrived on the farm or if anything left the farm — a complete disaster you had to have a veterinary inspection on and off on the farm they would come and inspect the stock and sometimes they’d look in the mouth of every animal and sometimes they’d go over to the pen and say “That looks a nice lot of sheep, boss what do I want to come here for?” And that was the difference in different vets, there was no continuity at all.
Regarding the sheep, I have always been interested in sheep and asked to judge shows and next year all being well I’ve been asked to judge at the Devon County Show. I hope the show will be held and that the sheep will be there and I hope to be there.
As regards the cattle, my son’s the mainstay at that and he’s always been keen on calving cows ever since he left school. If they had a difficult calving, they called in the vet and they weren’t getting on very well. My Andy said “do you mind if I have a go”? The vet stepped back and said “yes have a go”. And he done it, and I have a lot of admiration for that. And since then I’d put him beside any vet to take a calf or lamb from mum. And they say it goes in generations, I was at the farm a week or two ago and my grandson will be 9 in January I said “what’s on today then George”? Oh he said “I did pick a lamb Granpy”. I said “what did you get”? “I put my hand in and I got him” he said. He said “I’ve been trained”. Little George, the farmer for the next generation.
As regards my family I said to you I lost my father in 1946, my mother died aged 50 of cancer and my dear wife died at the age 55 of cancer – so I’ve had a bit of a bellyful really. But I hope the Palk family will continue at Stantor Barton for many generations to come. Since we went there, we’ve bought it, we’ve put in mains water, we dug most of the trenches by hand from Gallows Gate to Stantor, and put in electricity in 1954. We modernised the cottages, got them on mainstream, there’s 3 cottages there, and a few years ago I’ve done a barn conversion. It was a very old barn that was hopelessly out of size and shape for modern equipment that was used. Very nice barn, walls were very thick, made a good solid home.
Ah footpaths! When we went to Stantor first there were four or five men that went through from Marldon to Cockington to work. They would go past us about quarter past seven in the morning and back about quarter past five in the night, they kept the footpath clean and tidy, no problem at all. Since then we have had additional footpaths, five in total, we’ve had problems with vandalism, dumping rubbish, dogs, gates left open; the public have no respect for farm property but we have tolerated it. But we have three people who come through quite regularly and if they can’t find anyone to speak to walking through the farm to say how nice it is looking, what are you doing there, the cattle are looking nice or whatever – they go home disappointed. Its because they are interested in what we are doing and they don’t want to interfere with the work but they just like to know what’s happening. On the other hand we have people walking through, they cover their head and they look at you as if you’re raping the countryside and that’s annoying more than anything. They think that, because you’re farming it!
From 1945 onwards the Ministry of Agriculture encouraged you to produce as much food as you could to keep the ‘balance of payments’ right by export. Now, that’s gone out of the window. Where’s our balance of payments today? Those of you that read the Financial Times …..
If you cannot recognise it, it’s best not to eat it, I won’t eat anything unless I can recognise what it is and I wish other people would do the same.
Supermarkets run by the Mafia – definitely. There are a lot of farmers who in a big way supply to the supermarkets but unless every cauliflower and every cabbage is exactly the same size with a bar strip on them for pricing them they do not want to know. How many families go into buy a cauliflower and each time want one the same size – it doesn’t work like that. You know yourself in the garden you put in a row of cabbages, there may be 20 in a row but there wouldn’t be two the same size. But if you sell them to the supermarket you sell three and sling the rest. Full stop. So that’s why you don’t sell to the big supermarkets, the wastage is colossal.
The Chairman mentioned the Marldon Show, well for me, Marldon Agricultural Show was First Prize with a horse and that was in 1948. The same horse at the Harvest Field, Stantor Barton . You are quite welcome to look at some of my ‘photos.
(He showed photos at this point whilst he was talking. The show was held in the field at the end of Singmore Road, on the 3rd. Saturday in June.)
The talk was followed by ‘Question Time’
Q. “I have always been fascinated by markets, markets have always been part of farming, do you have any stories about how Newton Abbot market changed”
A. Yes, well Newton Abbot market was our market and I used to go to market every Wednesday. There was always news to get regarding what’s happening in the farming area, prices to keep in touch with, and years ago there used to be a lot of food at the market and a lot of business used to be done there. I can remember going into the Bradley Hotel to find Bert Bridgeman to pay his bill, he had a little corner with a table where we could pay his bills but I also heard my Father say “business done in a pub is no good to nobody”. I never had a drink in a pub on market day. I would go to market, do the business and come to work. If you came home smelling of booze, working with staff, that’s a disaster. That doesn’t go together. Boozing, working on a farm doesn’t go together and there you are. And years ago there was a lot of farm cider made on the farm but that was part of life to have cider on the farm, it was part of their wages but the market was an important place. I always needed to know about price fluctuations and have contacts. I went to market one day and heard a whisper that somebody had a flock of sheep for sale and I couldn’t believe it. When I got home I picked up the telephone, I was asked how did you get to know. Within an hour I had bought that flock of sheep because I knew they were alright and had I not gone to market I’d have missed a very valuable flock of sheep that I wanted to get hold of. Answer your question?
Mark Westaway talks – I’d like to tell people about Frank Palk that he wouldn’t admit to. When I came to Love Lane (Farm) in 1952 from a 44 acre farm I had not got enough gear to really farm the 170 acres or whatever it was. Frank and his brother lent me a lot of machinery that I hadn’t got and helped me a lot. I only wish that Tony Blair could have been here to hear Frank and he’d learn a little about farming.
( Mark spoke very warmly and emotionally about Frank)
Q. “Stray dogs, what is the actual ruling?”
A. To be quite honest I’ll answer your question. A few years ago we were having a lot of trouble and we did educate people by shooting them! I think there may be people in this room who may think I should be tarred with a black brush for shooting dogs, but I educated them and luckily now we don’t get very much trouble. I’ll tell you a story that’s true. Over at Cockington, near Broadley Drive my son Andrew went over there on a Saturday morning, saw the sheep everything alright. Afternoon the ‘phone rang, dog worrying sheep, we picked up six or seven over there, though some had gone too far, but the sad part was we didn’t know exactly how many sheep were there – we thought we had it right. About a week afterwards the ‘phone went, sheep in a field pecked to death by maggots. We warned the RSPCA, Trading Standards, Torbay Council and they wanted to summons us. And if it wasn’t for our vet who got them together and said “now look” and he explained the situation and got my Andrew off or else he would have been summonsed, no doubt. No, we don’t get the trouble we used to get, to be quite honest about it. And people now, they do keep them on the leads. And down at Cockington, now Dominic Ackland was here the other night, well I wouldn’t say we work together but we do go down the same road put it that way. He has fenced some of the footpaths so people can go down the footpaths, there’s the field and there’s the fence and instead of people letting the dog wander the dog can only go down the path, straight down!