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Monday, 26 May 2014

Farming is science these days

After Adam has saved me from the folk singers (and viewers of a nervous disposition should not click that link), we head back to his Hampshire farm and he shows me his latest investment, a Massey Ferguson MF8600, which still has that lovely new car smell from a hundred volatile compounds that give you brain damage. 

"You fancy a spin?" he says.

"Define spin," I say. 

"Three miles an hour," he says. "I want to show you the computer system." 

Farming is applied science these days, he tells me, as I climb aboard, and he slips the beast into the lowest of 24 gears and indicates the bank of instruments inside the comfy cab. 

"First I get a detailed soil analysis on every field," he says. "That tells me how much of each crop nutrient is needed where. Then I feed that data into the tractor's computer. So it then throws exactly the right amount of the nutrient I'm spreading, for wherever we are and whatever speed we're doing."

"That is clever," I say. "How does it know where you are?"

"GPS," he says, tapping the instrument on the windscreen. "I also get a weather report updated every hour and displayed on this screen beside my head. It's smart stuff."

"So basically you sit up here reading the Guardian while the tractor does all the work?" I say.

"Wrong," he says. "You can't rely on automation. The human brain is needed to take lightning-fast decisions when the unexpected happens. In farming you have to expect the unexpected."

"Gimme a break," I say. "It's hardly Silverstone, is it? We're doing three miles an hour through a field of corn." 

"Wrong again," he says. "It's not corn. That just means the main cereal crop of wherever you happen to be. In these parts it would be wheat. In the frozen wastes you come from it would be barley. I grow both. Also oats, rape, lavender and vines."

"So what is this?" I ask, looking down on tall, green grass, rippling in the breeze.

"Barley," he says. "It goes to make beer."

"How much beer?" I say. 

"I can grow 3 tonnes of barley an acre," he says. Each tonne gives enough malt to brew 15,000 pints of beer. This is 25 acresDo the sums.

Since he seems to be keeping a keen eye on the tractor track, in case Jenson Button tries to overtake, I use my fingers. "Half a million pints," I say eventually.

"Wrong again," he says, easing up on the throttle and pulling on the handbrake beside a fenced-off section of field, containing a dozen rows of vines. "It's over a million. Jump out will you, but watch your feet on the organic fertiliser."

The organic fertiliser turns out to be a huge heap of waste from the back end of several thousand cows that smells way worse than the sterile grey pellets of nutrient we've been scattering so far. I'm wondering how modern technology is going to handle it, especially when he tells me what has to happen next. 

"Every hole that's been dug for five new rows of vines gets exactly two spadefuls," he says.

"You'll need very precise GPS to do that with your tractor," I say.

"Wrong again," he says, reaching for the shovel beside the dung heap, which seems to be growing larger and smellier as a terrible suspicion forms in my mind. "For this job we're going to use a traditional farming implement known as the Mark I muscle."

"Please tell me you don't mean it."

"You see in this world there's two kinds of people, my friend. Those with shiny new tractors and those who dig."

He throws me the shovel. "You dig," he says.

"Aw shit," I say.

"Correct," he says. "First time today."

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