Life on the Land

Exploring experiences of Lincolnshire farming.

Lincolnshire has been shaped by farming. In 1821, nearly 60% of families within the county worked in agriculture in some way[i] and by 1850, the percentage of Lincolnshire’s adult population engaged in agriculture was the third highest in England.[ii] In 1901, one in three workers within Lincolnshire worked in farming[iii] and although by 1971 only 12.8% of males in the county worked in agriculture,[iv] Lincolnshire ‘still thinks of itself as an agricultural county.’[v]  Despite falls in the overall number of people working directly in farming, Lincolnshire is still at the forefront of British agriculture. The county produces 20% of all food grown in the UK and is the largest producer of cereals, wheat and potatoes in Britain.[vi]  In 2021, agriculture is still at the heart of Lincolnshire’s experience. This exhibition aims to explore Lincolnshire farming through the experiences of those involved in it. This is a story of change but also continuity, with the exhibition tracing developments in agricultural life and work throughout the twentieth century to present.

To do this, we have interviewed five individuals whose life has been shaped by farming in some way:

  • Eric worked in agriculture for most of his adult life before retiring.
  • James works as a farmer.
  • Sue comes from farming background, working in agriculture herself on a seasonal basis.
  • Ivory works as a poultry farmer.
  • Ruth spent her childhood living on a farm.

Who works in farming?

For much of the twentieth century, working in agriculture was the most common form of male employment within the county. As a child in the 1950s, Sue thinks maybe half to three quarters of residents in her village worked in farming, Eric remembers how simple it was to gain a new farming job in the 1960s and 1970s:

‘In them days, you could walk out of one farming job and into a new one. I asked… ‘have you got any jobs?’ and [the farmer] said ‘Yes boy, start on Monday’

For many, farming was a job for life. Sue compares this to the situation nowadays:

‘Once you’d finished on one farm you could always walk to another one and you’d have work. There wasn’t all this unemployment like you’ve got today.’

The number of people currently directly employed in agriculture has fallen dramatically. James reflects on changes in agricultural employment:

‘Most [workers] came out the local village. That doesn’t really happen now. Our three staff, one is very local and the other comes from ten miles away. Nobody out the village like they used to.’

James describes the current workforce on his farm:

‘We very rarely need anybody. We’ve got three staff on the farm who have been with us for at least fifteen years. Before that, we had three staff on the farm who had been with us forty years.’

Ivory describes the workforce across her poultry farms:

‘I manage about ten people but that’s not every day. At each site we have one stock person who comes in first, checks all the hens; collects any floor eggs we’ve got; and checks the welfare of the birds, making sure nothing is wrong.’

Ivory also stresses the importance of personal contacts for hiring workers in modern farming:

‘A lot of [our workforce] are friends and family to be honest. All of them are Lincoln based. We want to try and get a workforce who work as a team and keep that workforce as long as we can rather than have a high turnover of staff. It’s a long-term job rather than a short-term job if possible.’

Working in farming was and still is often linked to family background; as Ruth says, ‘if your Dad was a farmer, you’d be a farmer.’ Eric explains why he began working in farming in the 1960s:

‘Not everybody did it but I was brought up in it so you nearly always went into farming. My Dad was in farming. My Grandad was in farming. My Great-Grandad was in farming. I was brought up in a village and we were all brought up into the farming life. My uncle Jack down the road, my Dad worked for him so we were all intertwined into the farming life.’

James agrees that family is still central to modern farming:

‘I was born to farming…as a little boy I went out with my father before school. I have a son on the farm now. I also have a daughter in agriculture. I farm with my brother and he has a son on the farm as well.’

Ivory feels that an awareness of farming as a career option is no longer explored in schools, discouraging local young people from thinking about working in agriculture. Again, she stresses her family background as an important reason for her involvement in farming:

‘I remember when I was at secondary school, I wanted to be a farmer and people [at the school] thought it was a silly idea. If I wasn’t from a farming background and didn’t know about it, I may not have even gone into farming. In secondary school, we don’t really get shown anything to do with farming because personally I feel that it’s not seen as a very high profession although it should be.’

Seasonal workers have always been an important aspect of the agricultural workforce in Lincolnshire. Women and children were expected to help at peak times such as harvest.

Sue recalls working on the land as a child in the 1950s, when children as young as six would be working:

‘When we were children, we used to go potato picking. You had a retch which was so many yards. You had two sticks at each end and that was your bit. We used to do it but it was only for pennies really. You’d take your dinner and by dinner time you’d think ‘oh, my backs killing me’. If it wasn’t potatoes it was French beans, you’d put them in a net for about a penny a net. The nets were about three-foot high so you didn’t get a lot of money! Then we used to go strawberry picking. I think we are more strawberries than we picked’

Ruth also noted women working on the land:

 ‘on the field there would be lots of big flat stones and they would collect [these] and take them to the edge of the field to build up the dry-stone walls. Some people were particularly good and renowned for their dry-stone walling.’

Sue also remembers gypsies also helping as seasonal workers during harvest:

‘[The gypsies] sort of knew when the busy seasons were about. They used to come, park their caravans and work all day.’

Irish workers also used to be a large component of the seasonal workforce. Irish labourers had travelled to Lincolnshire to help at harvest time since the early 1800s. By the twentieth century, the Irish were a permanent presence within Lincolnshire, with diaspora communities in many market towns. Eric describes Irish seasonal workers in the 1960s and 1970s:

‘We used to have an Irish gang come into the village. They used to live in one of the empty houses. In the potato harvesting, we used to have people come from Grantham- an Irish gang, four or five blokes picking the tates in the week and then they used to go home at the weekend. A lot of them came from Grantham. A lot of people came out of Grantham and that coming to do seasonal work because that’s all they could find.’

Seasonal workers are still a vital presence in the agricultural workforce within Lincolnshire. Although not currently using seasonal workers, James has done so in the past:

‘We did ten years ago. For a two-month period, we had some Polish people who came to pull wild oats and beet.’

 In 2006, up to 90% of fruit and vegetable packing businesses in South Holland used migrant labour,[i] with most seasonal workers coming from eastern Europe and Portugal.[ii] The biggest peaks in the use of seasonal workers in contemporary agriculture in Lincolnshire is the summer and winter months,[iii] with recruitment predominately still taking place by word of mouth.[iv] As of 2020, many farms in Lincolnshire rely on migrant labour for over half of their workforce,[v] with the majority of seasonal workers coming from European Union countries. Due to Brexit, the government has trialled the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) to allow migrant labour to continue.

How does farming work?

Until the later twentieth century, those working in agriculture often had no formal training. Sue remarks that ‘you went from farm to farm and you learnt from experience from doing it.’ Eric remembers: ‘I would have liked to have gone to college but nobody could afford it in my time. You learnt on the job.’ However, Eric does remember the introduction of the Agricultural Craftsman Certificate, a farming qualification, in the early 1970s:

‘When I was at Belvoir they brought in the Agricultural Craftsman certificate. I was about 25 then so it was around 1972. It all depended on how long you’d been in agriculture and I had been in agriculture all my life then I was classed as a craftsman so instead of earning £20 a week my wages went up to £23 a week.’

Local agricultural colleges did exist. In 1948, the Kesteven Agricultural College opened at Caythorpe Court. The first intake consisted of forty-eight students who were mainly ex-serviceman, starting new careers in farming after the Second World War.[i] The college then became the Lincolnshire College of Agriculture and Horticulture in 1980 after a merger with Holbeach and Riseholme Agricultural Colleges. In 2001, the University of Lincoln took over the college and currently runs agricultural training courses from its campus at Riseholme.

James explains his training background and the importance of experience:

‘I went up to Edinburgh to study agriculture and spent seven years in Scotland, the last four years on a farm up there before I came home with some experience to farm here. I think a lot of farming is experience. Every year is a different year and even when you’re fifty-five years old you’re still learning! But today technology is much more advanced than it was and we probably look at soils more, so I think it’s probably quite important to get the basics. I think you do [need training]. If you want to get your basics you need to go somewhere.’

Ivory trained locally to work in agriculture:

‘I went to Riseholme College when I was 16 because I knew I wanted to do something within the agricultural industry. I did a foundation degree and a BSc Honours. I was at Riseholme for 6 years in total from college to degree and I did that whilst working full time [on a farm].’

She also thinks that formal training mixed with practical experience is important in modern farming:

‘I do think [formal training] does help because it makes you see from all points in the industry, not just from the farm worker’s side of things. We learnt a lot about the environmental impact of farming and more about why we do [certain things] rather than just doing it. You don’t need [formal training] to be successful in farming because a lot of it is experience but it definitely does help. I still want to do more training and widen my knowledge about [poultry farming].’

Farming has never been a nine-to-five job. As Ruth says:

 ‘You work around the land. You work around what [is] going on. It’s a labour of love. You’ve got to want the end product; your lively hood depends on it.’

This is something Ivory agrees with:

‘Farming is a lifestyle. It is not a 9 till 5. You need to be really passionate about it, you need to know what you’re getting yourself into. There is a lot of responsibility. If things go wrong, that’s your income. You’re not going to have anything. There’s a lot of pressure but at the same time, I wouldn’t change it. When things go right you think ‘I’ve done that.’ I think [working in farming] is something people should consider.’

Farming is a busy job, particularly at peak periods such as harvest. Eric remembers his average working week:

‘You had to work on Saturday morning. It wasn’t a 40-hour week, it was a 48-hour week. You worked 8 and a half hours a day and you had to work 5 hours on a Saturday. Summer you always worked later because of harvest but mainly you worked a 48-hour week. That’s when you made your money, in the harvest time.’

Sue reflects on her father’s working patterns:

‘14 hours [a day] I think Dad used to work. Especially if it was a good day and the harvest was ready, you could start as early as 6 in the morning and you could still be going at midnight because you had to get it in. Living on the farm was like 24 hours.’

Time off and holidays were limited. Eric remembers:

‘You only had a couple of weeks a year. One week was what you wanted and one week was if the farmer wasn’t too busy you could have it off.’

This is something that is still common in farming. As James says:

‘You have to take holidays when you can but it’s important to do it as you’ve got to have a quality of life. You make time. Everybody on the farm can do nearly everything so if somebody goes away there is somebody else who can step in and do that job.’

Ivory also thinks it difficult to get the balance right between work and leisure:

‘With farming it’s very easy to get sucked in. It’s hard to get the balance of socialising and work. A lot of my friends are from Young Farmers, we are all in the same kind of boat!’

Despite the heavy workloads, farming can be a rewarding profession. Eric reflects on what farming means to him: ‘farming is more than a job, it’s a way of life. I was brought up in farming.’ Sue also says: ‘it was a way of life, a good way of life.’ James agrees: ’farming is a way of life. It’s a good life. I wouldn’t change it.’

How has farming changed?

Since the nineteenth century, farming has become increasingly mechanised. Threshing machines were introduced from the early decades of the 1800s and ploughing with steam tractor engines was used from the mid-1800s to around the 1950s. However, horses and manpower remained vital to farming well into the mid-20th century. Sue remembers her grandparents’ farm: ‘my granny and grandad had a small holding at Ludford and they farmed with two shire horses.’

One of the biggest changes seen since the end of the Second World War in 1945 is the increased use of tractors, combine harvesters and other farm machinery. Arthur Parker, born in 1875 and interviewed in 1952, reflected on the changes he had seen in farming in the Lincolnshire Wolds over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

‘They’ve gone too far. The working man on the land they had to go at 6 o’clock in the morning to 6 o’clock at night for a penny an hour…and in harvest time they used to be mowing and tying. Now there is no mowing and tying…it’s all done…with machinery. Now they’ve got these here combine harvesters, they can thresh it and do everything with it before ever taking it out the field.’[i]

Increase in machine use has also meant that fewer people are needed to work in agriculture. In 1881, around 55% of the population in Welbourn worked as agricultural labourers, falling to just 8% by 1982.[ii] In 1932, Fulbeck had fifteen farmers employing forty men, a number which had fallen to four farmers employing two workers in 2009.[iii] However, mechanisation has meant greater productivity; modern combine harvester can gather 300 tonnes of wheat in a day.[iv] Eric reflects on these changes:

‘the farmers now only need to employ 3 people to do the work of what 10 people used to do. There’s not the work now on the farms… There’s less people, bigger implements, bigger tractors. You’ve got to have these here certificates now because you’ve got all these here different sprays and everything. If you’re not computer literate your no good on a tractor anymore. They just press a button and the tractor drives itself down the field.’

Sue also has had mixed feelings about the effects of mechanisation:

‘You didn’t have…big machinery. It was like a small tractor and trailer. It wasn’t like today’s machinery, it’s too big! Combine harvesters for a start. The one’s my father drove had no cabs and they weren’t sat nav. You’d come in absolutely filthy but it was all good fun!. I think personally that the machinery is too big, you’ve lost the human scale… I mean you don’t have to drive the tractors now. It goes up the field, it turns itself around, and it comes back down.’

James reflects on the increased mechanisation of farming:

‘Small…tractors were 100 horse-power and there were lots of them because there were lots of people on the farm. Now tractors average 220 horse-power. They’ve all got GPS steering. The sprayer has as well. As we go forward, technology and robotics will become more and more [important].’

The increased use of robotics in poultry farming is something Ivory thinks will continue:

‘We have two different robots. One is an old car manufacturing [machine] and they’ve retrofitted it to pack eggs and the other is especially built for eggs. I do see the industry keep going towards robotics, the more robotics we have the more our staff can focus on other things such as checking the birds’ welfare.’

Eric has also noticed changes in the balance between pastoral and arable practice over the last fifty years:

‘They’ve gone more to arable. I bet if you looked around where you live, you can’t see a lot of animals in the fields nowadays. It’s because of productivity, they weren’t getting enough money for it. The countryside isn’t the countryside without having all the animals in the fields.’

Indeed, the acreage put over for wheat in Lincolnshire rose by 168% between 1903 and 1972,[v] with sugar-beet acreage rising by over 1000% between 1925 and 1972.[vi] These increases parallel a drop in the number of livestock in the county. Between 1903 and 1972, the number of cattle within Lincolnshire fell by 17% with sheep numbers falling by over 70% in the same period.[vii] At Fulbeck, there were 6 dairy farms in 1960 but by 1980, these had all gone.[viii]

James explains practice and crop rotations on his farms:

‘[We are] occupier-owners here but we have got some tenanted land as well and we do contract farm for other farmers. We are growing malt and barley for beer and whiskey which is our main crop. We’ve got sugar beet which helps in the rotation. Small amounts of oil seed rape. We have got some grass land which we let for sheep. On the home farm, we are about 1,200 acres.’

Farming as always had to adapt to the times and customer demands. Ivory’s family farm has seen major changes in farming practice over the last few decades:

‘We used to do arable farming such as potatoes… we had to diversify. We diversified into renewable energy, so we have wind turbines [and] solar panels. Now our cold stores are nearly self-sufficient on renewable energy, we are trying to help the environment whilst farming at the same time. We diversified into poultry. We did this about 6 years ago. There are 32,000 hens [which are] free range egg layers [on this site] … slowly over the last six years, we got to 4 [poultry farms].’

Ivory stresses the importance of consumer perspective to modern farming:

‘Consumer perspective is massive. It impacts us on how big we need our eggs, how we run our chickens and all these kind of things. We have to change with what the consumer wants. There are still things we are changing, even after all these years.’

With a recent increased emphasis on environmentalism, James has also seen some changes in farming: ‘we have had more environmental things on the farm with margins and bird covers which we didn’t used to have.’

However, farming has always been susceptible to economic slumps. Hannah Marjoram described the state of farming in the Sleaford area during the Great Depression of the 1930s:

‘I do remember a feeling of near-despair in our own home, when money was virtually non-existent. Farm produce prices tumbled…It seemed that every day we heard of neighbouring farmers going bankrupt and selling up…One farmer we knew well in the next village hanged himself in his own barn. The wages of farm labourers went down…Hundreds walked from farm to farm, village to village looking for non-existent work.’[ix]

Eric remembers the effects of diseases such as foot-and-mouth and swine fever on farming during the later twentieth century:

‘My uncle’s [farm] got swine fever and it just wiped him out. It was quite rife in the 1980s for foot and mouth and swine fever to come. I’ve seen big pyres in the distance when they’ve been burning the animals.’

Nowadays, farming in Lincolnshire is an international business. As James says:

‘We are now on a world market. What happens in the UK probably only has quite a small effect on prices.’

Mrs Smith’s Cottage, East Road, Navenby, Lincoln. Picture: Chris Vaughan Photography for North Kesteven District Council Date: August 17, 2021

How does farming affect wider life?

Working in agriculture often dictated where a family would live. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, workers were often provided with ‘tied’ accommodation which came with their job. Eric explains:

‘For as long as you worked there, the tied cottage was there. Nowadays I think they’ve done away with most of that now…If you worked for the farmer, they usually had houses and that’s where you lived because the wage wasn’t good enough to go renting or anything.’

Sue also describes ‘tied’ accommodation:

‘Usually the house came with the job in those days. If you were lower down, so you were just a farm labourer, it was just basic and you had a bathtub in front of the fire. When Dad got to farm foreman, [we got] a house with a bathroom.’

Many agricultural workers kept animals, particularly pigs, and grew their own vegetables to supplement their wages. As Eric remembers: ‘Dad used to get a couple of pigs from his brother and we fed them up until they were so big. You went one morning, and the pigs weren’t there anymore.’ Alongside a pig, Eric’s family in the 1950s had two vegetable gardens; fruit trees; chickens; and one milking cow.

Sue describes the importance of pigs to the household economy:

‘We had a pig, a big old white pig it was. We’d use the scraps from the house to feed the pig and when Dad and Grandad thought it had got to the right weight, it would go to the butcher and come back in different joints… The hams were always salted and hung from the big hooks from the beams. Everything of the pig is used. The head is cooked along with the tail and the ears and everything else and is made into what they used to call brawn. You cooked the cheeks and had that cold with pickles. You used everything really.’

Rabbits and game were also important food stuffs. Ruth remembers that ‘during the harvest season, people would jump off the combine harvester and chase a hare or a rabbit [to catch].’ Sue also recalls eating game:

‘If you had any pheasants, they were hung. You had hare, rabbits, pigeon whatever there was going really. There was a lot of poaching. My Dad used to go out shooting and come back with maybe a couple of rabbits or a hare or some pigeons. I didn’t like hare, it’s very strong. I didn’t like pheasant either. But in my day, you didn’t waste.’

Women were often in charge of domestic duties in the house. As Ruth says ‘when we were kids, few women worked.’ Sue remembers her mother’s daily routine: mum would get up, do housework and cook breakfast for Dad and whoever worked on the farm. It was always the foreman’s wife who cooked the breakfast.’

There was often a regular routine to the week, with household tasks being done on certain days. Sue remembers that Monday was always wash day and Tuesday was ironing day. Eric remembers his mother always baked on a Wednesday. Eric recalls that on Sunday the family would have a roast dinner; on Monday, they would eat the left-over meat; and on Tuesday they would have the leftovers from Monday minced up and put in a pie. These were, ‘the leftovers of the leftovers. Nothing went to waste…you couldn’t afford it.’

What is farming’s place in the wider community?

Harvest time was an important focal point in the agricultural year, also being an important social event with many villages having harvest festivals and village feasts.  Sue describes this:

‘Once the harvest was in, you’d have a thanksgiving. The corn was taken to the miller and then it went to the baker and he made a sheaf. It was bread but was in the shape of a sheaf with a little mouse. It was taken to church and you’d go to church for your harvest thanksgiving. And after the thanksgiving you would have a tea in the church hall where you had bread, meat and anything that came off the land. It was lovely. Harvest was the biggest thing because the whole village got involved.’

Often, farming created a strong sense of community; as Sue says, ‘everybody got on. The people my father worked for treated us like family.’ This is something Ruth agrees with:

‘There was a great feeling of community. Farming did provide that feeling of belonging. I was proud to live where I lived. It was sat inside me that pride of feeling ‘this is where I belong.’

This is something that Eric feels is missing in villages today, with many farms now closed and farm buildings converted into housing:

‘I went back to where I lived and the village has completely changed. It wasn’t the village I knew. They’ve rebuilt all the houses and the farm I first worked for was like a ruin to what it was when I worked there. Everything’s been made into residential houses. I didn’t even know the place when I went there. You knew everybody in the village. Now, I can walk round the village I’m in and hardly know anybody because there’s lots of people come in because they’ve built the village up. When I first went there, we used to have a harvest supper. But now you’ve got lots and lots of people coming in. It’s totally changed all together. They’re selling up like London way and that and coming to our way and buying the houses up which are a lot cheaper.’

These changes have also influenced how people socialise. Eric thinks younger people today have less amenities and entertainment opportunities than was the case in the 1960s and 1970s:

‘It’s got less to what we used to have. Once a month we could go to a dance but nowadays they don’t hold them like we used to. There was a lot more bus services. All the villages used to hold something. There was either a big fete or show. I’ve noticed there’s not so much now for the young ones. In the last ten or fifteen years, its gradually slumped out and nobody wants to do it.’

Ivory has also had mixed experiences in attitudes to farming:

‘You get a lot of villagers who disapprove of what you do. Farmers are making smells; they’re making too much noise; there’s tractors all on the roads [but] you get the ones who are supportive, they want to buy local produce.’

Ivory thinks education is the key for helping modern communities understand farming in their local area:

‘[Education about farming] should start from schools. A lot of time, they focus on primary schools, but secondary schools are just as important. When you get to secondary school, it all gets forgotten about. When you are children, you’re getting the basics down but in secondary school, it’s about learning properly where your food comes from’

However, James still feels farming has an important place in local communities:

‘Without a doubt [there is still a sense of community amongst farmers]. Farmers do tend to do a lot of bits and pieces in a village that wouldn’t normally get done.’

[i] E.A Wrigley, Poverty, Progress and Population, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), table 4.9, p.118

[ii] Richard Olney, Lincolnshire Politics 1832-1885 (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p.23

[iii] Dennis Mills, ‘The Revolution in Workplace and Home’ in Dennis Mills (ed.), Twentieth Century Lincolnshire, (Lincoln: the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 1989), p.18

[iv] Ibid, p.19

[v] Ibid, p.18

[vi] June Russell, ‘Lincolnshire Food’. Available at: [accessed on 03/08/2021]

[vii] Drasute Zaronaite and Alona Tirzite, The Dynamics of Migrant Labour in South Lincolnshire, (East Midlands Development Agency, 2006), p.19

[viii] Ibid, p.23

[ix] Ibid, p.34

[x] Ibid, p.37

[xi] Written evidence submitted by Greater Lincolnshire Food Board, June 2020. Available at: [accessed on 06/08/2021]

[xii] ‘The History of Caythorpe Court’, Kesteven Agricultural College Farm Guide 1973

[xiii] Arthur Parker, ‘Survey of English Dialects’. Available at: [accessed on 04/08/2021]

[xiv] Bill Goodhand, ‘Changes in the Quality of Rural Life: A Case Study of Welbourn’ in Dennis Mills (ed.), Twentieth Century Lincolnshire, (Lincoln: the Society of Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 1989), p.321 and p.344

[xv] Julian Fane, A History of Fulbeck in the County of Lincolnshire, (Lincoln: Ruddocks, 2009), p.7

[xvi] Ibid

[xvii] B.A Holderness, ‘Agriculture’ in Dennis Mills (ed.), Twentieth Century Lincolnshire, (Lincoln: the Society of Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 1989), table 3.1, p.39

[xviii] Ibid

[xix] Ibid

[xx] Julian Fane, A History of Fulbeck in the County of Lincolnshire, (Lincoln: Ruddocks, 2009), p.11 [1] Hannah Marjoram, My Dad and I, (Boston: Richard Kay, 1994), pp.71-72

[xxi] Hannah Marjoram, My Dad and I, (Boston: Richard Kay, 1994), pp.71-72