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I’ve Got a Brand New Combine Harvester and I’ll Give You The Key

The world is full of rich and diverse cultures, each with its own language and idioms. This stretches to the weird and wonderful world of Yorkshire farmers. I have, out of necessity, become a cunning linguist and now pride myself on speaking ‘farmer’. I’m not great at it and I have to study hard. It is a subtle tongue that consists mostly of guttural grunts, head tilts and the odd: ‘Aye.’ added for flavour. To watch two specimens in full flight would be worthy of a full research grant as this language is enhanced by a plethora of mannerisms and practises: the slight head tilt in recognition of a comrade; the ‘aye’ as a substitute for a whole conversation; the critical, narrowed, beady eye of quiet contemplation and not least, the ability to drive down any road with their head a full 90̊ angle. This rather unnerving talent is in order to peer over their neighbour’s hedges to assess how far (or not) the harvest is coming along. But perhaps my favourite idiom is the Yorkshire wave. It consists of one finger raised marginally off the steering wheel as a gratuitous ‘Thanks’. I’ve adopted this myself. These hardened, tenacious, wily old -timers are a subtly friendly bunch. Their hearts are pure gold and their pockets are deep – so deep in fact that nothing ever comes out. They are very attached of each other – but they certainly do not suffer fools gladly, and new-comers are new-comers for the rest of their days. It is the archetypal rural ‘old boys club’.

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Part of the language idiosyncrasy is never to use proper nouns, but rely totally on a selection of pronouns – mostly ‘he’ but if it happens to be an inanimate object such as a tractor or Mother Nature causing issues, then the pronoun is always female. It requires a good memory bank of previous conversations to follow which ‘he’ is the conversation focus. These friendly bunch of farmers are usually laid back and like nothing better than to ‘chew the fat’- as Alan so eloquently puts it. We have a regular bunch of lads that frequent our farm. All arrive in a work premise. I sometimes slightly wince at the idea they all charge an hourly fee, and they all chew the fat for a good many of those hours – no wonder there is no money in farming!

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At certain times of the year there is a definite competitive feel in the air. The elusive and craved for badge of honour is worn with pride if you happen to be the farmer that completes (or even starts) an annual event first. These events make up the farming calendar and consist of ploughing, power harrowing, drilling, rolling, hay, haylage or silage making. Perhaps the biggest prize of all goes to the farmer that cranks up the combine harvester first. The cut-off date for this unofficial competition is the ‘The Great Yorkshire Show’ (our annual celebration of all things rural). Farmers at this event can be identified by both place and dress. All are found congregating either by the cattle, sheep or pig sections, or near the new machinery. Their uniform consists of either blue or green Dickies overalls, white show coats, or if they are off duty, then their attire is the statutory checked shirt, trousers and either Hoggs or Jodhpur boots. Pockets of trousers usually bulge with rolls of slightly oil-coated £20 notes, keys, hankies, straw and general animal detritus. The older boys have heads adorned with grease covered flat caps. Their hands are like shovels and their hearts are aglow. It is the coming together of the County’s kindred spirits – the west wind has carved their ruddy complexions and the rain and sun has weathered them. But I love them one and all.

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Alan is the finest example of all things Yorkshire Farmer. His bright blue eyes shine like jewels in his weathered and sun-burnt face. His hands are like spades – all ingrained and rough and can build and mend and make and do absolutely anything. He speaks his own language ‘Si thi’ (Hi); ‘Lal Fergie’ (our old and little, grey Fergie tractor), ‘Beyates’ (boots) and ‘See est a wither’ (see you later) and – my favourite: ‘The year’s buggered’ (referring in his candid tongue to the fact that once the winter barley is harvested in July, the best of the summer is over and winter is on its way). He loves nothing more than playing on and tinkering with his beloved collection of decrepit and slightly less decrepit tractors and farm machinery.

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All is calm through the seasons on our farm as the green, sea-like waves of barley heads move and whisper in the early summer sun. But then the tension in the air rises just a touch when the first of the winter barley starts to dry and yellow. I like to listen to the tell-tale popping of billions of grains drying and bowing as the sun evaporates the swollen rain soaked heads. I ride around the set-aside strips and quietly contemplate the ebb and flow of nature’s clock. The wind blows dry and the corn turns. Then, like a captain holding his army to rank, Alan takes out the moisture tester. The air turns momentarily blue as the digital gadget outsmarts the mechanical age. The corn is tested. Breath is held. Waiting. Waiting. Then that magical figure appears – less than 14% moisture and we’re on. Phone calls follow and then fellow farmer Pete appears in his gargantuan, growling, clanking, ancient combine. It’s 20 years old if it’s a day. It gobbles the barley heads and spits out the straw and clunks and grinds and snorts. But it works. The boys turn back to their childhood as they harvest the crop and play like schoolboys with their machinery. Alan drives the tractor and trailer to gather the corn as it fires like a waterfall out of the combine. Back and forth they go, row upon row of waving barley lies as straw on the stubble. I too feel that rush of adrenaline. Stubble fields. Endless miles of galloping.

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We never win the competition. Our soil is clay and holds the damp. The boys with the sandy soil always win. Their heads are held that touch higher. Their combines that much newer. But our crops yield. The droughts don’t starve our fields. Our fields are home and beautiful. Through the seasons the ripening corn host deer. The buzzards cry overhead. The rabbits scarper and the kestrels hunt in our waving, dreaming corn.

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