Old implements tell the bigger picture of farming heritage
Here in Britain old tractors are big business. Some people pay vast sums of money for rare models and collectors vie for a chance to own that special machine. The implements that accompany these tractors, however, are nowhere near as sought after. Many have long since disappeared to the great scrap yard in the sky. It’s still possible to find bargains, with some beautifully made items often sold for no more than scrap value.
A couple of years ago I bought an old land-drive fertilizer spreader for just £5 (roughly $8). I still use this spreader. It’s such a simple machine that very little can go wrong with it. I’m very fond of land-drive farm machinery. It is nice and quiet to use, and much less expensive than PTO-driven equipment, as real farmers don’t want these outdated relics and collectors are still very much focused on tractors.
The problem is one of space, I suppose. Implements take up more room than a tractor and since they aren’t always worth a great deal people don’t want to give them the shed space. What’s more, in recent years the value of scrap metal has risen considerably. Many big old implements are worth more to the scrap man than they are to the collector. This is a shame because tractors only tell part of the story of our farming heritage. A tractor alone is little more than a power source, but the implements that go with it are what plough the land, turn the hay and till the soil. It is sad that some of our skillfully made farm tools of yesteryear are worth so little today.
All tractors were made by relatively large companies. Some implements, though, were made by craftsmen like the village blacksmith who built the 100-year-old plough my brother now owns. Items like these tell us about the history of farming in our part of the country, and are also evidence of a time when goods were produced locally by inventive individuals and small industries.
I bought my old Massey Ferguson baler in 2000 BC (before children) when I had seven acres of flat land at my disposal to make hay with. When I bought the tractor, it came with a finger bar mower that did a fine job of cutting hay as long as you didn’t let the crop get too long and old. It was well suited to meadow hay, which was what I had, and it looked like a sensible idea to try to get hold of some more vintage hay-making equipment so that I could do the whole job myself.
My late father had coped with the idea of me buying a tractor, but when I told him I was thinking of buying a baler, he didn’t much like it. He seemed to think that what with me being female, well, I might just go and mangle myself in the baler. It was all slightly insulting, as what he was forgetting was that I was far too cautious to do something like that, whereas my brother, Wil, who was (and still is) male and a “proper farmer,” frequently did daft and dangerous things with farm implements (like kicking hay into the baler while it was running). He was actually far more likely to bale himself than I was.
When I told my dad that the baler I hoped to buy was a bargain at only £60, he scoffed even more, saying that it was unlikely that it would work, and did I have any idea just how complicated these things are to mend?
But I decided to give it a go anyway. After all, the scrap man said he’d give me £50 for it if it didn’t work, so I really only had a tenner to lose. I picked it up with my MF 35 from the farmer who owned it, just a couple of miles away. It took some maneuvering to get it through the gateway, which was a little embarrassing, and then half a mile down the road it had a puncture. So I had to unhitch it from the tractor, drive to the nearest tractor mechanic-type-chap to borrow a spare wheel, and drive back a second time because I couldn’t get the punctured one off due to the fact that the wheel nuts hadn’t been undone in decades. I was sweating a bit by then, what with the baler left in a rather stupid place on the side of the road. I was beginning to wonder if my dad had been right and that perhaps I wasn’t cut out for this.
Eventually, I got the old baler home. Whilst it had a certain war-torn appeal, I knew I should try to protect it from the weather, because it had virtually no paint left on it, just an aged patina of brown surface rust. The old stone outbuildings at my previous home had small doorways, so there was nowhere I could house the baler except under a piece of tarpaulin. I decided I would extend the life of my new and exciting implement by coating the entire machine in old engine oil. That was a move that would please my father to no end, as he was a great advocate of using old oil to preserve just about everything.
It took about five gallons to completely coat every inch of the baler with gloopy black stuff. I poured it over every cog, chain and surface, until I had a jet black, gangster-style baler, and a big black baler-shaped patch in the field. I found a grease gun and greased every nipple, then I drove into the hayfield, and miraculously, the rig baled hay (though the first two bales were slightly oily, it must be said)! I learned a bit as I went along, found how to adjust bale size and weight, and I discovered that I absolutely loved baling.
I loved the look of that big old machine, I loved the power of it – the way it shook the tractor when it was running stationary – and I loved the rhythmic racket it made. I also found the process immensely satisfying, especially since I could sell what hay I didn’t need, bringing in some well needed cash. That first summer was a good one, as I had three cuts of hay off the fields and sold several hundred bales of lovely, sweet smelling meadow hay. The £60 baler paid for itself in just the first few hours!
So that was it, the implement bug had bitten, and I wanted more. I bought a chain harrow that had come apart at the edges for two pints of beer off a local farmer who was rather too fond of the “loony juice” to know what was a good idea and what wasn’t.
Then I bought the Vicon Acrobat. Up until then I had borrowed a haybob (what we call a PTO-powered hay turner). But I really needed one of my own, as you know how it is with harvesting equipment: Everyone wants it all at the same time. I was offered a haybob for £10 (about $16), but it would only turn the hay, due to the fact that someone (not me I might add) had reversed it into a wall and bent it so that it would no longer row the hay. So I had that, but I was struggling to make the hay into rows ready for the baler until someone offered me the Vicon Acrobat for the hefty sum of £8.
To me, this was a great opportunity. A fully working secondhand haybob would have set me back up to £300 (about $475) as those machines were still being used by the proper farmers. However, most proper farmers hadn’t used a Vicon Acrobat since flared trousers and shirts with big collars were in fashion, so they were virtually being given away.
I remember picking up the Acrobat with my tractor. It was a bizarre thing, a trailed implement with four big spiky wheels that could be put into an array of different positions – supposedly to turn hay (which was a lie, as it just sort of rolled it up) or to make it into one or two rows. Unfortunately the plate on the implement illustrating exactly which spiky wheel should go where to do what job was totally obscured by rust, so I had to experiment with finding the best way to transport the thing along the road.
I had to drive along a piece of fairly narrow main road to get home, and I shall never forget that just in the narrowest bit, along came a bus. On my side was a house, with a big group of well-to-do-looking people outside having afternoon tea. I stuffed into the edge as much as I could and was almost at eye level with these people when I heard a terrible sound. The tines of the Acrobat were scraping unceremoniously along their garden wall, and the more I turned away from the wall, the more the tines dug into the wall and the worse the terrible racket became. I heard gasps from the owners. I’m not sure if they were gasps of laughter or horror – I didn’t stay to find out. I shouted “sorry” and rushed away, thinking, “thank heavens it was a wall I scraped, not a car!”
The sad end to these stories is that I have just sold my baler and my Vicon Acrobat. The baler was spending too much time outdoors and every winter the winds would shred the cover I had over it. Where I live now we don’t have enough flat fields to make hay growing really worthwhile, so the baler had been standing for three years. So I put both the baler and the Acrobat onto an online auction site. I got several times more than I paid for them, but I felt quite gutted seeing that baler go. It paid for itself many, many times over, and it was a monument to some very happy and amusing times. But we can’t hang onto every single monument from the past. FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.