BY JIM WEBSTER
Spend much time in farming and you’ll end up dealing with agricultural engineers. There is only so much you can fix with baler twine. In my time I’ve seen steel bars ‘reinforced’ by having heavy pieces of timber strapped to them using string. I’ve seen somebody get a tractor home, steering with the independent brake because the steering wheel no longer turned the front wheels. But eventually you need to get somebody competent in.
We are lucky in that we have somebody competent not far away. Indeed when I was little, we always went across the fields until we hit a green lane which took us to the road. Then it was perhaps three hundred yards along the road to the engineers.
The problem with this route is that they’d developed it with horses in mind. With a horse drawing a cart (or other implement), when you come to a gate you get off, open the gate, shout ‘Walk on’ and the horse comes through the gate. Then you shout ‘Whoa’ and the horse stops. You shut the gate and get back on the cart. With tractors it’s a bit more of a faff. You get off, open the gate, get on, drive through, get off, close the gate, get on. In simple terms it means that with a tractor it’s actually faster just to drive round by road rather than taking the ‘short cut.’
But when the person you can spare to take a tractor to get fixed hasn’t got a driving licence, the short cut is the obvious route. So I was dispatched, aged about thirteen, to take the tractor in. I’d been driving them for a while, so I didn’t have a problem with it. We’re talking a David Brown 950 here, a tractor that was older than me. When I got to the engineers I drove the tractor into the workshop and explained the problem. The problem was about fixed when the boss wandered round and asked, “James, where’s your Father?”
“At home, he’s busy with cows’ feet.”
“Who fetched you?”
“Eddie, when the tractor’s fixed just drive James and his tractor to the end of the tarmac.”
So legality was observed, politely, and in passing.
Another time I was taking a tractor to the engineers to be fixed, I was older and therefore could go by road. The engine was ‘running a bit rough’. At one point I was driving up the hill and the engine was definitely running rough. Judging by the noise coming from it I’d be lucky to make it to the top of the hill. At this point the Hercules C130 tactical transport aircraft which had sneaked up behind me quite literally overtook me. It was so low I could read the writing on the underside. The disconcerting noise was explained.
It has to be said that an agricultural engineers wasn’t one of those places you could stand about idle. One time I was there, they were busy, and those people with stuff needed fixing now were hanging about waiting. But whilst you were waiting, the boss had a set of spike harrows to assemble. Because he had all his lads working flat out, that set of spike harrows was assembled by waiting farmers during the course of the afternoon. I’d bolted in half a dozen of the spikes by the time they’d got my job sorted.
The other thing about agricultural engineers is that the good ones will attempt to fix anything. The phrase, ‘this should get you going again’ is one which indicates that parts from competing manufacturers, pulled from a second-hand bin, have been made to fit. I remember talking to our vet. He had been called to a cow that wasn’t eating. He diagnosed the problem. Cows have big molars, and some of them have two or three points of attachment. What had happened is that the tooth had come free of all bar one point of attachment. So as the cow chewed, the tooth swiveled on that one point of attachment. I’ll pause a moment for you to wince as you imagine what that must feel like.
The problem was that the tooth was right at the back. Putting your hand deep into a cow’s mouth is a dicey proposition at the best of times. But whilst he could see the tooth, the vet couldn’t reach it.
So he walked across the village to the engineers. It had started out as a smithy and the forge and old blacksmith’s tools were still in place. The vet pointed to a set of the tongs and explained what he wanted.
They took the tongs, heated the ends with the oxyacetylene then hammered them so that the bit that grips was bent at 90 degrees to the handles. They were dropped into a water trough to cool down and then the vet walked back, reached into the cow’s mouth with his new, improved, tongs, gave one gentle tug and the problem was solved.
Another thing to remember is that I’m on the west side of the country. We tend to have ‘livestock’ tractors. There’s a lot of electronics you just don’t need, but actually you need a tractor that’s more maneuverable. You’ll have to work around buildings as well as just drive up and down fields. Also when you’re carting slurry and similar, your tractor will end up considerably dirtier than an ‘arable tractor’. I’ve watched the mechanics sent by the company to explain things to the mechanics at our local agricultural engineers. At one point the mechanic was cringing as he climbed on board the tractor. He commented to one of the local lads, “How can you work in this mess.”
The reply was, “This is one of the clean ones we set aside for you to work on.”
At one point on the pandemic, I was talking to one of the mechanics and we were talking about hand washing. He just held his hands out, “What virus is going to live on these?”
With some jobs it’s important to wash your hands before you go to the toilet.
Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.