The Lean Years

Vol. 8 No. 1 - 2001

The Lean Years

by William McGeown

"Farm incomes down 70%, many thousands have left the industry in the last two years!"

It sounds right up to date in the year 2001. However this is not the first time that farming has been in a crisis situation. The late 1920s and early 1930s saw a massive change in farming in the British Isles and Northern Ireland. Previously the produce of the land was sold either for human consumption, potatoes, milk, butter etc., or for conversion into meat products. The size of the enterprise depended on the number of acres and what they could produce. The change in the system came about when we could no longer compete with the producers in USA and Canada. The vast acres of land in the middle western States can hardly be imagined even to-day. In some areas it is possible to see grain as far as the horizon in all directions.

Grain is produced on farms large enough to be mechanized to a greater extent than is possible on small Ulster farms. Most of the farms have very good soils and warm summers. Crops such as maize, wheat, barley and soya beans are grown on a large scale, low cost system. "Grain elevators" are local marketing points along the rail networks, with massive storage capacity. The grain elevator owners are the first purchasers of the produce of the farms. "Unit loads" are goods trains, built up of one mile of trucks carrying many thousands of tons of grain. The trains bring the grain to the ports on the Great Lakes, From there great cargo ships travel via the St Lawrence River to ports in Europe such as Liverpool and Belfast, where there are efficient facilities for unloading and storing large cargos of grain. Despite the cost of carriage, grain could be sold from the Belfast mills at prices below the cost of production on Ulster farms.

Survival necessitated change

For the farmers, survival necessitated a change of system, The limit on livestock production no longer depended on what could be grown on the farm. In effect the produce of land 5,000 miles away could be used to produce "added value" products such as beef, pork, milk, butter and cheese. Using the by-products of the flour mills, the millers produced balanced mixtures of meals for animal feed.

The first effect of a change from arable to a grassland economy, was a considerable reduction in labour requirements. The surplus agricultural labourers had to be absorbed into other industries such as building, quarrying, road making and maintenance. Many people moved to the towns to work in textile factories. Lurgan had many textile firms of which one of the largest was Johnston and Allen in Victoria Street, giving employment to large numbers, both male and female.

In earlier years most of the rural population lived in cottages on farms which employed them. These cottages at low rents were really tied cottages, where loss of a job meant also loss of the home. In the early 1930s, rural councils began to build labourers' cottages. These were plain, decent, slated houses, built in small groups near villages, water being supplied from pumps at strategic points. Each house had about ½ acre of garden. On this area of garden an industrious man could grow enough potatoes and vegetables to support his family. The rent was reasonable for the times, but the great thing was that as well as a much better house, there was independence from the tied system and security of tenure.

Pneumonia strikes

As elsewhere, change occurred at the farm at Prospect Hall, Aughagallon, but the change was more drastic. My father caught a chill while waiting for a load of potatoes to be collected at the main road where his lane ended in Kilmore. Pneumonia followed and in the era before sulphonamides and antibiotics ten days later he was dead, at the age of 46.

A change from an arable to a grassland economy takes considerable time, but it was essential for my mother to achieve this as soon as possible. My earliest memory is of standing beside my mother, as she fed the sheaves into the threshing mill. This must have been about 1930. Eventually the land was sown to grass, the horses, cows and farm machinery were sold. The labour force was reduced to one man.

My mother like many others, changed to a livestock regime, based on poultry, pigs, sheep, some cattle, including two cows to supply the family with milk. Previously poultry keeping had been of minor importance. It was generally left to the woman of the farm, who claimed the profits as "pin money".

The invention of artificial incubators removed the production of chickens from being subject to the whims of clocking hens, which may, or may not, be in the mood to sit on a clutch of eggs for 21 days without breaking or abandoning them. An incubator is a large, square wooden cabinet, which supported a wire tray holding about 150 eggs. These had to be turned every 12 hours. To facilitate this, one side of the egg was marked X and the opposite side O, so that it was obvious which ones had been turned. The cabinet was heated by an oil lamp, which had to be filled and the wick trimmed daily. This then was our first step towards "factory farming".

Pig farming could be carried out in converted buildings which had been previously used as barns or stables, Some pig farmers built purpose built houses capable of housing very large numbers of animals. Sheep were mainly fed on grass and did not need special housing.

A lonely place to live

Our farm was quite a lonely place to live in the 1930s. Most of the families which had lived in the small cottages making up the clachan that was known as McGeownstown had moved elsewhere. Imagine "Prospect Hall", a large old slated, stone built two story house, with the barn attached and almost as long as the dwelling house. It was situated on the top of a hill with wide views in every direction, extending to Lough Neagh and the Sperrins towards the north. There was no running water in the house, but later the water supply was greatly improved by the installation of a hand pump in the scullery, saving many trips to the pump in the yard. Heating and cooking was on a coal-fired stove. Water was heated in large heavy kettles. Light was provided by oil lamps of various types, all of which had to be filled with oil and the wicks had to be trimmed almost daily. Fires were used to heat other rooms as required. We had a home-made radio from about 1940, but electricity did not come to the farm until the early 1950s, the telephone even later.

We had excellent neighbours, the nearest of whom lived more than ¼ mile away. My mother, living alone except for two small children, kept a fully loaded double barrelled 12 bore in her bedroom. If she had felt threatened enough, she might even have used it.

Life on a farm was not all gloom for a little boy. Like most farm children one was expected to give what help was within one's capacity. Interesting events were the lamblng time, sheep shearing, hay making, the occasional calving of our cows. There was the picking of soft fruit and peas in summer and of pears, apples and damsons in autumn. Macabre but exciting were the days when pigs were slaughtered by the local pig butcher. We hurried home from school to see the white carcasses hanging from the beams in the open hay shed. Next morning my uncle would wrap them in white sheets and take them in his lorry to the pork market. Neighbours shared "delicacies" such as liver, sweetbreads and kidneys, to vary the sometimes monotonous farm diet. My uncle also marketed lambs and cattle in the Belfast livestock markets, usually in "Allam's Livestock Market", which was situated where the Waterfront Hall now stands. Eggs were sold to Lurgan merchants - Carson's and Hall's, both grocery shops in Market Street. Poultry went to O'Hagan's in Edward Street.

Play in the hay

Bringing the hay stacks from the field to the hay shed was always fun. This was done using a horse-drawn rick-shifter, a platform on wheels. This could be tilted from the horizontal so that the "free" end was lowered to ground level and backed up to the stack. Ropes were placed around the stack, which was winched onto the platform. The platform was then returned to the horizontal position. There was always the hope of a ride up in front of the haystack, and the opportunity to slide down the smooth and shiny platform when tilted up.

Our social life was mainly related to family events, when we visited relations and family friends for special occasions. My mother drove my father's car for some years, but eventually could no longer afford to keep it on the road, We children had bicycles for short journeys. Later we parked them at the blacksmith's shop, and took the bus to Lurgan, then walked nearly one mile to Lurgan College. The bus was our connection to Lurgan and Belfast. The service was much better and more frequent in the 1930s than now,

The man who worked on the farm was a good naturalist. He taught us where to look for and to recognise the eggs of the various birds, to know the common birds and their habits. There seemed to have been many more birds around then. Thrushes, missel-thrushes and larks are now scarce. It would be lovely to hear a corncrake, but I fear that will not happen again.

This then was the life of a boy on a farm up to 1939.

When we children were able to read fluently, a whole new world opened up. Living in a house that was never short of books, and encouraged by our mother's example, we read widely without anyone censoring what we read.

The war again brought massive changes, with the need to grow food for a nation being starved by the U-boat menace.

But that is another story!