The farmers who surrounded Totnes were much more directly engaged with the town than they are now, as the town provided the key markets for their produce. Douglas Matthews farmed 250 acres (which had grown to 300 by the time of his retirement in 1989). When he started work on the farm, it was still run by working horses. The farm had around 30 cows, 40 acres of cereals and about 50 breeding ewes, but by the time he had retired, it had been turned into a purely dairy farm, with nearly 80 cows.
In the 30s and 40s, Totnes was an important outlet for the farm’s produce. Douglas’s wife’s grandmother and mother used to make butter by hand, which they made under contract, either to shops in Totnes or in Brixham. The trips to Totnes, initially in a horse and trap, to deliver the butter, were also an opportunity to shop.
He recalls the post-war push to increase productivity, driven, at least in part, by the Agricultural Committees of which he was a member. One of the other key drivers in agricultural innovation was Dartington, which started the first artificial insemination centre in 1944, one of the first in the country, and also hosted the Agricultural Discussion Society, which brought many leading agriculturalists to the area to give talks on new developments and innovations. This led to many new developments, the move away from South Devon cattle towards Holstein Fresians, and from hand milking to milking parlours, among other things. His neighbour and friend, John Watson of Riverford Farm, recalls the enthusiasm with which he embraced mechanisation and chemical farming. He remembers the steady stream of agricultural chemical salesmen beating their way to the farm.
The town’s Cattle Market meant the driving of animals into the town from the surrounding countryside. Muriel Langford, who in August 1950 moved into the house her husband built on Barracks Hill, recalls needing to put a gate across their driveway in order to keep out the cattle who were driven into town by what was, at that time (before the town’s bypass was built) the main way to bring them to Totnes from Dartington.
Her son, Andy, recalls picking up lots of casual work on local farms from the age of 13 onwards. He told me that in the late 1960s there were “lots of small family farms all over the place. The average farm size would have been 30-40 acres, 120 acres would have been considered quite upper class sort of farming”. Many of the farms were short of labour during the summer, especially during haymaking and straw baling times. His favourite was one at East Allington:
We were out there a lot. We used to go out there and the farm was pretty much run by the young people. Andy Strutt was a classmate of mine. He had 6 sisters, which was part of the attraction. Suddenly I found myself in charge of a little tractor moving around the farm picking up hay bales with all these young women about and these big lunches and suppers where you could eat as many roast potatoes as you could get in yourself, that was very lovely. We basically ran the place. The children from Andy, 16, down to the rest of us, would man the potato harvester. That’s what we did. We’d go out there for the weekend and harvest however many tons of potatoes needed picking, take them, riddle them, sort them into this size and that size, then get in the Land Rover and deliver them to the chip shop in Kingsbridge. It was great.
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