ploughing, spielberg + turnips

War Horse, Spielberg's World War One adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's tale of horse heroics, seems to have left half the nation shedding buckets of tears and the other half reaching for the bucket. My son and I were in the latter camp but I, rather to my annoyance and despite any shred of agricultural realism, found myself shedding a tear at the scene where the farm will be lost unless that horse can plough a rough Dartmoor field by dawn. Ploughing that stony virgin (never ploughed) field with a team of sturdy cobs would have been improbable; with a puny thoroughbred it was ludicrous. But there is something about the age-old turning of sods that gets to me, however cheesy the plot.

But then who am I to judge from a tractor seat. John Scott, who worked at Riverford in the early days and claimed to have ploughed every field in the parish with a horse, taught me to plough with the aid of a 35 horse power Massey Ferguson.

That would be 35 horses to do the same job; heavy-hooved work horses presumably. Today no self respecting farmer would be seen astride anything less than 150hp; that would be quite a team to hitch up in the morning. An acre (about the size of a smallish football pitch and about the size of the field in question) was originally defined as the area one man could plough with one horse in a day. Without the rocks and with a good horse he might have ploughed that field by dawn, but the turnips would never have grown in such a dreadful seed bed. And another thing, Spielberg: if you broadcast the seed, the turnips don't come up in neat rows. Pedantic nit-picking? It was filmed on the moor above our farm in Devon and I reckon that Spielberg could have done with less cheese and come down for some sound agricultural advice instead.

Our fields have dried enough now to start preparing the better drained fields for the first crops for sowing at the end of the month, so, while I was at the matinée, the real farmers were out muck spreading and ploughing 2012-style. I have a hankering to have a go at ploughing with a horse; indeed every farmer should be obliged to get down from those tractors, walk in the furrow and get closer to the soil for a while. With all that power, an air conditioned cab and the radio on, it is easy to lose touch with the soil, and as a result, neglect it.

Guy Watson