Just fix this

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 in 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 despatched, 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.”

Thus and 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 has 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 swivelled 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 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 manoeuvrable. 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 more dirty 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.



Then again, never confuse me with somebody who knows what they’re talking about. As the experts.

‘Lambing almost live’

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19 thoughts on “Just fix this

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt April 11, 2021 at 4:46 am Reply

    I’m assuming by ‘engineers’ you mean ‘mechanics’ – some good mechanics have engineering degrees, some don’t – but the good ones have an amazing intuition and understanding of machines. Is it a British/American difference?

    • jwebster2 April 11, 2021 at 5:02 am Reply

      The businesses are called engineers, the people doing the work are the mechanics.
      In English, Engineer doesn’t really have much to do with engineering degrees. An engineer can be somebody who controls an engine so you have ships engineers who will be highly trained but not via a university degree route

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt April 11, 2021 at 5:07 am

        We have train Engineers who are not giving up their titles – just means you can’t stop there if you want to know what someone does.

      • jwebster2 April 11, 2021 at 7:29 am

        I deal with the mechanics 🙂
        Engineers are far above my pay grade. If somebody calls themselves an engineer I probably cannot afford them 🙂

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt April 11, 2021 at 6:18 pm

        I prize your ingenuity – amazing what you do with baling wire and wits.

      • jwebster2 April 11, 2021 at 6:34 pm

        Which is true but eventually even baling wire fails 🙂

  2. rootsandroutes2012 April 11, 2021 at 4:55 am Reply

    I’d need a more detailed map to find the way to Armer’s, but I don’t suppose it’s a public footpath in any case.

    • jwebster2 April 11, 2021 at 4:59 am Reply

      No it never was. The public footpath runs close to it in places but hits the road at an entirely different place

  3. rootsandroutes2012 April 11, 2021 at 5:00 am Reply

    What’s all this stuff about tractors and driving licences? One of my nearest neighbours (who’s in the lower reaches of secondary school…) has spent parts of this week driving a tractor with a back tyre bigger than the Smart Rita and I used to have. The only way out of his home is the public highway. Incidentally, he drives it more competently than I can ever imagine doing.

    • jwebster2 April 11, 2021 at 5:05 am Reply

      I watched somebody smaller than his tractor front wheels working, he was damned good 🙂
      During lockdown when the schools were shut he was virtually a full time agricultural contractor 🙂
      With tractors it’s complicated because the vehicle is probably limited to road use and speed as well, but I had my licence by the time I was sixteen. It might have been possible to get a provision licence earlier but I cannot really remember

  4. Books & Bonsai April 11, 2021 at 7:15 am Reply

    I have always lived by the maxim that there are several ways to fix something. The right but expensive way, the cheaper, temporary, might last for a day or two way, and the genius idea that solves the problem…

    • jwebster2 April 11, 2021 at 7:27 am Reply

      I’m quite good at cheap and temporary, if it helps 🙂

  5. Books & Bonsai April 11, 2021 at 7:15 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Books & Bonsai.

  6. M T McGuire April 11, 2021 at 7:57 am Reply

    All that sounds ace. I’d have loved to work on something while I was waiting for my car to be fixed. Your engineers sound awesome. Sadly there are so few like that these days. One of the good things about my car is that I get to work with similar folks to have it fixed. 🙂 Although that does mean I have to find them.

    • jwebster2 April 11, 2021 at 3:26 pm Reply

      That’s the problem, there are so few

  7. Stevie Turner April 11, 2021 at 8:51 am Reply

    I love your farming stories, Jim. How long does it take to train a horse to obey the command ‘Walk on’?

    • jwebster2 April 11, 2021 at 3:25 pm Reply

      I suspect it’s something that the horse learns as opposed to being trained to do. The chaps I knew who worked horses would say ‘walk on’ whenever they wanted the horse to move forward. Initially they probably gently flicked the reins or something. Before that they’d probably use the same command if standing by the horse’s head. But the horse grows to associate the command with the action. So rather than ‘walk on’, flick reins, horse starts moving forwards, the horse just does it with the walk on

  8. robertawrites235681907 April 18, 2021 at 5:18 pm Reply

    An excellent story, Jim. My dad could also drive a car at 13 for similar purposes.

    • jwebster2 April 18, 2021 at 5:36 pm Reply

      I suspect that it happens more than the authorities expect 🙂

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