Land reclamation to aid wartime food production.
Agriculture; Documentary; Wartime
The opening scenes show the land as it was in 1941. Two young women, and others, walk through the reeds, sedge and osiers. Part of the land is waterlogged. Drainage channels are dug by hand and by dragline. A bulldozer flattens the land. Trees are cut by hand and a crawler tractor clears scrub. Reed and sedge are burned, the men taking care not to allow the soil, especially peat, to burn. Bog oak, remains of an ancient oak forest, is uncovered. The film shows various attempts to clear the oaks, even calling in the Royal Engineers to blow them up. Crawler tractors push the logs into heaps. Prairie busters and solotracs plough the land which is then rolled and harrowed. Remaining bog oaks are removed. Light tractors work on the levelled land, some of which is dug by hand. There are shots of a 'Fen Blow' as ploughing continues. Women plant potatoes and there are shots of crops growing on the reclaimed soil.
At harvest time a tractor-drawn binder is seen at work. A gang of men use scythes to clear a field and crops are formed into stooks. A horse-drawn reaper is also shown. The straw stacks are built and thatched. Potatoes are lifted by tractor and a potato clamp is built. The beet crop is lifted by horse-drawn plough and knocked and topped by hand. Alan Bloom displays a large beet for the camera. The beet are loaded onto horse-drawn trailers and transferred to a barge. Shots of a threshing sequence include a device for lifting sacks. Land girls feed cattle and there are further shot of machines on heavy land. The final sequence shows winter ploughing with a crawler tractor.
Alan Bloom bought Priory Farm, Burwell in 1938 after a search to extend his Oakington nursery. His aim was to use the light black soil at Burwell to grow moisture loving hardy perennial plants that would compete with Dutch imports. Priory Farm was in a run down state and it was immediately apparent that Priory Farm, in common with most of the farms in the Burwell Fen area, was very badly drained and working the land successfully would be a bit of a challenge. In fact, the drainage problem proved to be such a nightmare that prior to the outbreak of World War II Bloom came close to giving up. As soon as war broke out, Bloom contacted the War Agricultural Executive Committee and the Ministry of Agriculture to try to improve the situation. They took over from the moribund local drainage board and provided the investment needed to improve drainage in the area. The war had a bad effect on Bloom's nursery business and he turned increasingly to food crops and farming, although he narrowly avoided Priory Farm being taken over as a bombing target. The National Trust intervened as Priory Farm was adjacent to their land at Adventurers and Wicken Fen.Early in 1941 Bloom began negotiating with the National Trust to take over 350 acres of Adventurers Fen, a section of wild fenland between Priory Farm and Wicken Fen. The first terms offered by the National Trust were not acceptable to him. The War Agricultural Executive Committee intervened and Bloom farmed the land on their behalf as a tenant of the National Trust. He was given a subsidy of ?2 per acres with additional ploughing costs to reflect the amount of work needed. Rent was only paid once the land was producing crops. In order to farm this land successfully the first problem to overcome was the old problem of drainage. This involved lowering the culvert shown in the film. The dragline foreman died whilst the culvert was being dug out. Whilst preparing the land, Bloom confirmed local stories that Adventurers Fen had once been farmed. He found the remains of drainage pipes and the foundations of a farm house. Among the machinery used to plough up Adventurers Fen was a Stump Jump plough from Australia. This had been used in the outback where stumps and roots were frequently encountered in cleared areas of outback. This plough used a system of rotating discs to turn the soil, each capable of springing over any obstructions encountered. Bloom also used a Prairie Buster from Canada. In the first five acres of Adventurers Fen that were ploughed between 40 and 50 stumps or trees were found. One of these was over 90 feet long. Bloom estimated that at one stage he had 2 acres of land covered with recovered bog oaks. The Royal Engineers trained men working on War Agricultural Committee land in Burwell and the Swaffham Fens to use explosives to clear the oaks. These men helped clear a section of land known as Rothschild's Thirty Acres. This can be seen in the film. The War Agricultural Committee claimed that this was the toughest reclamation job attempted in the United Kingdom. In 1944 there were 100 acres of land producing sugar beet. Other land was producing wheat, potatoes and barley. In 1948, the Nation's urgent need for food production eased, the National Trust decided to allow the land to revert back to natural Fenland. Bloom said that this decision knocked the heart out of me. He left the Fenland and set up Blooms of Bressingham, still one of the foremost nurseries in Britain.