Amelia Woolford chats to Michael Berg about the changes over 50 years of working on the Loddington Estate
The tale of how The Allerton Project came to be has been told and heard by many, but there is only one person who has seen the changes first hand. Michael Berg is our farm worker and has been since 1969. His parents lived in Loddington, where his father worked for our neighbouring farming partners. He was fifteen and three quarters when Lady Allerton came and knocked on his parent’s door to ask if he wanted to work on the farm, he left school on the Friday and started work on the Monday. I spent an afternoon with Michael discovering some of the estate’s history;
Tell me about the estate and Lord and Lady Allerton?
Lady Allerton owned the farm; her father, who was a merchant banker, bought the farm for the couple as a wedding gift. When they first arrived in Loddington, the estate had a few tenants and was made up of about four or five different holdings. Gradually the land was taken back in hand and where our Visitors Centre is today, used to be a cow shed and the office block was a milking parlour. The farm had many enterprises, comprising sheep, suckler cows, pigs, horses and a bit of arable. The cows were the main venture with 80 British Blues, with two bulls, one Hereford and one Aberdeen Angus.
There used to be a lot more grass and we used to grow wheat, oats, barley and ‘10 acres of spuds’. The cows were eventually phased out and the sheep flock increased. Agents used to come and pick up the livestock for the abattoir, they rarely went to market.
There was a lot more manual labour as the loader tractors could only lift about 200kg. All seed bags were hand loaded onto the trailers and drills, and fertiliser and seed used to be stored in Loddington Hall. Nowadays stacking bales, feeding hay and feeding forage is all mechanised.
What were your main farming duties?
I was general worker and did a bit of everything when I first started. There was a farm manager, a full-time stockman and a tractor driver and I would help with feeding and moving the livestock and corn cart during harvest.
We used to arrange the potato harvest for half-term, so local families could come and help as they were all picked by hand. I used to drive the ‘hoover’ which dug up the spuds, then everyone would collect the spuds and empty their baskets into a trailer which followed behind − it was a dangerous job as everyone would throw the rotten spuds at your back when you weren’t looking.
The potatoes went direct into Leicester market through a merchant called Nib. He would come to the farm and we spent two days a week riddling spuds and stacking them in bags, on pallets. We had about 100 tonnes of spuds to sell, which was a lot then.
How did the Allertons live on and run the estate?
Lord Allerton used to go to the House of Lords three days a week – the chauffeur used to get the Rolls Royce out and drive him down. They had more household staff than they did on the farm, but the Allertons moved out of the Hall and into Loddington House in the village after the Hall was requisitioned by the paratroop in the Second World War. After the war ended the Hall was used for recuperating soldiers, but they made a fair old mess of it, even shooting the walls. I can also remember playing football in the ballroom.
The Allertons enjoyed hunting and Lady Allerton had some top pedigree Labradors which she field trialed, often competing against the Queen and even beat her once. The Lord shot on the estate once a week which was mainly pheasants, partridge and some ducks on the lakes. It wasn’t an organised shoot like today, it would just be friends or sometimes just the Lord on his own. We used to have the odd walked-up drive, and I would bring my terrier and we’d get about 30 birds in a day. They were very environmentally aware and if you look at all the fields, in every corner there are trees, all of which they had planted.
What were the main farming priorities and challenges?
It was very livestock focused to start and we were mainly self-sufficient grinding our barley for livestock feed. When the cows went, the grass was ploughed up, but we still kept 300 sheep. In the 1960s and 70s bagged fertiliser was introduced and there was a heavy focus on arable crop production. More fertiliser was used and yields rose. Straw burning also became common. Set-aside was introduced in the 80s which Lord Allerton was very keen on. It seemed like 100 acres came out of production every year.
We used to have problems with wild oats and couch grass which took over in the set-aside. Round-up (glyphosate) sorted it out but it took about two years to get rid of the grass weed in the 90s. Our sprayer could cover five acres per tank load and we sprayed at 20 gallons of water per acre. We didn’t have tramlines then, but today we can cover 75 acres at half the water rate.
We mainly used the plough, discs and power harrow, spring cropping used spring tines and as we grew more arable crops, grass was ploughed up in the rotation. In 2000 we entered the joint venture with the next door farm and shared tractors as we do today. We had a 13-foot combine which would fit through every gap and go down every road, unlike the one we have now. A field a day, of about 20 acres, was the aim for harvest back then, compared with 60 to 80 acres today.
What was the first tractor on the farm?
We had a Ford 4000 which was about 60 horse power and a big County Four which was 120 horse power.
How did the estate become the Allerton Project?
Lady Allerton passed away first and, in her will, she set out that Lord Allerton would carry on running the estate until he passed. When he died the executers approached The Game Conservancy Trust to set up the Allerton Research and Educational Trust. The Trust was given a three-year contract and if it was successful, it could carry it on. I was unsure if I would be kept on and I nearly became a postman, but director general Dick Potts, asked me to stay, so I did.
What’s your favourite farming job?
Then; I used to do all the straw baling into flat eights and enjoyed that. I also liked working with the cows even though that was hard work. Now; I love hedge trimming, I think it’s more of an art form than anything else. I keep telling everyone: “You’ve got to get the shape of your hedges right.”
What are your favourite memories?
I remember when Lady Allerton came to my parent’s house when I was about 25 and told me it was about time I left home and said you’re going to live in that cottage over there, which is where I still live today.
I once showed Princess Anne how to work our old waste baler. It was bitterly cold and I was praying that the baler would work as it could be temperamental. I could tell she was lingering in the waste shed to avoid the cold and she could tell I was shivering as I had only worn a shirt to appear smart. We had a chat and before she left, she turned to me and told me that, “You can go and put a coat on now”.
What's your work like today?
Everything is less physical and there is a lot more mechanisation, but I still do a variety of jobs, from driving the combine and fertiliser spreader, to beating on shoot days.
Anyone who works with Michael will know that he knows the farm extremely well, as well as having a wicked sense of humour. He is a great teacher and has taught me a range of skills from driving the loader tractor to setting mole traps and more. He has helped a series of farm students working on the estate and is Phil’s (our head of farming) righthand man. An unsung hero of The Allerton Project.