About a mile from this farm as the crow flies is a company that makes agricultural machinery. Just knowing that Shelbourne Reynolds exists makes me sleep better at night, as my understanding of economics is still stuck in the ‘guns and butter’ school. I am permanently uneasy about an economy that doesn’t produce things, stuff, objects. This factory produces the tangible and the useful, things such as power mixers for livestock feeds and muck spreaders, which to this shameless farmer are more exalted than kitchen tiles and handbags.
The man who started the factory is a sociable and humane engineer called Keith Shelbourne. In the world beyond Suffolk, he is famous for creating the Shelbourne stripper header. On the prairies of America’s midwest, this sleek, flat piece of equipment attached to the front of combine harvesters has transformed agriculture by reducing the amount of straw taken into the combine. It delivers 85% of the grain pre-threshed so that all the combine has to do is separate a little chaff and trash. The stripper header also enables weed-infested and high-moisture crops to be harvested very efficiently, dramatically reducing chemical use and fuel consumption. And the stripper header is a boon for double cropping, where farmers grow two crops at once, such as wheat and soy beans, a god-send in the war against soil erosion.
Keith Shelbourne is a clever man who is also a good man. His factory, a hi-tech complex that now covers five acres on the old aerodrome in Stanton, employs 100 people. Local people. Keith has faith in the local talent and his workforce reads like a sequel to Akenfield: Shelbourne’s laser manager Ivan King grew up on our farm-his father, Walter, drove a tractor here for 30 years-and Ivan began work on the shop-floor. The policy at Shelbourne Reynolds is to promote from within. His chief design engineers began on the ‘floor’ as well. Another pastoral tradition thrives here: Anthony, the engineering manager, is married to Lindsay in accounts. Gary, the purchasing manager, is married to Claire, the financial director who began at Shelbourne as a receptionist.
Only Neil, the sales and marketing director, was recruited from the outside world-Wiltshire-through an ad in Farmers Weekly. Neil’s job was to develop the US side of the business and he spent 10 years based in Colby, Kansas. He did his job well: 70% of production now goes for export. He’s just returned from three weeks helping with the rice harvest damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The main rice-growing areas of Mississippi and Arkansas are 175 miles north of New Orleans, straight up the Mississippi River. By the time Katrina hit the delta rice fields, the 50mph winds were still strong enough to flatten the crop. Then, for 24 hours, the rains fell, re-flooding the fields. Stripper headers made in Suffolk saved the crop.
In the 1950s, when my husband’s grandfather inherited this farm, there were 12 Suffolk punch and 30 men working it. Their sons and daughters now design complex machine parts, operate computers and lasers, have interesting jobs and lives. This is a story of progress that I can live with. For what Keith Shelbourne has done for local employment and the morale of this rural community, he deserves gratitude. For inventing machines that have made modern farming more environmentally kind, he deserves something more. A Nobel Prize for culture and agriculture sounds good to me.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on November 10, 2005.