In 1972, John Deere unveiled its now-famous slogan ‘Nothing runs like a Deere.’ Little did the company know that a farmer who would embody the meaning behind this statement was at that very moment starting the engine on his very first John Deere combine. Alan Rose cut wheat, barley and oats using a John Deere 970 combine on the Lockerley Estate in Hampshire in 1973. Cutting with a 4.2 m header, it performed so well that he would go on to do the same thing every summer for the next 50 years, albeit modernising his equipment as technology evolved.
The model may have changed, yields may have improved and farming may have become vastly different but one thing never wavered: Alan’s loyalty to the John Deere brand. This year Alan made the tough decision to retire and in September, handed over the keys to the estate’s S785.
Working on a cab-less combine
Lockerley Estate is made up of three farms; Manor, Queenwood and Bentley. Comprising about 800 hectares, 650 ha is put to combinable crops with the remaining land in grass and woodland. “I moved to Hampshire when I was two-and-a-half and I’ve lived here ever since, in one of three farmhouses,” Alan shares. “I would help on the farm whenever I could growing up, as it’s where by Dad worked as a dairyman.”
I moved to Hampshire when I was two-and-a-half and I’ve lived here ever since, in one of three farmhouses.
After taking evening classes at Sparsholt College on electrics and hydraulics, he went to Lackham College to complete a new three-year sandwich course on farm mechanisation. “I spent a year on the farm as part of my course and I chose to come back here,” he says. “I’d been allowed to do everything here, including driving the combine and I didn’t want to risk being put on another farm where I might only be allowed to sweep the barn.” When his course finished Alan returned to Manor Farm and there he would stay.
“My first job title was ‘agricultural engineer’ – before, they’d always brought in external people to do those jobs but now I was trained I could do all the maintenance and repairs. With three dairies on site, there was always something that needed mending!” But it was a slightly bigger machine that Alan had his mind (and heart) set on. “Ever since I was 16 years old, I would hang around the combine drivers and pester them,” he admits. “Finally, someone left and I got the job. I took over driving the combine in 1973 and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Embracing precision technology over time
In the world of farming, 50 years is not a long time. But where mechanisation and technology on farms are concerned, it’s monumental. Alan has had a front row seat for this fast-paced production. Witness to every subtle tweak in design and giant leap forward in development, some things have changed beyond recognition, while others have reassuringly stayed the same.
“The biggest change I’ve seen?” he muses. “Well, obviously, combines have cabs now.” Today, combines boast cabs from which pretty much everything about the machine can be controlled. But Alan’s first experiences with the 970 required a mask and the day’s work would be determined by which way the wind was blowing. “We didn’t have tramlines, so we used to try and cut the fields with the wind blowing acros us so that it took the dust away.”
I can control everything from my cab now. Before, you had to get out and do everything.
“Apart from changing the speed of the chopper, I can control everything from my cab now. Before, you had to get out and do everything.” Alan adds that visibility has improved greatly and cabs are much more comfortable in 2022 than they were when they were first added to combines.
The first cabs, which started to appear in the 1960’s, may have kept the driver out of the dust – but that’s pretty much all they did. Noisy and boiling hot on a warm day, it wasn’t until the 1980’s when comfort really began to become a consideration.
After the 970, the farm bought a 975 in 1983 before upgrading to a 1085 in 1985. Alan was then given an 1188 to drive until John Deere launched the CTS in 1997. This was followed by two STS HillMasters and finally the S785i (on tracks) in 2018. “I can remember when they first started putting radios into cabs – first it was a radio cassette player, then radio CD player. It made all the difference. Now we have proper fridges too – before we just had a cool box, which wasn’t much use!”
The CTS was our first foray into GPS. It was sent to us as a demonstrator and we only had it for one day. Myself and my trailer driver carried on until 2.30 am – we were determined to keep going until we ran out of fuel.
GPS was another massive leap forwards which Alan remembers making a huge difference on the farm. “The CTS was our first foray into GPS,” he recalls. “It was sent to us as a demonstrator and we only had it for one day. Myself and my trailer driver carried on until 2.30 am – we were determined to keep going until we ran out of fuel, as it would be collected in the morning.”
“I got back home at 2.30 am with my wife – who was always with me, even when there wasn’t a cab. She cooked a steak meal, and I was back to work again by 8 am.” Alan was impressed, even though the GPS wasn’t quite at the standard we’re used to today. “It was fine until I went under a tree and lost the signal!” he laughs. “That was the first model that offered it as an option. It was a bit dodgy, especially in this area because we have lots of trees.”
“I remember one night where it completely packed up – I’d just been brought fish and chips, so I was trying to eat that, talk to the Hunt Forest support team on the phone and steer the combine in the dark at the same time!”
“It has gotten better and better though and it really is an amazing tool that means you don’t waste any ground whatsoever.” Alan adds that another key change was the move to hydrostatic gearboxes, which was a significant improvement in making the combine easier to operate, especially in flat crops. “I feel that any change to John Deere’s combines has always been about improvement for the operator.”
Productivity has improved during Alan’s tenure but he admits that this drive has been bittersweet. Although progress is to be admired, he divulges the ‘rush and tear’ agriculture, as he calls it, doesn’t sit perfectly with him. “It’s become a race, which I find a bit-off-putting because as soon as you go into a field you’re expected to be going out of it, which is a shame.”
As machinery has become more sophisticated and the race for yields has intensified, Alan admits missing the more relaxed approach of his earlier years. “I remember one day we packed up at 3pm and were on the beach by 4.30pm!”
The end of an era for an expert John Deere combine operator
Carrying out 50 harvests at the same location gives you a unique and valuable perspective on how farming and the wider world has changed. Like most farmers in the UK, Alan’s job hasn’t been made any easier by the weather, which can include anything from blistering heat to torrential downpours (sometimes in the same day.)
Certain harvests in recent years particularly stand out for their extremes.
“When I first started driving, the weather did seem a bit more dodgy,” he recalls. “We were always going well into September. But now, if you haven’t finished by early August you seem to be late. Certain harvests in recent years particularly stand out for their extremes. 2008 and 2010 were both very wet and we finished nearly at the end of September both times,” Alan remembers. “Whereas 2018 and especially this year were both very dry.”
“In 2018 we were finished by 17th August and this year we were done by 11th August. That was our earliest finish ever. We combined 18 days in a row too which we’ve never done before.”
Alan’s favourite ever John Deere combines are probably his first and his last, both of which occupy a special place in his heart. “I think the best one I’ve ever had is the one I drive now – it’s so much easier to operate than any of the other models. It’s the first one we’ve had on tracks too, as our farm manager wanted to go in that direction to see if it could make a difference to soil compaction.”
Witness to years of progress, there is only one feature that Alan isn’t hugely keen on. “The only development I don’t like is that it’s very easy to see through the John Deere Operations Centre where I am and what I’ve done. Once upon a time, people would ask how I was getting on – but they don’t now because they already know!”
So, the final big question: will Alan miss it? Once harvest arrives, will the temptation to reclaim his seat be too great to resist? “No. I feel I’ve done my bit,” he laughs. “Saying that, who knows how I will feel at harvest…” Alan and his wife, Julia – who also retired this summer – plan to travel the world with their new-found free time.