Obituary: Farmer, 94, leaves half a century of history behind

06:00 September 15, 2022

07:11 September 15, 2022

A Norfolk farmer who died at the age of 94 has left behind not only a thriving farm but also diaries recording the changes in farming over the past century.

Eric Cook kept an annual diary from 1954, detailing the activities on his farm and providing firsthand evidence of significant events in Norfolk.

Mr Cook was born in 1927 in Smallburgh, where his father George worked on Broad Farm on the River Ant. His earliest memory was of the UK’s worst earthquake ever in 1931.

He went to the village school and once released mice into the classrooms he had caught as they ran away from the threshing machine working outside in the field. He later cycled to Stalham School and often rode hands-free, practicing his slingshot as he rode on.

Eric Cook has documented Norfolk’s agricultural history for over half a century
– Credit: Provided by family

During World War II, there were several evacuees on the farm and Mr. Cook became good friends with one of them.

Together they founded a business to breed and sell rabbits, which were a popular supplement to meat rations. By leaving school one day to help clear the rubble of the only bomb dropped on Stalham, his efforts were rewarded with a prized can of Nestle milk.

Mr Cook left school at the age of 14 and began to learn the physically demanding task of working with heavy horses. On his first attempt at plowing, the teamman came after him to get the squiggles out of his furrows.

He went to the chapel and met his future wife, Nancy Yaxley, through a chapel community. In 1948, a large number of oranges washed up on the beach at Sea Palling, thrown overboard from a ship that ran aground. On Christmas Eve he finished singing carols at midnight and cycled to Sea Palling where he collected oranges all night. He took a bag to Nancy as a Christmas present, but before handing it over, he insisted on a kiss — their first kiss.

The couple married in 1952 and that year bought a farm near Sea Palling, which they renamed Barton Farm in honor of Nancy’s hometown. It had 64 acres, a private outside and no water or electricity.

They grew wheat, barley, oats, beans, sugar beets and potatoes and raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Mr. Cook began working the land with horses, but soon bought a small gray Fergie tractor.

Eric Cook on the fields

Eric Cook on the fields
– Credit: Provided by family

The farm suffered two serious crises. On the morning of February 1, 1953, Mr. Cook awoke and thought it had snowed. In fact, the white blanket that covered the fields was the frothy sea, which had flooded all along the east coast. The floods affected the farm’s drinking water and damaged the land, which took time to recover.

The second disaster occurred in 1960 when Mr Cook bought Irish livestock from Ireland at Norwich Cattle Market. Within a few days, these cattle were confirmed to have foot-and-mouth disease, leading to the slaughter of all 33 cattle and 55 pigs on the farm. The notes in his diaries about this are written in Nancy’s handwriting, perhaps indicating that he was shocked as he coped with this experience.

The couple chose this themselves by buying the adjacent property, Boundary Farm in Ingham, and moving there in 1965.

Here they started selling roadside potatoes in the 1960s and in the 1970s their son Robert took over the farm in horticulture. A farm shop started and gradually expanded and still operates on the coastal road from Stalham to Sea Palling, selling fruit, vegetables, plants and local produce. More land was purchased until the farm covered several hundred acres.

Mr Cook retired at the age of 85, having handed over the stewardship to Robert, but he remained interested in the progress of the farm until his death.

He liked to say that when he started farming it took 12 weeks to harvest 12 hectares of sugar beets by hand, whereas today it can be harvested in a few hours. When asked what farming task he enjoyed most, he replied that he liked everything but loved plowing the most, although the only protection he had from the elements was a burlap sack tied with twine and he often barely could walk if he got off the tractor.

Eric Cook has passed away at the age of 94

Eric Cook has passed away at the age of 94
– Credit: Provided by family

He felt he was good at adapting to new farm equipment and recognized that mechanization had the greatest impact on farming in his lifetime, although he was also aware of the effect it had on the environment, noting a visible decrease in his live in insects and birds.

Mr Cook’s family said: “He was a man of the ground, level-headed, tough, resilient and resourceful.

“His motto was ‘if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.’ That he has built a farm from so little is evidence of long hours of hard work.

“He was also welcoming and loved sharing the farm and natural surroundings with guests and organized an annual visit for local children.

“Of course he spoke in a wide Norfolk dialect and his diaries speak a language of Norfolk farming slang that is now in the history books.”

Mr. Cook’s last journey was a fitting one. His coffin rode on a trailer behind the small Fergie tractor he had restored late in his career. The tractor was driven by his daughter Ruth, herself a farmer.

Mr Cook leaves behind three children, Robert, Ruth and Sara, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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