Farm of the Week: Musical mission gives farmer Charlie agri-perspective

The Pub Lads: Paul Baker, Richard Newsam and Andrew Wells on Charlie Hills farm in Skeffling, near Hull.  Picture: Tony Johnson
The Pub Lads: Paul Baker, Richard Newsam and Andrew Wells on Charlie Hills farm in Skeffling, near Hull. Picture: Tony Johnson
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Thursday nights in Skeffling, deep in the heart of South Holderness, see live music performed to its 150 residents. That’s when arable farmer, land agent director and livestock auctioneer Charlie Hill of Laurel Farm swaps his tractor for his bass guitar and rehearses with The Pub Lads, a band that raises thousands of pounds for charity.

“I’ve been farming all my life and we have all sorts of pressures such as grain prices, dealing with blackgrass and the aftermath of having 250 acres flooded in 2013,” says Charlie. “But when a friend came over one night about eight years ago it reignited my passion to learn to play guitar. We had sat in the conservatory with him playing and both of us singing and it was such a release.

“We can all get so bogged down with work that it takes over and you forget what life is about. I’ve always loved listening to music and had tried learning to play bass guitar at school many years ago. This time I started with a six-string acoustic but soon realised that with my fat farmer’s fingers there were too many strings, so I went back to the bass.”

Charlie had also been told of a regular jam session at a local pub, The Coach & Horses in Welwick.

“I was probably the least musical musician there at the time but I’ve stuck with it and The Pub Lads band was born. We went under a few different names at first. When there were just three of us we were called the Welly-Skeff Mountain Trio but it was one of the pub regulars Eric Billany who said we should take on the name we are now since we’d started in the pub.”

The Pub Lads is now a five-piece who play everything from Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings to Status Quo, T. Rex and Thin Lizzy’s ‘Whiskey In The Jar’. The group is made up of other villagers including caravan salesman Guy Moxon; Charlie’s cousin electrician and solar panel installer Rich Newsome; retired lifeboat crewman and registered nurse Paul Baker; and fellow farmer Andrew Wells from Kilnsea.

“We play local pubs and private functions. Our only proviso is that we would like a minimum donation of £100 towards Cancer Research UK and our glasses to be filled, in my case that’s a mug as I drink tea, which I know is very rock ‘n’ roll. Most landlords and event organisers give us more than the minimum and in the past four years we’ve raised over £3,600.”

Charlie’s shed is a joy to behold. He has all the band equipment set up ready for them to plug in and play. It is also home to a magnificent Koi carp fish tank/pool and the lyrics of Summertime ‘fish are jumping and the cotton is high’ could see wheat substituted for cotton in Charlie’s case.

Harvest and the establishment of the next season’s crops see Charlie’s musical exploits limited to those heard in a tractor or combine harvester cab as he joins his two sons Francis, 27, and David, 25, in the main family concern.

“We farm around 1,150 acres between Skeffling and Paull growing mainly winter wheat with oilseed rape as a break crop. We’ve just started using beans as a spring crop to try and break the blackgrass problem, which we have on around 50 per cent of our land. We’re also growing spring barley for the first time this year on a malting contract.

“Our predominant wheat is the soft variety Beluga that will go as feed or biscuit if it makes the grade. The results we’re getting so far are quite favourable. We grew some spring milling wheat at Paull this year and that did well.

“The land is extremely variable from very light sandy land to stuff that comes up like concrete when it’s dry or cat muck when wet. We had a good harvest last year and decent prices but this year it’s been a poor harvest overall. We’re hoping that the price will rise further to make up for the tonnage variation. The oilseed rape was particularly poor with around 100 acres doing half a tonne an acre.

“Blackgrass is a serious problem and that’s why we’ve gone more into spring cropping. Our rotation now varies dependent on what is happening in each field. We used to operate on two wheats, barley and then oilseed rape but the addition of break crops such as spring barley and spring beans are now involved and hearteningly they’ve done well as crops in their own right, as well as helping with our situation.”

The other long term problem for Charlie and the boys is the 250 acres that flooded when the Humber burst its banks three years ago.

“We’re still suffering from when the Environment Agency allowed it to happen through not maintaining the banks. It was under salted water and the land is now completely dead. There is no life in it at all. I checked quite a chunk of nine-inch deep topsoil and found just one worm. We need to get some root structure back into it and encourage the worms and bugs. We’ve put in a cover crop over 20 acres as an experiment. It’s a mixture of black oats, two types of radish and some old rape seed, so we’re doing what we can.”

Agricultural contracting for farms in the area and occasional cattle fattening are other elements of the farm business. Charlie is a partner/director at Frank Hill & Son, the land agency started by his grandfather, and sells livestock as an auctioneer every Monday at Dunswell. The contracting side is running well.

“David is a fully qualified crop sprayer and we have a 30 metre self-propelled Househam. This has added to what we offer.”

It’s a family affair at Laurel Farm where Charlie’s wife Helen also raises funds for Cancer Research. Helen has raised over £17,000 and next year will complete a sponsored trek of Peru’s Machu Picchu.

“I lost my mother and both aunts to cancer. Helen lost her dad to it last year and her sister has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Everyone knows someone who has suffered or is suffering. We’re just doing our bit to help.”