LAST week, the oldest continuous young farmers’ club in the country celebrated its 90th anniversary with a dinner dance for which the 200 tickets sold out faster that a young farmer can toss a dess over a rugby goal.

Northallerton Young Farmers’ Club was formed in early March 1929, but the first two meetings in the Golden Lion Hotel were poorly attended because they coincided with the races at Catterick and a sale of shorthorns in York, both of which were a bigger draw for the young farmers of the district.

The first YFC in the country had been formed in Devon in 1921 where United Dairies had encouraged young people to a rear a calf. Northallerton was also formed as a calf club with the members noting how much food their animal consumed and how much weight it put on in the course of the year leading up to the annual show.

Northallerton’s first show was held on June 3, 1930. “The whole proceedings were marked by a spirit of cheerfulness and co-operation between all taking part,” said the Darlington & Stockton Times.

There were 41 entrants which were gathered at the Malpas mart, in Malpas Road (this mart closed during the Second World War when it was struck by a bomb), for judging, and then processed to Applegarth mart for the sale “in the presence of a large crowd”.

The winner of the bull class was Annie Knaggs, of Foxton, near Kirby Sigston. Madge Dennis, of Bedale, won the heifers class, and Alan Pearson, of Newsham Grange at South Otterington, won the bullocks class, but when the “efficiency award” was worked out – “for the beast which showed the greatest margin of profit on the year’s working” – Madge came top, having made a profit of £7 16s 6d.

It is surprising how many of the members in those early shows were female.

In 1932, a national federation of YFCs was formed as the value of the clubs in promoting agriculture to the next generation became clear. As well as providing instructional classes and lectures in useful topics such as animal husbandry and the latest fertilisers, the Northallerton club took its members on educational trips to tractor factories.

But YFCs were also very important socially to farming families who are dispersed by the nature of their work. Indeed, the Northallerton club is often referred to as a dating agency or a marriage bureau so numerous have been its romantic successes.

And so the social highlight was the annual dinner dance in the town hall.

Jimmy Hill, of North Otterington, is the oldest member of the Northallerton young farmers as he is only a few days younger than the club itself. He joined in 1941 when every year Ferney Mitchell and His No 1 Band provided the music for the dance.

“Boys had to pay 6d more for a ticket to the ball than the girls because they ate more supper,” recalls Jimmy, who was president from 1966 to 1992.

As times became more liberal, another favourite Northallerton game was “peel and squeal” where a young male farmer sat on a chair and a young female farmer lay on her tummy over his legs. She then had to peel a potato while he endeavoured to sew a button on a pocket on her bottom.

The range of classes also broadened. Some, such as cheese-making, fence-erecting or poultry-trussing, were still agricultural, whereas hairdressing and modelling pushed the farming envelope to its limits.

Northallerton YFC has amassed a large archive of minute books, memorabilia and photographs, currently curated by Ruth Swall.

The photographs show how deadly competitive the YFCs were – Northallerton is still extremely proud that its entertainments and drama group entered the national competition on 14 occasions from 1966, reaching the finals 12 times, the top three nine times, and winning outright once in 1971.

So the photographs show proper farmerly competitions, like dragging the tractor through the High Street, and pitching the sheaf.

“That’s at the back of County Hall,” said Jimmy, looking at a black-and-white picture of the tossing competition. “You had to go and cut a dess out of a stack by hand, and the art was to get it on your fork so that it slipped off as you threw it.”

Understandably with attractions such as the opposite sex and dess tossing, Northallerton YFC grew and grew. Membership peaked at 140 in 1981, but in the 1990s when the government began persuading 50 per cent of teenagers to go away to university, the nature of young farming changed radically.

Still, about 20 of today’s young farmers attend meetings in the Applegarth saleroom, and all 200 tickets for last night’s anniversary dinner at The Forum were snapped up without any need for publicity.

The attendees toasted the club which the first lecturer in the Golden Lion 90 years ago described as “one of the best things that ever has been accomplished in agriculture”.

A CAVEAT to the club’s claim to fame: there were older clubs – the Northallerton club was set up on the same lines as one already going in Stockton – and there are still a couple of clubs in Gloucestershire that were founded in the early 1920s and are still going, but they ducked out during the war. Northallerton, therefore, is believed to be the oldest, continuously running young farmers’ club in the country.

THIS is the second time that the word “dess” has appeared in Memories. Last year, in Memories 372, we encountered it in upper Weardale where haystacks naturally formed in layers as each day’s cut grass was piled onto them.

A dess was a block of hay cut vertically through the horizontal layer with a sharp hay spade. We concluded that you could also have “a dess of stones” – a layer of stones – or, if you were a jet miner, you could go “dessing” which meant chiselling the jet out of its layer in the rock.

THERE was an elementary agricultural mistake in Memories 413. “It was making me angry so I had to get in touch,” said one caller, who was only half joking.

Betty Wox emailed to say: “Your cast iron chicken feeder made by Ord & Maddison – sorry, but it is a cast iron trough for pigs.”

It had a heavy bar across the top of it, supported by five rounded bars, to stop the hungry pigs from shunting it across the face of the earth – as everyone must know, lightweight chickens wouldn’t need anything like as tough as this.

Ord & Maddison were a Darlington-based agricultural implements manufactory. We’ve previously shown pictures of their 1920s root vegetable cutter as well as their chicken, sorry pig, feeder.

Hopefully, today’s Ord & Maddison offering will not be as controversial as the last. It is from the collection of Ken Inman, at Sadberge, and it shows a beautiful O&M potato scales. In our agricultural ignorance, we had previously thought that only fish had scales, but now it turns out spuds do, too.

Any other Ord & Maddison bits about the place?