Moving to a Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution flat in central Bury St Edmunds was an enormous lifestyle change for 78-year-old retired farmer Graham Meaden and his wife Carol. Clemmie Gleeson finds out about his journey through farming.
As a young boy, all Graham Meaden wanted was to be on-farm.
He spent much of his childhood with his grandparents, with his grandfather in particular being a strong influence.
Graham says: “He was a farmer and cattle dealer.
He was a tremendous character.” But while his grandfather enjoyed buying and selling, Graham was more interested in pedigrees.
He says: “I would look up the cows and how they were bred.
It was fascinating and, for me, it was always dairy cows, dairy cows and more dairy cows.
Farming was the only thing I wanted to do.” After school, he went to Cannington Agricultural College, Somerset, and got his first job working for Ben Cooper, who owned the Normead herd of British Friesians at Avebury, Wiltshire.
A few years later he moved onto a job with the 60-cow Sharcombe herd, with a house included as part of the estate owned by Sir Keith Showering of Allied Breweries.
He remembers being sent to a herd sale at Ullswater, Cumbria.
He says: “Ullswater Butexas came into the ring and I thought it was one of the best cows I had ever seen.” Without knowing his budget, he bid keenly before the hammer fell at 32,000gns.
He says: “It was the early 1980s and that was a record at the time.
I was shaking like a leaf when I had to telephone Sir Keith in London to tell him what I’d spent.
He asked me if it would win the Royal Show.
I said I thought it would.
"For me, it was always dairy cows, dairy cows and more dairy cows."
“It didn’t win the Royal, but it did breed four or five heifers which fetched an average of 40,000gns each and three bulls which went to artificial insemination companies in Russia.” The estate was sold after the sudden death of Sir Keith in 1982.
From there, Graham went to work at a school in Yeoville which had its own farm with 15 indoor cows.
It was an interesting job but shortlived due to the school having financial difficulties.
At the same time, Graham’s first marriage also ended.
He says: “I had a couple of months doing nothing – it really hit me.
“There were very few jobs available at the time.” His sister Dawn, however, was working in Jersey as a florist and she invited Graham to go and have a holiday there.
He says: “The Jersey milk situation was completely the opposite to here.
“They were getting about £150 per dairy cow in subsidies.
I was offered three jobs during that week and took a job with 40 cows.
“I stayed for about four or five years, but the island got too small for me.
I saw an advert in a farming magazine for a cowman wanted in Sussex, so I applied.
“While working for the Mordeskey family and its Burwash herd of Holsteins, I was fortunate enough to meet a young lady, Carol, and we were married in 1995.”
Carol worked in soft furnishings and had a thriving business in the 1990s with her own workshop.
She was not from a farming background, but embraced the rural lifestyle and together they moved to Wales in 1997.
They rented a holding with land and its own parlour, and Graham was delighted to be able to farm in his own right.
They had a herd of 40 Ayrshires and Holsteins.
He says: “We had very little quota.
It went silly as far as price was concerned; towards the end before we could sell cows, we had a period of having to buy quota for £1/litre and getting about 40ppl for milk.” The couple’s business ended up going into administration and it was a bitter blow.
Graham says: “I was devastated having to sell the cows.
It was a pretty awful time.
I had never been a man to chase money, but I always lived well up until then.” The couple found a house to rent in Clun, Mid Wales, which, although run down, they could see they ‘could one day keep a few sheep there’.
"I was devastated having to sell the cows."
To make ends meet, Graham took a job with a textiles company working on their machines.
He managed the change of lifestyle fairly well, but struggled with late shifts, having been used to early starts as a farm worker.
But, Graham says it brought in the money and they managed to save up to buy a small flock of sheep.
They found a four-hectare (10-acre) smallholding available for rent near Welshpool.
Although the rent was not affordable, the owner offered it at a greatly reduced price if Graham milked his cows every other weekend.
“So, we started again,” says Graham.
He and Carol grew a flock of Texels to about 45 and he supplemented their earnings with a job for a local ice cream manufacturer.
Graham says: “Every Friday night I would pick up my money; that was how we had to look at life.” He retired at 65, but continued with his own sheep and milking the landlord’s cows.
He says: “They had 200 Holsteins and it was totally different to what I had been used to before.
There was very little hand feeding and you had a machine to spread straw too.” Graham and Carol decided to change to native breeds in 2014, as the price of Texels had increased beyond their reach.
Graham’s choice was Dorset Down, while Carol started her own flock of Hampshire Downs.
But during 2017/18, Carol suffered health problems and had to wait a long time for surgery on her shoulder.
It eventually happened during lambing in 2018.
Juggling hospital visits while also overseeing lambing was enormously stressful, says Graham.
“It was the worst lambing I ever had and I lost more lambs than ever before.” Graham was beginning to wonder how much longer they could sustain their holding when they were dealt a further blow in January 2019.
His pension payments were reduced and the landlord suggested he would like to increase rent.
With a heavy heart, Graham and Carol decided that their only choice was give their six months’ notice and move on again.
It was an anxious time, unsure if they could even afford to rent.
He says: “The younger generation in farming is earning good money, while our generation was stuck with tied houses and poor money.”
The local Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI) welfare officer had been keeping in touch with the couple and suggested applying for a RABI property, as they were at risk of homelessness.
"The younger generation in farming is earning good money, while our generation was stuck with tied houses and poor money."
In the spring they heard the news that a flat had become available in Bury St Edmunds and Graham admits he was not at all sure about living in a town centre.
But when they arrived at Manson House, he instantly liked it.
The site has a care home with 31 en suite rooms, plus 23 retirement flats, all standing in ‘delightful gardens’.
Those living in the flats can be entirely independent or join in with activities and visits if they wish.
Graham and Carol have settled in well with Bailey, their Welsh springer spaniel, and have started to get to know some of the other residents, most of whom were all involved in farming in some way.
Graham says: “I’m struggling a bit with not having much to do.
I walk Bailey a lot and sometimes visit the Abbey Gardens, but I would dearly love to be looking after some sheep.
“I have been exceptionally lucky with my health, but that can all change.
It was the right choice for us to come here.”
IN today’s world there are so many challenges people must face in later life and health issues can be draining, both physically and mentally.
However, RABI supports farming people and their families throughout their lives, not just while they are working.
We run two residential care homes of our own, and also support many other families by paying care home top-up fees.
We can all expect to live longer nowadays – and making the move into a residential home should not be something to fear. Rob Harris, RABI communications manager