Ben Pike meets last year’s Outstanding Contribution to British Agriculture Award winner Lord Henry Plumb to talk history, farming and why you should never give up on achieving your dreams.
Outside the House of Lords, carpeted corridors lead off to meeting rooms and restaurants overlooking the River Thames.
Long, glass-fronted cupboards line the route, encasing thousands of books, many of which document history-defining moments which took place within the walls of the Parliament building.
It is next to one of these giant wooden bookcases I meet the smiling former NFU president Lord Henry Plumb.
As he turns to lead the way, I glance at the book immediately to my right: Europe – A Difficult Partner. Given Lord Plumb’s career, there could not be a more aptly-named book.
He remains the first and only Brit to lead the European Parliament. As he looks back on his career in farming, politics and farming politics, it is clear he is used to dealing with difficult partners.
His wealth of experience and commitment to the industry are palpable and are two reasons he was awarded the Outstanding Contribution to British Agriculture Awards at ast year’s British Farming Awards, co-organised by Farmers Guardian.
He says: “My wife uses the phrase ‘deep ends’ because I have been thrown into them all my life, taking jobs with no experience. I had no experience of party politics and I am not very good at it now because I like to do things my way.
“As a loner I am lazy, but as a team leader I love it. I have always had good people around me with very few weak links in the chain. This goes right back to my farming roots.”
It was on the family farm in Coleshill in 1940 when Lord Plumb first experienced a deep end. At the age of 15, he was taken out of school to manage the mixed dairy, arable and sheep operation, while his father went to fight in the war.
“I suddenly had a call from my geography lesson to tell me to report to the headmaster. He said I was leaving school to help out on the farm, the war could not last more than six months, then I would come back to finish my studies.
“I read textbooks like fiction and I was rising early to milk cows, so I threw my satchel in the air and said ‘so-long chaps’.”
This marked the first in a long line of life events which saw ‘our Enry’, as he was known, installed at the top of the tree, ready to learn on the job.
An election to the chairmanship of the NFU livestock diseases committee, which he quickly changed to the animal welfare committee, followed some years later, but no-one was more surprised than him when he was elected as NFU vice-president.
He says his 15 years in NFU office, including four as vice-president (from 1965), two as deputy and nine as president (from 1970), was a tough time for the industry, with price reviews, animal disease and entry into Europe, where there would be many difficult partners to work with. Lord Plumb led with gusto and determination, but kept true to himself as an NFU representative who said what he thought rather than what he was told to say.
He says: “I always spoke as I saw it and as a farmer. I used to learn as much on a Sunday morning as I did in the week because I saw my farming neighbours. I was around from 9am-12pm and invited them round for a chat and I learned more of what was happening in the marketplace than I would during the week.”
After serving more than nine years as NFU president it was time for a change, so he stepped down to explore other opportunities.
He says: “The reason I went into party politics was to avoid sweeping the yard. When I told my son I was going to go home and do some farming, this was the only job he offered me.”
Instead, he was elected as Cotswolds MEP and headed to Strasburg to start his career in the European Parliament where he went on to chair the agriculture committee.
He eventually presided over the whole European Parliament from 1987-89.
Lord Plumb has worked with many farmers throughout his career.
"What the win means, I hope, is record of a great industry,” says Lord Plumb. “I did 16 years in office in the NFU and my 12 years came at a time when we lost the system of support we had since the war.
“I have lived through different stages where we had wheat mountains and milk pools to shortages in production. It was important to have a strong NFU through that period.
“We started the foundation with money I had from writing my book. It is always good to know young farmers are responding and coming forward with ideas. It is great to understand how they tick.
“I feel I am the luckiest chap on earth. I use the word envy of today’s young farmers. We have moved from brawn to brain and it shows the change in the business of farming and farm workers.”
The prestigious award is designed to recognise one individual’s dedication to the farming industry. The Outstanding Contribution to British Agriculture Award will be given to a member of the agricultural industry who has worked tirelessly for UK farming, either through delivering innovation, championing the needs for fellow farmers, spearheading change and/or promoting the industry to the wider public.
The winner will be announced during the awards evening.
With a landmark 90th birthday celebrated last year, it would be easy to make the mistake of referring to Lord Plumb’s career in the past tense, although his enthusiasm is unwavering and his tenacity to championing farming relentless.
He says: “I asked a member of this House why he is telling the whole country to improve its growth and export more, but fails to mention anything about agriculture.
“He said ‘agriculture does not come on my radar’ and I said ‘well if you are going to talk to me like that, it soon will’.”
Sure enough, in July last year, a two-hour debate was held on the importance of agriculture and the food industry and 17 speakers took part.
Lord Plumb is clearly proud of the fact he has stuck to his farming roots, despite the myriad of distractions which have been placed along the way.
He says Worcestershire dairy farmer Chris Window won six classes and two inter-breed championships at last year’s Livestock Event, with Ayrshires bred from 20 heifers he bought from Lord Plumb decades ago. “It was a great thrill that he has bred them on to be hugely successful.”
He is, underneath this knighted Conservative politician, still a farmer and by virtue of this, is never afraid to tell it how it is.
“Farming has a bright future, but the overall position is food production has to be increased by 30 per cent by 2020. This is not too far away and we are not in a position to do this at the moment by a long stretch.”
He is extremely hopeful for the future after witnessing a paradigm shift in the way farming businesses operate.
He says: “I think what has happened in my lifetime has been absolutely incredible. We are now taking advantage of science and technology and are in a position no-one could envisage years ago.
Over a relatively short period in history, we have seen the computer age arrive.” Lord Plumb has no intention of slowing down.
Instead, he spends his time with his wife Marjorie, three children and 16 great-grandchildren, and continues to farm his pedigree Longhorns at Coleshill, Warwickshire, as well as remaining active in the House of Lords and within his foundation.
“I think the improvement in animal health and welfare of animals is now such an important part of the whole scene which should be recognised and respected more by the consumer as well as the quality of produce.” With post-Brexit events still unfolding for agriculture, Lord Plumb hopes farmers’ voices will be heard in their constituencies.
“Agriculture has to fit into Government, but ultimately, each candidate is going to be guided by the number of farmers in their constituency. If they only have a few, they are likely to be more interested in cheap food.
“I think it is extremely important we recognise the needs of farming. I think there is a great future for the industry, mainly because of the young people coming through – desire, ambition and their skills are crucial.”
Lord Plumb is quick to acknowledge he had to be part of a good team to have such a rich and successful career.
He wants his legacy to be young people realising their dream of finding a career in food and farming and set up the Henry Plumb Foundation in 2013. Lord Plumb invested £10,000 of his own money to kick off the project which awards grants for those with ideas, enthusiasm and a wish to get ahead.
Successful applicants are assigned an industry mentor to help them make the most of these exciting opportunities and, to date, £120,000 has been given to support agriculture’s next generation.
He says: “It has gone extremely well so far. We have 54 graduates who have benefited from funding and are running their own businesses. The response from applicants has been fantastic.
“It is a real uplift to interview these young people and they are all interested in progress. When I was a young farmer, I wanted to produce something and get it through the farmgate, but now they want to follow it through to the consumer.”