Plumb­ing the heights

The nona­ge­nar­ian farmer and politi­cian on the EU and help­ing the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion

Country Life Every Week - - Interview -

ONE March day in 1940, Henry Plumb, then 15, was sum­moned to see his head­mas­ter. His heart sank when he saw that his fa­ther, Charles, was also in the study: this must be some­thing re­ally bad. How­ever, it emerged that he was sim­ply to be told that he had to leave school—he was needed on the fam­ily farm, which seemed won­der­ful news, even if the head­mas­ter sug­gested the war would be over in six months, at which point, Henry would re­turn.

The boy Henry never did re­turn to his desk at the Ed­ward VI School in Nuneaton and, at the age of 91, is still farm­ing: Lord Plumb has a herd of longhorns on what he calls a ‘re­tire­ment farm’ of 160 acres, near the War­wick­shire farm where he grew up.

Don’t think, how­ever, that the decades in be­tween have been spent qui­etly. As many Coun­try Life read­ers know, Lord Plumb’s life­time of pub­lic ser­vice has taken him from the pres­i­dency of the NFU to the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, of which he was Pres­i­dent (a po­si­tion roughly equiv­a­lent to that of the Speaker of the House of Com­mons, al­though more com­pli­cated) from 1987 to 1989, the only Bri­ton to hold the post. He also es­tab­lished The Henry Plumb Foun­da­tion to help to­day’s ‘young Hen­rys’ (and Hen­ri­et­tas) get on in farm­ing. Can­di­dates come with ‘so many ideas’ that he ends a day of 10 in­ter­views feel­ing ‘greatly in­spired’.

His own in­tro­duc­tion to farm work was gru­elling, when an early Ford trac­tor was sup­ple­mented by horses and the cows were milked by hand. Most farmhands had gone to the front, leav­ing Henry the help of one other boy and two vet­er­ans aged more than 60 un­til three Land Girls ar­rived.

In his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, The Plumb Line, he de­scribes the monotony of rid­dling pota­toes from the potato clamps in the fields, siz­ing and sort­ing them into hun­dred­weight bags—just one of many jobs that re­quired ‘more brawn than brain’.

On the other hand, his early start in agri­cul­ture, with­out the ben­e­fit of a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion, gave him a sense of in­de­pen­dence as well as con­fi­dence in his ideas, which would stand him in good stead in his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. An early sign was his de­ter­mi­na­tion to build an Ayr­shire herd, de­spite his fa­ther’s scep­ti­cism. This paid off, as cus­tomers recog­nised the su­pe­ri­or­ity of the prod­uct. ‘We supplied only the best milk for our milk round, even for milk supplied via vend­ing ma­chines. I al­ways be­lieved in giv­ing the cus­tomers the best deal.’

In 1943, the teenager was elected chair­man of the Coleshill Young Farm­ers’ Club, his first step into pub­lic life, not that he had any inkling of where it would lead. The NFU cer­tainly didn’t beckon—it seemed the pre­serve of an older gen­er­a­tion. His fa­ther, how­ever, was ac­tive in it, a prime ex­am­ple of the sort of farmer who then ran the coun­try­side, serv­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously in more than 50 of­fices, such as church war­den and on char­ity com­mit­tees, un­til his sud­den death, aged 58, in 1952.

This ex­plains the next stage of Henry’s ca­reer. ‘I loved him dearly,’ Lord Plumb re­mem­bers, ‘and wanted to do some­thing for him.’ He be­came an ef­fec­tive NFU mem­ber, join­ing the Na­tional Coun­cil in 1959. ‘On the farm, we had 1,000 pigs and 100 milk­ing cows plus some arable land. I find it dif­fi­cult to know how we did it.’

When Bri­tain was ne­go­ti­at­ing to join the EU, Lord Plumb was Deputy NFU Pres­i­dent, serv­ing as Pres­i­dent from 1970 to 1979, and he is still many cur­rent mem­bers’ farm­ing hero. He was ‘heav­ily in­volved’ both in the ne­go­ti­a­tions that pre­ceded en­try in 1973 and in the years of ad­just­ment that fol­lowed. The 1960s were bad years for agri­cul­ture, not least due to three bad har­vests, but ‘the first 10 years in Europe were some of the best we’ve had. I told farm­ers to en­joy it while they could’.

One in­sti­tu­tion to which Lord Plumb was in­tro­duced then was COPA, which rep­re­sents the farm­ing unions of Europe. ‘I re­alised what power my Euro­pean coun­ter­parts had in their coun­tries com­pared to me and I thought, well, if we can’t beat ’em, join ’em.’ In 1979, he was elected as the MEP for the Cotswolds. ‘Be­yond my life­time, there will be changes,’ he fore­casts. ‘In 10 years’ time, we might be sorry to have left [the EU].’

Many peo­ple of Lord Plumb’s age would be con­tent with the 17th-cen­tury farm­house that he and his wife, Mar­jorie, have re­stored and which they share with a Rhode­sian Ridge­back, Chloe. The dy­nasty they have es­tab­lished dur­ing 69 years of mar­riage ex­tends to 18 great-grand­chil­dren, yet there is no sign of this sprightly nona­ge­nar­ian go­ing slow. As soon as I leave, he will be head­ing to the World Plough­ing Con­test in North York­shire, be­fore Lon­don and the Lords.

Then there’s Lord Plumb’s foun­da­tion, launched in 2012. ‘I started by think­ing what I needed most as a boy be­gin­ning in agri­cul­ture,’ he says. ‘I was lucky to have my fa­ther’s ex­am­ple. I thought that a young per­son, start­ing out now, would ben­e­fit from a men­tor: some­body to keep an eye on him and of­fer help. This is Henry Plumb do­ing what the young Henry would have ap­pre­ci­ated in the 1940s.’

To be awarded a grant, can­di­dates must make a busi­ness plan and un­dergo a Dragons’ Den­style grilling, but ‘I only re­mem­ber one go­ing away in tears,’ he says. Whether suc­cess­ful or not, all can­di­dates are given a men­tor, of­ten more valu­able than money. Projects have in­cluded sheep breed­ing, gift shops, so­cial me­dia, pig rear­ing and, in the case of Stephen Jones, a crop-sci­ence PHD stu­dent, oca, a tu­ber from New Zealand that’s sweet and lemony in taste. Matthew El­liott, a ten­ant farmer in Cam­bridgeshire, was able to set up a cut­ting and pro­cess­ing room for his rare-breed sausages.

The foun­da­tion’s board is ‘formed of my chums’ and chaired by Prof John Al­lis­ton, Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of the Royal Agri­cul­tural Univer­sity at Cirences­ter. ‘All is done free and gratis. I like to think they do it for old Henry.’ I rather sus­pect that they do. Clive Aslet

‘In 10 years’ time, we might be sorry to have left [the EU]

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