Plumbing the heights
The nonagenarian farmer and politician on the EU and helping the current generation
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]