COMBINING practical farming in Norfolk with incisive farming commentary in print, radio and TV has made David Richardson farming’s A.G Street of the past half century.
In his autobiography, “In at the Deep End”, he reveals his motivations as he traces the transition from a world of horse-drawn cultivations to genetic modification, biofuels and global farm policies.
David has carved out a reputation for pragmatic, no-nonsene journalism, with penetrating criticism of officialdom, to win audiences across Norfolk, the UK and the wider world.
Never averse to hard work, he cycled three miles to milk cows at 4:30am every morning as a teenager. Indeed, with no silver-spoon background the economic imperative has always been a motivator. Seven guineas a week working for Dick Joice’s Farming Diary on Anglia TV was most welcome as he acquired Whiterails Farm in 1959.
“All I did was accept the challenges as they came my way,” he reflects. “At times I was pushed in at the deep end but somehow managed to swim.” As a tough but straightforward interviewer he took a common-sense approach to describe farming in the late 1950s, 60s, 70s and right through to today.
He tells it as it is, with a firm belief in fairness, honesty and integrity, starting out with a YFC column for East Anglian Farming World, and soon moving to the BBC’s national Farming TV and On Your Farm radio programmes, working alongside mentor and doyen of agricultural journalists John Cherrington.
He has spent 40 years writing well-read columns for Big Farm Weekly, the Financial Times and Farmers Weekly. His career tracked the UK’s preparations to join Europe, farming through its volatile policies, and the years up to the ‘Leave’ vote.
Woven between the farming and media stories are anecdotes of family life, from a first visit to Wymondham Young Farmers as an 18 year-old, where he met love of his life Lorna, to bringing up children Robert, Andrew and Fiona, and now enjoying grandchildren. Writing seems to be in the blood, his father Robert’s autobiography, Some fell on stony ground, having published in 1978.
The Farmers Club has been a London home since 1965. “There isn’t a better place for a farmer or someone in an ancillary trade to stay in London,” he says, fondly recalling staff stalwarts Cyril and Rosemary. Many farm visits and foreign ventures started life with a chat in the Club bar, he reflects.
Production agriculture to meet global food demand is a recurring theme, stemming from countless travels to see foreign agriculture first hand, and senior roles with Sentry / Associated Farming and the Norfolk Agricultural Society.
He never missed an Oxford Farming Conference in 50 years and in 2007 delivered a paper arguing for a dedicated government department and more supportive policies, lamenting the vacuum in research interpretation and application since ADAS’s demise.
Having witnessed so many policies, from rationing through surpluses to green-issue domination, he conveys a real sense of the need to balance lessons of history with the latest developments, to create policies that will deliver what really matters, a sustainable food supply. The influential Linking Environment and Farming initiative he helped create attests to that.
He recalls the days Minister of Agriculture Peter Walker, part of Margaret Thatcher’s government, campaigned to maximize home production of food. But since then UK and EU agriculture have fallen behind global producers, victims of single issue pressure groups and Daily Mail–style media.
David argues for measures to level out volatility and provide a degree of stability. “You cannot run an efficient business when you only make decent profits one year in about three or four. You cannot invest in technology and efficiency suffers.”
If the trend continues small farms will disappear, haemorrhaging even more skilled workers. US-style counter-cyclical aid, cutting aid when production rises, and boosting it production falls, could be the key.
“We’re going to need many more motivated young people in the future to produce food for the growing UK and world population. I believe the demand for what farmers produce will far exceed supply,” he says.
Repaying a debt of gratitude to his many informal mentors David is now a trustee of the Henry Plumb Foundation, designed to mentor the next generation of agriculturalists.
And what of Brexit? In at the Deep End was published before the Leave vote. So maybe David is working on a sequel: Deep End II – UK farming after Brexit. His common-sense insight is needed more than ever.