Farming feature: East’s ‘rural ambassador’ moves to new pastures

Nicola Currie is retiring as eastern region director of the Country Land and Business Association.

Nicola Currie is retiring as eastern region director of the Country Land and Business Association. - Credit: Su Anderson

Over the past 10 years, Nicola Currie, eastern regional director at the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), has been a major figure in the region’s rural affairs, lobbying locally and nationally on issues important to her members, and helping them with their businesses. This week, she announced her intention to step down in December. She spoke to SARAH CHAMBERS about her decision, and about a very packed decade.

Nicola Currie has an unnerving habit of getting back to you straight away, even when you email at an unearthly hour expecting your message to linger unloved and unnoticed in cyberspace.

And she knows her stuff. Her responses are knowledgeable, and if she doesn’t know, she soon finds out.

Now aged 60, Nicola has spent the last 10 years at the helm of what has become a very large region for the Country, Land and Business Association (CLA), stretching from the Humber to the Thames. This week, she announced her retirement at the end of the year - or near-retirement, as she will be taking on a part-time role at Fram Farmers as project co-ordinator for the EDGE Food and Farming Apprenticeships in Suffolk.

She’ll be a hard act to follow. It’s a job she has approached with meticulous professionalism, living and breathing her post and its many demands and pouring her energy and drive into any number of rural causes.

“I have done the job for 10 years. It’s a very, very, very demanding job. It’s a 24/7 job, and I felt the time was right for someone to come and give it a fresh approach, a fresh injection of energy. At the same time, I also wanted to change have a breather and move to part-time working,” she explains.

Nicola always has her finger on the news pulse and wades through policy paperwork with industrious purpose. Some might call her a workaholic, and they wouldn’t be wide of the mark.

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She’s unusual in having a strong grounding in both farm management and in marketing, and joined the CLA with six years under her belt as marketing boss for accountancy firm Ensors, then two years at estate agents Bidwells.

From her regional headquarters at Newmarket where she heads up a seven-strong team, Nicola, who lives at Hitcham, near Bildeston, will travel hundreds of miles to visit members and attend meetings, or head off before dawn on the train to London for a broadcast interview.

“The number of times I have done a radio interview and caught the train up to London in the dark. Media can be very demanding, but it’s very useful. The whole job is very demanding, but I’m very lucky, we have got a brilliant team here,” she says.

“It’s non-stop. It’s appointments. Tomorrow I’m off to Northamptonshire. Last week, I had meetings in Kettering, Diss, and I can’t remember where the other one was. It’s a lot of physical meetings and there’s no substitute for personal contacts when you are trying to win points for members. I’m always in by 8.30am, usually by 8.15am, and rarely leave much before 6pm. It’s the kind of job that stretches over into weekends. I enjoy it, I love it. It has been absolutely fascinating. It felt like a culmination of all my experience - like a job waiting for me. It has been a real privilege to do for these 10 years.”

Originally from Gloucester, Nicola was not from a farming family, but farming was always her passion, and she took on her own dairy herd in the early 1970s, starting with two cows and about two acres. She built the herd up to 120 cows, but it was “just not to be”, and when it became uneconomic, around the early 1980s, she decided to go to agricultural college at Cirencester, and took a postgraduate diploma in advanced farm management. At the time, there were “just no women in farming”, but it was a “brilliant course”, she says, and taught her many skills.

“You would go to an event and there was no queue for the ladies’ room - the queue was for the gents’,” she recalls. “We were a rare breed.”

The business skills she learnt at college stood her in good stead, and she enjoys the challenge of looking at businesses and helping them to succeed, she says.

For a while she looked after an estate in the Cotwolds, setting up a dairy herd there. Then, after moving to East Anglia with husband, Malcolm, a chartered surveyor, in the early 90s, she spent three years as a farm business consultant with Andersons before moving into her first marketing manager role.

“I have been so lucky - I have worked for some really nice people all the way through,” she says.

The post at the CLA followed a chance remark. Bidwells was running an event with the CLA and the then regional director Paul Long mentioned he was retiring.

She applied. “I can remember being interviewed by (local food campaigner) Caroline Cranbrook, amongst others,” says Nicola.

She was selected, and worked with its chair Edward Greenwell, who championed the setting up of a London branch of the CLA to look after the ‘next generation’ of farmers and landowners, a number of whom had jobs in the City while their parents ran the farm ‘back home’.

The CLA tackles a range of issues, backed by its own professionals, and one dominant theme in East Anglia has inevitably been flooding and coastal erosion. In the past, relations with the Environment Agency have not been easy, but that has “changed significantly” in recent times and has become much more constructive, says Nicola. Policing and tackling rural crime has been another area she has been deeply emersed in, and again, she feels “a much more positive approach” has evolved in East Anglia. The ongoing campaign to improve broadband coverage in rural areas has also been a focus for her, as has cutting red tape, climate change, renewable energy and relaxing planning law to enable “sensible” development to keep rural areas vibrant.

“The members make us aware of a problem and we pick it up and do something about it. It’s about not being prepared to take no for an answer and politely but firmly chipping away,” she says.

“I never know what the next phone call is going to bring. I love that. I love the challenge of getting your head around something new and helping the membership.”

With 60% “and rising” of the UK population living in rural areas, it can be difficult, she admits, for politicians or civil servants to see things from a rural perspective. Nicola regards her role as that of an ambassador for the rural economy.

Luckily, attitudes are changing, and farming is seen in a more positive light. “That has been one of the key highlights in my term of office, is seeing the change in perception,” she says. “It has been fantastic to see how highly farming is regarded, and the contribution food and farming makes to our GDP, particularly in this part of the world.”

Moving on won’t be easy, but Nicola is a great believer in the need to keep organisations fresh and to involve younger people.

“One of my key principles of good business management is to involve new decision makers who can bring a fresh outlook and new ideas. After 10 years running the eastern region of the CLA, I am putting my own business philosophy into practise.”