‘It’s all a bit surreal’ admits new farm chief as he takes up post amid pandemic
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
With the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) East regional office closed until the end of September, Gary Ford’s first few weeks in post are going to be unusual, to say the least.
The new NFU East director – who officially starts on Monday, August 3 – is still stuck in Worcestershire – where his family farms – after his plans to relocate to East Anglia were thwarted by the coronavirus crisis.
So it’ll be a few weeks yet before he can get his feet behind the desk at his new office in Newmarket.
MORE – Farmer’s anger as thieves strike just as busy harvest season gets under way“It’s all a bit surreal,” he admits. “The regional office will be closed until the end of September – I have been working from home since mid-March.”
Up until his current appointment took effect with a three-week handover period with outgoing director Rachel Carrington – who has now left to start a new life in France – Gary was already well known in NFU circles as its national poultry adviser.
It was a role he relished, but when the chance to head up the NFU office in England’s the most economically important region for farming, he couldn’t resist putting his name forward. He was appointed in April in the middle of lockdown.
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He is currently house-hunting, and plans to move to the area, but meantime he will be meeting and greeting members and colleagues online – as well as in person where possible, he says.
“I want to be in the heart of the community, living and breathing it,” he says. “None of that frustratingly but understandably is possible at the moment.”
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But he already has a good working knowledge of the region, having spent four years at Writtle college in Chelmsford from 1987 to 1990. After securing an HND with distinction he went on to gain his degree in agrculture.
The family has relatives in Downham Market so visits the area frequently, and he has strong professional ties with the region through its large poultry sector, which includes high-profile firms such as Gressingham, 2 Sisters and Bernard Matthews, Cranswick, Banham Poultry, as well as Anglia Free Range Eggs at Attleborough.
“It’s a key, key area from a poultry point of view, hence I have made many, many trips to the region to meet and greet those members,” he explains. “I have got a real warm feeling, a real affinity for the region.”
He never have imagined starting such a prominent role in such a way, he adds, but “you get on with it and you have to make the most of it”.
Meanwhile, there have been some upsides to communicating online, admits Gary, including being able to cover more ground quickly while not spending an inordinate amount of time driving between meetings.
With the help of Microsoft Teams he has been familiarise himself quickly with people.
“It’s a really good way of getting across the region quite quickly, and having those conversations, putting faces to names,” he says. “Likewise with members. If I was driving to see them on their farm, there’s a limit to how many you can do in a day or a week.”
“I think the challenge is when we return to some sort of normality we need to retain the best bits and dovetail that kind of new way of working – a new normal – which a lot of people are talking about at the moment.
“From a member point of view particularly at this time of year it’s far easier for them to join a webinar or a conference call while at the farmhouse kitchen.”
It doesn’t come close to replacing that all-important face-to-face, he admits, though.
This week he met up with Debenham arable farmer and Suffolk NFU chairman Glenn Buckingham at his farm to learn a bit more about what the priorities are for farmers in this region. He was also presented with a special commemorative beverage to mark the Suffolk branch’s centenary this year. Sadly, celebrations planned for the summer have been postponed because of the crisis.
He has taken over the helm at a challenging time for the industry in a very fast-cahnging world, with issues including Brexit and trade deals, the new ELMs (Environmental Land Management scheme), the loss of key pesticides and the Covid-19 recovery looming large, and more locally, water resources in a parched part of the UK – and rural crime.
Gary’s parents are beef and sheep farmers, with his father leaving a farm partnership with his two brothers to set up on his own.
“As often happens with farming families they had a little bit of a disagreement and my father took his third share out of the partnership and bought his own farm,” he explains.
The new farm was only just large enough for his parents, which meant Gary – the middle of three sons – had to look elsewhere for a living. “It was a bit of a challenge – I had grown up thinking I would go into the family farm,” he admits.
After graduating, he spent about a year to 18 months labouring on farms before securing his first role at the NFU as a group secretary. He went from there into the poultry industry before rejoining the NFU again, rising through the ranks to become poultry adviser.
But his new role is the pinnacle. “I was over the moon – absolutely thrilled, absolutely delighted to become the regional director for the East Anglian region. I have got a real warmth for the region. I really, really like it.”