‘Down-to-earth’ Suffolk farmer and co-op stalwart dies at age of 90

Suffolk farmer Keith Bullock with wife Ann outside their farm house in Cotton

The late Keith Bullock and wife Ann in front of Church Farm House at Cotton - Credit: Wendy Turner

A farming stalwart who led Framlingham Farmers co-op through challenging times in the 1970s has died at the age of 90.

Keith Bullock of Church Farm, Cotton, near Bacton, was a down-to-earth farmer who played an active part in the farm and also in the life of the village.

The eldest child of Alfred and Nina Bullock was born on December 4, 1930, at Wicks Farm, Mendlesham, and was hastily christened to avoid the anguish his parents suffered after their first-born child died before he could be baptised and was refused a Christian burial.

His parents kept cows and his mother would make 60lbs of butter each week which she pushed about one and a half miles in a pram to sell in Mendlesham.

Keith survived a potentially fatal bout of mumps in childhood — and an attack by a protective cow which ran amok as his father tried to capture her calf.

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He went to school at Cotton then was accepted into Culford boarding school near Bury St Edmunds after failing his grammar school entrance exam. There he forged lifelong friendships — including with David Black of Bacton Pigs — and developed a great love of nature. But he was consigned to the “B” stream by the headmaster who told his parents he wasn’t bright enough to be an auctioneer — his preferred career choice.

He and David became scouts together, played hocked, attended Young Farmers and joined Gipping Valley Growers and the board of Framlingham Farmers.

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Keith was supposed to go to agricultural college but demobilised armed forces were being given priority so he started work on the farm.

A few years later, he was given an opportunity when his grandad offered him the tenancy on Church Farm.

In his memoirs — entitled What a load of Bullocks — Keith recalled: “Sunday evening we had just finished tea the telephone was ringing. I was sent to the little room to answer it. Grandad Williams: ‘Is that you Keith?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you want Church Farm?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I have offered it to Charlie and Joe. They weren’t interested in farming. I’ve decided to give up at Michaelmas.’ ‘I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it — how much will the rent be?’ ‘I won’t hurt you boy. Let me know by the morning or I’ll let Woodwards have it.’

So at the age of 23, Keith took on 110 acres of land and four employees included in the tenancy agreement. The following year he married Ann (nee Allard) and they went on to have five children — Judith, John, Richard, Suzanne and Andrew. John and Andrew would later follow their father into the family business.

With many challenges, Keith had to think smart to survive. He sought to intensify his enterprises and experimented with a range of crops including asparagus, potatoes, cauliflower, dwarf beans and sweetcorn. Some worked for a while and he also tried his hand at a variety of livestock enterprises including laying hens, pigs, and turkeys — but milking cows remained the mainstay.

Today the farm is about 600 acres and remains a mixed livestock and arable operation, with 100 milking cows supplying Arla, some beef production and growing a range of mainstream crops such as wheat, barley, sugar beet, oilseed rape and beans.

“He pretty much took a backseat when I and my brother came back onto the farm,” explained son Andrew. Keith was very respected and built strong friendships which stood the test of time, he added. “He was loyal to people and he was known for his integrity and honesty,” he said. “He did work extremely hard to get where he did and he was extremely generous in his later years — he was extremely generous with his time more than anything.”

Keith was a strong believer in the co-operative movement, becoming a founding member of Framlingham Farmers. He was on the board for 18 years and its chairman for five years during its early formative years. The family said he was “incredibly proud” of his Fram Farmers involvement.

Son John recalled: “Keith always thought that he was out of his depth, but his down-to-earth approach and his ability to sum up situations with very few words endeared people to him.” 

Every time he came into the Framlingham Farmers’ office, Keith would make a point of speaking to every member of staff by their Christian names and thank them for the work they were doing, he said.

John recalled how his father averted a crisis at the farm co-op after Roger Adshead — who went on to become chief executive — became disenchanted with his role and decided to quit. 

“He handed a resignation letter to the general manager. When he later inquired as to why his letter hadn’t been responded to, he was told that it had been given to Keith and that he would be in touch in due course. Keith later invited him to Church Farm to discuss the matter. He accepted the invitation and went very fired up and ready to give Keith a piece of his mind.”

When he arrived, Keith wasn’t there but Ann offered him a cup of tea. Keith turned up late and invited Roger to the Trowel and Hammer pub in Cotton to discuss the matter over a pint of beer.

“At the end of the evening, when Roger was completely relaxed, Keith pulled the resignation letter from his jacket saying: ‘I’m sure they are small matters which can be resolved, I think we can tear this up.’”

Roger continued working at Fram Farmers until his retirement.

Andrew said his father would never get involved in anything that excluded people. “It had got to be inclusive — he couldn’t really entertain people who were showy.”

He had many sayings and anecdotes, he recalled, including that life was too short to fall out with anyone, and you can’t buy contentment.

John recalled that his father was an avid reader and taught himself how to operate a computer. He adopted a ‘make do and mend’ approach and was a hands-on farmer. “I think he liked to think he was able to put the small farmer’s point of view across,” he added.

Friend David Black said Keith had a dry humour and they got on remarkably well. They were both involved in Framlingham Farmers and he credited Keith with keeping things together at a difficult time.

“There was a period where it could have gone crook,” he said. “He kept the balls in the air very much at that formative stage when people were pulling in different directions.”

Keith was very adaptable on the farm and when his sons took over he got on the combine and would also cart the sugar beet to Bury St Edmunds on the farm lorry. 

He was also a keen photographer and film-maker, starting with cinefilms then moving to video. Some of his films recording village and family life are now with the East Anglian Film Archive.

A self-taught electrician, he designed a home and garden which he wired himself, and in 1992 realised a lifelong dream when he opened his garden for an open gardens weekend in Cotton to raise money for the church. The garden was opened many more times as part of the national Open Gardens scheme.

He was heavily involved in the Cotton Exhibition — a precursor to the Woolpit Steam Rally — with childhood friend the late Robert Finbow and was chairman of the Cotton Village Produce Association for 25 years. The organisation has been running for more than 80 years and is thought to be the oldest continually running gardening club in Suffolk. 

He and his late wife Ann — who died four years ago — ran a hugely successful art exhibition in Cotton Church for many years.

In later life as his eyesight began to fail he was kept entertained by a steady stream of visitors. His family recall that one of his favourite sayings was: “It is better to be born lucky than rich.” 

Keith Bullock is survived by his five children and 13 grandchildren. A service to commemorate his life will be held at Cotton Church on Wednesday, August 25, at 11.30am.

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