13 October 2000

40 YEARS FIGHTING FARMINGS CAUSES

For 40 years, John James has been a tireless fighter for

farmers rights to buy their inputs at fair prices and was

the driving force behind the formation of a well-known

West Country-based farmers supply co-op. And hes not

afraid to speak his mind, reports John Burns

BUT for the James familys habit of holidaying year after year on the same farm at Stibb, near Bude, north Cornwall, Mole Valley Farmers might never have existed. For it was during those holidays in the 1930s that the young John James became hooked on farming and was soon spending all his school holidays helping on that farm.

After a degree course at Reading University, interrupted by three years war service in the RAF, he returned to Devon in 1948 and bought a farm "for about £30/acre" with borrowed money.

His early farming was governed by the 1947 Agriculture Act which guaranteed farmers reasonable returns for whatever quantity of food the government decided was needed. Farm input prices were also controlled under the Recommended Retail Price system introduced during the war to protect consumers. As Britain gradually recovered from the war, farmgate prices started to fall but the RRP system with its guaranteed generous margins for distributors and retailers remained in place. Thus farming became progressively less profitable, especially on the small farms typical of the West Country.

By the late 1950s Mr James had found his farming feet, and with the help of an MMB scholarship had taken a postgraduate course at the Agricultural Economics Research Institute, part of Oxford University. He was also playing his part in the NFU both locally and as a delegate to London HQ.

Costly experience in his own farming taught Mr James that "soft" buyers were charged higher prices, even by his local farmers co-ops. But it proved remarkably difficult to break the cosy network which ran things in those days.

Taken on one side

"I attended a few North Devon Farmers annual meetings to raise my concerns but was taken on one side and told that these meetings were not the place to complain. Id read about Rhys Thomas, a Nuffield scholar who had studied buying groups in America and set up a co-op to cut costs for farmers, and in May 1960 I suggested our local NFU should invite him to address a meeting. But North Devon Farmers directors objected, so we had to arrange a private meeting for Rhys."

That was followed by four other meetings with like-minded pioneers and then the decision was made to collect share capital and register the name Mole Valley Farmers – after the River Mole from which South Molton takes its name.

Seven directors were elected, some of whom were chosen for their trade connections. In those days goods were still relatively scarce and Retail Price Maintenance served as a powerful tool for protecting profits in the distributive trades.

Early MVF prices were based on percentage discounts on rrps. "But it took me three months to learn that in addition to the substantial mark-ups for retailers, there were also end-of-year bonuses based on quantities sold. Mark-ups ranged from 10% to one-third according to product. We worked on 2.5% for smaller commodities and 2/6d a ton on feed and fertilisers."

Mr James admits those low operating margins were probably not sustainable, but that did not prevent him from entering many epic epic struggles with big-name companies.

"I was told by ICI that unless I agreed to increase our selling price, they would effectively increase their prices to us. I told ICI their threat was illegal but I would not inform the authorities. Instead, I told them that for every 2.5% he reduced our discount, I would reduce our selling price by 2.5% even if it meant selling at a loss."

And when seeking a site for expansion into Cornwall, MVF found its planning application was refused on a site for which planning consent was granted just three months later to Cornwall Farmers co-op for the same purpose.

"When we found another site, I became Richard Cockburn with an Aussie accent and worked through an Australian company, ostensibly veterinary wholesalers. I was telephoned by the mayor of Wadebridge who was also chairman of the planning committee considering our application. When he persisted in asking whether I had any connection with Mole Valley Farmers I asked why he wanted to know. He explained he had a shoe shop in Wadebridge which would be ruined if MVF came to the area."

Off the shelf

MVF expanded into other areas of the supply business by stealth, using companies bought off the shelf, or quietly giving financial backing to companies with the right trade connections. Even today there are proprietary products, particularly animal health products, which MVF cannot stock because the companies have special (high) prices for MVF which mean it cannot compete with retailers who are supplied at much lower prices and so enjoy generous margins at the expense of farmers.

Mr James is renowned for his meanness. In 1976 he took two teams of workers to Lincs to bale straw for Devon members hit hard by the severe drought. When tackled by the workers about the need for equipment to load the lorries quickly and efficiently, Mr James responded by providing two old-fashioned bale forks.

Mr Jamess unique qualities were never better demonstrated than when it emerged that three cases of anthrax had been traced to feed made at the mill shared by MVF, Avon Farmers and Mole Avon co-ops. "At MVF our rule when faced with a disaster was to aim to turn it to our advantage. In our newsletter we admitted that our feed was responsible, apologised to members, cleared the mill of all raw materials and sterilised it. We lost only one customer."

Tracing the source

But finding the source of the anthrax proved more difficult. Meat and bonemeal seemed the likeliest candidate, so Mr James and Richard Thomson of Avon Farmers set about tracing the history of the consignment of meat and bonemeal used in the feed concerned. Sharp detective work, cheek and stamina ensured they eventually succeeded in tracing the source of the infection – something MAFF had failed to do. Even getting MVFs retained sample of the MBM tested for anthrax proved difficult until a public analyst was found in need of an extra fee for some private work.

Fighting for farming causes is second nature to Mr James. That he relishes the challenges was never more clearly shown than last November when at the age of 75, he tackled Frances refusal to lift its ban on British beef. With his son Christopher and others he set up a barbecue opposite the French embassy in London and persuaded the ambassador to eat some beef.

Later with his daughter Heather, who lives in France, and campaigner Richard Haddock, he organised a protest at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. It was a low-cost trip involving gruelling 16hr journeys each way and sleeping on the coach. But on arriving back in Devon, this remarkable 75-year-old man was first out of the coach, shaking each protestor by the hand and thanking them.

Mr James admits he is a rebel at heart. "I think there is too much respectability in farming politics. I dont think it produces the results at the end of the day. Its true that every situation needs its statesmen and diplomats, but it also needs it rebels and guerrilla fighters."

Latterly, John James has worked in Africa as a field director for Band Aid in Sudan and then Ethiopia. He was awarded an MBE for his work in 1987.

During these years his involvement with MVF dwindled and this autumn – on MVFs 40th anniversary – it will cease altogether.