30 August 2002

The Farmers Weekly Profile:

SIR DONALD CURRY

He led the governments

Policy Commission

investigation into the

future of farming and food

– its report now widely

known simply as the Curry

Report. But behind the

name is a creative and

dissatisfied man, as

Tim Relf discovers in the

first of a new series

profiling key men and

women in agriculture

DON Currys in the garden with his wife Rhoda at their home in Northumberland. Hes happy to be here. Work commitments have meant a lot of time away recently – away from Rhoda, away from the garden and away from Northumberland. "I love it here," he says.

Its the creative aspect of gardening that appeals to the farmer, ex-Meat and Livestock Commision boss and man whose name is now synonymous with the report seen by many as the blueprint for the future of the countryside.

"I do like to create things – I like to make a difference," he says. "Ive never been absolutely satisfied with the status quo. There are always things that need to be done, challenges that have to be faced."

This determination to make a difference born out of dissatisfaction is, it soon becomes apparent, a recurring theme in the 58 years since Donald Thomas Younger Curry was born.

It was dissatisfaction at poor marketing that led him in the early 1990s to set up the farmer-owned co-operative, North Country Primestock.

Dissatisfaction at assurance levels that motivated him to become a driving force in – and first chairman of – the Farm Assured British Beef and Lamb scheme.

And it was dissatisfaction at the residential care available for people with learning difficulties – as his daughter Jane experiences – that prompted him to form a charity providing such services.

In terms of challenges, though, one of his biggest came with chairing the Policy Commission. "They dont come much bigger than that in terms of the farming and food industry," he admits.

He was expecting to be asked to be involved – but as for heading it? "I was quite staggered to get the call," Don admits. "I was speechless for a few minutes."

But he didnt take long to accept. He knew what trouble farming was in and felt there was no vision, no clear direction. "We couldnt continue as we were.

"If you receive a call from Downing Street, you have to take it seriously," he says. "And Ive never walked away from a challenge in my life.

"So I found myself not having any valid excuse to refuse and a strong sense of responsibility to try and deliver a way forward."

There were warnings from some quarters that it would be a "poisoned chalice". Others said accepting would put him in a "no-win" situation.

"But I never accepted that. We have to accept that reform is inevitable. I hope this will be seen as a turning point in the history of the industry when we move on to a more sustainable footing and farming becomes a much more diverse business than it has been historically with other income streams helping to sustain rural economies in an enterprising and innovative way."

Today, back at his home near Hexham, Dons explaining how he and Rhoda have created this garden since they moved here in 1990. Back then, there was little more than one apple tree; now its an oasis of beauty in what can be a bleak and windy landscape.

Beyond the garden, sheep graze and, beyond that, lays the Northumberland countryside. "The best county in Britain," declares Don. "Its a marvellous county and I feel a very strong attachment to it.

"I feel it most when Im coming back on the train from London and I cross the Tyne and see the Tyne Bridge and I see the new Millennium Bridge and I think: Yes, this is where it is. Its a good feeling. Its great to come back. Its home.

"I think we have a very real identity and community and strong cultural ethos in Northumberland which is quite different to anywhere else. I never miss an opportunity when Im away from home to clearly establish where my roots are."

And it was a long-established Northumberland farming family into which Don was born. It didnt take him long to realise agriculture was for him. "As a youngster growing up, I just loved it.

"The only other profession I think I seriously would have considered was accountancy, because I quite enjoy figures."

Nowadays, the farm has 450 breeding ewes, finishes 150-200 cattle/year and grows about 100ha (250 acres) of mainly wheat, barley and oilseed rape.

Though his practical involvement is limited, he strongly refutes any suggestion hes a gentleman farmer. "I still regard myself as a practical day-to-day farmer and keep in touch on the telephone every day so I know whats going on. Ive got a very hands-on approach to the job."

He also makes a point of rolling his sleeves up at lambing and harvest time. "Its good for me to get my hands dirty and prove to myself that I can still cope with the practical skills that are necessary in the farming world."

The business has been scaled back from the 800ha (2000 acres) that Don and Rhoda had built it up to at one point – a move reflecting their other commitments and their childrens pursuit of other careers. Their eldest son, Jonathan, is a clinical chemist and the youngest, Craig, although once involved in farming, now works in engineering.

Their daughter – who has brain damage after suffering oxygen starvation at birth – is living in a home in Hexham. Its one of six in the north-east run by the At Home In The Community charity which Don still chairs. "Shes happy there, shes fine."

Fundraising for the charity is, he points out, a constant challenge. "We have to be quite creative in achieving income streams to support it."

Meanwhile, the Policy Commission report – the Curry Report – has become one of the hottest talking points in farming since its publication early this year. Its 150 pages – with recommendations on everything from assurance schemes to tenancy law – have drawn both praise and criticism.

DEFRA secretary Margaret Beckett declared it "excellent", but many farmers have hit out at its proposals for modulation, claiming they would worsen – rather than help – their predicament.

"I knew it wasnt going to please everyone, it was impossible to please everyone, but I felt certain that we had to find a way through."

He reckons his seven-and-a-half years as chairman of the MLC, ending last year, steeled him to criticism. "Ive got broad shoulders. I dont take it personally."

The six months it took to complete the report was, he says, hectic. "It was the busiest time of my career – both in terms of time away from home and pressure."

One of the drawbacks of spending a lot of time away from the north-east is that Dons got to fewer Newcastle United games than hed have liked. "Its a passion," says Don, a season ticket holder at the club. "Going to the game and getting engrossed is the ultimate in relaxation."

Like many people in this part of the world, hes a big fan of the teams manager, Sir Bobby Robson. "Hes a great guy, a real hero. Im delighted he got a knighthood. I did tell them in Downing Street he should have one," he laughs.

As for his own knighthood, awarded last year for his work on behalf of the meat and livestock industries, Sir Don reckons he was "surprised but absolutely thrilled".

Its taken a little getting used to, though. "I dont like to flaunt it – its against my nature to say: Im Sir Donald Curry and I want a good seat in this restaurant. I just wouldnt do that. Im very humbled by the whole thing."

The title certainly appears to have made an impression on his young granddaughter who, spotting him on the telly, was once heard to declare: "Thats Sir Donald Curry, hes my grandpa!"

Life isnt about to get any quieter for Don. Hes recently been appointed by DEFRA to head the implementation group for its Sustainable Food and Farming Strategy which will be published later this year.

The next 12 months will, he says, be crucial. "Weve generated a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of interest and a lot of expectation and energy and we need to harness all of that."

This, remember, will be happening in tandem with his other responsibilities: as deputy chairman of NFU Mutual and Commissioner for the Crown Estate, to name but two.

And Saturdays and Sundays have certainly never been quiet days in the Curry household. "As keen Christians, were heavily involved with the church. Thats a very important part of our lives. Weekends arent a time to put our feet up."

Dons the first to admit that he can be prone to taking on too much at times. "Im always ambitious about what I think I can achieve in a given period," he says. "But Im getting better at saying No."

So it seems there wont be much spare time to devote to the garden for a while yet. "I find it very relaxing – hard work, but relaxing," he explains.

"When you begin to achieve things and plants begin to mature and you see them blossoming, its really encouraging."

As for how the Curry Report and the changes it engenders will be judged? "I hope people might see it as a turning point.

"But everything is in the delivery."

A point which, as Sir Donald Curry says it, you realise could apply equally to his report or his gardening endeavours.