16 March 2001

Still helping feed world…

From Zebu cattle to African tribal culture, retired Cumbria farmer

John Graham recalls a colourful life in the colonial service and

tells Jeremy Hunt about his latest mission to Russia

JOHN Graham has never forgotten an old proverb told to him by a Bantu tribesman in Africa: "When everything belongs to everybody, nobody has anything and nobody cares."

Its a proverb that, ironically, spans two very different worlds that have been touched by this redoubtable Cumbrian. He first heard it during time spent as a young man working in the colonial service in Africa. But now, as the driving force behind an ambitious new agricultural project in Russia, he says the proverb perfectly sums up the communist ideology hes now having to cope with.

John Graham has never been one to walk away from a challenge. In fact, as you talk to him at his home at Wigton, Cumbria you soon begin to realise that this man has thrived on a lifetime of achievement. And this septuagenarian is still at it.

Following 16 years in the colonial service in Tanganyika he pioneered barley-beef production in the UK and then set up one of Britains first wind farms. And now hes become nothing short of a hero in a remote part of Russia where he is valiantly striving to help farmers to improve standards of crop husbandry and boost yields from their arable land.

He was born in 1925, the fourth son of a Cumbria farmer. After gaining his agricultural qualifications in Edinburgh he spent a year working on his fathers farm before taking up a post of livestock officer in the colonial service in Tanganyika. It was something that was to prove a major turning point in his life. In his early 20s he suddenly found himself on the other side of the world with a wagon, a tent and a scant knowledge of Swahili.

On his first assignment he was sent into the bush to organise a mass vaccination scheme of the local Zebu cattle population which was suffering from rinderpest – the African equivalent of foot-and-mouth disease.

&#42 Colonial style

He quickly adapted to the colonial lifestyle and although the scale of the continent was difficult to come to terms with, he soon learned to cope with 300 mile journeys over earth roads just to play a game of rugby.

An early promotion put him in charge of a new dairy unit on the North African coast where he spent 11 years. He married his wife Dot in 1950 and at the time was earning a salary of £300 a year.

"I managed the unit of 150 cows of various breeds to produce milk for the Europeans in the local town. But we were also involved in a lot of research".

By the time he left the dairy unit he had significantly improved the yields of the pure Zebu cattle. Some were producing 700 gallons per lactation, set against a herd average of just 300 gallons when he arrived.

As well as making his mark on the countrys dairy industry, John Graham was involved in tropical crop development. "I managed to double the coconut yield from palm trees while at the same time improving the dairy pastures that grew beneath them!" he recalls.

But self-government saw him leave Africa in 1962 and return to the UK with his wife and young son. He bought Kirkland Hall at Wigton in west Cumbria.

In his inimitable style he had been quick to notice the good results being achieved from the "new" concept of rearing beef bulls on barley. He set up a system at Kirkland Hall – it was to become one of the countrys most successful barley-beef units.

&#42 World record

Over the next 25 years the farm expanded to 243ha (600 acres) and produced 1000 head of cattle a year. During that time the farm also achieved the world record barley yield – producing 84cwt from one acre.

A prominent CLA member, John Graham has also been awarded the Blamire Medal for his contribution to Cumbrian Agriculture. He retired from farming in 1987.

But retirement never keeps a good man down. In the late 1980s he set up one of the UKs first wind farms on an aerodrome site that had become part of the farm and where six turbines now generate power.

But there was an even greater challenge ahead. In 1990 John joined a small party on a visit to Russia. It was a visit that was to open yet another chapter in the life of this ground-breaking Cumbrian.

"I couldnt understand why Russian farmers were achieving such poor arable yields. I approached the Russian Embassy offering to help."

He became a volunteer with the British Executive Service Overseas and found himself heading for the Pskov region near the Lithuanian-Latvian border – which is on a similar latitude to Cumbria.

"Their corn crops are yielding anything from 1cwt – 1 tonne an acre, mainly because of poor cultivation through ineffective machinery.

"They use only one type of digger plough which is totally ineffective," says John Graham who has made 10 visits to Russia, most recently last year.

He has designed a project to demonstrate to the Russian authorities how, by improved cultivation and husbandry, crop yields can be increased. Although he has established an excellent relationship with Russian farmers, he is finding it difficult to convince those in charge of this regions agriculture that changes need to be made.

"But I am making some progress and have already sent out a new plough to a farmer I have been working closely with," he points out.

This is yet another challenge facing John Graham, but on past form it shouldnt be long before even the Russian agricultural top-brass have realised that this determined Cumbrian just never gives up.