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Ashbourne NFU’s Paul Cook - speaking up for Derbyshire’s farmers

PUBLISHED: 10:31 17 October 2016 | UPDATED: 10:31 17 October 2016

Paul Cook with clients Sian Fergusson and Mick Allen  Photo Neil Brinsdon Photography

Paul Cook with clients Sian Fergusson and Mick Allen Photo Neil Brinsdon Photography

Copyright Neil Brinsdon 2015 All rights reserved

David Marley meets Paul Cook, the National Farmers’ Union Group Secretary for Ashbourne

The NFU team, l to r, Sharon Bull, Sharon Shemilt, Paul Cook, Debbie Ditchfield, Hannah Catton and Eliza Burton  Photo Neil Brinsdon PhotographyThe NFU team, l to r, Sharon Bull, Sharon Shemilt, Paul Cook, Debbie Ditchfield, Hannah Catton and Eliza Burton Photo Neil Brinsdon Photography

‘If I was fortunate enough to win the national lottery tomorrow,’ ponders a philosophical Paul Cook, ‘I would rush out and purchase a lovely, rural dairy farm and spend the rest of my life there.’

This reflective moment of contemplation is soon broken, as Paul – one of the longest-serving group secretaries in the history of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) in Derbyshire – is far from a dreamer. Having devoted almost 30 years of his life to protecting and safeguarding the interests of the county’s farmers and growers, he exudes a calm, practical and authoritative presence.

In the realm of agriculture a first impression is everything. It can make or break a relationship – and Paul Cook has an incredibly firm handshake as we greet each other in the heart of the market town of Ashbourne. Glancing up at his commanding six-feet-two-inch frame, with built-in rugby-scrum-shaped shoulders and imposing 40-inch-plus barrelled chest, it is easy to see why our traditional welcome exchange has left me with a minute-long tingle in my hand.

‘As a Welsh man rugby is my first love,’ beams Paul with an infectious smile. ‘Growing up in a small mining town ensured rugby was in my blood from an early age and by the time I went to agricultural college I was pursuing my passion by playing against some of the finest international players of the era. But when I wasn’t playing sport I was on the farm – which, over the years, has become a truly life-changing passion.’

The NFU team, l to r, Eliza Burton, Debbie Ditchfield, Hannah Catton, Paul Cook, Sharon Shemilt, Sharon Bull and Andrew Miles  Photo Neil Brinsdon PhotographyThe NFU team, l to r, Eliza Burton, Debbie Ditchfield, Hannah Catton, Paul Cook, Sharon Shemilt, Sharon Bull and Andrew Miles Photo Neil Brinsdon Photography

Born in Bedwas in Monmouthshire in the 1960s, Paul’s introduction to farming was forged out of tragedy. His father, an electrical engineer, died of a brain tumour when Paul was only four years old. Times were challenging for his family and money was hard to come by. ‘My mum used to help clean the house at the local farm for her life-long friend to earn some extra money after my father passed away,’ remembers Paul. ‘I had to tag along in school holidays when my grandmother couldn’t look after me and my love of farming started then.

‘By the age of 10 I was driving tractors, milking cows and staying up on the farm every waking hour and I loved every back-breaking moment,’ he smiles. ‘My mother was very pleased I liked it, as it kept me away from trouble and gave me something positive to focus on. There were lots of heavy physical things to do on the farm and by the time I was 17 I had a 17-inch neck, a 44-inch chest and a 32-inch waist; the perfect shape to play rugby!’

Paul moved to Taunton, spending the next 13 months of his life gaining some further work experience on a larger farm and it was perhaps inevitable that he was to go on to study for a certificate in farm management and a national diploma in agriculture at Usk College, near Newport in Wales, which he passed with a credit.

‘It was a three-year sandwich course, with two placements on separate farms. The day-to-day experiences I faced helped make me the person I am today. I learned how to be independent and how to embrace hard work. I loved every minute of it,’ he remembers. ‘It also allowed me some spare time to enjoy my rugby. I met some wonderful people during this time and did even consider a life in the sport.’

Paul Cook with clients Sian Fergusson and Mick Allen  Photo Neil Brinsdon PhotographyPaul Cook with clients Sian Fergusson and Mick Allen Photo Neil Brinsdon Photography

However, it was the early formative childhood experiences on the small farm in Bedwas that ultimately were to shape the future direction of Paul’s life. ‘I was destined to have a life in farming. Spending time on Harold Gibbon’s farm in the 1970s was amazing and life enhancing. I became a young farmer at the age of 10, and within three years with the support of others I became a confident public speaker and stock judge,’ he recalls. ‘Monmouthshire is one of the best places in the country for public speaking and I was very fortunate to have some amazing teachers and trainers at this time. I was so proud to go on to represent Wales in national public speaking finals, as well as winning prizes at the Royal Welsh Show, Birmingham Fat-Stock, Smithfield and the Royal Show.’

After college Paul married and moved to Ledbury in Herefordshire and worked as a herd manager on a dairy, arable and cider apple farm. He later moved to a nearby beef, dairy and cherry farm in Gloucestershire, managing 130 cows. Then in 1986 his professional career was to take a different direction. ‘An acquaintance recommended that I apply for a role as a deputy counties secretary for the National Farmers’ Union in Monmouthshire and Glamorgan,’ Paul says. ‘I had to appear before and be interviewed by 50 farmers – which was an interesting experience! I was up against land agents and trainee solicitors and to my great satisfaction I got the job. This now was going to be a big change from milking cows to being in a suit and tie with a briefcase and working in an office in Cardiff!’

For the next two-and-a-half-years Paul invested his energy in developing a deep understanding of the policy and lobbying activities of the NFU. ‘This was a very interesting time for farming. My work covered a variety of subjects from the salmonella eggs scare; beef import demonstrations at the ports and docks; milk quotas and tribunal appeals; fuel rebates; and butter mountain and wine lake debates in Parliament,’ reflects Paul.

In 1989, following a review by the consulting firm McKinsey and Company, the NFU was transformed into a regionalised organisation. ‘I was asked to become a group secretary for five years with the intention of moving back into the new regional structure in an executive role,’ explains Paul. ‘I was appointed as the Ashbourne Group Secretary in April 1989 and within a year I knew I was going to be here for the rest of my working career.’

As a group secretary, Paul is employed on a retainer by the NFU – which is the UK’s largest farming organisation – and he helps to provide assistance and support to farmers and growers in the area. ‘This involves promoting the NFU’s range of membership services and championing British farming by representing local farmers and related rural businesses,’ he explains.

The Ashbourne branch has over 250 farmer, grower and retired members – making it the largest group for the NFU in Derbyshire. ‘I regard many of our members as close friends. We’ve shared so many experiences together over the years – including family celebrations. I am now the longest-serving current group secretary in the county – and I love my job.’

Advocacy is a key part of Paul’s group secretary role and in recent months a great portion of his time has been spent supporting the county’s dairy farmers – who produce a staggering 553 million litres of milk every year. ‘Most people over a certain age will remember rushing to beat the blue tits in the morning to get to the milk bottles on the doorstep or enjoying a welcome refreshing drink of milk from a third-of-a-pint bottle at school – but today most people take for granted that milk will always be available for consumers,’ he says.

‘Pressures on dairy farmers have never been tougher,’ explains Paul. ‘It is just over a year since the European Union scrapped quotas to control milk production and this move has had many unintended consequences for Derbyshire’s dairy producers. This, combined with supermarket price wars and political disputes, has led to an over-supply of the product in the world, leading to a dramatic plunge in the price of milk. This has really hit Derbyshire’s dairy farmers hard – and the price falls are the worst I have ever seen.’

Milk prices peaked at around 32 pence per litre a few years ago but in recent months they have fallen rapidly. ‘Some farmers are now receiving less than 10p per litre on spot contracts and this is very hard for them to sustain in the long term,’ he explains. ‘Farmers with pedigree breeds were being paid £1,500 for a cow two years ago, this has now fallen to below £800 for the same animal today.’

The NFU is striving to help dairy farmers to diversify to overcome some of the problems of over-supply. ‘Some farmers have diversified – with many having direct milk sales machines on their farms. Others have started to offer butter and ice cream as alternative uses for their milk, while others have simply sold up or decided to use their farm buildings for bed and breakfasts or residential accommodation. Here in Ashbourne a farmer is looking to produce green-top milk fresh from his Jersey herd of cows under licence – and nothing tastes better than milk direct from the cow!’

Paul is confident that Derbyshire’s farmers will continue to fight for their survival as they have consistently over the past 30 years that he has spent with the NFU. ‘We’ve always faced challenges. No more so than the national foot and mouth outbreak which will always remain a career low for farming in my memory,’ he says. In February 2001 the foot and mouth outbreak which led to the closure of much of the Derbyshire countryside had a devastating impact on agriculture, leading to considerable personal hardship for the families of farmers involved. ‘During this time I spent three months solid in the office, seven days a week. I wasn’t allowed back on the farms until the October! It was a desperate time for our farmers and growers and the NFU stood shoulder to shoulder with them. And we will always continue to do so.’

In addition to his group secretary role Paul also acts as a local NFU Mutual agent. ‘I work on a self-employed basis offering a range of insurance-led services to local people. We are fortunate to have an excellent team of staff – we really care about our customers who are all dear friends. We always aim to treat everyone as we would wish to be treated. As long as we continue doing that I don’t think we’ll go too far wrong,’ he says.

As one of six local NFU Mutual agents in Derbyshire Paul’s role in insuring property and livestock against risk for farmers and growers is varied. Customers vary from those with a small household contents policy with a value of less than £50 per year to others with insurance policies totalling over £150,000 a year. Since he came to Derbyshire in 1989 Paul has transformed the Ashbourne agency from a £300,000 turnover business employing two staff into a £3 million operation providing employment for five people.

‘We have a lot of loyal and longstanding customers. One of our best customers recently retired at the age of 94 having held an unbroken policy with us for over 70 years,’ Paul says proudly. ‘Today over 50 per cent of our business comes from non-farmers. We cover many things from property to car insurance as well as risk management services and offering access to pensions advice.’

When not at work golf takes up a big part of his free time and he can boast to have played at all of the Open Championship courses. ‘I captained Ashbourne Golf Club in 2006 and am currently its President, of which I am very proud. I generally get to Cardiff four times a year to watch Wales play rugby,’ laughs Paul. ‘I love to spend time holidaying in the USA with my wife Barbara as well as spending time with my children, Lucy and Josh.’

For more information visit www.nfumutual.co.uk/branches/ashbourne or telephone 01335 342052.

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