Sarah Todd: Sir Ken – the retail tycoon with deep roots in the land

Sir Ken Morrison was proud to be a farmer.

Sir Ken Morrison was proud to be a farmer.

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HOW do you make a million at farming? The answer is, of course, start with two million and work hard. You’ll end up with a million left – if you’re lucky.

The late supermarket mogul Sir Ken Morrison had made his millions by the time he turned his hand to farming. He had earnt the right to lose the odd million and play the country squire. But, true to form, that wasn’t his style.

His 1,000-plus acreage, running over three farms close to the family home at Myton-on-Swale in North Yorkshire, was no hobby farm.

Mere mention of the range of sheds at Haddocks Farm is enough to leave many a farmer with the kind of misty-eyed
look most of the rest of the population reserve for romantic encounters. The series of purpose-built buildings – including the largest straw barn in Britain – have every angle covered. From infection control to welfare, nothing has been left to chance.

Among today’s Escape to the Country generation, there are plenty just as green as the grass. There are often nods and winks at the county’s livestock markets that have nothing to do with bidding; but all to do with the kind of new brooms who fancy a slice of the rural life.

But from day one Sir Ken fitted in with the farmers. He was one of them. From seeing him stacking the shelves to queuing up next to him for a cuppa at the café, there have been endless tales told this week about the man who took his business from two market stalls to one of the country’s biggest supermarket chains. Likewise, there are many in the farming world who have a yarn about a canny old farmer they were stood next to who turned out to be a billionaire.

This correspondent’s beef farmer parents are among the number. They attended a talk 
he was giving to members of
the Driffield Agricultural Society and couldn’t get over how 
shrewd and ‘like a normal farmer’ he was.

They had a chat afterwards and he said he’d send his farm manager to cast his eye over their herd of cattle. They thought no more about it – probably nothing more than polite chit-chat from a man with much bigger fish to fry – but in two shakes of a heifer’s tail the aforementioned farm manager was hot-footing it to the farm, following up on his boss’s bovine lead.

Sir Ken himself often said if life had turned out differently he could well have worked on the land from the off.

His connection with growing produce went back to his father William’s grocery business, launched selling eggs and butter in Bradford in 1899.

Going forward, as people say these days, it’s hard to imagine any modern-day supermarket executive having that in-built understanding and interest in the produce on their shelves.

They are all too many generations removed from the mucky end of the shovel.

Back in 2010, when interviewed to mark his election as president of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, Sir Ken had probably never smiled so broadly or spoken with such enthusiasm. It was an honour that meant a huge amount to him.

He was from a sadly near-extinct generation who all had a link back to the land. He was always as proud as punch to see his stock exhibited at the Great Yorkshire Show.

He often had Beltex lambs entered as well as exhibits
in the carcase section. These weren’t the token entries of a rich man.

Sir Ken took the subject of good quality British-reared meat seriously long before it became trendy. He didn’t jump on any locally-produced bandwagon; he built the wagon with his own bare hands and pulled it along with a powerful dose of common sense.

He was characteristically quick off the mark to offer only British beef in his supermarkets and took a passionate interest in the British Shorthorn breed in particular. He set up the Morrisons native breeds’ scheme which had a hugely positive impact on prices, and on the preservation of such traditional breeds through creating a market. Sir Ken didn’t just talk the field-to-plate talk; he walked the walk, with Morrisons owning much of its own food production and packing facilities, including its own abattoirs.

To finish, as we started, with a saying about farming, it was former US president Dwight D Eisenhower who said: “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”

Nobody understood this better than Sir Ken Morrison. Of all the tributes, the ones in the farming Press that referred to him as a ‘Yorkshire farmer’ – alongside the acres of references to his supermarket tycoon status – would doubtless have given him the most pleasure.

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.

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