Show president opens up on life as a farming official

Len Cragg, joint president of the North Yorkshire County Show.  Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe
Len Cragg, joint president of the North Yorkshire County Show. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe
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Mention ‘Defra’ - the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - to any farmer and you’re likely to get some form of negativity, but there was a time when ministry officials were seen differently. They weren’t viewed as farm policemen 50 years ago but as people who were trying to help.

That’s how Len Cragg remembers it having been stymied from climbing the farming ladder at an early age and joining the The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) in 1966.

Len and wife Vivien are joint show presidents of the North Yorkshire County Show to be held at Otterington Hall next Sunday, on June 19.

“I soon realised that if you’re working on a farm and the farmer has family then it’s the family that will get the priority and not the employee. That hasn’t changed in 60 years.

“I spent a year as a farm student in north Northumberland up near Wooler before attending Newton Rigg College and then returning to the area to milk cows for two years.”

It was the experience Len gained from farming and formal qualifications that led to his 36-year career with the ministry, in which time he witnessed the two major Foot and Mouth disease years of 1967 and 2001; other disease outbreaks in pigs, poultry and cattle; and the change in esteem in which MAFF and now Defra officials are held.

“The atmosphere back in the 60s was that you were welcomed as you were offering a beneficial service. I worked in the animal health team and that involved a lot of blood sampling and eradication schemes for such as brucellosis and bovine TB. I spent my first six months in Kendal before moving to Northallerton and stayed there until I moved to Carlisle for my last four years.

“We worked hand-in-glove with the vets and there was always a much more positive feeling than the enforcement attitude that exists today. The focus altered as there became a greater financial reliance on CAP (the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy) funding and farm payments. The role of advice-giving is now in the hands of commercial bodies. This has led to a tightening up on livestock husbandry that some would now say is too tight, yet we have more bovine TB than 40 years ago.

“In 1967 I was seconded to Cheshire for three months, right in the heart of where Foot and Mouth disease had become a hotbed and then in 2001 I was based in Carlisle, once again right where the action was. We were only nine miles from Longtown Mart from where the disease had spread rapidly across the country.

“The emotional time for farmers was no different in either year and although it was not quite the same for me as I wasn’t losing any livestock I could see how farmers, their families and the community as a whole were struggling to cope.

“The lowest point in my career was when Tony Blair and Nick Brown came to Carlisle and announced that the disease was under control when it clearly wasn’t. They even delayed the general election by a month as a result.”

Len’s involvement with North Yorkshire County Show started around the time the show changed its name from Northallerton Show. It led a nomadic life for some years before settling at Otterington Hall.

“Credit is due to Andrew and Elizabeth Preston who own the hall and their tenants. This is an excellent venue and we’ve been here for coming up to 20 years. It’s a fantastic show that we’re always conscious of making that bit better.

“This year one of our new main ring attractions is a baling demonstration. It’s something we’ve not seen before. We’re going to have a number of balers in the ring. We’re going to scatter the straw then row it up with a variety of machines and explain what these bales are then used for. We’ve also got the Hurworth Hunt and Claro Beagles.

“I’ve done nearly everything at the show from car parking duty to the horticultural section. I was sheep secretary for the past two years where I managed to up the number of entries by 20 per cent.”

Len is keen to stress is the need for new blood: “We have many fantastic people who give up so much time but we always need people to come forward to help in any way either on the committee or on show day.”