UK: Masterclass - Haskins's love of the good life.

UK: Masterclass - Haskins's love of the good life. - Northern Foods chairman Chris Haskins waxes lyrical about farming to Alison Maitland, the Financial Times agricultural correspondent, and explains how it's always been in his blood.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Northern Foods chairman Chris Haskins waxes lyrical about farming to Alison Maitland, the Financial Times agricultural correspondent, and explains how it's always been in his blood.

For a man who was once after the job I do now, Chris Haskins is remarkably unassuming. The chairman of Northern Foods, who grew up on his father's farm in Wicklow, Ireland, would have liked most of all to be a journalist - preferably the farming writer for the FT - or, failing that, a farmer himself. 'Northern Foods is more of a hobby for me,' he jokes, as we stand in his farmyard in Yorkshire on a bitterly cold winter's day.

The farm, about 20 minutes' drive from Northern Foods' headquarters in Hull, is a serious business for him. But that does not mean he can impose his views on his wife Gilda and oldest son Paul, who are the full-time farmers in the family. 'I have to be as tactful here as I do at Northern Foods, otherwise there are stony looks,' he says. In any case, 'they say it would go bust if left to me'.

This might have something to do with his self-confessed tendency to let his thoughts drift when doing any routine, repetitive task. 'I've never been let loose on a combine harvester. I was once driving the tractor with a load of bales when I managed to swipe off an electric cable. But that was many years ago and I prefer to forget it.'

We retreat into the warmth of the farmhouse kitchen, where Haskins explains how farming has always been in his blood. His first memories of farming were as a boy home from school in 1945, walking behind an elderly farmhand who spent the Christmas holidays ploughing a nine-acre field with two horses.

Chris and Gilda, daughter of Northern Dairies' founder Alec Horsley, bought 200 acres of land west of Hull 20 years ago and built it up to 800 acres over the years. They grow wheat, barley, oilseed rape and potatoes.

A 50-strong beef herd produces meat for the Waitrose supermarket chain. The herd has not suffered BSE and this will be a good year because beef shortages are likely to follow the Government's culling programmes. But Haskins is still fretting about the loss of two animals from pneumonia over Christmas, when still, foggy weather caused health problems for many cattle in the north.

He feeds the cattle at weekends, but admits to having never milked a cow and prefers crops to livestock.'The great glory is walking a field in May,' he says. 'In farming you go through all the emotions, from the excitement when you first see the crops moving to the traumas when lovely crops suddenly turn to disaster overnight.'

Being a farmer has its uses at Northern Foods. 'We're the largest buyers of milk and one of the largest buyers of grain in the country,' he says.

'It's satisfying to understand both sides of the thing.' It also engenders a philosophical attitude to things that even company chairmen are powerless to control, like the weather. 'Lots of business people fail because they worry about things they shouldn't be worrying about.'

But even more important, Gilda points out, is that living on the farm and walking the fields with their Border collies enables Chris to keep things in perspective. Haskins concurs.

'This is real. It's the earth delivering its produce. It's where life begins and life ends. There's the romance of it, the beauty, the solitude.

Many times I'm out there thinking: I wish I had a pen. Practically any intelligent idea comes when you're out walking.'

At this point, the writer in Haskins is at his most evident. A career in journalism was thwarted when his mother omitted to tell him of a job offer from the Irish Times. Farming went the same way when the family milling business went bust and his older brother took over the farm instead.

Well-known as a Labour supporter, Haskins says he is not ashamed of making money out of the Common Agric-cultural Policy, which he deplores. 'It wouldn't do any good giving the money back and letting the Government put it into Trident or something, when I can perhaps give it to Oxfam.' I ask about suggestions that Haskins might become a Labour peer and get the feeling the House of Lords is not popular in this household. 'He'd lose his wife if he accepted,' declares Gilda. Unless, she adds, 'they completely change the whole show'.

Haskins says he loves politics but is too old for the inconvenience of participating in it. He will be 60 in May and plans to retire at 62. And when he does, I can imagine him heading a prestigious social commission or a Labour think-tank, writing books and articles - and, of course, still walking in his beloved fields.

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