Melton farming stalwart stands down after 41 years
It really is the end of an era in the Melton farming community with the retirement of Stephen Jeal, who has worked at the sharp end of the sector for the last four decades.
Stephen has been involved with the Melton Mowbray National Farmer’s Union (NFU) since 1980 and spent the last 33 years as Senior Group Secretary.
He’s also been a local agent for NFU Mutual for many years, offering specialist insurance to farmers and other countryside-based businesses.
Stephen has seen it all in his time, from the Foot and Mouth crisis to farms needing to diversify to survive to the new challenges to the industry brought by climate change.
We spoke to him about his career and his achievements and here is a flavour of what he told us.
Nick Rennie: How has the farming community changed over the last 40 years and what challenges do you see it facing over the coming decade?
Stephen Jeal: In four decades, we have gone from grain, butter and skimmed milk powder mountains - much of which, thanks partly to the NFU, found its way to Ethiopia before Band Aid - to actually caring much more about food security.
During in the 1980s the emphasis moved from production to environment with one of the consequences being that milk quotas were introduced in 1984 to limit the amount produced.
For the arable sector ‘set-aside’ was introduced to take land out of production.
In those four decades we went from becoming full members of the EU to leaving in 2020.
A significant challenge that has had to be addressed since leaving the EU is that any trade deal has to ensure that imported agricultural products meet the same standards as those produced by our farmers in the UK.
Thankfully we have massive support on this issue from the British consumer.
NR: What have been the main challenges you’ve seen for farmers over the years?
SJ: The industry has been through several challenges including the politics and vagaries of the Common Agricultural Policy, BSE, the ‘Edwina Currie effect’ on eggs, Foot and Mouth Disease and Bovine TB, with the latter still having a significant effect on the livestock sector.
To find the right balance in the use of various control measures to properly keep it under control in the wildlife population based on science rather than emotion is proving to be difficult.
Quite recently an Alpaca with TB achieved far more publicity and concern than the tens of thousands of cattle that have been lost to the disease in the last 12 months.
NR: Can you talk about some of the ways farmers have had to adapt to stay afloat?
SJ: Since the early 2000s when there was significant downward pressure on income levels, farmers have very successfully found innovative ways to supplement their income mainly by getting closer to their customer base whether that be through farm shops, tourism or adding value to a raw material and selling a finished product.
Many have had to get bigger, better and more efficient at what they do.
The industry has embraced improvements in technology.
One thing I continue to recognise is just how resilient the farming community is.
Weather is a prime example and continues to provide one of the largest ‘natural’ challenges that they face on a daily basis.
These days we rarely have a perfect weather year for farming.
NR You been involved with the Melton NFU for 41 years - how did it all start for you?
SJ: Before I started with the NFU I worked for Agricultural Central Trading, which was an agricultural co-operative supplying various products to farmers.
I was based in Warwickshire and shared an office in the middle of Warwick with the NFU Group Secretary and NFU Mutual Agent who covered that area. I got to know him well and found out a lot about his role and what was involved in both aspects of the role.
It involved running the local branch of the NFU which was an employed role but alongside that he ran the agency for the NFU Mutual on a self-employed basis, very similar to a franchise situation.
One Friday morning he left the Farmers Weekly on my desk opened at the jobs page, highlighted was the role of Assistant NFU Group Secretary at Melton Mowbray.
The rest is history and I joined the then Senior Group Secretary Les Brudenell on November 3, 1980.
Les retired in 1988 having completed 25 years and I took over as Senior.
Since the formation of the NFU at Melton Mowbray there have only been five Group Secretaries with Sarah Procter, who has taken over from me, being the fifth.
NR: What are you most proud of achieving during your career?
SJ: With the help of my partners and the team of dedicated and passionate staff I hope that we have been able to provide an attentive and personal service to our NFU members and insurance clients and as near as possible on a 24/7 basis. Our business is about service.
Personally, I do look back with some pride on the visit that we arranged for Prince Charles to visit the Melton farmers’ market in 2001.
Completely out of the blue I received a call from one of his private secretaries to ask if we could organise such a visit for him.
I do recall there being a hint of ‘it needs to be successful’!
When I said that we would sort it I am not sure that I had any proper appreciation of what would follow and what would be involved.
With the help of many, including the borough council, we pulled it off and Matthew O’Callaghan and I introduced Prince Charles to many producers and stall holders who had kindly supported us.
He showed enormous personal interest.
It culminated in Melton Mowbray Young Farmers’ Club presenting him with a wonderful hamper of local produce including of course pork pie, Stilton and Belvoir elderflower cordial. I breathed a sigh of relief and hoped that it was deemed to be a success.
NR: How has the farming world embraced environmental issues in your time with the NFU?
SJ: I would hope that the increase in the global population and the need to mitigate against climate change will provide opportunities for British food and farming to increase productivity and reduce its impact on the environment.
The NFU has aspirations for the agricultural industry to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2040.
There are many possibilities for the future of farming, food is a fundamental part of life and British farmers will continue to provide safe, quality and affordable home-grown food.
NR: How do you intend to spend your well-earned retirement Stephen?
SJ: For me, the future will be more family time.
I have four children, William and Harriet are in their 30s with Will and his wife expecting my first grandchild in September.
I then have two who are in their late teens, Charlotte will soon be off to Aston University and Sam will be starting his second year in A-Levels.
I have a dog which keeps me active on a daily basis.
I have a lovely garden to enjoy and will hopefully do some travelling.
One of gifts that the NFU members presented to me was a beautiful wooden bench for my garden, it has pride of place near to some wildflower beds.
NR: How do you reflect on your long career working with the Melton farming community?
SJ: I have thoroughly enjoyed my 40 years with the NFU and NFU Mutual, I could not have worked for and with two better organisations.
Both are very ethical and their members and clients are at the heart of everything that they do.
In my time I have seen them go above and beyond on many occasions.
I would like to thank our members and clients for their phenomenal support and loyalty and to send my best wishes to my partners Sarah Procter and Leanne Parker and the long serving team that I have had the pleasure of working with over many years.
It is they that provide the ‘day-to-day’ service levels that I mentioned earlier. Some of them started with me from school and college.
***Stephen’s successor as Melton Senior Group Secretary is Sarah Procter, who has worked for the NFU for 20 years and whose parents farm at Old Dalby.
She said: “I, personally, have worked with Steve as his business partner since 2008.
“We had a great working relationship, and he has always gone over and above to look after his customers and farming members.
“He’s a very likeable chap and is missed greatly in the office.”
Sarah remains in partnership at the Melton NFU Mutual with Leanne Parker.