Rustic enemy No 1
Oliver Walston is a fat-cat farmer with a huge subsidy and he doesn't care who knows it. He also thinks farmers are a bunch of whingers. No wonder they hate him. By Ann Treneman
Tuesday 26 January 1999
"Surely you are now a Famous Fat-Cat Farmer," I say. This is not just flattery. He has just presented Against the Grain on BBC2 and has made something of a stir by speaking frankly about his annual subsidy cheque. This may sound boring but when you hear the figure pounds 180,000, it suddenly gets interesting. Mr Walston thinks it is an outrage that you and I are subsidising the likes of him, and he believes that every farmer should tell us the size of his subsidy. He wants them to be loud and proud about it. This makes him a farming heretic or, as he puts it, a "weird nut". He seems to like this and I'm not surprised when he rejects the idea of being famous. "No, not famous. Infamous! Infamous!"
He is proving to be a very able hate figure. The letters page of Farmer's Weekly is positively seething at the moment. "Walston has never had to struggle", says one headline. "Pompous and selfish Oliver", says another. They call him smug and a braggart. He gets anonymous telephone calls, some of them nasty. Last week he was told by a Somerset farmer that it is said that he should be put up against a fence and shot. "I hope that was a joke," he says.
I suspect that it was not entirely said in jest because Mr Walston has made many farmers extremely angry. I have gone to his farm in the village of Thriplow to talk to him about this. In his father's day, there were 80 workers employed on the farm. Now there are four. Mr Walston grows wheat, barley, sugar beet, oil seed rape, peas, beans and another crop called "set-aside". He lives in a lovely converted barn and stables. He is 57 but looks much younger. He has made lunch and obviously knows his way around the kitchen. "I'm married to an American!" he says. I'm not sure what this means. We chat about the phrase "new man". I say that my test is who cleans the toilet. He admits that he doesn't. But neither does his wife. Right. He brings out the Beaujolais. He says he has a "small house" in France. I don't believe him: I'm sure it is a large house but it seems surly to press the point.
Especially since he has so many points to press on with. He talks with great passion about farming, but there is much of a personal nature that he does not mention. He talks about his father, for instance, but does not say that he was the wealthy socialist life peer, Lord Walston. He says that he was known as "the son of..." for so long that it is a relief not to hear it these days. His mother, Catherine, is also infamous in that she had a 15-year affair with Graham Greene. He spent 18 months researching a book about her but then gave it up at the request of a family member. His office reveals him to have many interests: David Hockney and touring the Arctic on an ice-breaker, to name two.
None of these compares to farming, however. He says that owning land is the second most powerful drive in the human psyche. No prizes for guessing the other. He says buying the farm was like 12 orgasms rolled into one. This will surprise many people, not because of the orgasms but because most people assume that Oliver Walston inherited his land. Not true. He tells me a story about this - he loves to tell stories - but first I say that he is his own worst enemy. Perhaps the reason people think he is a fat-cat farmer who has never had to struggle is that he says things such as "I was born with a silver spoon in every orifice". He looks at me. "But it's true! Eton, Cambridge, Princeton. Wouldn't you call that being born with a silver spoon in every orifice? What the hell else can I say?! But when people say that I don't have to watch the bottom line ... shit, I do."
So this is his story. "My dad inherited 2,000 acres in South Cambridgeshire from his mum and dad and farmed it. He had six children. He gave the land to us and I rented it from my brothers and sisters. They then sold it to the highest bidder which turned out to be the Kent County Council Pension Fund. So then I was a tenant farmer for the Kent County Council Pension Fund. And about three years ago I managed to buy it back. I borrowed a huge amount of money. And that is where I am today. So when a farmer says to you - `bloody Oliver Walston, he's so rich' - the answer is that he might look that way but it ain't true."
He says that he owes pounds 1m on this farm. "So I consider that a lot of money. And most people would too. It pisses me off when people say that I don't know about the bottom line. I have to make a pretty damn good earning just to pay back the mortgage." He says that this amounts to pounds 60 an acre and notes that I don't have to be a genius to figure out that the mortgage is pounds 120,000 a year. At the moment he could not survive without his subsidy cheque, but thinks five years would be enough time to wean himself off it. He suspects it's going to happen anyway, and that Nick Brown, the Agriculture Secretary, agrees.
If this is the case, he could just be quiet and it would happen anyway. Does he not care what people think? "Not really. I'm well aware that farmers think I'm a traitor."
It doesn't get any nicer. He says that farmers have cried wolf so many times that no one believes them when things really are tough (as they are now). He says that the way that the green pound works meant that Norman Lamont's Black Wednesday was a godsend for farmers. "We called it Golden Wednesday!" But no one said so in public. In fact, no one says much in public about subsidies or good times or Golden Wednesdays. "If farmers had been more honest, more straightforward, more open with the public in the past, the public would be more sympathetic with them today."
Mr Walston does not seem to suffer from this problem. When he has a good harvest, he does more than talk about it. He commissions an engraved silver goblet. He gets them out of the cupboard. In 1982 it was for sugar beet, in 1983 for wheat, in 1991 for peas and - in 1993 - for "set-aside". This last one reads: "Three hundred acres of set- aside produced absolutely nothing."
The mugs are examples of beautiful workmanship with engraved insects, snails, rabbits and mice peeking out where you least expect. I say so and Mr Walston blasts me with a laugh. "I can see the piece already. I wasn't exactly born yesterday. Surrounded by unlimited silver tankards, he sat there telling farmers to get into the real world." Surely even he would have to admit that there is some truth in it.
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