OBITUARY: Dougal Campbell

Patrick Holden
Wednesday 27 September 1995 23:02

Dougal Campbell was a pioneering figure in the world of farming, and the founder of Welsh Organic Foods, the first specialist organic cheese- making company in Britain.

Campbell had migrated to a farm in west Wales by accident. He was attracted by the wish to enact a dream, in his case a very practical dream. After he had completed his schooling at Westminster and a degree in Civil Engineering at Southampton University his love of climbing led him to seek employment in the high Alpage, in the Valais canton of Switzerland, where he worked as an assistant cheese-maker. His fortuitous encounter with cheese-making developed into his principal activity. He learnt that the quality of the hard cheeses produced from cows grazing the herb-rich pastures of the High Alpage was unsurpassed and that cows, like people, are what they eat.

He transferred his skills to west Wales in 1976 and flouted convention by turning his back on the Milk Marketing Board and making the milk from his 15-cow herd into an unpasteurised Cheddar. The cheese, Tyn Grug, developed a national reputation and he became a leading figure in the renaissance of farmhouse cheese-making. By 1984 there were a handful of organic dairy farms in west Wales, all selling their milk to the board but getting no organic premium. It was decided to set up a company committed to purchasing organic milk and turning the raw material into a product which reflected the conditions of its production and which could be sold with added value to a new, discerning market. This led to the formation of Welsh Organic Foods, the first specialist organic cheese-making company in Britain.

Campbell's commitment to the development of Welsh Organic Foods was absolute. He tackled the challenges of turning a small industrial unit into a fully fledged dairy with enormous enthusiasm, even when times were tough; having to deal with procurement of milk from far-flung farms, the finance for purchasing equipment, and all the other problems faced by companies pioneering new markets. Campbell did an enormous amount of work in developing his market through creating an awareness amongst the consuming public of the nature and benefits of organic cheese.

There was something about Campbell that made a huge impression on everyone he met, even those who only had a fleeting contact with him. I think it was his strength and directness, his kindness and his extraordinary energy. One of my first encounters was a visit to his "Alpine" smallholding of 46 acres, 1,000ft up in the hills above Lampeter in west Wales in 1978. He had only been there about two years, but already the place bore his imprint; the precipitous but sturdy concrete track, mixed and laid by hand, winding down to reveal a cosy farmsteading, carefully restored by somebody who obviously had building skills. Outside the house was a huge quantity of firewood, immaculately stacked Swiss-style, easily enough to see Dougal and his family through the oncoming winter.

Campbell had a great love of climbing. Some of his energy was both generated by and expressed through this channel. He would tackle Alpine routes that only the toughest and the most competent could handle. Those who climbed with him speak of his rubber legs, and his ability to place his feet so exactly that no stone or rock was dislodged. I only went climbing with him once, in 1992, an interminable morning "in extremis", with no room for anything but the next breath as I struggled to keep up with him. He was an amazingly fit man. Climbing remained his great love and he was due to fly to Switzerland for a week in the Alps on the evening of the day he was fatally injured in a tractor accident on his farm.

Campbell never let the everyday difficulties of life get him down. After the great snows of January 1982, when farmers in west Wales were trading heroic hard-luck stories about how they survived the elements and milked the cows against all odds, I asked him how it had been for him. It was immediately clear that he had simply enjoyed the extreme conditions and taken great pleasure from the challenge rather than the struggle of surviving. He would think nothing of getting up at five o'clock in the morning, milking the cows, driving to Bristol or sometimes even London for a meeting and still coming back to milk in the evening.

Campbell was a member of the Soil Association Council and the Board of Directors of the Symbol Scheme as well as being chairman of the west Wales group of British Organic Farmers. His name and achievements will live on, both through the future of Welsh Organic Foods, where Marilyn James, his partner of three years, now works full-time, and through the establishment of a Dougal Campbell Memorial Fund by the Soil Association.

Dougal Campbell, farmer: born Sydney, Australia 28 October 1951; married 1979 Alexandra Jane Erskine (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1993); died Lampeter, Dyfed 28 August 1995.

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