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Interview: Nick Read, director, Bulmer Foundation

09 August 2013

'It's almost impossible to enter farming without huge capital and owning some land'

As well as being director of the Bulmer Foundation, I am also an associate agricultural chaplain in Hereford diocese, working ecumenically as part of the Borderlands Chaplaincy.

The foundation is about helping Herefordshire to become more sustainable - meaning that economic, social, environmental, and, increasingly, spiritual aspects are taken into consideration. Practically, for farming it's about valuing the people, land, and animals, and ensuring that we produce food, taking all these into account in a balanced way.

It is is wider than just land use. The foundation runs projects on health and well-being, and education. We deliver a Master's degree course in partnership with Worcester University - alcohol awareness, and so on. It also works with policy-makers. We recently helped to write the first countywide sustainable-food strategy in England; and we're also helping to implement it.

Although the foundation is not a religious charity, the work certainly has a spiritual dimension, and my trustees are supportive of my role as a priest. I was a full-time agricultural chaplain until two years ago when, after 13 years, I needed a new challenge. My vocation has never been to parish ministry, and I had worked alongside the foundation before; so I was interested when the job was advertised. I'm very involved pastorally with the Farming Community Network.

Sustainability is about understanding the relationships between people, the environment, and the economy.

The Church sometimes misses a trick, not working more with secular organisations. We're part of the Transition Town movement - in fact, we host the Herefordshire Transitional Alliance; so we get together on a monthly basis to swap notes and support each other.

It's not easy persuading people to change. These groups have a spiritual dimension, and you can either feel threatened by them, or take your Christianity into them. They could have the same view of us as we of them, but engaging in a dialogue - "Actually, there's something about that in the Old Testament," and so on - makes them think: "Well, perhaps the Established Church has got some resources and insights that we've missed." We don't lose our Christian ethos, we bring it to the table.

There is no typical day. I combine running the charity with leading specifically on any projects in land-use that we are running. At the moment we are focused on delivering a phosphate-reduction programme for the rivers Wye and Lugg.

I have a degree in Agricultural Science, and a post-graduate degree in Forestry. After a time in research, I worked for the National Farmers' Union for 11 years, and I was or-dained during this period.

I chaired a national working-party on farm stress and suicide, which led to the establishment of the Rural Stress Information Network, a farming-support charity, which I ran for four years, before becoming a stipendiary agricultural chaplain with Hereford diocese. I've never really worked outside the farming community.

The immediate issues for farmers arise from the worst harvest and spring for many years. It has hit cash-flow hard. Farmers tend to be asset-rich and cash-poor - if they own their land. There are major problems with bovine tuberculosis and the onset of other animal-health issues, such as Schmallenberg, which is a viral disease of sheep causing abortion and loss of condition. There are a lot of diseases creeping across Europe, as the climate changes. We are getting more exotic diseases, really.

Locally, we have many elderly farmers who ought to retire but don't know how. We desperately need a funded retirement for farmers, helping them leave with dignity, and creating opportunities to attract new blood in an industry that's almost impossible to enter without huge capital and ownership of land.

The Church is a major landowner. It could be a leader in pioneering sustainable food production, combining conventional farming with things like community-supported agriculture. Glebe committees and the Church Commissioners often seem to hide behind their "duty" to maximise economic returns rather than seeing the bigger picture.

The blunt fact is that most people buy food on price first - although there are various initiatives to help people make ethical choices, such as the Red Tractor mark, Freedom Foods, and so on.

I accept compromise. I run a sustainable-development charity. I live in "typical" housing for rural Herefordshire (a Victorian semi-detached with solid walls and no insulation); so we wear jumpers and use the wood burner as much as possible in the winter. I have to use a car: public transport wouldn't get me to work on time, let alone the other meetings I need to go to; and my wife is a parish priest; so she has to run a car as well. We counter that with trying to grow as much of our own food as possible, and promoting local supply chains.

Our three children - two sons and a daughter - are at, or just completing, university. We're entering the phase where they are beginning to flee the nest, except financially of course - that never seems to happen.

As a child, I wanted to work in the tropics. I've always been interested in applied biology, and in history. I was interested in the British Empire, and had a grandfather who was in the Navy and a Japanese prisoner-of-war. I did go to India with USPG, working on a forestry project. I've been to Tanzania a couple of times with a linked forestry programme, and I'm currently a trustee of a project in Uganda.

My most significant choices were getting married, naturally, and changing from self-supporting to stipendiary priesthood. The latter has been my biggest regret over time. My experience was that, although the Church accepted me as a priest, over 13 years it turned me into an employee and completely botched the process. It left some scars.

I was last made angry because of a colleague of mine who is entering the Church's employment, and is being mucked around in ways that no secular employer would ever be allowed to get away with.

I'd like to be remembered for caring for people, and being approachable.

Michael Forest influenced me a great deal. He was our parish priest when we lived in London. We became very close friends, and he's been an important part of my journey. It was learning the ropes of priesthood: I did a placement with him later, and I used to play squash with him. He gave me insights into the pressures of being a member of the clergy.

My wife did a "parish swap" with a priest from the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, and it's somewhere I'd love to go back to. Other- wise, Herefordshire takes some beating.

Favourite and least favourite bits of the Bible? Isaiah, on both counts. It's got glorious bits that resonate with rural life and the gospel, and bits that don't seem to make any sense at all, and leave me thinking, "What was all that about?"

My sons and I are into folk music, and a melodeon being played well always gets a smile. And I'm happiest when I'm dancing with a Border morris side called the Shropshire Bedlams, with my two sons. I've always fought to keep a Tuesday evening free for that.

I pray for greater understanding of what God is about, and the sense to see where and how the Church fits in to what he is doing.

I'd like to be locked in a church with St Paul. I'd like to ask him whether he wrote all the letters that are attributed to him (which I doubt), and therefore what he really feels about women, slavery, and the Church's radical agenda.

The Revd Nicholas Read was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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