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Simon Bishop

Simon Bishop, who has died aged 51, devoted his life to the future of farming and farming communities in East Sussex.

By The Telegraph


Photo: Alun Price

For nearly 30 years, both as lecturer at Plumpton Agricultural College, near Lewes, and as an organic farmer and teacher in the High Weald, he was an inspiration to a generation of young men and women who absorbed his vision of contented farms, happy animals, a beautiful and healthy landscape and a sense that people's lives could be enriched by these surroundings.

Through a period in which small family farmers struggled with a difficult market, he was their endlessly inventive, resourceful and energetic champion.

Sussex was in Bishop's genes. He drank his tea every morning from a cup labelled "Sussex Born & Bred" and often said that as soon as he crossed the county boundary he would get a nosebleed. Abroad held little appeal, and even Kent seemed to be too far away for comfort.

Simon John Bishop was born on September 19 1958 at Barcombe, near Lewes, in East Sussex. His father, Mike Bishop, an enormous man (6ft 5in tall), was the farm manager at Plumpton College. From the age of five Simon wanted to follow in his footsteps and never wavered from that path. He knew in his bones that the life of a farmer would give him the foundation he needed. He was never drawn to machinery or huge arable acres; it was always the animals – the sheep, pigs and, above all, Sussex beef cattle – which were the love of his working life.

As a boy and young man he was a talented sportsman. A fast bowler and opening batsman and an outstanding centre-half, he played cricket and football at school and at county level. Tall, funny and charismatic, with a gift for happiness, he was popular both at Lewes Priory School and then at Writtle Agricultural College in Essex. After a year in Canada, working on farms on the Prairies, where his tractor could plough a single furrow for two hours straight in the giant fields, he returned to the rather tighter grain of Sussex and in 1983 started in a teaching post at Plumpton.

He became a teacher on the youth training schemes then being set up to address mass unemployment, particularly among the young. In out-centres of the college in the Sussex Weald, Bishop taught, cared for and encouraged those young people who had found life most difficult. At first he taught at a series of temporary sites rented by Plumpton, but was convinced that both he and the courses needed somewhere more permanent and rooted. With his wife Tessa, whom he had married in 1986, he had settled on Crowhurst Farm at Netherfield; but in 1992 the nearby Ivyland Farm came free, and he moved there with his growing family.

The courses, on which Bishop at first was the only teacher, slowly burgeoned under his direction. With the sometimes disaffected youths who came to learn farming at his hands, he was firm – but never raised his voice. He knew what farming could do to transform a young person's life.

Many of his pupils, coming out of the poorest parts of Hastings, would have had no breakfast and would eat nothing hot in the evening. Many had no experience of encouragement or sustained support either at school or at home. But he treated them with generosity, gentleness and respect. Bishop's method, slowly developed over the years, was to make sure that the pupils engaged with the whole production cycle, giving each group a small piece of land on which to grow their own vegetables and fruit, having them work on the farm with the pigs, collecting the eggs, herding the cattle and sheep, sowing seeds in the polytunnels and learning in a teaching kitchen to cook healthy meals using the produce they had grown.

With one set of pupils after another, Bishop laid the foundations for their future, self-sufficient lives. Every week at Ivyland now, 13 lecturers and staff train 50 disabled adults and 150 young people in the ways he devised.

On the 600 acres of the farms he managed or mentored, the animals were treated with equal respect. Calves were born outside in May or June on the fresh grass and then stayed with their mothers for the whole of the first year. When cattle were being finished, local butchers would tell him that his animals did him credit.

When a major supermarket required him to transport his steers live from Sussex to an abattoir in Cornwall, he rejected the lucrative contract on offer for "heritage beef" and had them slaughtered locally.

Ten hours packed in the back of a truck on the motorway was not the sort of heritage he was interested in.

In the last decade, he increasingly devoted his energies to his neighbours. He was chairman of the governors at Netherfield primary school; one of two recipients in 2008 of the High Sheriff's award for "great and valuable service to the community"; and in 2009 he was shortlisted for Sussex Farmer of the Year.

In 2000 he established the Wealden Farmers' Network, a group of four small farms which were drowning individually but, as he recognised, could float together.

Equipment and labour were shared, lambing was integrated across the farms to guarantee a year-round supply to the market, meat was butchered and marketed collectively.

Together the farms had more buying power and market presence than they could ever have hoped for alone. This simple and successful initiative began to spawn equivalents across the south of England, and led on in 2003 to the development of the Netherfield Centre for Sustainable Food and Farming, which became the culmination of Bishop's life.

Advice, adult training, mentoring, encouragement, moral sustenance, business guidance were all dispensed from the Netherfield Centre into the local community. It was recognised by the European Union as one of the flagship Leader+ projects in Britain.

Simon Bishop was killed in an accident on November 6. when a deer came through the windscreen of his car. His wife and their three children survive him.

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