2019 winners follow-up: John Geldard, Outstanding Contribution to British Agriculture

Cumbrian farmer John Geldard was awarded the Outstanding Contribution to Agriculture Award at the 2019 British Farming Awards, and with particularly good reason. Clemmie Gleeson spoke to him about the proudest achievements of his 45-year career.

John Geldard’s commitment doesn’t stop at the gates of his own farming business. Over the years he has served on more than 20 boards of industry  organisations from breed societies to national bodies influencing policy and decision makers.

He started his farming career 45 years ago when John and his wife Rachel acquired the National Trust tenancy for High Wray Farm, Ableside, Cumbria.

John was brought up on-farm at Plumgarths, a tenant farm started by his grandfather in 1920. However the Kendall bypass, which was built through the middle of the farm, had made the small farm unviable for John and Rachel.

John recalls: “High Wray Farm was a traditional marginal farm with 220 acres.

“It was a really good way for myself and Rachel to get started with just £5,000 capital.”

They developed livestock enterprises in the form of a pedigree Chaolais cattle and flocks of Charollais and Blue Faced Leicester sheep, and a bed and breakfast business too.

Selling at major sales drew John into the heart of the industry, he says: “The 1980s were challenging times of set aside and quota but had opportunities of public demand for lean meat which led to the boom in continental sheep and cattle.”

His success with Continentals enabled them to make the move to purchase a 202-hectare (500-acre) farm at Low Foulshaw, Cumbria and achieve a dream of farming within their own right.Moving from a tenancy to owning their own land was a huge challenge and focused John’s business on meeting consumer demand in order to get the best returns and this led him to start a free-range laying flock and eggpacking station and later a farm shop.

“I was driven by hunger. If you start lean and hungry and take an interest in what other entrepreneurial businesses are doing you find your own way forward.”

“The family farm is still the backbone of British agriculture,” says John, adding the success of his family business is his proudest achievement.

“What I have done would be worthless if I didn’t have people to carry it on after me.

“The fact we have family – our sons and daughter and grandchildren all with a keen interest – that is what drives me to put the effort in.”

“The family farm is still the backbone of British agriculture”


That effort is not just for the family farm but also to the numerous industry organisations he is involved with ‘to help shape it for the next generation’.

Succession planning has been difficult but one which finds him sharing a refreshing approach.

“Learning how to work with your sons is a challenge and then how and when to stand back and let them do it their way. It is important to give them the opportunity to get on.”

John is also proud of the employment the family business has created. In the early days of the farm he and Rachel took on their first member of staff and now his sons Richard and Charles employ some 25 people in the business.

John started the Plumgarths Farm Shop 20 years ago at a time when farmers’ markets and local sourcing had become important and high-profile.

He was already supplying eggs to Asda and was keen to develop a retail outlet that could use other products from the farm too.

Key moments of his Plumgarths’ history include a visit from the Prince of Wales who John has worked with many times on their shared interest in encouraging supermarkets to source from local farmers. Over the years the Plumgarths’ site has expanded to include 12 other units with allied businesses.

The Plumgarth Farm Shop business is now owned and run by John’s daughter Victoria Hodgson and her daughter Anna, who is currently completing a butchery course.

In his more senior years John has taken a step back from the farming business and instead he devotes his time to the many organisations he is committed to. His work is at policy and Government level and also at the grassroots.

“According to the Government and Defra, the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMS) is going to be extremely important for agriculture and the food industry going forward for the next two or three decades.

“This will only be the case if they manage to engage properly with core farmers and industry influencers to make sure they get the basis of it right for the interests of all parties from consumers to producers.

“It is in our interest to make ELMS work. I think since Covid-19 there is realisation that food is more important than politicians realised.”

Involvement in industry organisations including breed societies, the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers and the National Sheep Association has been important to John throughout his career.

“Individual farmers do not have the opportunity to fight their corner so industry organisations are vital for the industry”.

John has been involved in the successful co-operative Farmers First since the start. A subsidiary of Farmers Fresh, it now owns and runs two abattoirs in Kenilworth and Wrexham.

“We have 2,700 farmer shareholders who put their hands in their pockets in difficult times to support a farmeroperated organisation. Today the company processes a million lambs per year. It is a very important business supporting agriculture at grassroots.”

Similarly, he notes the importance of L and K Auction Mart of which he has been a board member for 24 years.


He initially joined as a board member of the Lancaster Auction Mart and was instrumental in its amalgamation with the Kendall mart in 2005 and the development of the agribusiness centre at Junction 36 in 2012.

“Involvement in that was important to me , my sons were not long out of school at that point and I felt it was vital to the livestock industry going forward.”

Sheep have played an integral part of John’s farming career, he says: “Sheep are one of the ways to get your foot on the farming ladder. When we moved to
the new farm we had massive financial pressures and it put the business under incredible strain for several years. The sheep and cattle all had to be looked at.

I was one of the first to bring Lleyn sheep from North Wales to Cumbria.

“I never would have believed it would become the fastest-growing breed over the next 30 years but it has been because of its adaptability and efficiency.”

John has been chair of the Lleyn Sheep Society and is currently vice-president.

“It has all been good fun and interesting – but it’s no good if it is not also profitable.”

Similarly John’s beef enterprise evolved as consumer demand changed. The family now has 150 Stabiliser breeding cows.

“It is in total contrast to our approach in the 1980s. People now want quality beef with a bit of marbling.”

The move to Stabilisers came in the early 2000s with the transition to area based payments.

“We needed to be less reliant on subsidies. We recognised that we needed to change to meet the need of consumer demand and adapt to the needs of the industry to produce beef from grass rather than from grain.”

The breed had only been in the country for four years when John, Richard and Charles bought their first stock to establish what is now a multiplier herd for the breed.

John’s long career in farming has seen him spend time with the Prince of Wales on more than one occasion.

He says: “I’ve been involved with the Westmorland County Agricultural Society for more than 50 years on the management committee and then the board. I was President in 2017 and invited Prince Charles to the show and he spent the day with us.

“It is the oldest and biggest one-day agricultural show with a huge food hall.”

“Life passes by pretty quickly and it doesn’t feel like long since I was relying on the advice and mentoring of more experienced farmers myself.

“I have become involved in the Henry Plum Foundation mentoring service and have mentored several people through that. We meet, ideally face-toface, and look at what they are doing. I enjoy it very much.”

Winning the Outstanding Contribution to Agriculture Award in the British Farming Awards was a proud moment for John.

“In the depths of my farming career there was nothing more exciting than winning breed champion with a sheep or bull. Now that I’ve got too old to lead a bull and too arthritic to get down and hold a sheep I’ve won this award instead.

“I find it extremely humbling and an  honour, but it is only because I have been fortunate to have a career that has brought me so much enjoyment.

“We are special. We have been very much taken for granted and blamed for things. We have to get on the front foot again and build more respect with consumers. Awards like this are really important to help us promote and develop agriculture.”


  • Director Farmers Fresh John Geldard
  • Director, L and K Group and North West Auctions
  • 2017: Westmorland County Agricultural Society president
  • 2011 -2014: National Sheep Association northern region chairman
  • 2011: Trustee and chairman Westmorland County Agricultural Society
  • 2009: Lleyn Sheep Society chairman
  • 2008: Co-authored research reports on ‘Supplying Local Food to Mainstream Customers’
  • 2007: Agricultural Information Management Standards chairman
  • 2006: Awarded the RAC/Rumenco Annual Fellowship in Beef and Sheep
  • 2006: Farm Business Rural Enterprise of the Year
  • 2003: The Royal Agricultural Society of England Excellence Award recipient
  • 2000: Northwest Food Alliance’s (NWFA) Red Meat Group member
  • 1999: British Charollais Sheep Society chairman