HANS Pörksen may never have made it to the North East if he had taken up a once in a lifetime offer made to him when he was just 20.
Already living and working in England, the German-born clergyman’s son was about to start his agricultural studies at Harper Adams college in Shropshire when his former employers made him the sort of offer that it’s hard to resist.
“I worked for two brothers, who were German Jews, and when I left to go to Harper Adams, I called on them to say cheerio, because I’d worked there two years before,” he remembers.
“They said it was a miracle that I’d gone to visit them because they’d been trying to get hold of me. They said ‘We want you to run our dairy farm – we’re starting a dairy farm’. When I was with them, they had 2,000 acres of corn and 2,000 beef cattle indoors. Massive. It was one of the biggest beef fattening units in Britain.
“But they wanted to change and have a Nocton-style dairy [the controversial giant dairy planned for Lincolnshire], which in those days was 500 cows, which would’ve been the biggest herd in Britain. And they wanted me to manage it.
“And I said: ‘Don’t be silly, I’m only 20 years old, I haven’t got enough experience. And I want to go to college’.
“And they tried to bribe me by selling me a farm they’d just bought. They said ‘We’ll sell you this farm, interest-free, and you pay £10-a-week out of your wages. And in 10 years, it’ll be yours, paid off’; it was only £4,000.
“And they were offering three times agricultural wages if I worked for them, free board and lodgings, and I said ‘No, I’m going to college’. And they said, ‘you’re mad because you’ll never ever get that opportunity again’.”
Pörksen, who is now 65, laughs loudly. “And they were right!”
Today, he is the tenant farmer at Gallows Hill Farm near Cambo in Northumberland. The National Trust-owned farm, where Pörksen produces some of the best genetically-rated Suffolk and Texel sheep in the country, is managed by Ian Fenwick – one of his former students at Kirkley Hall College.
It was his own studies in Shropshire that introduced him to former Scotsman agriculture correspondent and contributor to The Journal, Fordyce Maxwell – and to Northumberland.
“We were students together at Harper Adams in the mid-60s and in 1965, he invited me to come up to Northumberland at half-term, which was Guy Fawkes and we had a big fire, a nice party,” says Pörksen.
“He came from a large family – I’m from a large family as well – and we had a lovely weekend, and that was my first time in Northumberland.
“Why I’m here now is that after college, I then became a farm manager in Surrey. After three years of that, I reached my earning capacity as a farm manager and would never ever get another pay rise, so I decided to go into education and I trained as a teacher.
“There was a vacancy at Kirkley Hall in Northumberland and I came here in 1971. I was married then, I had a young family, two girls, and we came to Northumberland.”
Pörksen, who is now a grandfather-of- four, arrived in Britain as a teenager to learn the language.
“I was bored at school in Germany and I wanted to get away from my family,” he laughs. “I come from a very large family, there were 14 of us. I’m at the bottom end – all the others were academics – I didn’t really fit in very well.
“I was the worst at English in my school, which brought me to Wales to learn English in 1960. That was on a farm, and I quite enjoyed that.
“I wanted to get away from it all; I wanted to farm and I wanted to learn English – but I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life.”
Meeting and marrying Audrey, who is from Sheffield, put paid to any idea of returning to Germany to live but Pörksen is philosophical.
“Home is where your mind is,” he says. “I’m from a very international family; I’ve got French, Danish sister-in-laws, and the next generation, we’ve got just about every colour under the sun in the family.
“We meet every two years as a family in Germany and we speak mainly German, some Spanish, some Danish, some French, Norwegian, Arabic – all the same family, which is lovely.”
It’s now 21 years since he left Kirkley Hall, where he headed the sheep course for 10 years – something he calls “probably the best job in agriculture education anywhere” with “excellent students” – indeed, he’s still in touch with a lot of them.
But he says: “Mrs Thatcher can be totally blamed for ruining agricultural training at craft level because she changed how it was financed.
“The sheep course at Kirkley Hall used to make a profit of over £150,000 a year which enabled the college to do other courses which didn’t pay very well.
“And I could see that it would fold. We were a very strong agricultural college. Although we were small, we had excellent staff. One of our students nearly every year won the City and Guilds silver medal which was the top award in the country.
“And it was a real pleasure to have all these young apprentices – farmers’ sons and farmworkers’ sons and families, coming to Kirkley.”
While lecturing, he ran a smallholding near Belsay, where he became interested in breeding the best pedigree sheep.
“I’m unbelievably interested in genetics and genetic improvement. I looked at all the different breeds in the 1980s, I went to the continent and looked at all the different breeds, I drove around the countryside.
“I decided to breed Suffolks because it was the most popular terminal sire at the time, so you always had a market, but also it has the highest growth rates – there’s not a sheep that grows as fast as the Suffolk.”
He now has among the highest genetic-indexed flocks in the UK for both Suffolks and the Texel breed. Using the best genetics has made an enormous difference to the meat we eat in the last 40 years, Pörksen points out.
“The biggest egg producer in Scotland, he produces now over 300 eggs per hen per year. When I was a student, it was 220 was the best.
“The food they eat is nearly half what it was when I was a student. For pigs, the food conversion was three and half to one, now it’s two to one.
“When I was a kid, we had chickens and they were about six months old when we ate them but now it’s 30 days from day-old to shelf life in the supermarket. It’s unbelievable. That’s genetics; it’s all down by genetic selection.
“We CT scan 30 tup [male] lambs a year. We take them up to Edinburgh and we know with 99% accuracy how much muscle, fat, and bone there is in each sheep. It’s fantastic, in a live lamb, absolutely incredible.”
He is also passionately involved in trying to ensure that farmers get their fair share. Formerly northern chairman of the National Sheep Association, Pörksen is the current regional chair of the National Farmers Union’s livestock board.
“The worst time was 10 years ago when my neighbour sold 50 sheep for £1 in the market, that was the worst trade we’ve ever experienced,” he remembers.
“Another friend of mine had 100 old ewes in the market and he was paid £2 – not each – he was paid £2 for the lot.
“The people who bought them made loads of money out of us, so that’s lack of marketing skills, lack of transparency – it’s got a lot of reasons for it, but we were really being taken to the cleaners by other people in the chain.
“I very much want people to know how much it actually costs to produce animals. We as farmers need to be paid for what it actually costs us to produce things – and we don’t get the cost of production back at all in livestock production.
“Why do you sell things below the cost of production? when I say that to sheep farmers, they all look at me as if I’m mad in the UK.
“But why are we doing it? Why are farmers so blinking poor that lots of tenant farmers haven’t got enough money to retire – they haven’t got a pension, they don’t know where to live and some of them actually owe more than they’ve got capital, which is a disaster. It never used to be like that.”
But he is more philosophical about another element of farming that might not seem terribly fair – the world of livestock showing.
“I used to show Jersey cows when I was very young,” he remembers. “My first show was the Royal Welsh Show in 1961. I learned a real important lesson there.
“It was a four-day show, I slept on a camp bed next to the cows and heifers we had in a marquee.”
At 4am, he was woken by someone tampering with one of the cows he was due to show the next day.
“So I chased him, and tripped over a guide rope and nearly knocked myself out. And the next day, I was leading this cow around and there were 20-odd cows in the class, and I was pulled out first and eventually ended up fourth.
“The judge came up to me and says: ‘Who are you, boy?’ because in those days you didn’t have individual cows listed, they didn’t know who they were.
“I said ‘I’m showing this for Mr White’. ‘Ah,’ he says, ‘I wished I’d known – he would’ve been first’.
“So, I was 15 years old at the time; I learnt that some people will do anything to cheat at a show – that’s the first lesson – and the second one is, it doesn’t matter what animals you’ve got, it matters who you are!
“I learned that at 15 and I accept it, because that’s how life is. But I know lots of people who show who haven’t learnt that yet!”
What car do you drive?
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Ednam House Hotel, Kelso
Who or what makes you laugh?
My four grandchildren
What’s your favourite book?
David Henderson’s Sheep Vet book
What was the last album you bought?
Never wasted my money on one
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Become an investment banker – this should enable me to earn bonuses so I can afford to carry on farming
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
He’s not in, please call later
What’s your greatest fear?
Running out of food (for myself). A legacy of being 11th of 13 children
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Taking soil samples
And the worst?
Do B&B and farming houses
What’s your poison?
Highland Park whisky
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
FT every Saturday, Scotsman occasionally
How much was your first pay packet?
£6 and 15 shillings (£6.75) for one week’s farm work in 1963
How do you keep fit?
What’s your most irritating habit?
Telling the same stories over and over again (so my wife informs me)
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Buying an ice cream at Lidl
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with?
Santa – had the pleasure of impersonating him for years at the local village school until rumbled by a bright neighbour’s daughter
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Mrs Thatcher, Lord Plumb, Tony Benn and Mikhail Gorbachev
How would you like to be remembered?
He cared – and always tried his best
1970–1971: Wolverhampton Technical Teachers College, University of Birmingham. Certificate in Education
1965-1967: Harper Adams Agricultural College, Shropshire. National Diploma in Agriculture
1963-1964: Lackham School of Agriculture, Wiltshire. National Certificate in Agriculture
May 1990: Tenant farmer and agricultural consultant. Also a lecturer, writer and speaker on farming.
1982-1990: Lecturer, sheep management course, Northumberland College of Agriculture, Kirkley Hall
1971-1982 – Lecturer in Agriculture, Kirkley Hall
Feb 1968-Sept 1970 Farm manager, J. Bewick, Brickhouse Farm, South Godstone, Surrey.
Sept 1967-Jan 1968 Gardener, Crewe Corporation parks and cemeteries department, Crewe.
Sept 1964-Sept 1965 Herdsman, RW Masters, Manor Farm, Semington, Wiltshire.
June 1963-Sept 1963 Farm worker, Grueneberg Bros. Manor Farm, Avebury, Wiltshire.
Mar 1962-June 1963 Agricultural Student, BC White, Green Farm, Crockerton, Wiltshire.
MEMBERSHIP OF PROFESSIONAL BODIES
National Farmers’ Union, member of NE Livestock Board and National Livestock Board. Elected chairman of NE Livestock Board FEB.
Member of National Sheep Welfare Council and Eblex BRP committee.
NSA former chairman and current Northern regional council member and its chairman 2007-09.
Founder member, director, publicity officer, Suffolk Sire Reference Scheme.
Member, Suffolk Sheep Society, Texel Sheep Society and British Grassland Society.
Member of Moredun Institute.
Life member ISDS.