Obituary: William Donald 1936-2018

A leading Norfolk potato grower and influential National Farmers’ Union member, William Donald, has died aged 82.

A former president of Stalham Farmers’ Club, he also served as chairman in 1971 and enjoyed much success in club competitions over the decades.

In a high-flying career, he was the last chairman of the country’s biggest potato marketing co-operative, Anglian Produce.

Born on July 20, 1936 at Thurgarton Hall, he won a scholarship to Gresham’s, Holt, leaving at age 16 with 11 ‘O’ levels. He worked for his uncles on their farms and then studied at West of Scotland Agricultural College before returning to his native Norfolk.

He joined agricultural merchants, Press, Bly & Davey at Catfield selling to farmers and then did two years’ National Service with the Suffolk Regiment, gaining a commission.

But farming was his first love and he joined Robert Alston in April 1960 as the 39th employee at Old Hall, Witton, near North Walsham. On two farms with 808 acres, he had two dairy herds, pigs, cereals, heavy horses, poultry including turkeys.

Half a century later, Mr Donald was farming 1,600 acres of mainly arable with a large potato acreage with four staff.  He was a great friend and help to four generations of the Cubitt family of Honing Hall.

A founder member of Anglian Produce in 1967, when he stood down in 2001, the co-operative had 230 members across the country’s key growing areas. Elected to the board in 1972, he became chairman in 1995 and was at the helm when it merged with Greenvale AP plc in 1999 and a new co-operative, AP Growers was formed.

A doughty defender of farmers’ interests, he fought hard in the board room to ensure that growers received a fair return from retailers, processors and packers. He was always prepared to challenge his professional advisers too, especially in the complicated merger negotiations.

As a grower, he valued and supported close relationships with practical researchers. The annual CUPGRA (Cambridge University Potato Growers’ Research Association) conference, backed by AP for many years, became the key industry event for the whole industry.

A staunch NFU member, he was the second youngest Norfolk chairman in 1977. And he was on the top table of Agriculture House, Norwich, as county delegate to the NFU Council from 1982 to 1987. He was county treasurer from 1984 for the next 15 years.

In 1994, he stood for one of the top four NFU posts, national treasurer, but was unsuccessful despite strong regional support.

Mr Donald, of Witton Hall, near North Walsham, was regional delegate to the NFU Council for seven years from 1989 and had been vice-chairman of the NFU’s potatoes committee in London for four years.

A Norfolk county councillor for five years until 1982, he chaired the land and property committee, then responsible for a 30,000-acre tenanted farms estate. When plans were announced to sell land, it placed him on a collision course with NFU members during his year as chairman.

A dairy farmer, he opposed milk quotas in March 1984 with other senior NFU officers including Peter West and his great friend, David Ritchie.

On the field, he was a keen rugby player, with Norwich and then as a founder member of Holt RFC and second club captain in 1963/4. He was also chairman of his parish council for 22 years until 2009.

He married Jenny on June 3, 1958 and they recently celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary.

President of Stalham Farmers’ Club in 2015, he retired, with regret, as his health continued to decline and was elected an honorary life vice-president. He had been club chairman in 1971.

He twice won the club’s Potato Cup, presented in 1970 by “Uncle” Rob Alston, founder of the Clan Trust charity – first in 1974 and then in 1981. His farming company, Alston & Donald, won the two-acre beet competition in 1976 and whole crop beet cup in 2007.

He took up flying and qualified as a private pilot, which he greatly enjoyed but was forced to surrender his licence because of his poor health.

He is survived by his widow, Jenny, daughters Amanda and Sam, three grandchildren, Fiona, Tiffany and Thomas, and a great grand-daughter, Maisie.

Funeral arrangements to be announced.

Henry Raker