Obituary: Influential Norfolk farming leader William Donald dies aged 82
PUBLISHED: 12:29 22 August 2018 | UPDATED: 13:17 22 August 2018
A leading Norfolk potato grower and influential National Farmers’ Union member, William Donald, has died aged 82.
In a high-flying career, Mr Donald, of Witton Hall, near North Walsham, 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 land with a large potato acreage with four staff.
A founder member of Anglian Produce in 1967, when he stood down in 2001, the Bungay-based 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 of the merger 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 boardroom to ensure that growers received a fair return from retailers, processors and packers.
As a grower, he valued close relationships with practical researchers. The annual CUPGRA (Cambridge University Potato Growers’ Research Association) conference, backed by AP for many years, became the industry’s “must attend” event.
A staunch NFU member, he was the second youngest Norfolk chairman in 1977. 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.
Mr Donald was regional delegate to the NFU Council for seven years from 1989 and had been vice-chairman of the NFU’s potatoes committee for four years.
In 1994, he stood for one of the top four NFU posts, national treasurer, but was unsuccessful despite strong regional support.
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 as his health continued to decline and was elected an honorary life vice-president. He had been 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 again 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.
A funeral service will be held at St Mary the Virgin, Happisburgh, on Wednesday, September 5 at 2pm. A private family committal will follow at St Margaret’s, Witton.