Obituary: Enterprising farmer John Place founded one of the UK’s biggest fruit farms
- Credit: Tim Place
An inspiring and enterprising farmer who built one of the UK’s largest soft fruit operations in Norfolk’s fields has died at the age of 89.
John Place, founder of Place UK at Tunstead and a former Norfolk county chairman of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), died after a short illness on March 16.
He was born at Church Farm, Tunstead, and was schooled at Kingsmill school in Cromer, Taverham Hall and Uppingham. Unfortunately, he had to finish his formal education early to help his mother with the farm after the death of his father in 1948. He went to Shuttleworth College for a two-year course in farming where he became treasurer of the student union and graduated in 1953.
He joined his mother Renee to form R & J M Place Ltd in 1954, starting to specialise in fruit growing. He also set up the first purpose-built poultry broiler house producing 5,000 chickens and joined with Michael Peach to form Peach and Place, whose first poultry-plucking factory was in the tractor shed at Church Farm. They also set up East Anglian Packers, building a purpose-built factory at Flixton, near Bungay, producing 100,000 chickens per week, which is still in production now under the ownership of 2 Sisters.
Unfortunately the chicken business failed and eventually John returned to the family farm in 1966 to concentrate on growing fruit, obtaining good sales to Donald Cook, a canning company in King’s Lynn. Seasonal staff were recruited from eastern Europe and the international farm camp was built to accommodate them, as well as facilities to process the fruit at Tunstead.
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He obtained direct orders for strawberries to Robinson’s jam, Elsenham jam, Duerr and sons and Chivers Hartley – obtaining the accolade of the best strawberry merchants in the UK.
Fruit production expanded with growing sites close to Norwich attracting up to 700 casual pickers each day.
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When the Iron Curtain fell, cheap imports of strawberry pulp from Eastern Europe caused problems so Mr Place invested in an IQF freezing plant and obtained good prices exporting frozen fruit to Germany.
With the advice of irrigation specialist John Adlam, he started to install trickle irrigation to his fruit crops which helped improve the quality and yields.
He became chairman of the NFU soft fruit committee in 1986 and during this time he met prominent Kent grower Don Goodwin, the founding chairman of Kentish Garden Growers (now Berrygardens Ltd), who along with Huge Lowe helped Mr Place join the cooperative in 1986 and grow fresh varieties of fruit to sell direct to UK supermarkets.
The introduction of temporary polytunnels enabled the fruit business to grow and extend its season from April to November to become one of the largest soft fruit businesses in the UK, growing strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, rhubarb and cherries. The firm sells fresh fruit direct to the supermarkets during the season and frozen fruit throughout the year to processors and retailers.
Mr Place was elected NFU Norfolk county chairman in 1991 and spent many years working with the NFU to help the government understand the importance of trickle irrigation and introduce it into the licencing system – which, to this day, is still not yet completed.
He eventually handed the running of the fruit business over to his son Tim, while his daughter Christine helped to run the arable enterprise before she emigrated to Australia. He continued on the management board to oversee the business and never fully retired.
Away from farming, his achievements included sailing his boat Avocet across the English Channel to Calais and back in 1956, which his family said was “rather rough and foolhardy, and has never been repeated”. He met his future wife Shirley through sailing and they were married in 1960.
He also studied farm management at Easton College, passing out with a silver medal in 1970, and became the founding president of Broadland Rotary Club.
A statement from the Place family says: “John was simply one of the loveliest and kindest men. He always took the time to listen to anyone and took a real interest in their opinions. He had a wicked sense of humour and loved a good ( or bad) joke. His characteristic chuckle and the glint in his eye will be sorely missed. It was a privilege to have known him.”
Mr Place leaves his wife Shirley, children Tim and Christine, four grandchildren and one great grandchild.
• There will be a private cremation on April 8, with a memorial service due to be held when the current coronavirus situation has passed.