John Alston: Norfolk farmer’s leader was passionate about rugby and promoting food

Farmers' leader John Alston, who has died aged 82 at his north Norfolk home, played a pivotal role in the creation of one of the country's most successful marketing co-operatives.

When he stood down after 15 years as a director of Anglian Produce, including six as chairman in November 1995, the Loddon-based group's members accounted for eight per cent of the UK's potato production. It marketed about 450,000 tonnes of potatoes across the country and, in 1994, it exported potatoes to more than 10 countries, and was one of the first to grow potatoes in Spain to supply retailers in Britain.

A strong advocate of co-operatives in farming, for 13 years he was on the board of Eastern Counties Farmers, once the country's biggest co-op, but left 10 years before it folded.

Closer to home, he was chairman of the Aylsham Grain co-op in November 1983, serving for almost 20 years.

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Passionate about promoting local food, he chaired the Home-Grown Cereal Authority's Food from Britain committee and was a natural choice as the first chairman of Tastes of Anglia in 1992. Under his leadership, it became a significant body.

John (Erpingham) Alston, as he was known in farming circles given that there were five 'Johns' in 15 Alston families, was chairman of Norfolk National Farmers' Union.

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A highlight of his year was sitting next to the Queen, who was president of the Royal Norfolk Show in 1986 when she visited the showground.

He went to schools at Wickmere and Aldborough and aged 12 was sent to boarding school in Scotland.

After a year at college, he spent a year with a Norwich corn merchant before returning to the family farm at Calthorpe alongside his father, James, who was eastern area member of the Milk Marketing Board for a quarter of a century. Another passion was rugby, which he played until he was 54. He wore a Norwich shirt for 10 years and was captain in 1954 – the year that he married Valerie, who was a nurse at the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital, which used to invite the rugby club to the nurses' dances. When Holt Rugby Club was formed, he transferred and later became chairman and president.

After some years as a referee, he was elected president of Norfolk RFU. Later too, he became president of Norwich.

In the early 1970s, as he expanded his farming , he had already acquired land and fairly derelict buildings at the neighbouring Grove Farm.

He and his wife had the then radical idea of converting the barns and sheds into the Alby Crafts Centre, which became a huge success and a major visitor attraction after it had opened in 1976.

Another major project from 1985 was to transform about five acres of meadows into a spectacular garden at Grove House, which quickly became a favourite for thousands of visitors, including opening for the National Gardens Scheme. Under his wife's supervision, the farmer became a keen gardener.

When he retired in 1988, he handed over farms at Erpingham, Calthorpe and Bradfield to his four sons.

Throughout his farming career, he made time to help young people and if asked, was always willing to offer advice and guidance.

He is survived by Valerie. They had four sons, Jim, Hugh, Robert and David, and 10 grandchildren.

A funeral will be held at St Mary's Church, Erpingham, on Thursday at 11am.

Michael Pollitt

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