Paul Seligman; Norfolk farmers’ leader promoted biofuel policies

paul seligman

paul seligman - Credit: Archant

A former chairman of Norfolk National Farmers' Union, Paul Seligman, who has died aged 94, faced a series of major changes and economic difficulties during his year of office.

When elected county chairman at Agriculture House, Norwich, in January 1980, farming at county and national level, was making headlines.

As farms director of the Gawdy Hall estate, near Harleston, he had streamlined operations as dairy and pig enterprises gave way to mainly arable.

A founder council member of the Farm Management Association in the late 1950s, he started a Norfolk branch and chaired the national education committee.

In 1980, agriculture minister Peter, later Lord Walker, had praised the industry for a decade of progress, which had cut the nation's food import bill by £850m. More home-grown food was being grown and self-sufficiency rose 62pc in 1970 to 71pc.

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But dairy farmers were under acute price pressure, partly because Whitehall refused to increase farmgate returns by 1.5p a litre. By September that year, 33 Norfolk farmers had taken the EEC golden handshake, worth up to £400 per cow, to quit production.

Norfolk County Council had cut its tenanted estate from 28,000 acres and wanted to sell another 10,000 acres, strenuously opposed by the county NFU. Europe's food surpluses with milk lakes and beef and butter mountains fuelled criticism of farm policies and across eastern England, straw and stubble burning was increasingly controversial.

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Norfolk farmers' leader lobbied MPs, led delegations and protests. In February 1981, he warned Norfolk MPs at the Commons that farm incomes had fallen by 24pc that year. He backed measures at the 1981 NFU's annual meeting in London to export food surpluses to starving people. He was among a small group of top Norfolk farmers, who opposed plans for a national food marketing body, set to cost at least £8m by 1984.

Mr Seligman was born in Vienna, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1919. His brother, Walter, four years his junior, got a youth visa and came to Britain to escape Hitler's Nazi policies. By good fortune, he was able to follow. While his mother, who was a Roman Catholic survived, his father probably died in a concentration camp.

While stranded in London shortly before the outbreak of the second world war, Lord Harry Walston, father of well-known farming commentator Oliver, was told of his fate and sent a car to bring him to Thriplow Farms, Cambridgeshire. Over the next eight years, he learned the principles of farm management and in 1947 became farm director at Gawdy Hall, which then employed 60 men on 1,700 acres.

In retirement he continued to make the case in the EDP's columns for growing biofuels to replace fossil fuels. As recently as 2007 he briefed fellow members of Harleston Probus Club about the potential of oil energy crops.

He was an active member of the informal Norfolk NFU chairman's group and rarely missed the gatherings arranged by former secretary Ken Leggett.

A keen skier, he returned to Austria and was still racing his son and grandsons down the slopes into his 80th year.

He leaves a son, Martin, grandchildren Adrian and Neil and great-grandson Flynn.

A service to celebrate his life will be held at Colney Woodland Burial Park, Norwich, on Tuesday, March 19 at 2.30pm.

Michael Pollitt

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