Semi-retired Ron still hunting for new challenges to keep him busy

Ron Holland says he is now semi-retired. That’s because he gets up at eight o’clock in the morning and doesn’t start work until nine.

But at 64 Ron still packs more into his day than most. He and his family have lived at Kemphill Farm, Havenstreet, since moving to the Island back in 1972. He has seen the bad times and well as the good in the farming industry, but he maintains it is a move he has never regretted for one minute.

He relishes challenges, and always has. That is why he is so excited about the latest venture he took on when he bought adjacent Kemphill Moor – a 50-acre woodland. He smiled: “It is the most exhilarating thing I have done in years. The Forestry Commission suddenly advertised it, and I knew the wood from my hunting days.

“But no one had been in there for years, and when I heard someone was thinking of using it for motor cycle scrambling, I decided to buy. It is the best thing I have done – I love it. I was in there with a tree book for three weeks to see what was there, I knew nothing about trees.

“The Forestry Commission have signed me up to a 10-year management plan and it is all about the wildlife. We have to widen the tracks to let the light in and keep the re-growth at different heights. Over the next 10 years we have to remove all the conifers, and leave the hardwoods.” Not surprisingly, this astute businessman has turned it to his advantage by starting a new business, as well as saving himself money on heating bills – but more about that later.

Ron was born in Thame, Oxfordshire, the youngest of five children, and the son of a farmer and horse dealer. He attended Thame Grammar School, and although he found school easy, all he really wanted to do was farm. “My elder brothers were already working on the farm, and I envied them so much. My headmaster wanted me to go to vets’ college, but I left school and went to join my brothers. I thought they were having such a wonderful time.”

“We lived for fox hunting, that was all we ever thought about when we were kids. We milked the cows twice a day and would then be off hunting about three times a week. Father taught us all to ride bare-back, he wouldn’t let any of us have a saddle until we could ride anything. When we went hunting it was a case of Wellingtons boots, our old school jackets, and a hard hat.” Ron’s father bought in New Forest ponies, and the boys used to break them in. Ron smiled: “He would throw us boys on them until they couldn’t throw us off any more. It was such good fun.

I was about 9 or 10, and by the time I was 14 I was an accomplished rider. But my father was very crafty. When someone came to buy a pony, he would say ‘look, even these little boys can ride this pony and they are absolutely useless riders – that is how quiet this pony is’. We had to take this nonsense, and really we could ride anything. But on the back of that he would sell these half-broken ponies to affluent customers, and within a couple of months a lot would come back because they couldn’t ride them.

“Father would have originally bought the colt for about £12, and then sell them 18 months later for £40. But many would be brought back, and because they were older and more valuable, he would take them back for £20 and sell another one for £40. So this would go round in circles, and be a good way of making money.”

Ron and his brothers were accomplished horsemen at an early age, so much so that they could mount a horse at full gallop, a move he describes as being far easier than it looks. But he recalls how they used to practice on one old horse so much, that when his father tried to get on, the horse shot off, with him hanging on for dear life as it disappeared out of the yard!

“He went mad, and needless to say we didn’t hang around to tell him what we had done,” smiled Ron, who said the farm was his whole life, with no holidays, and work 365 days a year, apart from the hunting jaunts. However, when he was 19 he realised there was perhaps more to life than the farm, and he went to Seale-Hayne College in Devon for three years, achieving a National Diploma in Agriculture and College Diploma in Farm Management.

Instead of returning to his father’s farm, Ron and two college mates set off in search of adventure in the United States. They delivered cars around the whole country from east coast to west, stopping off occasionally for other work that included orange picking in the Orlando area where Disney World now stands.

“We also mowed lawns, and because a lot of the Americans had never seen English people – only politicians on television – they took us to their heart, and let us stay as guests,” he recalls. “We spent a lot of time in the Everglades, and then went across the States, into Mexico. We were delivering cars basically.

“But it wasn’t so easy on the West Coast, so we had to hitch lifts all the way up through California, and on into Canada. Before that we helped paint a house in Malibu that stood on stilts by the beach. It is the only time I have ever taken drugs in my life. They had a barbecue, and afterwards I realised they had put some in the burgers. When we gave some to a dog, it went crazy!”

After three months Ron returned to life on the farm, and described it as ‘a nightmare’. “It was just as if I had never been away. But in truth I never got on with my father. All he ever did was expect you to work. If you wanted a day off he would get the doctor out to you, thinking there was something wrong. He wanted us to work around the clock, and even at meal times he just talked about the farm.”

Ron stuck it for three years, finally persuading his father, after much disagreement, that he was going to take every third weekend off, having met the girl who was to become his first wife, but later sadly died after a long illness. He decided he wanted to break away and have a farm of his own. But it was not that easy. He had been made one of the partners in his father’s farm – unknown to him – for tax reasons. The three boys each had a one fifth share, with father having two-fifths.

But the agreement was so written that he had to give five years notice to get his one-fifth out. So Ron went to the bank with the partnership agreement, and got a loan based on that instead. Allowing for a two thirds mortgage from the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation, he began his search in Dorset for a farm of his own.

Having done his research, Ron wanted to become a dairy farmer. He knew nothing else in the farming industry was as profitable. But because he did not have that much money, he was sent out to look at what he thought were all the ‘no hope’ farms in Dorset, which were absolutely dreadful.

But there was just one farm at the bottom of the estate agent’s pile that happened to be on the Isle of Wight – Kemphill Farm, Havenstreet. So Ron came across to the Island and realising the farm was really good value, bought it in 1972, and has never regretted it. It was a 160-acre farm, and ideal for dairy. Ron purchased the neighbouring farm in 1979, and continued to expand until he was eventually farming 300 acres. He employed three men, and made ‘serious money’ from dairy farming complemented by sheep, cereals and beef cattle.

Then in the late 1990s his flourishing farming business, like so many others, hit hard times. Milk prices plummeted; a wave of protests ended veal exports, and the industry was rocked by BSE – mad cow disease. It resulted in Ron’s income being slashed by two-thirds. The employees had to go. Ron and son Jamie just managed to keep the farm going. Bed and breakfast was introduced at their 17th century farm house, run by his second wife Sue. That prompted the development of one of the farm’s barns into a four-bedroom holiday let, all en-suite. Then followed by two more barn conversions, each into five-bedroom units.

To make use of the farm itself, Ron expanded the beef. Two years ago he was approached by Island Foods who wanted to buy exclusively Island cattle. The deal began with one a week – on the strict proviso from Ron that the meat had to be hung for three weeks before being sold. The turnover has grown to four cattle a week for the past two years, with Kemphill beef sold in many hotels, restaurants and pubs across the Island.

Ron buys 200 beef cattle a year, grazes them and finishes them. He reflects: “The dip in the dairy farming industry turned my life upside down, and it is a different lifestyle. I call myself semi-retired because I get up at 8am and start work at 9am.” Away from farming Ron used his early hunting experiences to become involved with the Isle of Wight Hunt, and was chairman for 18 years. “I actually hunted for 50 seasons. I started back in Thame when I was eight or nine, and hunted to within a month of my 60th birthday when my last horse died – a month before fox hunting was banned.

“I have not sat on a horse since then, and for the last 20 years I only kept a horse to hunt; I never rode at any other time. And I don’t think I will ever ride a horse again. Yes, I would like to go once more, but I am not going out to buy a horse just for that.”

With the purchase of Kemphill Moor, and the subsequent track clearance to encourage wildlife, Ron, and son Jamie, now find themselves in the fire wood business.

He added: “The first year we sold only ash, now, one year on, we are selling all the other hardwoods, because they needed at least twelve months to dry out. The conifer wood is a problem, because no one burns it. Yet on a recent trip to Finland I noticed they use nothing else. So we are now fitting a bio-mass boiler purely for the conifer. This will heat the letting properties by pumping the hot water underground to all of them. It will be expensive, but it will help save on the £4,000-a-year gas bill.”