Published on 19th June 2015
A former chairman and president of the Guild, Mary Cherry, died in May aged 88.
During her working life, Mary spent time on Farmer & Stockbreeder, worked freelance, making notable contributions to the BBC's domestic and World Service broadcasts on agriculture, and was chairman of Trustees at the Oxfam charity.
She was a lifelong Member of the Guild and made a significant contribution to its success as general secretary in the late '50s/early 1960s, chairman in 1963 and president in 1983 - a unique succession of roles in the organisation that led to her being made a Fellow of the Guild.
According to an obituary published in The Guardian, Mary's interest in agriculture stemmed from being born and brought up on tenant farms in north and west Oxfordshire; her family farmed continuously for more than 600 years. She studied agriculture at the University of Reading and started her career at the Grassland Research Council, switching to journalism after winning a £300 scholarship from the Guild.
She started as a feature writer on Farmer & Stockbreeder and stayed for 18 years having become the first women journalist to work on a national agricultural title. This brought about some challenges: she was reportedly told off for carrying a handbag at the Corn Exchange and her editor had to fight to get her first article published under a visibly female byline.
A career highlight was to appear as herself on The Archers in 1958. She was introduced by old Walter Gabriel as “that there wench be come” and the greeting followed her around for many years!
Mary switched to freelance work at the end of the 1960s, embarking on a tour of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and much of south east Asia, filing stories and scoring a notable scoop when, by chance, she interviewed Norman Borlaug, father of the Green revolution, for the BBC World Service just as his Nobel peace prize was announced.
She became a regular broadcaster, producer and presenter of agricultural news and features for the BBC, often mailing tapes with 100 interviews for producers to choose the best, and in the mid-1980s was Chair of the Oxford Farming Conference.
Peter Bell’s booklet recording the history of the Guild mentions her several times, but her particular ‘claim to fame’ was the award – in 1952 – of the Guild’s first scholarship for someone already qualified in agriculture to train in journalism. She won a training year on Farmer & Stockbreeder, was asked to stay on and eventually became the technical editor.
He goes on to recount that in 1954, Mary was the first nomination to represent the Guild on what was then the International Union of Agricultural Journalists - now IFAJ. However, her editor, Richard Haddon, refused to allow her to travel to the inaugural meeting because expenses were paid by a sponsor and he would not allow his staff to be influenced by commercial interests.
Mary's nephew Paul Cherry recalls the indomitable and highly pursuasive spirit of a lady whose work took her quite literally around the globe; and of a devoted family person whose intriguing mix of qualities made her revered by her niece and nephew, her six great nieces and nephews and, at the last count, seven great, great nieces and nephews.
Any Guild member who would like to send a note in tribute or share memories of time shared with Roger should send them to Peter Hill for the Guild website.
Denis Chamberlain: "Sad news indeed. I went to Fleet Street as a gangling youth in my late 20s to take over from Mary as arable editor of Farmer & Stockbreeeder. I still remember the rather disjointed interview with Mary and Bob Trow-Smith as she had already offered me the job before I went! A lovely lady who had a terrific gift for explaining the emerging arable technologies to farmers. Mary operated at a time (in the late sixties and early seventies) when arable farmers were emerging from the Proctor barley and Capelle wheat era and beginning to understand what became modern agronomy. She played a significant role in knowledge exchange and technology transfer long before anyone had invented the phrases. RIP.
Diane Montague: "She was a lovely person and a very competent journalist and communicator."
David Dixon: "I joined the BBC after farming in East and South Africa – no experience of journalism or broadcasting. My transition from practical farmer to broadcaster was made so much easier with Mary as the presenter of the programme. She was fun to work with and so wise. I couldn’t have had a better start."
Stephen Howe: "Very sad news indeed. A lady with very high standards in every respect."
David Richardson: "So sad to learn of Mary’s passing. She was a real pioneer for women in farm journalism and broadcasting. I shared many a studio with her in the 1970’s along with the late and lamented Anthony Parkin. And I had a hand in getting her elected to the committee of the Oxford Farming Conference –once again she was the first woman to be so elected. Indeed the year after I chaired the event Mary succeeded me in the chair. After that she held high office at Oxfam. A great lady who contributed a lot to our industry and profession and will be sorely missed."