Dr John Wibberley was involved with FCN from its inception. As Chairman of FCN’s Board of Trustees between 1998 and 2003, John played a significant role in shaping the charity’s separate identity during its early years, and in supporting farmers through challenging periods – including Swine Fever and Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD). Throughout its twenty-five years of official existence, John has worked within FCN, and is still volunteering with FCN’s Devon Group as Chairman and Chaplain.
John was brought up in rural Derbyshire. At a young age he showed a passion for farming – he recalls as a toddler dressing in dungarees and eagerly watching cows through the fence of the neighbouring farmer’s field. He grew up working on a mixed farm in North Warwickshire owned by his aunt, where he worked with pigs, cattle, poultry, cereals, potatoes and more. He has worked on farms and in agriculture in various parts of the UK and overseas.
He wanted to leave school as soon as possible to go farming, though at age 15 was encouraged by meeting Peter Buckler (Founder and First Director of the Arthur Rank Centre) to “do those ‘A’ levels, go to the University of Reading, and make it your first choice”. Inspired by this advice, he enrolled at the University of Reading, where he still works as a Visiting Professor to this day, as well as at The Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester where he was previously Head of Agriculture in the 1980s.
While a student, John wanted to apply his Christian faith to his passion for farming, and found membership of the Agricultural Christian Fellowship (ACF) was a natural choice in 1966. He became the ACF’s secretary (and later Chairman), and during its 1974 national conference John met Christopher Jones, FCN’s Founder and Honorary President, who was then recently back from Africa to take over his parents’ farm in Northamptonshire. John and Christopher had a lot in common – Christopher had previously served as an agricultural missionary in Southern Nigeria with CMS; John did the same in Northern Nigeria in the mid-1970s with SUM. They have remained close friends over the years.
Following a ‘steering group’ period from 1993-95, in which John participated, FCN was founded as the Farm Crisis Network in 1995 – with The Agricultural Christian Fellowship and The Arthur Rank Centre as its ‘parent’ organisations. The timing was appropriate – in 1996 Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or “Mad Cow Disease”, rapidly spread across the UK, and all beef exports were banned. Beef farmers at the time referred to the outbreak as ‘the crisis’ – and FCN helped many farmers during this devastating time.
In 1999, with the scars of BSE still showing, swine fever took its hold; and in 2001, Foot-and-Mouth Disease put much further pressure on farmers and their livestock. Farms in England and Wales were hit with 2,000 cases of the disease and over 10 million animals were slaughtered and thousands of businesses and jobs were lost as a result. This led to an increase in the number of suicides within the farming industry, and various manifestations of stress. John compiled a book sold in aid of the ‘Farm Aid Charities’ – including FCN – during FMD in 2001-02 (Farming Fun & Wisdom: Jokes, Quotes and Anecdotes) – contributed by Fellows and Associates of the Royal Agricultural Societies, which John coordinated at the time.
With the growing number of farmers in need of support, FCN launched its dedicated telephone Helpline in 2002 – the same year it registered as a Charity and Limited Company, and set up its centralised office in West Haddon, Northamptonshire. In 2003, FCN was honoured that HRH The Prince of Wales became its Patron, helping hugely to bolster its reputation and standing within the industry.
In recent years, bovine TB is having a huge impact on the farming community – though far less obviously to the general public than was the case with FMD.
“But even in its early days, FCN did not wish to be perceived as only approachable during a crisis,” John says. “FCN is here to help everyone within the farming community who is in need and would benefit from a listening ear and someone to walk with them.”
FCN changed its name in 2013 to The Farming Community Network, aligned with its focus on providing longer-term support for farmers through issues great and small, including Farm Succession.
“FCN is available to help people resolve issues that are troubling them, while also helping them positively to move forwards,” John says.
The full interview with Dr John Wibberley is available below: