The front door of the farm house swung open and there to greet me was a man with his unkempt hair hanging down over his ruddy face. “Hello,” he says. “They call me the village idiot.” But even after that somewhat surprise introduction, it didn’t take me long to discover that Fred Colson might live in a village, but he is far from the idiot he, and maybe others, like to make him out.
Island born and bred, he lives in Chale Green, and not only farms a total of 1,000 acres in various areas, but is also a cattle dealer, property landlord and owns three fishing lakes with nephew Colin. He can also tell a tale or few, and quickly pointed out to me that when he married Lesley, his wife of 40 years, they slept on a mattress on the floor, because he could buy a cow for what it would cost him to buy a bed. He finally relented under pressure from his father-in-law.
Fred admits: “I like to do things a bit differently. If everyone is going in one direction, then I go the other. That’s the best way to survive. If everyone goes the same way why would people want to come to me to buy cattle when they could go to anyone else? But if you have something different, then people will come to you.”
That’s why he decided on a change of direction in his farming career many years ago and introduced shorthorn cattle to his land. Now he has the biggest shorthorn herd in the country, numbering more than 500.
Fred has had an interesting life, and continues to do so while helping many who are not as fortunate as him. Although a heart scare a few years ago slowed him down a bit, he still likes to put in his shift on his farm – especially if there is a few bob to be made!
Born at Pale Farm in Ryde where his father had the tenancy from 1939, the family moved to Bridge Farm, Godshill in 1952, paying £8,000 for a 150-acre farm and two cottages. Fred attended Godshill and Ventnor Schools, leaving on his 15th birthday, and admitting: “I wasn’t very bright at school – below average.
“But I wasn’t interested in school; the only thing I wanted to do was be in the countryside. So I worked in the family farm for nine years. We had a mixed herd of cattle, but I have never been a fan of black and white cattle so initially I changed it over to Jerseys and Guernseys, because we got an extra 10p a gallon for the milk.”
When the next door neighbour’s farm came up for sale in 1967, Fred wanted his father to buy it, but was told by his dad ‘you buy it’ even though he had only £100 in the bank, and it was on the market for £9,600. So to try to raise money Fred left his father’s farm and went around many dairy farms on the Island working as a relief milker. Despite a few knockbacks persistence paid off and Fred was soon earning up to £40 a week compared with the £2.50 a week he was receiving from his father.
“I saved up £1,900 and successfully applied for a council farm – Sheep Lane Farm – at Blackgang in 1971, which was a good move for me. It wasn’t the farm I originally wanted, which incidentally was sold last year for £850,000. I told my father it would be a good investment.
“I then acquired a piece of land down at Godshill and borrowed the money to build a house there, which is Milk Pan Farm, and had 78 acres. I tried to buy another farm but couldn’t so eventually in 1989 I managed to get 200 acres of land where I now live,” said Fred.
But buying it wasn’t that easy because his bank manager refused to lend him the £300,000 he needed, claiming Fred was ‘still living in the 1940s’, and needed to get an office and a computer to get up to date. He was more successful with another borrower, but to this day refuses to carry a credit card or have any modern day technology in his house, claiming the TV in the corner is only for long-suffering Lesley to watch.
He prefers doing a bit of light work on the farm, as well as gardening, and keeping a few turkeys, ducks, chickens and guinea fowl on a piece of land at home – but he’s not sure how many.
He built the farm house where he lives in 1994, added to his land, and bought Sheep Lane Farm off the council. So now he is up to personally owning 500 acres, and rents a further 500, comprising mainly cattle, but also corn, pigs and sheep.
He explained: “Shorthorn cattle are an old-fashioned English breed. They started off in the18th century, but went out of fashion in the 1950s when Friesians became popular. But the shorthorns are a good dual purpose animal and we have done very well with them. I gave up dairy farming in 1984 to go to beef. Shorthorn cattle can be dairy or beef, and I have been beef ever since. I bought half a dozen to start, and built the herd up from there.”
In between talking cattle Fred told me how he once lost his mother on a shopping trip to Newport. He said: “She went to one shop, I went to another, and we agreed to meet back at the car. When I got back she was nowhere to be seen and I searched an hour for her. Eventually I went back to the car park and found her sitting in another car – same colour and make as mine, but not mine!”
Then there was the time he was driving a lorry-load of calves back to his farm, but didn’t fasten the side door securely. Every time he went around a corner the door would open and a calf would jump out. He said: “Eventually someone waved me down and told me what was happening, so I turned round to find a calf sitting on the roadside every couple of hundred yards. Some were a bit dazed, but no serious injuries, and I managed to get them all back in the lorry to take them home.”
Fred’s health scare came six years ago when he found it difficult even to walk. He was told he had angina, and although nothing serious was found, he was informed by a specialist ‘either drop down dead or stop work’. He didn’t stop, but did cut back somewhat, bringing in nephew Colin and his son Dan to help run the farm, which they still do.
Meanwhile, he also has five caravans and a couple more houses, which he lets out to homeless people. He laughed: “I do it because I am stupid – I told you so. But it is another way of earning money. In life you have to survive and it costs you money to do that.”
However, he did have a problem with one caravan tenant. The tenant turned up at Fred’s house in the early hours covered in soot, and explained he was cold in the night so decided to light a fire – on the caravan floor. The caravan exploded, but he escaped!
Despite one or two traumas, Fred bought three fishing lakes near Sandown a few years ago. He insists: “I still believe people have never had it so good. When I was a kid we had one present at Christmas, but these days parents spend hundreds of pounds buying computers and whatever. And then you hear about businessmen having £1million bonuses.
“I had my first cigarette in 1957, and the packet cost me 1s 9d. I thought if I saved that money for 30 years I could own a nice house, and I’ve never smoked since.”
Not so much the village idiot he likes to make out then!