Settled in his favourite armchair next to the patio doors of his bright, spacious living room, Derek A Tottle – Tosca or DT to his friends – looks out over to his cattle, the sun glinting on their backs as they graze in the peaceful green fields beyond.
We’re here to find out about his story, how he journeyed from being a young lad with a strong aversion to schooling to become the much loved and highly respected Somerset farming legend that he is today.
The reason we’ve chosen this moment in time is because we’re celebrating the fact that Derek has been trading with Greenslade Taylor Hunt (in its various forms) for 60 years this year.
This is noteworthy in itself, but as his story unfolded and we heard how he got to where he is today and all that he’s achieved and lived through, we came away with a profound respect for Derek. His sheer drive and determination to get somewhere and make something of himself is inspirational. Not to mention all the chuckle-inducing one liners delivered with his broad Somerset accent that we’ll always remember!
Back to the 1950s
So, we’ll start at the beginning or when DT was roughly five years old. Peering out of his bedroom window one morning, wondering how he could get out of going to school that day. He sees Mr Brewer amble past with his horse and cart who calls over to him: “Want to come down and feed the bullocks, Dirk?” There was no holding him back of course and off he went.
One day in particular, in North Curry, a party of his school mates were out on an expedition with their teacher. Derek saw them coming up the hill and had to duck down in the hay on the cart so that he wasn’t spotted! Another time he deliberately hid his shoes to avoid going to school. His mother was not having any of that – forcing him into his wellies and marching him straight to the headmaster: “Here he is, now keep hold of him!”
Obviously, we are not condoning skipping school, but those were different days and a pattern was formed for Derek, who loved to spend as much time as he could helping Mr Brewer on the farm.
He made regular visits to Taunton Market from an early age, back around 1960, in the days of rival firms FL Hunt & Sons, CR Morris, Sons & Peard, Dobbs Stagg Knowlman & Co and WRJ Greenslade, before various mergers and acquisitions took place.
When he reached the grand age of 12, he made his first purchase; paying £13 for one Clun Forest ewe and £12 10 shillings for a Kerry Hill ewe, plus some lambs. This was the start of his illustrious farming career and a very memorable moment for Derek.
Upon leaving school, Mr Brewer kindly found him a job at a farm in Stoke St Gregory. He had told the farmer (widely reputed to be the richest farmer in the area at that time) that Derek could turn his hand to anything, including milking the old Devon cow he had there. With that settled, Derek formerly left school on the Friday and was at the farm ready for work at 7.30am on the Monday morning. He spent the next two years learning general farm work and milking.
Kindness of others
One common theme in Derek’s story is the kindness of the farming folk in the communities around him. Established farmers were willing to give him a leg up at the start of his journey, always keeping to their word and dealing with him honourably.
We have the kindly Mr Brewer we met at the beginning, who upon employing Derek after his stint at Stoke St Gregory, rented him a small parcel of land to get started.
Later, there was the Lady of the Manor, Mrs Barrett, who at age 90 decided to retire and sell her cattle and a small orchard. Mr Brewer felt it was a good opportunity and asked the lady if she’d let the land to Derek. She agreed but then Mr Brewer’s brother went to the auctioneer to try to rent it for himself. However, Mrs Barrett was true to her word and rented to Derek. This was a good move for him and set him on the path for more acquisitions.
In the early 1970s Stan Woodland was selling 20 acres for £2,000. Stan was known as a night owl, not eating his dinner until midnight, so Derek decided that was a good time to catch him. As he donned his coat he told his wife, Christine, that he was off to buy the land and: “I don’t know what time I’ll be back!”
While Stan was listening to Derek and enjoying his meal, the phone rang. “Oh, ‘allo Mr Dennis. You want to buy the land… Well, I’ve more or less done a deal with Derek.” Turning to his wife, Vera, he asked her opinion. She told him that they should follow through and do the deal with Derek. When Derek asked her why, she made the point that Mr Dennis was well established and they wanted to help Derek as he was just starting out. Needless to say, Derek ambled home “chuffed as nuts” at 2.00am to tell his wife the good news!
During our conversation, Derek many times mentioned his friends and neighbours and how they’ve helped him, particularly through some very difficult times in recent years. He was visibly emotional when we drove along to see Ian and Denise, who work for him at West End Farm. It is clear that he is truly touched by their kindness and support of him, and we don’t doubt that he has offered others the same human touch many times during his life.
Above: Derek with a prize-winning heifer, Sturminster Newton, 1995
It’s clear that the young Derek had a fire in his belly. He helped his dad for many years but realised that he had to strike out on his own to make something for himself. He was ambitious and driven and knew a good opportunity when he saw it. There was the time he bought some ‘rough looking’ lambs for £5 a head, prompting another farmer to quip: “I hope you got a spade!” Undeterred, Derek loaded them up, looked after them on his land and sold them on for £11 apiece. Not a bad profit margin.
He remembers when he bought the land from Mr Woodland for £2,000 that his father was incredulous, wondering how on earth he was going to pay for it. But Derek had a plan to sell some bullocks for £500 and borrow the rest from the bank. He soon paid off the rest by making some hay, selling a whole bay for £1,000, and selling off some cattle in the spring. It’s clear that he always had a plan.
Moving on up
We fast forward to 1976, when the Council owned West End Farm in Marston Magna came up for tenancy. Derek and Christine were very keen and sent off an application form. They had to have four references and managed to get the local Vicar to recommend them. Derek’s friend, Roger Forster, was also a force to be reckoned with. He very strongly counselled Derek in the best way to approach the interview: “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna do, not what you think you’re gonna do! Tell em you’ll milk 50 cows and you’ll lamb those ewes. You’re better than any b****r in there, you do what I tell ‘e!”
With those words ringing in his ears, Derek walked into a stately room at County Hall with Christine, the last couple in a shortlist of five to be interviewed (it’s worth noting here that there were 74 completed applications submitted to the Council). Derek made their case, telling them exactly what he was going to do and how. When asked if he’d been educated at agricultural college he said no but that he had just got on and done it, learning on the job over many years and there wasn’t much he didn’t know.
The force of nature who is Derek Tottle wasn’t to be denied and he and Christine were called back in and given the keys to West End Farm. There followed a celebration at the local pub, where Derek popped a fiver in the charity box – a lot of money at the time – as he was just so over the moon!
They started out small, Derek selling his cattle to buy milkers, and so started his great dairy enterprise spanning 52 years, with Christine working hard alongside him and raising their children.
Although West End Farm was keeping him busy, Derek wasn’t one to sit still. The Pitman sisters owned a field in between some of his own which, if he could purchase, would neatly bridge the gap. Derek approached the ladies and the following week, they agreed to sell it him for £800 per acre. He offered £775 per acre and they shook hands. He funded the purchase by selling 20 acres in North Curry, having some left over to buy some more cows.
In 1983, one of the kindly Miss Pitman’s passed away and Derek seized the opportunity to bid for 23 acres at the auction run by Martin Dare of RB Taylor & Sons, at the Three Choughs pub in Yeovil. He was up against a smart gentleman with a briefcase who looked extremely keen. Derek decided to play his cards close to his chest and got a friend to bid on this behalf, strategically placing himself behind him so that he could nudge him on to the fall of the gavel.
Martin Dare got a surprise when Derek strode over to the desk to pay at the end of the auction: “Hello Derek, and what can I do for you?” With a grin Derek replied: “You’d better take the deposit for the land I just bought!” As you can imagine, Martin’s expression was a picture.
That 23 acres set Derek back £60,000 – incurring an eye-watering 18% interest on the loan. He stuck with it and paid it off fairly quickly through milking his expanding herd.
A little while later, Thorney Lane Farm came up for sale. The farm consisted of 90 acres of land plus buildings but it was “rough”, with old grass, thistles and rubbish. Derek knew it would take some work but he also knew it would be worth it.
At the auction run by Paul Austin, an auctioneer at RB Taylor & Sons, it didn’t reach the reserve so Derek was encouraged to up his offer, being told that “you’ll never see this opportunity again” – but he refused. He thought he’d missed out when another farmer made an offer but philosophised: “You can’t miss what you never had”. However, later on, a neighbour informed him that the deal had fallen through which galvanised him into action.
The very next morning, Derek knocked on the farmer’s door – nobody there. He tried the next day and the old gentleman finally answered. After some to and fro, it was clear that the farmer wanted another £10,000. In the end, Derek shook his hand and said: “Get on the phone to your solicitor because I want this done today!” The deposit was promptly picked up by the solicitor and the deal was done by 12 noon that very day.
Swinging into action, he jumped on his tractor and mowed the lot, putting it into silage for the 40 heifers he bought to graze the land. And so continued Derek’s farming empire – that £150,000 investment was worth it when after nearly 30 years of graft, the farm recently sold through Justin Lowe, Partner at GTH, for nearly £2m.
It is undisputed that Derek is a good businessman and his integrity and honesty have earned him a good reputation over the years. His cows were often the highlight of a sale. One day, Richard Turner said to Derek: “One thing’s for sure, when yours come into the ring, everyone’ll bid for them!” He’s seldom had a complaint and simply wouldn’t take an animal for sale if it wasn’t right.
Above: Taunton Market, circa. 1995. Auctioneer: Derek Biss
A long association
We’ve meandered through Derek’s story, touching on his weekly visits to Taunton Market and the hundreds of auctions at which he has sold or bought stock, not to mention the parcels of land that he’s bought and sold through GTH. During his 60 years of association with the firm, Derek has met and got to know many of our auctioneers. Not least among them is Derek Biss, Partner at Greenslade Taylor Hunt, who has many fond memories of the 38 years he has been selling to and for Derek in the ring.
Derek B (as we’ll call him to avoid confusion), first met Derek in 1980 on a skittle alley at Galhampton, near Castle Cary, when they were both members of Derek B’s father’s NFU league team. Derek B soon discovered that DT was their best player and he knew it! He had his own team in the mid-1980s and regularly organised friendly matches against teams of farmers, who were mostly purchasers of his dairy cattle sold through Taunton Market.
He organised the matches largely due to the fact that he befriended a lot of his purchasers but also probably as a PR exercise. At the end of each match a steak dinner was paid for by the losers so, ironically, most of the teams of his purchasers ended up paying for the night out because Derek’s team was so good at the game.
Derek B was particularly pleased that, having joined Greenslade’s in 1983 and being involved in the Young Farmers Club movement, he was invited by some Yarcombe Young Farmers to be a guest player in their team against Derek’s team for many years. They were always late nights out and somewhat costly!
The next chapter
During the last 15 years or so, as his herd increased, Derek calved between 700 and 800 heifers a year and sold them all through Greenslade Taylor Hunt’s livestock market. Derek Biss has often commented that there is unlikely to be another farmer to match this level of trade.
However, along with the sale of Thorney Lane Farm, Derek finally hung up his boots as far as the dairy section was concerned and moved next door to the store ring. And Derek is still to be found at Sedgemoor Auction Centre every Saturday, without fail.
As Derek Biss notes: “Derek has never missed a Saturday at the Market. He was one of our main vendors for many years. His passion for stag hunting, especially on the Quantocks, never interfered with a Saturday Market and never interfered with an on farm dispersal sale of dairy cattle where, on occasions, he would purchase most of the herd, especially if the trade was really low. Derek had a marvellous eye for cows and heifers that could be purchased and improved upon, ready to be sold as fresh milk through the Market. It is clear that Derek is a very astute and practical business man who has always used his eyes and his heart rather than any theory or paperwork.”
Derek believes that the livestock market, which has been located at Sedgemoor Auction Centre these past 12 years or so, is a lifeline to many farmers. “You can go there and it doesn’t matter if you want a goat, a cow, a sheep; anything you want. It’s like a day out and you always get that buzz at the live ring. You’ve got to go to market to meet people.”
As we said our goodbyes to Derek on that sunny afternoon, we were left with a strong sense that we had been in the presence of a great man. Only a man with his vivacious character could be so well known, respected and well thought of over such a long period of time, and by so many. He is truly Somerset’s son and his story is woven into the fabric of this county’s green and pleasant land.