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New Mayor battled arch enemy to help feed the nation

Richard Austin, who will be made Boston's 481st Mayor tomorrow, is a friendly, affable, easy-going sort of a man. But he spent all of his working career in a ferocious battle with an evil enemy.

His nemesis numbers trillions, lurks unseen, can wreak appalling destruction and can leap into activity after remaining dormant for more than 25 years.

These days, aged 78, Richard is more content battling the weeds in Wyberton churchyard. The day I called to see Richard he had been out at 5am cleaning up around more than 500 gravestones. But as a young man, fresh out of university, Richard was parachuted into Fenland by the Government in 1959 to help those potato growers locked in a losing fight with eelworm, now called nematodes - a rampant and destructive pest.

Following the food shortages of the Second World War the Government was determined that the country should be less reliant on imported food and urged our own growers to increase their yields.

But there was a problem with one of our staple vegetables - eelworm was such an issue that one recommendation at that time, where the infestation was bad, was not to grow potatoes on the same land more often than once every 15 years.

Richard very quickly became an expert on potato production, and especially methods of reducing eelworm attack. He was the first in the area to experiment with a new eelworm-resistant variety Maris Piper, a household name now, but new then. 

"As with all new things there was some initial resistance from growers, but they were soon persuaded when they saw the results," said Richard.

He explained that the battle against nematodes continues today, and other strains emerged to reduce the effectiveness of Maris Piper.

"They are very clever," said Richard. "They probably came here with potatoes from the Andes introduced by Raleigh. They can remain dormant in the soil for more than 25 years - hundreds in a tiny cyst the size of a pinhead. As soon as potato roots explore the soil the nematodes know and wake up. They invade the roots and devastate potato yields."

Richard arrived with a farming background. Born on a farm on the outskirts of Chesterfield in Derbyshire he had entertained the ambition of becoming a farmer from an early age. His first memory is of sitting on the cellar steps in 1940 listening to bombs dropping on Sheffield ten miles away.

His father had an 80-acre mainly livestock farm. Richard, with two older sisters, milked cows when he got home from school. The land was worked with horses and the only mechanical aid was a visiting steam threshing machine at harvest time.

In 1952, when Richard was 16, his father sold the farm, urging Richard to forget about becoming a farmer and to seek a better career. Richard, who had passed his 11-plus, left grammar school and went to Leeds University - to study agriculture!

Once graduated he joined the Ministry of Agriculture as an agricultural advisor at one of the most exciting times of rapid change and modernisation for the industry.

He had visited the Lincolnshire flatlands before this - he had helped an aunt clear up after her bungalow home at Anderby Creek was hit by the 1953 flood.

His career was interrupted by National Service. Richard found himself posted to RAF Duxford in Cambridgeshire as an education officer.

He was last man out "switching off the lights and locking the gates" when the base was removed from active service. It is now Imperial War Museum Duxford.

When Richard was there, during the Cold War, Hawker Hunter fighters and Gloster Javelins - the world's first twin-engined delta wing - were operational.

He remembers during a big NATO exercise being given the task of measuring radiation in the event of an enemy nuclear strike. "The exercise had barely begun when I had to report to the CO to say 'Sir, we're all dead'."

Richard resumed his work with the Ministry of Agriculture and was moved to Kirton in 1963. 

Richard and Alison met when she took a job during a summer break from university to work at the Ministry of Agriculture's entomology laboratory and met Richard, agricultural adviser for Holbeach Marsh. 

After just a three-week courtship they were engaged, romantic Richard having taken her to the top of Boston Stump to propose marriage.

They married two years later, in July, 1966, and lived in West End Road, Wyberton, They have three adopted children and five grandchildren.

They moved to their current home in Low Road, Wyberton, 37 years ago, which they share with Archie, the ginger cat.

By 1971, aged 35, he was told by the Ministry that he had done a good job and offered voluntary redundancy, which he took, and then set up his own agricultural advisory service, Richard Austin Associates.

That developed into a full agricultural management business, at its height with a staff of 25 and managing farms across 15,000 acres in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire.

This enterprise offered everything from secretarial services through to total farm management, and even had its own soil laboratory. This still operates today under his name even though it was sold 14 years ago.

Richard said: "I tended to specialise in widows - where farmer husbands had died and the widows needed someone to manage the farm until the next generation had enough experience to take over. We managed one for 30 years."

Outside of work his interests have included Boston Woods Trust - he is vice chairman and has been an active member almost since the beginning - and a committed and working member of the Wyberton Parish Church congregation.

He has been a keen sailor, a member of the Round Table and is currently a Probus member. He is also the co-author of a book written to mark the millennium detailing the history of Wyberton - "From the Romans to B&Q".

He is a Wyberton Parish Councillor, was formally a County Councillor and was leader of Boston Borough Council when the Boston Bypass Independents stormed to power in 2007, making national headlines.

He is proud of that achievement. "We thought that not enough had been done to call for and maintain pressure for a bypass to ease Boston's awful traffic congestion. We contested all 32 seats and 25 were elected. It certainly shook things up. It was good for democracy - some of the former councillors didn't know what an election was.

"We never said we'd build a bypass. We said we would campaign for a bypass and raise the profile of the need. We certainly achieved that. It was even debated in Parliament."

A downturn in the economy meant that the bypass was off the cards, but Richard claims credit for other road improvements and widening schemes that helped ease the worst of the traffic problems.

He is a supporter of plans for a distributor road, but still believes the ultimate answer would be a bypass.

He has had good preparation for being Boston's 481st Mayor. Outgoing 480th Mayor is his wife, fellow councillor Alison Austin. Richard has spent the last 12 months as Mayor's Consort. Alison will now move from being Mayor to Mayoress - only the second time this has happened.

Richard said: "It will be an interesting experience - it's an important role and much in demand. I especially look forward to being able to encourage endeavour and achievement throughout the borough."

His choice for Deputy Mayor is Cllr Colin Brotherton. Deputy Mayoress will be Cllr Brotherton's sister, Kate Wainwright. They have previous experience - they were Mayor and Mayoress in 2012/13.

The Mayor's Charities for 2015/16 will be The Boston Woods Trust and the Butterfly Hospice.

Richard and Alison Austin at home Displays a larger version of this image in a new browser window