I knew Mike Soper from 1985 – 1999 during the period that I was Principal of the Cotswold Community, a residential therapeutic community and school for seriously emotionally disturbed and anti-social boys. The school was situated on a 350 acre farm
and Mike was an unpaid consultant to the farm and a member of the managing committee. He had a very clear grasp of the therapeutic benefits of the farm and fought for its survival when under threat of losing land to gravel extraction.
Although his initial involvement was for his farming expertise he became increasingly interested in the therapeutic work with the boys and the importance of education for the future prospects of looked after children.
He was a great friend to the Cotswold Community and was unstinting in his support. He was an extremely approachable person with a warm sense of humour, a lovely man. I remained in touch with him and was amazed at the continuing sharpness of his mind.
In fact at the age of 93 he published his first novel, “The Heart Entrapped”.
Agriculturalist and energetic organiser of the Oxford Farming Conference who played many notable roles in farming in Britain Mike Soper was a leading figure in the farming community. He was perhaps best known as the organising secretary of the Oxford Farming Conference for 28 years, but his extraordinary energy and enthusiasm led his career into every aspect of agriculture: scientific, practical, educational and administrative.
Michael Henry Ray Soper was born in 1913 in Essex, the son of a barrister. He was educated at Tonbridge School and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he read natural sciences for two years and then spent two years obtaining a diploma in agriculture. His first professional appointment was in 1936 as assistant lecturer in crop husbandry at the University of Reading. He took part in the first trials of pneumatic tyres, which would soon replace the iron wheels used on farm machinery at the time. After a brief spell with the Field Service of the Sudan Government, cut short by serious illness, he returned to wartime Britain in 1940 and joined the Surrey War Agricultural Executive Committee as assistant executive officer, later becoming its chief technical officer.
The county committees oversaw the maximisation of food production on existing farms and on requisitioned land. He always said that the practical experience he gained in these years was invaluable.
In October 1946 he took up a lectureship in the new Department of Agriculture at Oxford, where he remained until he retired in 1981. He was instrumental in buying and directing the university farm, where much important research was carried out, including the monoculture of one field where a barley crop was grown every year for 20 years with no deterioration in yields or soil fertility. The
department was reputed to be one of the most harmonious in the university, because in no small measure to his ability to mix with people of all backgrounds, and the respect with which he was held by undergraduates, many of whom became friends and colleagues. He was elected a Fellow of Christ Church in 1974.
In 1951 the pre-war conference on Mechanisation in Agriculture, which had been held in Oxford, was revived. Success was such that it grew into the Oxford Farming Conference, now an important annual event in the farming calendar. Soper was its honorary secretary from 1954 until 1981 and was the driving force behind the event’s development and success. For this work he was appointed OBE in 1961.
Among his many extramural activities, he was chief assessor for the National Certificate in Agriculture Examinations Board for 25 years and chairman of the City & Guilds agricultural committee in 1963 – 78, being awarded honorary fellowship of the City & Guilds of London Institute. He was chairman of the education committee of the Association of Agriculture 1969 – 84, becoming chairman of the association in 1984.
He took part in many BBC farming programmes, on radio and on early television.
In retirement he remained extremely active. He was chairman of the Association of Agriculture Executive, 1984 – 90, and of the Oxfordshire Agricultural Trust, but his main occupation was as a Fellow, and member of the council for awards, of the Royal Agricultural Societies. He was honorary secretary of the English panel of the council until 2000. He was also active in the Royal Agricultural Society of England, among other things organising farm visits every summer which were well attended and enjoyed by the participants.
He was elected an honorary life Fellow of the society in 1998. In 1995 he published a book, “Years of Change” which reviewed his long and wide agricultural perspective.
His main recreation was golf, which he played to a single-figure handicap. He had a lifelong love for the St Enodoc Club, in Cornwall, of which he was captain for two years in the 1950s. He did not marry.
Mike Soper, OBE, agriculturalist, was born on September 30, 1913. He died on October 26, 2008, aged 95.