Bob Kennard of Graig Producers in Wales
"Organic is a fiendishly complex message to get over to the consumer when compared with single message foods, such as local, fair trade and free-range yet it has many of the answers to our current difficulties with food production."
Graig Producers is an independent collaborative livestock producer group working with several hundred sheep and beef farmers throughout the UK to supply the supermarkets with organic beef and lamb.
The Producer Group was established in the early 1990s and since then has grown to some 400 farmer members who work together to market their livestock, primarily through the supermarkets. Over the last decade and a half Graig Producers has opened up the food chain, acting as a hub in the production wheel. It helps to secure a market for its members and identify new markets, add value and secure predictable prices.
Bob is the Managing Director of the Group.
Can you give a short history of how you got to where you are now, including why and when you 'went organic'?
After a degree in Agriculture in 1974, I joined Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and was sent to manage a cattle ranch in Nigeria. This was followed by periods living and working in Swaziland and then Malawi, where I was involved in managing sugar projects involving farmer's small plots of irrigated land.
I continued to work as a tropical agriculture consultant on short trips for the UK Government, EU and World Bank after our return to the UK in 1988.
Whilst working overseas, our snapshots of the UK whilst on leave highlighted that farming was intensifying, and that livestock farming, particularly pigs and poultry, was producing very bland meat in increasingly intensive conditions.
In growing crops in Africa, I was also concerned at the amount of agro-chemicals which were being used, the way it was being misused by our smallholder farmers, and I simply thought there had to be another way of producing food.
On our return to the UK, my wife and I developed the initial idea of producing chicken which tasted of chicken, produced under non-intensive conditions, which treated the birds in a more humane way. We carried out some market research in 1988, which proved that there was a market for such birds, so we set about looking for somewhere to establish this system.
We moved to mid-Wales, where we started what was to become Graig Farm Organics. We started trials to produce tasty, non-intensive chickens, which we also processed at Graig Farm. This developed into a wide range of organic meats, and we built a small meat cutting plant and shop. By 2009, when we sold Graig Farm Organics (GFO) after 21 years, we had a staff of some 20 people, and were selling a wide range of organic foods, environmental goods and textiles by mail order and through independent retailers.
We sold GFO in order to concentrate on Graig Producers which had developed initially to supply GFO. By the mid-1990s we realised that the supermarket sector would move into organic meats, and so, together with Nigel Elgar, an organic farmer from mid-Wales, we actively recruited new members of Graig Producers, and took on a Procurement Manager.
Organic principles - why do they matter?
Without the underlying organic principles, the organic sector would be just another marketing exercise. Organic food production has real substance and uniquely, it is a legally binding term. Its complexity is both a strength and a weakness. It is a fiendishly complex message to get over to the consumer when compared with single message foods, such as local, fair trade and free-range yet it has many of the answers to our current difficulties with food production.
What does the Soil Association mean to you?
A pioneer in making people aware of organic food and farming.
Who are your customers and where are they?
We try to join up the links within the organic red meat supply chain. Our immediate customers are the large abattoirs which supply the supermarkets with their meat – there are only about ten such plants in the UK, and we regularly supply about six of them. There are three in Wales, and others in Dorset, Cheshire and Shropshire. We also try to meet with the supermarkets which these abattoirs supply.
What is your greatest achievement at work?
Developing our organic meat brand from scratch before organic food was as well-known as it is now.
What's the main benefit of being organic for you?
The main ones for me are the environment, the impact on human health, and safeguards on animal welfare. I simply cannot understand how chemicals designed to kill some animals or plants cannot have an impact on both ourselves and other animals which ingest these chemicals. If a fraction of the cost of research into pesticides was spent on improvements to organic farming techniques, we would soon see increased organic yields to help feed the world.
How can we get more people to buy organic?
A very difficult question we are all wrestling with at the moment! Our own contribution is a simple bullet-point label which was approved by the Advertising Standards Authority. We have proposed that this should be put on supermarkets’ packs of meat, but could also be applied to their other ranges such as vegetables and milk, where there is no stated justification for charging a premium other than the word 'Organic'. If the consumer can see this simple series of statements every time they look at a pack of organic food, the complex message of organic may get through to more people. Our task is to persuade the supermarkets to adopt such a simple system of labels.
Supermarkets - good or bad?
Currently, the only route to the mass market for organic food.
How do you plan to progress in the future? What is your vision?
Within the organic livestock farming community, I would like to see more farmers marketing collaboratively, and a more open supply chain in which longer-term interests of society as a whole are considered. The financial and social contribution to the fabric of rural society by family farms has never been quantified. We rush into mega farms at our peril if we are not fully aware of what we risk losing on the way to ever-cheaper food.
Who or what is your biggest inspiration?
I think the most inspiring person I have met is a man called Aaron Kisebe. He is an agriculturalist who worked with me in Malawi. He has an approach to life which is based on a deep religious faith, an intimate understanding of human nature, and the ability to simply get things done. In a continent full of corruption and lack of moral leadership, he shines in my mind as a beacon of how it could be so much better.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Do what you believe is right.
When were you happiest?
Professionally I suppose in Africa, where achieving things was up to individuals, and where one's actions could have an immediate and positive impact on people who had nothing. Achieving such immediate and enormous difference in the UK is so much more difficult.
What is your greatest fear?
The future of my two grandsons in a world which is not sustainable in virtually any aspect of human activity, and which is run today by people who appear to have very little interest in the world tomorrow.
What would be your 'Desert Island' luxury?
A DVD player and the entire Blackadder series.
What keeps you awake at night?
Owls and cats. Streetlights when I visit towns!
Any unusual hobbies or past careers?
Previously freelance contributor to BBC World Service – simply the best radio station in the world – at least until the imminent cuts!
I'd like to be remembered for...
Making a difference.
To find out more about Graig Producers, visit www.graigproducers.co.uk.