UK food firm The Black Farmer does not manufacture or process its owns products – which include sausages, bacon, cheese and eggs – but has built a business based on a successful brand and staying ahead of the curve on food trends, such as gluten-free. Andy Coyne spoke to the Black Farmer himself, Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, about the company’s strategy thus far and his plans to build the brand further.

Name – The Black Farmer
Location – Devon, UK
Products – Gluten-free sausages, bacon, pork loin steaks, free-range chicken, meatballs, burgers, cheese, eggs.
Annual sales – Around GBP10m
Founded – 2004

just-food : I think people are becoming quite familiar with The Black Farmer story {Wilfred grew up in inner-city Birmingham and worked in catering, PR and television before establishing the brand based on his farm in Devon} but despite launching into cheese and eggs and other meat products the brand is still quite closely associated with sausages. What are your product development plans?

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones: We are about to launch coffee and tea. I’ve been talking to a number of producers. The black tea market is in decline but I’m looking at Caribbean tea recipes – which are seen as a cure for all sorts of ailments – such as Caribbean herbal tea. We are helping black farmers in the Caribbean and elsewhere with the coffee range. I would hope these new products will be in stores by the end of the summer.

just-food: Is there an altruistic aspect to what you are doing as a business?

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones: Yes. The key thing for The Black Farmer is that our products should be very different or have high welfare standards. Those are our red lines. It is about trying to profit black farmers around the world. I have been having meetings with an Ethiopian farmer who grows ‘superfoods’ and he is struggling to get products to market. It’s about an ethos; a way of life.

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just-food: What other initiatives do you have in this area?

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones: We are starting the Black Farmers’ Club with ideas from up and coming food brands. I will get behind them and help them to develop their brands. We haven’t launched that yet but it’s very much about mentoring. I work on the basis that it is about finding the talent and then employing people to do the basics.

just-food:  Take me through the process of how your products get to market. The meat, eggs and cheese are supplied to you I understand?

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones: I don’t do any manufacturing and processing. I come up with the recipes for, say, sausages and tell the manufacturers {including meat producer Cranswick, chicken supplier Traditional Norfolk Poultry and cheesemaker Alvis Bros} what I want to do. I ask the manufacturers to replicate it. With eggs we were looking at what was in the market and at what point of difference we could bring, which we did with white eggs. I’ve never been a hands-on farmer.

just-food:  It’s well documented that you have been fighting illness. Has this forced you to take a step back from the business?

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones: No, I’m still leading the business. The health issues don’t get in the way. I’m quite passionate about what I do and, if anything, the health issues have given me more focus.

just-food: You’ve been quite outspoken against the use of antibiotics in the meat process haven’t you?

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones: The problem we have in this country is that we commoditise things. For big companies to change their ways to make things better for us and to go antibiotic-free is like turning around a big oil tanker. It is not big groups doing this, they like to keep the status quo. It is only when they have to that they climb abroad.

just-food:  You must be pleased that some of the trends you got into early, such as gluten and antibiotic-free and free-range are now much more mainstream.

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones: A few years’ ago Tesco‘s Christmas campaign pushed gluten-free. That was quite a moment for me. The big retailers in the UK have a massive stranglehold on the food industry. I would like to see more branded operators given a chance.

just-food:  So would you welcome online giants such as Amazon having a larger role to play in the sale of food products?

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones: Yes because you won’t have Amazon chicken and Amazon pork chops. They are into fulfilment. The retail landscape will be very different in a few years’ time. Supermarkets don’t care about food, they care about making money. Their buyers are judged on what makes them money, not on what is the best product. The discounters have now come in and there is a massive fight in terms of price comparison or quality. There is some way to go but the supermarket landscape is changing.

just-food:  Back to your own business, The Black Farmer is arguably seen as a British-focused brand. Have you any plans on the export front?

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones: At the moment it is the UK for us but we want to focus on exports this year. The products will be under the English Black Farmer brand in other countries. It may be Australia or African countries. We are looking at the end of the year.

just-food:  Despite the meat bias in your brand, your wife is a vegetarian and you have talked in the past about a non-meat range under the Black Farmer’s Wife brand. Is this still a possibility?

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones: One of the guys I’m investing in and mentoring is vegan and we are looking to focus on his vegan operation. What is important here is the authenticity. We’re looking to launch in April {the brand name ‘Planet Ten’ and the tag line ‘a world beyond meat’ have been mentioned}.

just-food: You’ve previously said that you are not interested in private equity as a way of growing your business. Is this still the case?

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones: We are going to out and find equity partners to help fund a visitor attraction {at the farm in Devon}. We have plans for a Black Farmer cookery school and a venue for hire. We  are putting the ideas together now. People on the way to and from Cornwall could come here in the way they now go to the Eden project or Rick Stein’s restaurant {in Padstow}. But it’s all about the people. They have to have the same dreams and ideas. I haven’t found them yet.