WL: How did you come into farming?
WEJ: I’m of the Windrush generation. My parents came to this country when I was born and I joined them when I was four years old in Birmingham. I’m from a family of 11 and grew up in a two-up-two-down terraced house. My father had an allotment and it was my responsibility to look after those crops, and that was when I decided I had a dream to one day own my own farm. The thing that I like to bring to people’s attention is this: if you are from an immigrant background, the chances of you getting land are impossible, unless you happen to be very wealthy. Farms are passed down through generations, who don’t need to find that massive capital to buy land. A lot of land is [also] owned by institutions, be that The National Trust, be that the Church of England; any big institution that owns land, rents it out to the traditional families. It’s a very, very closed shop.
WL: What do you think rural Britain needs and why?
WEJ: Diversity isn’t just about the colour of a person’s skin. What I think we need in rural Britain is people from non-traditional farming backgrounds with some interesting and exciting ideas. And it’s a good life, being a farmer – if you compare the poorest person in rural Britain with the poorest person in urban Britain, I know which one I would prefer.
WL: How was it that you managed to access land?
WL: I managed to make sufficient money to buy a small farm. One of the reasons I bought in Cornwall was that it’s one of the poorest regions, and my land is in cattle country so it’s only fit for silage. There is lots of clay there, plus it’s a long way from London. The lack of access meant I was able to afford something, but it’s not viable as a business if I was reliant on the land.
WL: How does The Black Farmer brand work, do you produce your own meat?
WEJ: What I have demonstrated is that you’re able to create a brand with only 30 acres and that is because I’ve collaborated with big players who have the buying power. At my farm, we don’t produce pigs because I just don’t have the land. I wanted to create a quintessentially British brand; because when you’re Black, people think you’re only speaking to ethnic minorities and you’re not speaking to the mainstream. That is why I then decided to develop the sausages, because what can you get that’s more quintessentially British than a sausage?
WL: How did the name come about?
WEJ: All my neighbours used to call me ‘The Black Farmer’, and I thought actually that’s a good brand name – it’s really in your face, there’s no one else out there who could nick the idea, and people are never too sure if it’s the correct thing to say. There’s this nervousness about what is the correct language when referring to people, especially in rural Britain where they’re very sensitive about ‘do you refer to someone as coloured, or Black?’.
WL: What was your impression of farming when you first arrive in Cornwall? Did you experience racism?
WEJ: What I’ve always believed is you’re never really part of a country until you own land. And so, if you’re an immigrant, you’ll always feel as though you’re in transit until you own land. That’s why land ownership is such a powerful thing in any country, not just this one. I remember when I said to my friends, I’m going to buy this farm, they said ‘you know they lynch Black people down there?’. I remember when I put up my first polytunnel, someone called the police because they thought I was using it as a cover to grow ganja. It’s because when you are changing [things], you come across people’s prejudices. When you’re a pathfinder, you have to accept that you are going to ruffle a few feathers. Therefore, it’s very important that you’re not seeking people’s permission, and you’re not seeking to be accepted – because if you are, you’re going to be miserable.
WL: What drives you?
WEJ: I knew, from when I was an 11-year-old boy, that I wanted to have my own farm, and I didn’t really care what other people thought. It helped that I didn’t have to seek employment from anyone else, in fact I was giving employment, which gives you a bit of power to change the way things are done.
WL: How important is the sourcing to you, where does your meat come from?
WEJ: The Black Farmer is really supportive of everything British. Then, and now, it was cheaper to get ingredients from Europe and all over the world. I wanted to be seen to supporting British farmers and also acknowledge that we have some of the best food standards in the world. I don’t want to be involved in anything that compromises on animal welfare.
WL: Even within Britain, though, there are some quite big discrepancies in how food is produced. What kind of system is your meat produced under?
WEJ: One of the big criticisms I have of this industry is something like Red Tractor; Red Tractor means jack shit. What I would like to see is the organisations responsible for the quality of our food making that more stringent and more effective. And rather than these schemes being done for the good of the industry, they are for the good of the consumer. There are a lot of these schemes that are not effective, and Red Tractor is one that I am highly critical of because there are some terrible practices that still go on under that.
WL: It’s true that many people are priced out of those higher welfare labels like organic – but in the middle, or more affordable brackets, and without a label, how do you know how your meat is produced?
WEJ: We don’t have any special accreditation. We buy our pork from Cranswick [Country Foods meat producer] and it has to be British. I think the thing about all these accreditations is the cost is what stops people from being completely involved. Part of the problem is that food producers don’t have a relationship with the consumer. Supermarkets have been the gatekeepers to that relationship. What I would do is have legislation that said you have to the put the name of the farm on every product. Most of the food we consume is outside of the home, but their food standards – if consumers knew about it, they would never get away with it.
WL: What are you working on with Writtle College?
WEJ: The whole idea is to get 16-18-year-olds from non-traditional backgrounds into farming. Because the people who go to agricultural college are from a traditional background. What I believe is that the farming industry desperately needs innovation, and it ain’t gonna come from within. These kids are going to be the pathfinders. Anyone who’s new is essential for the industry. It’s a fantastic industry to go into.
WL: What’s next?
WEJ: My vision is for The Black Farmer to be a bridge between urban and rural; the ultimate aim is for a restaurant, a conference centre, a place where people can come and feel comfortable. If you go to our website now, it’s a lifestyle; it’s a place where diversity can be accepted, and people from diverse backgrounds can feel comfortable because they’ve seen it and experienced it.