Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones MBE is unlike most farmers. The self-proclaimed ‘Black Farmer’ came to farming after a thirty-five-year career spanning the military, television and marketing – and has now made it his mission to drive meaningful change in the grocery sector. His business, named The Black Farmer, specialises in gluten free sausages and can be found in supermarkets across the country. A few weeks ago, I caught up with Wilfred over Zoom to discuss Black History Month, his new initiative, and the incredible journey he’s taken to get to where he is today.
Part of the Windrush generation, Wilfred arrived in Britain from Jamaica aged three. The eldest son of nine siblings, Wilfred told me that his father’s small allotment was an ‘oasis’ away from the madness of home life in a two-up, two-down house that he shared with his whole family. It was on this allotment that Wilfred’s dream was born: at the age of 11, he made himself a promise to own his own farm. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but from then on it was a promise lodged at the back of my mind,” he tells me, “everything I subsequently did was to try and get this farm.”
Indeed, from an early age, Wilfred was driven to succeed. After a brief stint in the army, (“I have a dishonourable discharge to my name!”), and then catering college (“Catering is now a glamourous profession… but it definitely wasn’t then”), Wilfred set his sights on a career in television.
Wilfred’s route into TV is a stark reminder of what can come from passion and perseverance. “For a whole year, I hung out by the gates to the BBC studios and volunteered to help the security guards lift the barrier for cars. From there, I met the cleaners, who would let me help them clean the offices.
“There is something about the human condition that says bugger all this data and statistics, we’re going to give him a break.”
“After that,” he continued, “it was all about finding my guardian angel. There will always be people who give you your big break.” Wilfred found one in Jock Gallagher – who took a punt on Wilfred with a three-month contract as a general runner at the BBC. “Any algorithm would have said not to touch me with a barge pole,” Wilfred explained, “but there is something about the human condition that says bugger all this data and statistics, we’re going to give him a break.” This was the beginning of a 15-year career in television, spanning research, production and directing and allowing Wilfred to travel around the world making food programmes.
For someone from such humble beginnings, this chapter alone is an incredibly impressive feat. I wonder what Wilfred’s secret to success is? “The people who go and succeed have two really vital things,” he told me, “one is ruthless focus, and the other is passion. The thing about passion is that it defies reason and logic and helps you get over all the hurdles. Successful people make a friend of uncertainty, because then they’re not driven by fear of the unknown. Part of the essence of being human is walking with faith into uncertainty.”
After 15 years at the BBC, Wilfred left to launch his own food and drink marketing agency. “My philosophy is that the moment you stand still, the moment you get comfortable, that’s when your life is going to overtake you. I left the BBC with just enough money to pay the mortgage for three months… There’s nothing that focuses the mind like that!”
This venture was a roaring success: Wilfred’s agency launched brands like Loyd Grossman Sauces, Kettle Chips, Plymouth Gin and Cobra Beers. After another 15 years in marketing, Wilfred returned his focus to his long-term goal: owning his own farm.
“It took me around 35 years until I had enough money to buy my own farm. I always tell people: dream big, and dream early – because achieving a dream takes time!” So, Wilfred left London and bought a farm on the Cornwall-Devon border.
Landing on gluten free meat products as his niche, Wilfred began to explore options for a brand name. “All of my next-door neighbours used to call me the Black Farmer,” he explained, “and I thought – why not? It’s a good name, it’s got an edge to it, people aren’t sure if it’s politically correct.” Indeed, every piece of market research Wilfred undertook around the name ‘The Black Farmer’ came back negative. “But it taught me a fundamental thing about research. It can tell you what’s happening now, and what happened yesterday, but it can’t tell you what will happen tomorrow. That’s where you need vision.”
And Wilfred certainly wasn’t lacking in vision. After an unsuccessful attempt to have his products listed in major supermarkets, Wilfred published the names and numbers of all major UK buyers on his website, and asked consumers sampling his products to call and demand they be available to buy. “God as my witness, that’s how I got them listed – by the consumer!”
Fast forward to today and Wilfred’s products can be found on the shelves of all the major retailers, and he’s just launched The Black Farmer’s online store, selling pre-packed boxes of West Country produce. His ambition is to have a farmshop on or near his farm. “I want my farm to become a destination,” he told me, “I want people to think ‘oh, we must stop off at The Black Farmer Shop’ when they’re travelling to the South West.”
Beyond expanding his business, Wilfred is passionate about driving diversity in the grocery sector. “There is a lot that needs to be addressed in the industry,” he told me, “but I feel like the Black Lives Matter movement has created another #MeToo moment.” With this in mind, Wilfred launched a new initiative which simultaneously raises money for Black charities, educates the public around Black history, and encourages positive engagement from UK grocers.
“I called all the supermarkets and told them that I’d come up with something to celebrate Black History Month. Two products: a pork jerk sausage and a chicken jerk sausage, one with Mary Seacole on the packaging and the other with Lincoln Orville Lynch, an RAF air gunner decorated for his distinguished service in the Second World War. I’m pleased to say that every single one of the supermarkets have got behind this initiative – even if some of them had to be bullied, kicking and screaming!”
Wilfred’s story is one of passion and perseverance. I wondered if there was a particular challenge he’s most proud of overcoming. “My whole life has been a challenge,” he offered. “As an outsider, whether you’re Black, whether you’re a woman, whether you’re disabled… it’s always a challenge. Everything that I’ve done, I’m an anomaly. And so my philosophy in life is that you hold on and come forward or you get out of the way. A great measure of knowing whether you’re alive is the number of mistakes that you make. If you can look back and say ‘OK, I haven’t made a mistake in the last three months,’ then you’re coasting, you’re slumming it, you’re only surviving. It is making those mistakes which propel me forward.”
“My philosophy in life is that you hold on and come forward or you get out of the way. A great measure of knowing whether you’re alive is the number of mistakes that you make. If you can look back and say ‘OK, I haven’t made a mistake in the last three months,’ then you’re coasting, you’re slumming it, you’re only surviving. It is making those mistakes which propel me forward.”
With Black History Month now well underway, it is a privilege to be celebrating Wilfred, sharing his story, and learning about his excellent initiative to promote education around Black history. One of the perks of my job is meeting exceptional individuals, and I have no doubt that Wilfred will not only make a tangible difference to diversity within the grocery sector, but also inspire the next generation of change makers.