Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Farming and health

By Harry Wilder

Sefter Farm, West Sussex

Harry Wilder is Head of Agronomy at Barfoots, an international, vertically integrated business that grows, imports, processes, packs and markets premium vegetables for the UK market. They farm in Spain, Senegal and Peru as well as Britain. It began, and is still based, at the family farm in Sussex. The UK operations are LEAF certified to meet UK retailer requirements, as, increasingly, are overseas suppliers.

Almost all of all of the produce we grow is very healthy. Products like sweet potatoes, green beans and sweetcorn are right at the top of the list when it comes to health. Our focus is on those products and it’s really the health agenda that is driving sales forward. Sweet potatoes have seen huge growth in the past few years, driven by the healthy-eating trend, with a lot of publicity and social media. It does us a huge amount of good and we’re lucky to be in the right place for those campaigns. We do our own marketing as well, and we help steer the retailer agenda on these products.

We specialise in premium-quality vegetables, and we grow them in a number of locations – sweetcorn in Spain, the UK and Senegal, asparagus in Peru and the UK. Peter Barfoot set up in the UK in 1976, and started growing courgettes for the first time in the UK, then picked up on sweetcorn and drove the market on that. And then products like butternut and sweet potatoes. He developed the market, based in part on the health benefit of those products. We farm to LEAF standards. The ethos is to protect the environment and the soil, and to grow what people want to buy. There’s a lot of people growing commodity vegetables on very thin margins, but if we can produce something that’s more niche, we can then focus on expanding the market, and part of that is about marketing the health benefits.

We’re different to other sectors within agriculture. When you’re in fresh produce, you have to grow what people will buy, and in the right amount. We put a huge amount of resource into planning the right amount of crop for the market. Ideally we get to sell all of our produce and carve out a place in the market. The challenge is second-guessing the consumers and their buying habits. We have a team who spend a lot of time looking at what the next trend is going to be. Sometimes we get it wrong – we grow crops that we can’t sell as much of as we like, or we don’t have enough meet a consumer trend.

We grow for special health traits, but that’s not easy, it’s about looking at long-term breeding programmes. We link in with breeders to give them a steer as to what we’re after. For example, with sweet potatoes, we’re looking for higher betacarotene. With sweetcorn, there’s some varietal work we’re looking at to improve the zeaxanthin, a vitamin claimed to help eyesight.

I think it is a challenge for farmers to prioritise human health. Some are more innovative than others, and the ones who are really pushing the boundaries are coming up with the new, healthy crops. But is there a big enough reward for doing that? The market needs to be able to pay a premium for it.

Our soil health is variable, but for sure we’ve made improvements with the practices we’ve introduced. Cover cropping really protects the soil over winter, reduces erosion, improves organic matter and soil biology. Controlled traffic farming means we’re not driving all over the fields. And we have an anaerobic digester, so our produce waste goes into that and the digestate helps fertilise the next crops.

I can understand why more farmers don’t farm the way we do, because the economics don’t drive it that way for them. And if you’re talking about soil management, there maybe isn’t the knowledge of the financial benefits. It might seem odd that some farmers don’t value the soil, but the challenge is, how do you put numbers on it? And it may mean rethinking what you learned as a student. As a business we’ve had to relearn and adapt, it’s a huge amount of trial and error, and we are still learning. Are all growers prepared to go through that process?

Growers need to be growing what the public wants, not overproducing. I came into the fresh produce industry because it was unsupported by the Government – at the time it was the one sector that stood on its own two feet. I grew up in the dairy industry, which the Government had interfered with, and it wasn’t stacking up. Then there’s the ‘public good’, whether it’s biodiversity, soil quality, what the public wants from the countryside. Food security and pricing are essential for the country. It’s balancing them that’s important. In addition, I spend a lot of my time visiting growers overseas and I think the UK is particularly bad at applying research. We spend huge amounts on it, but I don’t feel it’s for the benefit of the farmer. There’s a big gap between what the industry needs and where the research is actually happening.

Understanding the consumer and the market, that has to be the message. However, other factors are important. For example, growers have limitations on what their land can produce and we need to maintain the amenity value of our landscape. So whilst consumer health is important in decision-making, it’s far more complex than this.