Sir Peter Kendall has lived his farming life in public, as president of the NFU and now as chair of AHDB. Now, as he embarks on a new broiler venture, he discusses his hopes and fears for the future of British farming in the wake of Brexit.
Sir Peter Kendall opens the door to his farmhouse kitchen and a black Labrador rushes out wagging and circling. It’s a large house with a crunching gravel drive, a big pond to one side, and beautiful views over his land, which stretches for 1,500 acres.
He’s just come back from walking the chicken sheds, the new enterprise he and his brother Richard embarked upon in 2015. A seventh generation arable farmer and former president of the NFU between 2006 and 2014, Sir Peter may be an industry veteran, but he’s a newbie when it comes to poultry.
In the kitchen, he puts the kettle on and signs a courier’s delivery slip for poultry vaccines. He confesses it still surprises him how quickly the birds grow. “It’s quite phenomenal, the speed at which we turn them around, cycle to cycle,” he says.
Kendall has four sheds, 109 by 20 metres, each housing 48,500 birds, with new Ross 308 chicks arriving every seven weeks. Each shed involved an investment of around £500,000.
He had been considering broilers for a while – previous ventures with suckler cows and sheep didn’t work because the land wasn’t particularly well suited – when he had a call from Robin Faccenda. “He rang me up and said ‘if you produce broilers you better come and produce for me’.”
Kendall liked his directness and invited him round. “He sat here at the kitchen table and was very, very enthusiastic.” Robin Faccenda founded Faccenda Foods in 1962, and is now chairman of what has become under his leadership the UK’s second largest chicken processor. The Sunday Times estimates Faccenda’s personal wealth at around £45 million.
The sales pitch worked. “We spoke to other integrators, but we are nearest to Faccenda and through speaking to people in the industry everyone was very complimentary about how Faccenda treated their growers,” he says.
SMALL COG IN A WHEEL
Working with an integrator is poles apart from arable farming, he says, and it’s something he’s still getting used to. Accepting you are a small cog in a wheel who has many decisions made for you, rather than an independent agent requires a big mental shift.
“They supply all the feed from their feed mills, they supply the chicks from their hatcheries and we get some advice and help from Mike Cooper who is Faccenda’s regional manager,” says Kendall. “We are also working with Applied Poultry as well, so they come down and give us some advice and hold our hands a bit as we’re completely new to this.
“Arable farmers have the ability to be really independent,” says Kendall. “I can have four or five people I want to sell to, use whatever products I want, and there is the sense you are in control. But in the end, it is the market that is in control and you can’t plan for a set margin or a set return.
“By giving up your independence to a large degree working with an integrator, you are buying into being streamlined and really efficient in the whole supply chain. Your integrator is managing the feed production, planning the whole production cycle, treating their growers well and making sure there is a proper return.”
Faccenda supplies the bird catchers too, so Kendall’s role is limited to having invested in the sheds, and being responsible for the birds. Another aspect that has taken him by surprise is the fact catchers often arrive in the middle of the night.
“The catchers work through the night to make sure the factory is working flat out,” he says. “If you said to an arable farmer ‘would you load me a grain lorry at 2am?’ he’d look at you as if you were mad, but that is how the poultry industry works. If we want to be getting more return, more loyalty from our supply chain in future, maybe that is the way that most of the rest of the industry is going to have to work.”
It seems like a far-fetched prospect – all aspects of farming becoming a 24/7 operation – but then again, there are some fairly far-fetched circumstances swirling around the horizon at the moment, Brexit being the main one on his mind.
Kendall played a prominent role in the Remain campaign during last year’s referendum, and although he says he wasn’t entirely surprised at the result, he can barely hide how appalled he is about the potential consequences for the farming industry.
“I think the world’s gone bonkers,” he says. “I sent emails to the organisers the week before the vote saying if the government didn’t address and wasn’t clearer about some of the key issues, I thought we would lose. And we did.
“There are two types of Brexiteers,” he says. “There is Nigel Farage and ‘we will protect our warm beer and cricket and this is Great Britain’ outllook, and then you’ve got the Michael Goves and Daniel Hannans, and ‘we will take on the world and be almost like a Singapore of Europe’ view. You cannot do both.
“A lot of farmers bought the Nigel Farage stuff. But for agriculture, all the pronouncements we are now getting from Government are about how we can be global leaders in free trade and promising people cheap food.
“I want an urgent sense of realism about the challenges we face, so I want people to stop promising we’re headed for the sun-lit uplands. I don’t know is the scale of the impact for poultry. But parts of British farming could have a really tough time.”
A Trump trade deal is a particularly worrying prospect, he says. “Face the scenario of doing a trade deal with the US. You’ve got the pharmaceutical industry wanting tariff-free access, you’ve got the UK motor industry with Range Rovers flying off the shelf in California, and the financial services sector wants access into US markets as well.
“If we’re supplying them, are we going to say, you can’t bring meat in, you’ve got to have a tariff on it? When you listen to Liam Fox, when you listen to the other strong Brexiteers, they’re talking about cheaper food.”
Embracing free market politics when it comes to agriculture is a risky strategy if the UK wishes to retain any degree of sufficiency in food, he says. Free market policies “fail to understand the challenges of agriculture that has weather events around the world, disease pressures, and big politics like Russian trade embargoes,” he says.
“This notion that farming is just thrown to the wind of all those challenges is really dangerous. What happens when there’s an oversupply in Australasia or South America? Where’s it going if we don’t have some tariff protection for our agriculture? If we scrap all tariffs, scrap all protection for farmers and have produce coming from wherever it wants to, what does that tell you about the competition we are going to face?
“I do think the challenges of Brexit will define British agriculture for a generation. I have got three kids, two boys and a daughter, and one ambition is hopefully I will inspire one or more to be involved in the industry.
“I thought the government was starting to realise farming was important, and if you asked me a year ago, I would have said I thought we were doing well on that, but as we approach Brexit and all the noise about cheap food, I think the jury is out on that.”
So what is his verdict on Andrea Leadsom? He doesn’t want to comment, he says.
Kendall quotes Winston Churchill, who spoke at the NFU conference in the 1950s, during which he said: “A country of 30 million people that can feed only 15 million is a state of majesty and insecurity that this great country can ill afford.”
It’s a powerful point. And it turns out Churchill had other things to say about the food industry too. In 1932 he wrote an essay predicting that in the future: “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
It’s a reminder the industry has to be forward-thinking, innovative and willing to change. On this front Kendall is very much a cheerleader. In fact, one of the reasons he was drawn towards poultry was because it was an unsupported sector and he wanted to try and minimise reliance on the ‘brown envelope’.
During his time at the NFU he made the case that British farming should work towards not needing EU subsidies. Now the Brexit vote means that will happen anyway. Kendall isn’t too sad. “I’ve always thought and argued that we wanted to get to a place where farming didn’t need the brown envelope.
“When I live in the middle of East Anglia in what I think is a nice house, I don’t think for me to be holding a bowl out to taxpayers to prop my business up, is very edifying. In fact, when I go down the pub with my mates, and they say ‘well you’ve had your subsidy cheque, it’s your round’, I don’t think that’s a great place to be.”
Support could be structured in a better way, he believes. “How do we make sure farmers are given the right incentives, whether it’s tax depreciation on buildings for example or making sure the right investment is going into technology? As demand for labour increases, as the sector expands, I think the government does need to find a way of helping us invest and develop more robotics, more technology. If you’re a farmer with over 1,000 acres and live in a nice house on it, to expect the taxpayer to subsidise your life is I think, a challenge.”
Indeed. In a time of austerity, when schools and hospitals and payments to unemployed and disabled benefits claimants are becoming ever more stretched, what are the chances farmers – some of whom put their children through public school and go skiing every year – will be able to retain similar kinds of benefits post-Brexit they currently enjoy from the EU?
“Even senior figures in the Conservative party are warning that any support for farming now will be competing with nurses, doctors, hospitals, teachers, schools,” Kendall says. “You will find farmers that enjoy a really good standard of living. Farmers need to wake up to the fact we are going to face more competition and less support.”
Despite all this, Kendall does believe there are clear opportunities in the years ahead. Harnessing the British brand is key to developing strong export relationships, he says. “We should be able to milk our global brand, the union jack, our culture, music, language, film and TV, the Queen. How do we milk our global brand for sales around the world?”
“We have traceability systems in place that are second to none around the world, and that ability to brag about our traceability throughout the food chain is important particularly in countries like China where animal welfare would be low down on their list of priorities but food safety would be right at the top.”
Further sharpening up the whole chain will also be important. “We can create agricultural policy that is more geared towards how we become more efficient and more competitive, we can also focus 120% on supplying what consumers want when they want it.”
He talks about innovation, competition and technology with enthusiasm. “How do we make sure we are producers of preference for 65 million British people so they don’t have to go scavenging South America for the sake of saving 5p? Is it becoming so efficient that we are loading out in the middle of the night? If consumer wants more enrichment in the sheds, that’s what we’ll do, and if they want windows in sheds, that’s what we do.”
However, retailers need to support British farming if they want to ensure the product is still there in the future, he says.
“There is a lot of investment going into making sure we’re getting welfare right, we’re getting the right staff on farms as well, and I think the blockage to all of this, if we’re not careful, is retailers, wanting to shave 5p here, 10p there, and investment is expensive. This is a big capital investment, and if retailers want to have that local supply of fresh British chicken, they need to make sure it’s not always the one area they’re trying to beat each other up over.
“And when the German discounters can be as loyal as they are being to British meat, it is fantastic, hopefully it gives a lead to other retailers who are seeing what’s happening, seeing how consumers are moving to the discounters.”
For now though, Kendall has more immediate priorities. He needs to get back to his chickens and he has meetings to attend.
He’s keen to emphasise that while the future is uncertain, the food industry should make hay while the sun shines. For the time being, the going is fairly good. “We do have a weak currency, we do have access to the single market, we do have continued support, so it is a relative honeymoon period for the next two or three years. Make the most of it,” he says. “For parts of British farming, there is a shit-storm to come.”