The Philosopher King
“My passion is about making Britain a better place. I want to demonstrate that there is a new, modern Britain. It’s not our old, white, colonial types and the old boy network. It’s different. It’s assertive, not passive. It’s positive, it’s not apologetic.” Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, aka The Black Farmer, sips a cup of tea and nibbles on a hot cross bun in his large farmhouse kitchen. At 59, he cuts a dapper figure, all cravats and English country gent attire. The highly successful purveyor of fine British sausages under his standout brand name is a proud mass of contradictions.
The Black Farmer sausages are a staple in supermarkets across the country. They are made with high-quality, outdoor-bred meat. They are gluten free (who knew sausages had gluten in them anyway?). And they are RSPCA-approved, which means Wilfred’s business only sources meat from farms that are regularly inspected by the RSPCA, ensuring that the animals really do have freedom to roam. Wilfred, while not actually a livestock farmer, is a branding genius. Even the gluten-free element is carefully thought out: “I was aware that the incidence of wheat- and gluten- intolerance and Coeliac disease was growing in the UK, and I wanted to offer a sausage that was for everyone.” He has also branched out into numerous other products, including chicken, eggs, meatballs, cheese and bacon.
Recently, The Black Farmer released a new TV advert. It is rare these days to see an ad that is genuinely moving and superbly filmed; gone are the days when your friends used to say, “have you seen that new ad?”, and would go on to deconstruct the music, the style – even discuss the product itself. Wilfred’s eye-catching commercial features him dancing in the Devon fields around his home with a group of local Morris dancers, holding aloft a Union Jack and intoning a poem about belonging and being rooted and connected, all with highly emotive (and very traditional) music. While the poem was not written by him, and the ad was not directed by him, it is clear that his background in marketing and film directing has had a huge impact. He is emphatic that consumers don’t just buy a product, they buy into a philosophy: ‘flavours without frontiers’ is the sausage strapline. He loves the juxtaposition of being both a son of immigrants and being ardently British. He also loves the fact that many people feel uncomfortable with the somewhat un-PC label of The Black Farmer.
Moving to rural Devon, he says, as a black man who has lived in cities all his life, makes him as much of a pioneer as his parents were when they made the brave decision to leave the Caribbean and move to Birmingham. The brand name came about because, in the early days of living in Devon, his neighbours used to refer to him as ‘the black farmer’. Instead of taking offence at being labelled in this way, he took the name and made it a formidable brand. It is a name that challenges perceptions, as he loves to do. “It’s the audacity of a black guy going ‘I’m an English man’, dancing around with the Union Jack and the Morris dancers.” He says that in creating a brand that is ‘quintessentially British’, he wants to break the mould and overturn some of the concepts of what it means to be British.
Wilfred quickly saw that trying to be a producer while seducing supermarkets and the consumer, and growing a business, was completely unrealistic. “When I meet farmers round here, they say, ‘You’re not even a proper farmer. We are. We’ve been working our hands to the bone, and here you are getting all this bloody glory.’ Some of them admire it. Some of them envy it. But some of them don’t understand it. I say, ‘It doesn’t matter how good you are in terms of doing the job. You’ve got to go out and make friends and talk with the consumer.’” In fact, he and his wife do still run a farm, which produces hay and silage, and provides grazing for cattle, but as he points out, there’s no way they could produce enough meat to supply his business
These days, he is invited to speak as a business leader and entrepreneur all over the country, dishing out his know-how with the polish and panache of an experienced life coach. How did he get from a childhood in Birmingham to this point? It all started with a dream, an “impossible dream”. Escaping from the chaos of his home life, where he shared a terraced house with nine siblings, 11-year-old Wilfred would work on his dad’s allotment and dream of being a farmer. Life was tough: “It was your classic inner-city area,” he says, “devoid of hope, and the expectation was that you’d end up on society’s dustbin heap.” But Wilfred always felt like an outsider with something to prove.
“I have the attitude of challenging the status quo,” he says. “It’s either about being or belonging – if you want to start up your own business, you can’t have the attitude of belonging to a group: you don’t play by the rules of belonging.” Back when he left school, he thought joining the army might be a way out, but for a man with such fire in his belly, the army was the last place he could settle. Very quickly, he got kicked out (“I was a black guy with attitude who didn’t want to play by the rules”), and ended up working as a chef. In the early 80s, the catering industry was by no means glamorous. Wilfred is one of those people who is eternally positive: while not religious, he has an almost spiritual, karmic belief that every struggle, every step in life’s journey, happens for a reason.
A giant leap from cooking burgers in sweaty kitchens to working as a runner at BBC’s Pebble Mill is just one example of his drive. After watching BBC’s 60 Minutes current affairs programme, he decided to get into TV. He spent two years working every angle and every contact he could find, whether it was security guards or cleaners, to help him get into the BBC. Finally, a TV exec took him on – disregarding the fact that he had no qualifications – and he flourished. Moving quickly from Pebble Mill to London, he beat 15,000 applicants to get onto one of the BBC’s production training courses, and within a very short time was producing and directing. Perhaps partly thanks to his background working in kitchens, he was an obvious choice to embrace the new food and drink revolution that was taking TV by storm. He effectively launched the careers of the likes of Gordon Ramsay and James Martin, coaching them on how to appear on camera and directing them in his own distinctive hands-off style. “I liked people’s personalities to come out – a lot of TV tended to be pretty controlled, but I liked to allow the unexpected. I would allow things to evolve rather than directing everything.”
After 12 years of travelling the world and working as a ‘jobbing director’, Wilfred’s entrepreneurial spirit was burning to get away. With his PR consultant wife, Michaela Pain, he decided to start his own business.
Michaela walks into the kitchen with a cup of tea and a plate of (full-gluten) buttered hot cross buns. The pair have been working as a team since they created
their food and drink marketing agency Comms Plus in the early 90s. They are one of those rare couples who have just the right skillsets to work together. Wilfred is the visionary, the one with all the ideas, says Michaela. “And I’m more of the worker,” she says with an impish grin. He doesn’t contradict her. Their clients at Comms Plus included exciting new entrepreneurial brands such as Kettle Chips, Lloyd Grossman sauces and Plymouth Gin. As with Gordon Ramsay et al, it is thanks to their work that these are now household names. Although it was their own business, both now admit that they didn’t enjoy what they were doing, but they were living in London with two small children, so they stuck with it for 15 years. “I’d been doing it for years and years, and I’d had enough,” says Michaela. “And it wasn’t really you, was it, kow-towing to clients?” Wilfred agrees: “I look back on it and think, why in God’s name did we do that? But it was what trained us for The Black Farmer – the main event.” He grins expansively.
The Black Farmer business is now a multi-million- pound enterprise – they’ve come a long way from the day when they first bought the farmhouse near Launceston, sourced local suppliers of pork, touted their wares at freezing cold food shows and hawked to the supermarkets. Even the shocking experience of Wilfred suffering from an aggressive form of leukaemia two years ago hasn’t put the brakes on. If anything, it has made him more driven, more determined to make a difference in the world – not just in food, but in changing people’s perceptions. The fight against cancer is just another part of his journey: not only did he come exceptionally close to death, the treatment left him with a lasting, and highly visible, legacy. The stem cell transplant resulted in graft versus host disease, which means that patches of his skin have completely lost pigment. “Every time I look in the mirror – it’s a reminder of how lucky I am,” he says. “There’s nothing better than knowing you’re on borrowed time to put things into perspective. Even that, I see as a positive.”
Wilfred is a man breaking with tradition; he is drawn to eccentricity. While his background is in food and drink, he seems far more interested in the connection with the consumer than in the actual food. He agrees: “I do cook, and I like it, but it’s not my passion. My passion is about making Britain a better place. This modern view of Britain...” It is hard to hold him back – he’ll just as soon analyse you as tell you his story, offering advice based on his hard-won wealth of experience. Producing tasty, high-quality sausages is almost a by-product of his determination to push diversity, and challenge the status quo: whether it’s turning up on doorsteps while canvassing as a Tory MP, introducing different meats and flavours to his sausages, or declaring his love for flamenco and Morris dancing. Behind it all is an absolute self-belief and an unwavering philosophy. “I remember something my father said to me: ‘You can achieve anything you want in life, but it’s going to take two things – one is absolute determination and the other is total focus’.”
The Black Farmer Cookbook, full of lush, meat-heavy recipes and mouth-watering images, is published by Simon & Schuster.