- Can you give me a short history of how you got to where you are now, including how you became interested in organic food and farming?
I originally trained in agriculture and worked in non-organic agriculture for five years. It might sound a bit strange, but I wasn't particularly interested in organics as such, but it was the inspection role that appealed to me, being based from home and inspecting a wide range of both farms and processing operations. However, within a couple of years of working for the Soil Association and seeing 'organics in action', I became fully convinced that it is the right way to go. It was also at this point that we decided to eat pretty much 100% organic at home for the benefit of our family health, the environment and for animal welfare.
- Can you describe a typical day in your life?
The wonderful part of an organic inspector's job is that there is never a 'typical day'. One day you could be on a beautiful coastal farm in Cornwall inspecting beef and sheep, the next day in the smart offices of an Oxford Street organic wine importer. In the last few years, the variety of the role has become even greater with the introduction of aquaculture (fish farming such as salmon), health, beauty and skin care products and textile organic standards. Most of our work is UK based, but we also inspect in off-shore destinations. We typically do around 210 inspections per year, so we have to be very well organised.
- What qualities and skills do you think make a good Inspector?
Obviously a good understanding of the food and agriculture industries, both the technical understanding, including legislation, and the practical operation. Good problem solving skills, good observational skills and excellent interpersonal skills are also important. Added to this are good IT and typing skills, good time management and organisational skills (for planning and arranging inspections), and you have your ideal inspector.
- What made you decide to become an Inspector?
The appeal of such a varied and interesting role, which encompassed both agriculture and processing but also not having the daily trudge of travelling to the same place of work and doing the same job everyday. Being home based also has a number of advantages, including the freedom to plan one's own work and manage one's own time. It is a bit like being your own boss, but with the security of being employed.
- What does the Soil Association mean to you?
A widely respected, organic, ecological and ethical organisation that 'punches well above its weight' and has real influence at local, regional, national and international level. It is about challenging big industry and offering alternative food supply chains that benefit people, small business and local communities.
- What do you enjoy most about your job?
Variety and flexibility, working with and meeting great people, travelling to interesting places and inspecting a wide range of different operations. It might sound silly, but I once inspected a shredded wheat factory, now I suppose not everyone thinks 'I wonder how these are made' when pouring milk on their breakfast cereal, but I have an inquisitive mind and often wonder such things, and now I know! Being a keen 'foodie', the other thing I enjoy about the job is ensuring that people can trust what they eat.
- What do you find most challenging about your job?
Obviously every job has some downsides. Particularly challenging inspections are often on farms where you either identify non-compliances that require significant investment to put right, that you know the farmer doesn't have the money for, or where there are cases of poor animal welfare. Some of us inspect abattoirs so obviously we can't be squeamish. The other challenge is always that eternal concern of wondering 'have I missed anything?'. The organic consumer places a lot of trust in our inspections as we are really there on 'their behalf'. This can also be challenging at times. Naturally, we also travel a lot and have to stay away from home, so this might not suit some people.
- If you had to start all over again would you do anything differently?
I think that if I had designed a role that matched everything I wanted from a job, it would closely resemble the Soil Association Organic Inspector job description.
- What would be your 'Desert Island' luxury?
I recently saw the film castaway where Tom Hanks was washed up on a desert island following a plane crash. Watching him struggle for days trying to light a fire made me realise that something so simple as fire is taken very much for granted, so I would probably go for something really practical like matches or a lighter (filled with organic ethanol) so I can light fires and cook the wonderful foods that I hope would be available.
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