Graham Keating of Yeo Valley Organic in Somerset

"Organic is fundamentally a sensible way of farming - working within a balance with nature rather than trying to subjugate it through technology."

Graham KeatingYeo Valley is a family-owned dairy-processing and farming business, with four dairies producing yogurt, milk, desserts and ice cream. The company now employs 1,300 people and is best-known for its Yeo Valley Organic brand (made even more famous by the recent Yeo Valley Rap advert on The X Factor) but it also farms 1,250 Soil Association certified acres (dairy, beef, sheep and arable) in Blagdon, near Bristol.

Graham joined Yeo Valley as Managing Director of the, then separate, Yeo Valley Organic Company Ltd in 1999. He is now Communications Director for the whole company. Since his arrival, Yeo Valley has won many awards, including two Queen's Awards for Enterprise for Sustainable Development and a BBC Radio 4 Food & Farming award.

Can you give a short history of how you got to where you are now, including why and when you 'went organic'?

I grew up in the rural environment and spent lots of my formative years on farms in Somerset and in Galloway. I've always been pretty practical and very interested in food (as a keen cook), so an Engineering degree from Oxford led to a career in the food industry where I moved from project engineering to production management and finally into running manufacturing sites in Northern Foods. In 1999 I moved to Yeo Valley and that was my conversion to organic and to a much more sensible way of working. 

Can you describe a typical day in your life?

It's really hard to describe a typical day - I leave home at 7.00am and return about 7.00pm but, in between these times, almost anything can happen! Some of what I do can be quite reactive - responding to issues in the media, or to direct questions posed to us - but proactively my main task is to maintain a steady flow of information throughout the business (sometimes a challenge with a multi-site company) and to work with my colleagues to develop new stories to help communicate what we're about. I have a small team working with me - we produce our own in-house videos and photos to help illustrate what we do and I am very proud of what we've managed to achieve - and I manage any relationships with local government, educational establishments and our key charities.

We're spending a lot more time and effort to give people a better understanding of Yeo Valley and of the practical challenges of farming organically so, throughout the summer, I'm very involved in organising farm visits and talks. In 2011 we'll be making these more widely available to the public so I'm currently busy planning this programme.

I spend, typically, a couple of days a month on Soil Association matters, as a Trustee, and I also give a day a month to a small but brilliant business, Tideford Organics in Totnes,  to try to provide some practical advice and support to the team there.

Organic principles - why do they matter?

Organic is fundamentally a sensible way of farming - working within (as much as possible) a balance with nature rather than trying to subjugate it through technology. We apply that sensible approach throughout the food supply chain and it brings us confidence and reassurance in the food we eat. The principles, rather than the rules and regulations of organic food, are the things that engage our consumers and so they matter hugely. The great thing about organic principles is that, as a set of 'sensible ways of doing things', they can apply to wider business principles too. 

What does the Soil Association mean to you?

They are the most knowledgeable, most trusted source of information and guidance on organic principles and the application of those to practical food production. We use the Soil Association to accredit our organic products and processes because they have the most exacting standards - other organisations operate to the minimum legal standards but the Soil Association continues to question the height of the bar.

As a Trustee for the past few years, I'm also very involved in the way in which the organsation develops and, whilst there are challenges to be faced, it's a rewarding relationship - the people at the Soil Association make a great team.

What is your greatest achievement?

Being part of a dedicated and enthusiastic team that has developed the Yeo Valley brand from obscurity to where it is now, without losing sight of our principles; it's been quite a journey.

On a more practical and tangible front, I project-managed the conversion of a ancient barn on the farm into our off-grid, bio-fuel heated, carbon-neutral training and education centre, Wills Barn. We learned a lot about alternative energy in the process and the centre has hosted over 2,000 visitors in 2010.

How do you plan to progress in the future? What is your vision?

More of the same, growing our business on ethical principles with increasing openness about who we are and what we do. We'll grow our business within the bounds of our abilities to manage it and by retaining our allegiance to British farmers. My vision is that Yeo Valley Organic becomes a regular purchase for the majority of UK consumers, and that through it they gain a real sense of understanding of organic farming and the countryside - our activities with our Education Centre will play an important supporting role to this.

If you were starting all over again, what would you do differently?

Recruit able assistance earlier in the growth of the business! The rate of growth has meant that we have relied on the knowledge of a few of us to drive decisions so it gets increasingly difficult to devolve these to others. Better to bring people in earlier and develop them as you are learning yourself.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

Keep communicating, even when things are tough, but stay confident.

What do you love most about what you do?

The variety of the role and the feeling that Yeo Valley really is something special - the antithesis of a 'made-up' brand, it's authentic and engaging so it's so rewarding to be involved in it. The ability to walk the farm regularly is a real perk of the job.

Any unusual hobbies or past careers?

Sailing, with my wife Dianne, is my main hobby - it's the one thing that takes me completely away from thinking about work. We both took part in a non-stop Round Britain and Ireland yacht race in 2003 (in competing boats) which was the most extraordinary experience and since have sailed our own 34ft boat round Britain, at a rather slower pace.

How can the organic market be improved?

Continual improvements in product quality and consistency - just because it's organic doesn't mean it's necessarily going to be a great tasting product. There are some really brilliant organic foods on the market and some which I wouldn't buy again - because good ingredients have been spoiled by poor preparation, or by the accountants having become involved to reduce the costs at the expense of taste.

What's the main benefit of being organic for you?

From a business perspective, a real point of difference for our brand. From a personal point of view, the benefit has been that the still small and immature organic market forces us to talk directly to farmers and to develop long-term relationships with our suppliers - not something that is commonly found in the non-organic world, sadly.

What other organic ventures do you admire and why?

Riverford Organic. Guy Watson has done a remarkable job in developing the veg box scheme whilst remaining true to his principles. A walk round the farm with him should be an essential annual event for anyone questioning the principle of organic farming - and for supermarket buyers (but only if they are reasonably thick-skinned!); a lunch at the Field Kitchen is also pretty special.

What keeps you awake at night?

Not too much - usually a feeling of something not completed properly (I'm a bit of a perfectionist).

Supermarkets - good or bad?

I've had some really dreadful conversations (if that's what you can describe them as) with supermarket buyers over my 25 years in the food industry - and they really did keep me awake at nights. But equally, we wouldn't be where we are now at Yeo Valley without them so, on balance, they have been a very good thing for us. As for the organic market in general? Well, it's fashionable to criticise the major supermarkets for their actions - often rightly so - but we should be clear that without their support the growth of the organic and fair trade markets would be a fraction of what it is today. They have brought some economies of scale and organisation to what were previously very niche markets and have allowed consumers who don't have a local farm shop or farmers' market to join the organic movement.

What we do need to do is to ensure that 'sensible trading' prevails - the risk of such power in relatively few, profit-motivated hands is very real - and to work to ensure that the relatively small organic market isn't damaged by some of the activities that have been so detrimental to British farming in the non-organic world.

What is the biggest threat to what you do?

Our relationships with our retailer customers are non-contractual so we are only as good as our last delivery and our sales level per store per week. We are therefore always at risk of major decisions on range changes so it's up to us to keep driving consumer demand and to maintain the relationship with the retailers to keep them wanting Yeo Valley Organic in their stores.

What's the best thing about organic farms?

The abundance of wildlife and the overwhelming enthusiasm of the farmers (such a contrast to many non-organic dairy farmers who are still having an appalling time with milk prices as they are). I just love walking our farm, it's inspirational.

What is your favourite meal?

I do most of the cooking in our household so the current favourite meal changes. However, an infrequent treat is organic fillet steak (preferably from our own Aberdeen Angus herd) with a royale sauce (made with Yeo Valley Organic crème fraiche, white wine, onion, mushrooms, garlic, wholegrain mustard and tarragon) with the my Best Mash in the World (organic potatoes with more crème fraiche and wholegrain mustard).

If I was Prime Minister I would...

Make food appreciation / cooking / farming key parts of the national curriculum so that every 16 year old will have gained an ability to cook healthy meals, will have visited at least one farm, and will have the ability to understand the long-term health benefits of eating sensibly (and preferably organically). In other words, make the Food for Life programme a compulsory, central element in all schools; the long-term savings in health-related costs would surely outweigh the initial investment but it requires that long-term view so often missing in politics to recognise this.

The world would be a better place if...

I previously thought that a big step forward would come when George Bush was out of office but, sadly, the transformation I'd naively hoped for hasn't transpired! Perhaps the real answer isn't to expect any significant change from the top - if we all, as citizens, adopted one practical step to reduce our individual impact on the environment, as suggested by the Start initiative, we'd make a real collective impact for the better and we'd all feel happier for it.

When were you happiest?

Being reunited with my wife after being apart for 12 days on the Round Britain race (made the more special due to the fact that my boat crossed the finishing line an hour before hers!)

What is your greatest fear?

That British society is becoming increasingly isolationist and neurotic - with everyone plugging into iPods and PCs and forgetting how to converse with each other.

What is your favourite word?

Aplomb.

What would be your 'Desert Island' luxury?

A windsurfer - not for a madcap escape bid, just for the fun and challenge of trying to master it.

To find out more about Yeo Valley visit www.yeovalleyorganic.co.uk.



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