Interview: John Breach, chairman, British Independent Fruit Growers Association

Last year, on behalf of the British Independent Fruit Growers Association (BIFGA), John Breach wrote a strongly worded letter to the Competition Commission attacking the big supermarkets.

He claimed they were killing the apple industry, that buyers had minimal knowledge and that they were environmentally disastrous. The letter contained the sort of brutal honesty that relatively few growers would dare to display.

Breach, as chairman of BIFGA, is one of the major campaigning voices in the fruit-growing world. BIFGA now represents about 100 growers and has a similar number of associate members (packhouses, consultants, machinery and packaging manufacturers) and this year celebrates its 20th anniversary.

For Breach, the job is unpaid. He says: "I just don't want to see growers being sat on by the big supermarkets. I don't think successive governments have gone out of their way to find out what small growers think. The politicians only tend to listen to the big farms."

Breach was brought up on a farm that straddled the Kent/Surrey border. In 1959, his family bought the farm in Staplehurst, Kent, which is where he and his brother are still based.

Breach decided to go into farming. He spent two years studying at East Malling and qualified as a plantation assistant. The next two years were spent in France, working on a fruit tree nursery just outside Paris.

The following year - back at the family farm - he set up his business, JR Breach (Partnership). For the past 40 years, he has been a wholesale supplier of fruit trees, some of which are still obtained from the French nursery where he worked as a young man. He supplies mainly apples and pears with a smaller quantity of plums, apricots and cob nuts. The trees he sells are usually two-year-old maiden or knipboom trees.

He also stocks supplies for tree planting - stakes and guards - and is an agent for landscaping materials such as sleepers.

It might seem odd that someone who isn't directly working as a grower should represent growers to the Government. But he points out that this is part of the strength of BIFGA.

"It's useful to be completely independent. I can be critical of the outlets, because I don't have to worry about them refusing to take my fruit."

BIFGA's mission statement declares that it should allow "independent apple and pear growers to join together for the benefit of the industry".

Breach's political role started in a roundabout way. In 1971, he was elected to the Marden Fruit Show Society committee, which ran what was to become the National Fruit Show. "It was clear that growers needed a voice, so I decided to try to give them one."

He started BIFGA in 1988. The following year he helped set up the Bramley Apple Campaign to promote the fruit. He was founder chairman and helped raise £350,000, which paid for promotion and television adverts. "I never got paid, so I had to fit in all this work around my business. The Bramley campaign took up all my spare time," he says.

In the late 1990s, he became a member of the NFU fruit committee. In 2002 he won the Raymond Wickham Memorial Award for services to fruit growing.

Over the 20 years the organisation has been in operation, BIFGA has done a valuable job. "Some of our members have orchards of 2ha. They have different needs to the big co-ops," he says.

BIFGA runs technical days and farm visits, all of which are well attended. Its campaigns have been influential. For the past 13 years, BIFGA has demanded a regulator to control the actions of supermarkets. The Competition Commission has finally come out in support of this proposal. The organisation also championed local production long before it was accepted as important.

Breach's efforts are now being directed against farm assurance schemes, which he claims are a nightmare for small growers. Under the schemes, growers fill out forms proving they fulfil certain requirements. If they fail to fulfil these needs, they are suspended from the scheme, which effectively means they can't sell their produce to supermarkets.

"We've had people being suspended because the picking bags haven't been washed or because the machinery hasn't been maintained. Growers have to fill out forms to show their produce hasn't been genetically modified - although it's impossible to buy GM apple trees in Britain. It's a complete waste of everyone's time and doesn't help the consumer." He claims the process is making some growers physically ill.

Breach says he has no "big plan" for 2008, but he will continue to oppose farm assurance schemes. And there will be a big 20th anniversary party for BIFGA featuring drinks, a boat trip up the Medway and farm visits.

Although he is coming up to retirement age, Breach has no intention of stopping. "I see myself as a campaigner. It's a hell of a lot of work, but it's what motivates me."

CV
1964-66: Plantation assistant course at East Malling
1966-68: Works in France, studying nursery techniques
1968: Sets up JR Breach (Partnership)
1971: Elected to Marden Fruit Show Society committee
1988: Founds BIFGA
2002: Wins the Raymond Wickham Award for services to fruit growing


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