Grower profile: BGA chief executive James Hallett

As new chief of the British Growers Association, James Hallett is intent on forging better supply chain relationships, Jack Shamash reports.

BGA chief executive James Hallett - iamge: BGA
BGA chief executive James Hallett - iamge: BGA

The appointment of James Hallett as chief executive in May marks a shift in the running of the British Growers Association (BGA). "He is somebody who is very business-facing. He is capable of handling relationships with retailers and Government departments," an associate explains.

At the relatively young age of 43, Hallett has an extremely full CV. Born in Hertfordshire, with no particular ties to farming, he decided to study agriculture at Wye College. "I used to work on farms in the holidays and I wanted to work in food and production," he says.

After college he worked for Geest, importing vegetables from Africa, and then for Flamingo UK, where he handled sales of vegetables and flowers. "I really enjoyed building relationships with our customers - the big retailers," he recalls. He then moved to Italian pasta sauce supplier Sacla. "This taught me the benefit of working collaboratively with supermarkets," he says.

Buying British

Another change in 2000 saw Hallett running a vegetable business for Mack Multiples, which at the time was bringing in much of its produce from Spain and Morocco. "I realised that people wanted UK produce. We had to look more at self-sufficiency, so I started buying in British brassicas, courgettes, roots, peas and beans," he says.

In 2008, he admits that he had "itchy feet" and set up a business with UK growers, dealing directly with retailers. He did contract consultancy and also runs a separate business, Teme Valley Growers, which operates in Shropshire and provides beef for the Tesco Finest range.

He took up the top post at the BGA - until recently the Processed Vegetable Growers Association - at a time when it was in the process of refocusing its activities. "We have a lot of exciting work to do. British horticulture is at a crossroads. One of our biggest roles will be telling people about the great things we're doing to produce food. There is hard work, hard science and a lot of investment being applied," he says.

Hallett believes that food growers have to recognise certain realities. "We have to be efficient and produce products for as many months as possible. We must do it under a British banner - provenance is very important. A lot of our produce is second to none."

However, this kind of production requires heavy investment, which in turn requires a new sort of relationship with retailers. "You won't get investment unless the retailers offer some kind of commitment," he insists. "Without this, growers won't be able to borrow money for investment, so they will just plant wheat or rape that will give them a guaranteed return with minimum effort."

Hallett believes that some sort of collaborative effort is essential. "We need joint ventures and some kind of profit share. Retailers don't need to take over the sector but they have to work very closely with growers," he points out. "There should be a firm contractual relationship. Each side has to have a sustainable profit."

He also wants to see more use of renewable energy technology. Anaerobic digestion or combined heat and power could allow cheaper production under glass and, as a result, boost the percentage of crops that is being grown in Britain. "Currently, only 19 per cent of tomatoes consumed in Britain are grown here. This figure could be much greater," he says. He is also keen to increase food security, with Britain being less reliant on imports.

The Government could play a vital role in facilitating these relationships, adds Hallett. "Defra, the planning regimes and the energy companies could all be joined up and incentivised to invest in growing," he maintains. "These kind of joint ventures could make capital investment possible." He believes that, under these conditions, banks would be prepared to lend money for plant and machinery.

Changing perceptions

Hallett also feels that there is a job to be done in changing perceptions of the industry. "Horticulture is still viewed as a place for people who are not very bright. We need great scientists, food experts, growers and marketing experts, as well as IT. We are a manufacturing industry," he stresses. "We should go into schools when pupils are making career choices. For too long we've not been very good at selling ourselves."

He does not view retailers or civil servants as some kind of enemy. "Retailers are in a competitive market - we have to work with them," he says. Similarly, he is starting to have regular meetings with Government bodies including Defra. "Civil servants are very willing to get engaged with us. I think that they are genuinely trying to help."

Only two months into the job, Hallett is full of enthusiasm. "I'm loving it," he says. "This a fantastic industry with lots of very positive people. You can't help but be carried along by their passion."

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