Large farms aren’t always bad – John Alvis

Dairy farmer and cheese producer John Alvis anticipates a bright future for the industry – and he’s putting his money where his mouth is

John Alvis in a minute 

Who do you most admire?

Winston Churchill. He was the lone voice in adversity with sufficient leadership to take people with him. Leadership is what we lack these days: so many politicians would sell their souls to get an extra vote; leaders don’t need to do that.

Where’s your favourite place?

We’ve got a little lake below our house, with a log cabin on it. I love to sit there, on a sunny afternoon, listening to the test match cricket (but not the latest series!) and watching the birds.

Do you have any hobbies?

I like shooting. And I’m a member of Rotary International, which takes me away from agriculture to mix with people from every walk of life. We have a lot of fun and fellowship, and do a lot of good, too.

What’s your favourite film?

It would have to be Oklahoma or The Sound of Music – the oldies are the best and I think I’m nearly word perfect on The Sound of Music.

You’ve been producing cheese at Lye Cross Farm near Bristol since 1952. How is the business developing?

We’re processing 4,000t of cheese a year. A lot is sold under Sainsbury’s own label, and we sell 1,000t to 30 different countries abroad. I’m approaching 70, so over the past two years I’ve been handing the business over to my two sons, Peter and Johnny. Our industry is pretty poor at succession planning, and I was really anxious not to let that happen.

We’ve got three dairy herds, milking 1,200 cows; Johnny is expanding to 900 cows on his farm, as well as rearing replacements and beef cattle. He’s doing a Nuffield Scholarship on how to get more from less in dairying, and is quite keen on amalgamating intensive, grass-fed cows with a cross-bred herd, grazed year-round and milked once a day using the same 60-point rotary parlour.

Dairy farming and cheese processing compliment each other well: the cycle of farming is such that when horn is up, corn is down, and vice versa. It’s the same with processing and production. Processing is a reasonable way to make money; investing in agriculture, and particularly in land, is a good way of keeping money.

What changes are you seeing in the wider industry?

I think milk production is going to change a lot in the coming months and years. As a nation we’re getting short of milk, and our business is better exporting dairy products than selling to the domestic market. Other processors are doing the same, which is increasing the pressure on domestic supplies. Milk production is the limiting factor at the moment – if I had a lot of spare cash I’d invest it in increasing production.

I think there is a realisation among supermarkets that they have to take more notice of the farming industry. We’re seeing more direct connections in the dairy supply chain, and I do see things moving in a better direction. However, if I’m brutally honest, that’s happening because processors are looking to export; if the price offered is poor then you look to sell elsewhere.

What effect do you think the groceries code adjudicator will have on the industry?

 I’m fairly certain the system won’t work. Christine Tacon is a very capable lady, but I think the job is impossible. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and farmers aren’t going to give her the ammunition she needs to do her job. I think the big supermarkets should be subjected to an external ethical audit, which should be made public, in the same way they have an external financial audit. That way you’re not asking suppliers to expose poor behaviour, and supermarkets can use the results – good or bad – as they wish.

There’s talk of more consolidation among dairy processors – is this a positive move?

I think it’s inevitable, and provided the resulting firms are not too big to fail, I think it is good for the industry. As a small operator, we need powerful companies at the top to exert some positive influence on the market. There’s nothing worse than a weak seller for depressing the industry. Good vibrant companies at the top who are strong sellers are what’s needed.

What about farmer-owned co-operatives – are they a good way for farmers to get more clout?

The concept of a co-op is a good one. However, I am alarmed at the lack of notice some co-ops take of their members – it is a long-term investment and must be a two-way relationship. Both members and the people who run the co-op must be disciplined, efficient and loyal.

I think farmers will have a greater say in the future anyway, because the supply and demand balance is certainly moving in farmers’ favour.

However, ultimate control will only happen when we’re no longer subsidised. Only then will we really be in control of our own destinies.

How much do you collaborate?

A lot. We work with a number of other cheese producers to supply a complete range to customers both at home and overseas. It’s very difficult to be cost efficient on a small scale, so we both compete with other cheesemakers and support one another.

Our relationship with our milk suppliers is really important; we aim to treat them as we would wish to be treated. We’ve always had a three-month notice period, as it’s crazy to force someone to supply you if they don’t want to. We also try to only change the milk price once every six months to help with budgeting.

We also have a farm contracting business, which is a limited liability partnership between Alvis Bros and Daniel Harding Ltd. As well as straightforward contracting, we contract farm about 800 acres on a stubble-to-stubble basis.

Sustainable intensification – is it the right approach?

 I don’t think there is any other approach. But I feel quite strongly that we need a major PR campaign on behalf of the industry. There is a common misconception that big is bad, especially in terms of animal welfare; it’s absolute rubbish.

But we have to be mindful of our markets – in our opinion the best cheese comes from grass-fed cows with high butterfat and protein levels, so we pay a premium to our suppliers, based on milk constituents. We also need to keep the environmental balance by making more efficient use of the best areas for production and protecting the best areas for conservation. We’re getting smarter all the time in terms of raw material inputs, and I think what Johnny is doing is a good example of producing more from existing resources.

What is the biggest challenge facing the dairy sector?

Meeting demand. We’re seeing developing countries take world commodity stocks off the market, and as a country we’re not self-sufficient in milk. I think we’re going to pay quite dearly for imported products in the future.

Acceptance of large herds and dealing with TB are major issues. TB is an enormous problem; we are never without movement restrictions in this area, and we’re losing productive animals all the time. The stress on the animals and costs associated with testing are significant too. It’s a constant financial and emotional drain.

I think there’s only one answer to the problem, and that’s to make badger baiting a hangable offence, and lift the badger protection. It’s the only way to get healthy badgers in the long term, with the least damage to the public purse.

What would you like to change within the industry and why?

I’d make Richard Macdonald the high priest of regulation, and have his recommendations implemented to the full. Red tape is a massive brake on private enterprise. Whoever dreamt up having to have three different crops on one farm must have been sat behind a desk for too long.

Is the EU good for British agriculture?

I don’t think it is particularly good or bad for British agriculture. But the EU’s original purpose of never having a world war again is still the key issue. The industries that may or may not suffer are possibly subservient to that goal.

You are involved in a lot of other businesses and charities – why?

I helped to set up FarmLink, a charity bringing children on to farms to understand what goes on in the countryside and how their food is produced. We’re now up to 20,000 kids a year and growing. I’m vice-chairman of the Royal Bath & West Society. Informing the public about agriculture and spreading best practice within the industry, are worthy goals.

I’m also a trustee for the Trehane Trust, which supports Nuffield Scholarships. I’m a big fan of Nuffield Scholarships. In my life everything has stemmed from the network I built up doing my scholarship in 1983; it really was a life-changing experience.

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