Glebe Farm’s Philip Rayner has only just emerged from a David vs Goliath lawsuit with Oatly, but now the Swedish giant is moving in next door

The village of Kings Ripton in Cambridgeshire doesn’t often catch the eye of multinational corporations. There’s not even a supermarket on the hamlet’s single street. It’s certainly not the type of place that would feature on the radar of a $2bn company owned by the world’s largest asset manager. For Oatly, however, it became a key battleground.

In June 2021, the Swedish giant placed the local Glebe Farm in its crosshairs when it sued the farm over an alleged trademark infringement. Glebe had taken “unfair advantage” of Oatly’s trademark with its own ‘PureOaty’ drink, it argued.

It was a David vs Goliath battle that ended with the judge ruling in David’s favour. Now, reflecting on the case on a sunny Cambridgeshire day, Philip Rayner, who runs the farm with sister Rebecca, is surprisingly sanguine about the whole affair. “I quite like these experiences,” he says, drifting through an oat field. “I tend to do things that are out of my comfort zone.”

Rayner admits it is unusual for smaller companies like Glebe to engage in such cases due to constraints of time and cost. But for him, it was personal. “Oatly underestimated my reaction to it. I wasn’t having it,” he says. “I wasn’t going to be bullied by them and that was the mistake they made.”

Not that he was immune to the stresses of taking on a corporate megalith. “The trial was pretty high-octane and stressful,” Rayner says. “You have got massive preparation and you analyse every different angle but you still spend a long time on the witness stand.”

“When you are small it is really hard to do anything. You are just paralysed by the whole affair”

Rayner found Oatly had lots of “strange things” to support its case, such as an argument about the “liquid L” in Oatly that supposedly made it sound like “oaty”. This strategy was meant to show Oatly in effect owned the word ‘oaty’ by default, Rayner says. In his view, Oatly ultimately wanted to use the court case as a “tactic” to “push everybody else away by threatening us”.

Yet in the end, Glebe emerged as the winner in more ways than one. Not only did it win the case – the judge concluded it was “hard to see how any relevant confusion would arise” between Oatly and PureOaty – but it also bagged a Morrisons listing in part thanks to the publicity, and has tripled sales in the months since.

It also attracted an “amazing” raft of supporters in the process, ranging from vegans to farmers – a group not often seen together, Rayner points out.

He’s now using his newfound understanding of IP law to help others. At the moment, he’s working with a small UK company being sued by a multinational US brand that has opted to take umbrage at its products. “When you are small it is really hard to do anything,” he says. “You are just paralysed by the whole affair so it is good to pass it on.”

Glebe does still have a hefty legal bill to pay of up to £300k, but Rayner hopes to leverage Glebe’s newfound publicity to help pay it. It’s actually using this dilemma as a marketing tool, recently launching a campaign at London’s Victoria Station calling on shoppers to “help us pay off our lawyers”.


Name: Philip Rayner

Age: Stopped counting in my 30s over 10 years ago.

Potted CV: Farmer since 12 with scientific and engineering adventures in between.

Biggest challenge facing food: Climate change. If we don’t change course and ‘think circular’ then the situation now will become normal. We’re seeing serious change already in farming.

The best business advice you’ve ever been given: Make friends when you don’t need them.

Best career decision: Not quite sure I had a career. Enjoy what you do and be unstoppable. Learn a lot, find people who know stuff, ask lots of questions and rarely turn an opportunity down.

Currently reading: Samuel 17 New International Version (David and Goliath) and a secret Scientific American subscription.

Hobbies: A fascination with renewable energy and building shiny machines. Love risky fast sports like snowboarding and motorbikes.

PureOaty country

Ultimately though, Rayner wants to put the case behind him. That could well be easier said than done given Oatly and Glebe are soon to be neighbours. Next year, Oatly will open up its first UK manufacturing facility just down the road in Peterborough.

True to form though, Rayner is defiant about the arrival of a corporate giant next door. “This is PureOaty country,” he says. “We are quite a different organisation, a different style in what we are doing and we are going to continue making that position quite clear.”

Oatly’s arrival will, however, mean the end of one of Glebe’s greatest USPs – namely that it is one of the only oat milks grown and produced entirely in the UK. “Maybe others are manufactured here but they’re rarely, almost never, grown here,” he says. “I can’t think of much that is actually grown here.”

Rayner now sees another way Glebe can stand out: its gluten-free credentials. Many plant milk shoppers are flexitarian with little brand loyalty, but for those with allergies, Glebe is the only option, he says.

All in all, he’s magnanimous about Oatly’s UK move – and he sees the wider environmental benefits. Rayner explains most plant milks arrive in the UK dehydrated, almost like a syrup, before being rehydrated into oat milk as we know it (although not Oatly, which arrives ready for the shelf). The high carbon and water cost of this process means the likes of Oatly setting up production in the UK is “good environmentally… we will welcome them here,” he insists. “That’s fine.”

The lack of bitterness from someone facing a £300k legal bill may seen surprising. But as a farmer who places the environment at the heart of what he does, he is the first to recognise the positive impact of Oatly on the sector. Rayner credits the Swedish giant with the recent rise of lifecycle analysis, whereby the entire process is monitored and carbon emissions recorded. It is one of the first big brands to not only do it, but to print the results on the sides of packs. “Hats off to them for doing that. Credit where it is there.”

UNP Grocer 43570 Phil Rayner Glebe Farm028

“It is all about supporting farmers whoever they are. It’s not setting yourself up to be anti-dairy”

Rayner claims Glebe has the lowest carbon footprint of any oat milk, thanks to its use of renewable energy and biofuel and UK production. For him, the rest of the sector has much work to do to catch up, particularly in removing transportation emissions by making plant-based milks on British soil.

For Rayner, progress has been hindered by unhelpful rhetoric around plant-based milks being anti-dairy and anti-farmer (Oatly’s ‘Help Dad’ advert springs to mind). “For us it is all about supporting farmers whoever they are. It’s not setting yourself up to be anti-dairy.”

Instead, he sees building relationships with farmers as “absolutely essential” to saving the environment from the climate crisis, particularly as farmers face the pressures of rising input costs, inflation and supply chain issues.

These pressures are prompting many farmers to pursue alternative revenue steams. The Rayner siblings chose to go into food manufacturing, trying many different products – such as bread, spelt beer and cider – before finally landing on oat milk, inspired by an Italian family doing the same thing.

His fear is more and more farmers will turn to other avenues as you cannot “really sustain a business” with farming alone. Whether that’s construction, manufacturing or retail, it doesn’t bode well for the for the future of British food production.

On top of rising input costs, the increasingly unstable weather – exemplified by this week’s heatwave – is the greatest threat to British farming’s future, Rayner says. The irregularities in the weather are becoming “a little bit deeper, a little bit harder, and a bit more regular, than they were before. And that’s a major problem.”

While many farmers are doing what they can to change this, they can only do so much. The rest must come from government, Rayner argues. “We are happy to do it but we also have to survive,” he says. “And right now, it’s difficult enough to do that.”