Inspired by a farming book from 1940, a musician, a TV presenter and a financial guru are bringing their modern take on regenerative agriculture to the masses
The sweaty nightclubs of Ibiza are not somewhere you would expect talk to turn to agriculture. Yet this is exactly what happened when former TV presenter George Lamb met Groove Armada’s Andy Cato in 2013. There on the Balearic isle, the seed for Wildfarmed was sown.
Cato was looking worse for wear – “not Ibiza exhausted, like, real, existential exhausted”, Lamb recalls. Cato had sold the publishing rights to his songs to buy a farm in the south west of France – and so far, it was proving a disaster. The land was “absolutely knackered” and he was on the verge of bankruptcy.
The two kept in touch until, one day, Cato came across Albert Howard’s 1940 book An Agricultural Testament. “The basic thesis of the book is that plants and animals have developed over millennia working in symbiosis,” says Lamb. “When you put them together, you get a perfect solution. And when you separate them, you create loads of problems.”
“Regenerative agriculture, if it’s pulled off globally, is a silver bullet that everyone will benefit from”
Cato began to put into practice the book’s regenerative farming principles, introducing cattle to graze the fields. The farm flourished. Cato won a prize for the most innovative farm in France and was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole for exceptional contributions to agriculture – making him, as Lamb puts it, “basically a farming knight”.
Soon, Lamb approached old friend Edd Lees about the project. They mulled the potential to scale up the regenerative techniques of Cato’s French farm. Lees – a finance guru who had spent more than 20 years working in financial markets and derivatives in London – quickly saw the methods as “literally a silver bullet that everyone will benefit from”.
And so the trio founded Wildfarmed in 2020. They agreed on the core of the initiative: a set of third party-audited regenerative standards that boil down to “farming with nature, not against it”. That means avoiding insecticides, fungicides or herbicides, covering bare soil at all times, integrating livestock into fields and more. Then, work began to build a network of farmers who would abide by those principles. Today, 99 farms in the UK and eight in France have signed up.
The key aim is to “bring life back” into food production, says Cato. That spans everything from life in the soil and the microbes, “which is essential for healthy nutrition and resilience against droughts, flooding and so forth”, to life in the farming communities, “who have been pushed to within an inch of their lives by a very extractive and linear model” he says.
As Lees points out, farmers carry all the risk in the typical agricultural model. “They don’t know how much it’s going to cost them at the beginning of the year to produce the thing they’re going to sell. They don’t know how much of the thing they’re planning to sell they’re going to get. And they don’t have any control over the price. I couldn’t design a worse business model,” he says.
“So we said, from the bottom up, how do we reduce some of the known unknowns for farmers?”
A key solution for Wildfarmed was to pay farmers a guaranteed premium agreed well in advance. It’s “a process rather than a magic wand”, admits Cato. “But the key thing is, let’s fix the price before they put the seed in the ground, so they know what they’re getting.”
AC: Second trombone in the colliery band; played piano in a Phil Collins-themed bar; DJ; farmer
EL: Market stall in Leeds at age 15; finance in London; now chief mole whacker at Wildfarmed
GL: Selling hamburgers at my vegetarian school; managed DJs and bands; TV presenter; briefly had a restaurant; set up a charity doing nature-based learning in schools; Wildfarmed
AC: John Kempf. A very unique combination of an incredibly meticulous scientific brain and quiet persuasion
EL: Walt Disney. His 1957 business model is brilliant
GL: ‘Let My People Go Surfing’ by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, should be the benchmark for how any business is run
AC: In terms of life transformation, it’s got to be An Agricultural Testament by Albert Howard. It completely changed my life.
EL: I’m going to say the same.
GL: Me too. It totally changed my life. And I haven’t even read it!
Favourite flour-based product
AC: A lightly toasted piece of nice bread with a bit of olive oil and salt.
EL: Chantelle Nicholson’s cheese toastie with kimchi
GL: Eccles cake
AC: Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan
EL: Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie
GL: Let’s Get it On by Marvin Gaye
Selling the idea
This is just one side of the Wildfarmed model, though. The other side involves selling products. Wildfarmed takes wheat from its farmer network and turns it into flour that is supplied to restaurants, delis and takeaways. The aim is to “empower food buyers, procurement budgets and consumers” to play their part in changing the farming landscape.
Already, Wildfarmed is supplying the likes of Franco Manca, Ask, Zizzi and Wahaca. In August 2023, it took its first step into grocery by providing M&S with flour for bakery products. And in May, it’s set to become fully consumer-facing with a nationwide launch of its own branded bread range at “one of the major retailers”.
An expansion into the major mults was “always the plan”, says Lees. “Because if you’re not dealing with the five or six companies that sell 90% of the retail food in this country, you’re not going to make a scalable change. And this is about scalable change.”
The beauty is, everyone involved – farmers, buyers, retailers or consumers – can start small. “If you’re a farmer, you don’t have to move your whole farm over. You can start by doing 100 acres. We’ll help you. And very few then stop – they tend to do more,” Lees says.
That same principle is helpful at the other end of the supply chain, Cato reports. “I think ‘getting started’ is one area we’re brilliant at. Big food buyers have said: ‘We’ve never thought about flour in any other terms than price until we spoke to you.’ It’s a complete shift of mindset. So, if we can make that happen at both ends [of the supply chain] then we’re at the races.”
Nonetheless, this year’s pivot to B2C will bring many new challenges, acknowledges Lamb. He says they’ve spent “a hell of a lot” of time figuring out how to communicate directly with the consumer.
“We could have very easily fallen into a regenerative story, and at the beginning we did. We were going: ‘Oh, we’re retaining water and sequestering carbon and increasing biodiversity.’ All that stuff’s totally valid, but you can’t start a conversation with it. I’ve got to pull you in with emotion,” he says.
“When you see us on shelf, we’re not going to look like anything else in the bread aisle. We will catch your attention. And then you have the opportunity to unravel this amazing story.
“You might just want to go to the first layer, which is Groove Armada and the fella off the telly. Or you might want to start getting into nematodes and worms. However far you want to go, we’ve got something that will pull you in.”