The boy who went from an allotment in Small Heath to multi-million farmer tells David Johns of his brush with death and new campaign for the nation
Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones is a name with a ring to it – with a story to tell. It smacks of history, struggle, pioneering spirit and overcoming all the odds. From humble beginnings in Jamaica and then inner-city Birmingham, to TV director and creating the hugely successful Black Farmer food brand, Wilfred has been there, done that and got the T-shirt. He’s the self-confessed ‘boy from the wrong side of the tracks’ who finally made it with an “anything is possible” attitude to everything he approaches – even his health. A couple of years ago Wilfred was diagnosed with leukaemia and underwent a stem cell transplant which confined him to a hospital bed for the best part of 12 months. But that’s just fired this Brummie battler up all the more to take on new challenges. “I am thankful to be alive,” he says. “As anyone will tell you, a near brush with death refocuses the mind and your priorities. Many people want to take a step back. I don’t. What I have been through has spurred me on to new goals. All my energies are going into take The Black Farmer to the next stage.”
SHARE YOUR SOUL
The new challenges include the launch of his first national TV ad – directed by Hollywood’s six-time Grammy nominee Tony Kaye – and social media campaign. His Black Farmer brand which produces gluten-free sausages and other products found on supermarket shelves across the country is now said to be worth more than £300million. As well as pushing the business even harder, Wilfred wants to encourage the nation to ‘share their souls’. The Black Farmer’s #ThisIsMySoul Photo Story campaign has echoes of the Humans of New York launched in the US city in 2010 which has gone on to record snapshots of the lives, trials, tribulations, hopes and dreams of tens of thousands of New Yorkers – becoming an Internet sensation and source of inspiration in the process. “The importance of sharing our stories unites us, makes us stronger, ” says Wilfred. “I find people and their stories fascinating and enriching. I never stop learning and being amazed at what drives and inspires us. We can learn so much from each other. For instance, I’ve learned to dance and bought myself a plot of land in Spain in the heart of flamenco country! I’ve always wanted to build my own house and in hospital I read self-build magazines from cover to cover.” Credited with being the first black farmer in the UK, Wilfred’s story began when his family arrived in Birmingham from Jamaica. One of nine children, home was in Small Heath where he tended his father’s allotment. It was hard work but he loved it and set his dream of one day owning his own farm. “Looking after the allotment was great, except for going out in the cold to pick brussel sprouts. I’ve hated sprouts ever since,” he says. After leaving school and enduring a short stint in the army – he was kicked out for indiscipline – he studied at Halesowen Catering College, followed by jobs in hotels and restaurants in the Birmingham area before “talking” his way into a role at the old BBC Pebble Mill studios. He later moved to London where he was responsible for bringing the first celebrity chefs, such as Gordon Ramsay, to our screens. His childhood dream became a reality when he spotted and bought a farm while on holiday in the West Country where launched The Black Farmer business.
Wilfred said the past couple of years have been particularly tough for his wife, Michaela who has had to keep the business running while also looking after him – the cancer treatment has affected the pigmentation of his skin. But he jokes that “the business did much better when I was ill than it ever did before”. (Turnover is now well over £15million a year with The Black Farmer range of gluten-free sausages the UK’s top-selling super premium sausage brand.) Throw in writing a cookery book, embarking on a national tour of the UK to share the joys of Morris dancing and rural life and giving motivational talks to young entrepreneurs, and it’s easy to see that Wilfred truly is a great and inspirational man. “Giving back is massively important to me,” he says, “I have been very fortunate to have had people who gave me a helping hand, who believed in me against all the odds. I want to give the same opportunity to others that makes a difference now and in the future.”