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Christoph Graf Grote – Finding the right partners

Interview by Erminia Ciarleglio, DLG

Christoph Graf Grote was born in Germany and started his career growing vegetables in the Fens and was then tenant farmer in Norfolk from 1984 – 2004, the business growing from 550 ha to 1800 ha. Crops grown were cereals for seed, potatoes, sugar beet and vegetables, as well as a suckler beef cow and sheep enterprise. He was director of various producer and marketing cooperatives, industry associations and packaging companies for fruit and vegetables at that time.

He was involved in Agricultural Management and Development Consultancy in Pakistan, Malaysia, Argentina, Syria, Gaza and Israel, as well as in Russia, Kazakhstan, Poland, Ukraine, Serbia and Bulgaria under the EU TACIS and PHARE programs, Asian and Arab Agricultural development banks, the UK Know-How-Fund and private clients.

Chris was the founder shareholder and managing director of Farmwealth Ltd in 1995 and merger CEO  in 2000 of Spearhead International Ltd. Spearhead currently farms 85,000 ha in Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and the UK and was sold to a private equity fund in 2015. He retired in 2019 and is currently chairman of the Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust in the UK.

Mr. Grote, what first brought you to the UK?

I came to the UK for 6 month as an 18 year old following my German apprenticeship in 1973, just a month after the UK had joined the EU. I then returned to Germany to do the HLS and Fachabitur at the Michelsenschule in Hildesheim, before doing a post-graduate Diploma in Farm Management in the UK in 1976. As farming opportunities in Germany without the family farm were very limited in those days, I looked for employment in the UK and started working for a vegetable and potato growing and packing company called Greens of Soham as a trainee manager, supplying M&S and Sainsbury and becoming a partner and shareholder in 1980.

Which is the main branch of agriculture in the UK?

Farming is very divers and what is the most important sector depends on many things, for example on heavy soils in high rainfall areas grass grows well and potatoes don’t, thus livestock may be the only possibility. Growing crops for a farm shop works near cities and towns, but is of no use in remote areas with no potential customers. There may be other given constraints, labour, finance etc. The skill is in finding the right solution for the given conditions and making the best of it. Trying and failing and trying again gains experience and diminishes the fear of failure, usually leading to success in the end.

The West of the UK is predominantly high yielding grassland with mild winters, warm but not hot summers and good rainfall; ideal for dairy and sheep. The East is mainly arable with intensive cereal production, as well as most of the vegetables, potatoes and sugar beet. Rainfall is 550 to 700 mm with world class wheat yields on the best land near the coast. Soils are very mixed with some good silts and sandy loam pockets, but also heavy clay, sand and fen. 

What are the most sustainable technologies you can recommend for feeding, farming and husbandry?

This depends on the local climate, soils, infrastructure, market, size and many other aspects; all individual and different to each farm. There is no size fits all. Success depends on the ability of the farmer to find the right solutions for his farm; having taken appropriate advice and training into account in considering what to do. Additionally, of course, family and financial aspects and constraints need to be carefully examined to ensure profitability. Without this, failure is pre-programmed.

You worked as a agribusiness consultant and development project director in many countries. How can agriculture do justice to climate change?

There is no simple or complete answer to this question – it is far too complex and depends on and is different for each enterprise involved. It is also really only just emerging – little consideration was given to it, for example, when the Central European countries first joined the EU. It is, of course, the most important issue of the day and the UK is trying to deal with some of it through the new Agriculture Act, following exit from the EU. However, much of what is needed has not been started or even tested yet and policy makers have only got a few answers to what will be needed at this stage. It will always remain work in progress as time evolves and we can only try and hope that progress is fast enough.

You have been “Grower of the Year’ in 1987. What is your personal strategy for your business success?

I was Grower of the Year for having started a successful fruit and vegetable export trading business. This was run as a co-operative of UK growers exporting together crops like onions, potatoes, beetroot, iceberg lettuce and celery. We exported mainly to Dutch and German supermarkets and wholesalers, but also to Italy and the Middle East and exhibited at ANUGA for several years.

I don’t think I have a particular personal strategy for business success. The key things to me are finding the right partners to work with, developing a good team that shares the vision and strategy of the business, proper training and planning at all levels and in particularly in leadership, motivation and aspiration of everyone to do better, quality over quantity and sharing financial success with all employees when profits allow.

You still maintain relations with Germany whilst living in the UK. Did you visit our DLG fairs?

I have been to Agritechnica since the 1960’s. Between 1994 and 2018, I have attended every single one with members of our team, often several dozens of them, and each time for several days. I have also attended the DLG Feldtage on many occasions, in particular at Bernburg.

When I was farming in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in the early 90’s, I introduced a number of farming practices on large farms, which at the time were new to Germany, farms in West Germany generally having been much smaller. As the German agricultural machinery manufacturers started to provide machinery that was commensurate with the size of farms, we started to use their equipment in Central Europe with great success, allowing us to take on very large farms and turning them round quickly.