My first boss: Meet the ex-army captain behind the UK's ambitious farm of the future

·4-min read
Scotsman David Farquhar has turned from chef to agritech entrepreneur with IGS Farming. Photo: Duncan McGlynn
Scotsman David Farquhar has turned from chef to agritech entrepreneur with IGS Farming. Photo: Duncan McGlynn

David Farquhar, a former army captain turned agritech entrepreneur, is the CEO of Scottish-based Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS), which has a vision to revolutionise the indoor farming and growing market.

Farquhar originally trained as a chef, before joining the army and then starting his own software company, and has since led, invested in, built, and sold various early-stage companies. He originally retired back in 2016 before being approached to lead IGS. From zero sales pre-COVID, IGS is now turning sales over £100m ($119m).

I had quite a rough upbringing in some ways. My auntie was effectively subsidising me and I remember phoning to ask her for £50. She gave me three choices: 'Army, Navy or RAF.’ Marjorie turned my life around and I have her to thank.

Back then I was a bearded, long-haired rock climber, but it was the ultimatum I needed. I went to the recruitment officers, was shown a picture of man riding a white horse up some steps at the Military Academy at Sandford, and said ‘I’ll give that a go’.

I was a massive underperformer, but as I didn’t have any qualifications, it didn’t really matter. I was soon a rookie second lieutenant in the army and my first squadron commander was called Crawford Harvey.

He was an officer commanding a squadron of the Royal Corps of Transport (RCT) in Colchester, Essex, when I joined in 1982. Crawford really set the bar which many others failed to reach later on in my career.

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Every morning the squadron had to firm up in three ranks. He would do an inspection and would never look at the boots. They were supposed to be polished to a high standard, but Crawford took a different view. If we were spending our days under or driving a truck, the last thing that mattered was having shiny boots.

He was practical, understood and cared about the men, had a sense of humour and was not one to tell you what he was doing — he just did it. After Crawford, the next guy who I served under I wouldn’t give the time of day and was purely interested in his own career. And so I got off to a flying start thanks to Crawford.

I’ve recently been reading a book by Robert Macfarlane and what it means to ‘understand’. I’ve drawn to the phrase, ‘I will stand underneath you and elevate you’.

The cap badge of Sandhurst says ‘Serve to lead’. Well, I am now a servant in my company today. I don’t have a degree or have technical skills. The set I bring is simply leadership.

My job is to bring around me the skills and talents that I don’t possess. We do roughly 60 different ways or professions at IGS. And one of them is to be a leader and it was Crawford who taught me that. My job is to make them successful and we tell our staff ‘to proceed until apprehended’.

IGS has a vision to revolutionise the indoor farming and growing market.
IGS has a vision to revolutionise the indoor farming and growing market. Photo: Duncan McGlynn

The company was founded by Sir Henry Ackroyd, a Aberdeenshire man who wanted to do his farming 12 months a year. He needed artificial lighting and the company grew from there. From lockdown, we have gone from 25 people to 185 staff.

As well as being a chef by trade, I’m a mountaineer by habit. And so ‘feed the world meets climate change’ was something I was willing to come out of retirement for in 2018.

We are now building farms for farmers across four continents. We have gone from zero before lockdown to £100m cumulative sales. We have a backlog of over 200 to build and it’s incredibly exciting.

We are disrupting international food trade by growing things locally rather than shipping continent to continent, which is wasteful and polluting. There are genuine opportunities here and that’s what we have jumped on the back of.

Read more: My first boss: Anne Boden, CEO and founder of Starling Bank

Our position in the world is unique. We do one thing, to deliver platforms that create ideal climates for plants and and our farmers can do everything from flowers to perfume, from weekly greens to seedlings for reforestation.

I recently approved a first apprentice scheme, which is a big investment. I think Crawford, who I've lost touch with, would be proud of that and I just hope I have lived up to his expectations.

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