Obituary: Graham Forbes, farmer and businessman

Alistair Graham Milne Forbes, farmer and businessman. Born: August 18 1939 in Aberdeen. Died: November 6 2020 in Aberdeen, aged 81

Graham Forbes was a shrewd businessman and innovator.
Graham Forbes was a shrewd businessman and innovator.

The practice of placing a memento on the coffin of the departed sees objects such as favourite walking sticks or golf clubs – or even much-loved hats – accompanying the deceased.

Alistair Graham Milne Forbes, universally known to his family and friends as Graham, was different – he had a packet of frozen peas to see him to the other side. This seemingly irreverent token was actually a recognition of how much his life had been tied up in producing the country’s favourite vegetable.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Some 50 years ago, along with his brothers, Mike and John, he set up East Coast Viners to grow and supply frozen peas. This business developed into the major operation it is today, growing thousands of acres of peas and beans annually on rented land in the counties of Angus, Perthshire and Kincardine.

Over the years, tens of thousands of tonnes of peas have been harvested by large mobile viners, then frozen in a factory in Dundee which he part owned after rescuing it from closure. The frozen peas were sold in little packs in supermarkets so the symbolism of the packet of peas accompanying Graham was not only appropriate, it would also have amused him greatly as he enjoyed life and laughter.

He had a rumbustious approach to dealing with problems but beneath that bluff exterior was a shrewd businessman and innovator. He was at the forefront of a farming revolution. This saw pea production transform from producing what were described as Bertie Bullseye peas for local canning factories. They gained that nickname as they were so hard they would literally bounce off the plate, whereas the frozen peas, which were harvested much earlier in their life cycle, were far more succulent and became an essential component of “meat and two veg” meals. Not satisfied with that move, Graham then helped introduce smaller, sweeter petit pois onto the market.

The success of this operation was largely down to the skills Graham possessed, as the organiser of an operation that required tight timetabling to get the crop into the factory within an hour or two of being harvested. He also ensured the harvesting team were well organised and, critically to the success of the business, he oversaw the selling of the end product.

Graham, as a member of the family firm, also help develop another business; a large animal feed mill at Drumlithie in Kincardineshire. This now supplies thousands of tonnes of feedstuffs and fertilisers to farmers throughout Scotland. More recently, much of the power for this plant is supplied by wind turbines erected by the family

His route through life may not have been too surprising as he was born into a farming family at Kinneff and his education was provided first at Gordonstoun and then at the North of Scotland Agricultural College in Aberdeen.

His first foray into farming at the age of 19 was in the south of England on a farm in Lincolnshire, which may sound exotic but in reality it was pretty basic, with Graham even having to construct roads into the farm. A move to another farm in Essex two years later was not without its challenges; they came to a head one day when he declared that he was fed up with the heavy land that needed two tractors to pull a single plough. Possibly also missing his family, he upped sticks and bought a farm midway between Dundee and Arbroath. Omachie lies in what is referred to in farming company as “the golden mile”. This recognises that this piece of real estate is one of the most productive pieces of land in the country.

Some who only saw Graham in his business suit may have considered that he was a “gentleman farmer” but they may not have seen the same man not only driving the combine but also, clad in his boiler suit, with his head in its innards, cleaning it out after work.

But just as he worked hard, he also threw himself energetically into his sporting pursuits. With good hand and eye coordination, he played hockey for Scotland as a young man. After being injured, he transferred his enthusiasm and competitiveness to golf, where he played a mean game. He regularly featured at the top end of the R&A Spring and Autumn medals and once, with daughter Carroll, triumphed in the mixed doubles competition. He helped transform Edzell Golf Club during his term of office as captain through not only renovating the clubhouse but also by adding a nine-hole course to the existing 18 holes. He inherited a love of fishing from his father – his trips north would, in his early days, bring home a car boot full of salmon.

But the greatest love of his life was his American-born wife Cindy, whom he had first met through a friend. The fact that Cindy Bartow came from Cape Cod did not make courtship easy for young Graham, but love found a way. He volunteered as a stockman on a boat taking pedigree cattle from Scotland across the Atlantic.

Despite suffering dreadfully from sea sickness, the mission was successful as Cindy accepted his proposal. Their long marriage produced four offspring – son Mike and daughters Wendy, Carroll and Anna, 12 grandchildren and two great grandchildren, the most recent arrivals amusing Graham mightily by calling him Grumpy.

Being open and extrovert, Graham and Cindy were renowned for their hospitality and parties at Omachie are remembered for the good fun and laughter.

Physically Graham was a big man, but he was also a larger than life character.