a network of co-operating box schemes

It looks as if we will close the year delivering very nearly twice as many boxes each week as we did at the start. This has more than made up for the business we lost this summer when Sainsburys and Waitrose abandoned the company we supplied them through. We are one of very few farmers who have been dumped by the supermarkets and come out ok. Our co-op members are delighted with the change and are keen to expand their acreage of vegetables, especially as many of them have suffered from the collapse in the price of organic milk and grain. The boxes feel like something around which we can all build a future.

Rather than Riverford just getting bigger and bigger, with the associated danger of losing sight of the values which have guided our development so far, we have decided to work with other groups of farmers in different areas of the country. For the last nine months we have been helping some growers on the western edge of the Fens, near Peterborough, who are setting up a box scheme based very closely on ours. They will supply boxes in the East Midlands from Nottingham down to London. We will be sharing the same IT systems and buying seed, vehicles, packaging and imported produce together. We are also co-operating in marketing, sharing a website, and all the extranet technology behind it, which makes the ordering seamless. We are already sharing practical ideas, which are helping us to improve some of our growing, harvesting and packing techniques.

River Nene Organic Vegetables, as they are called, will be delivering their first boxes in February. If all goes well we hope to establish a network of similar, tightly knit groups of farmers supplying their own regional boxes schemes around the country. The big plan is, through co-operation, to get the benefits of scale, whilst retaining the local and personal touch of a smaller, regional, farm based, box scheme. I know that we can deliver organic vegetables fresher, cheaper and just as conveniently as any supermarket and still return a better price to our co-op members, whilst making the whole experience more fun for our customers. Through a system of trust, word of mouth, marketing and good communication we can be more efficient than the more conventional capitalist driven model as represented by Tesco and co. I hope this doesn't all sound grandoise because I really believe that through this model of co-operation we could make a significant impression on how food is grown and sold in this country.

If you know of anyone in that area that would like a veg box they can register their details on www.rivernene.co.uk and can even place an order for the first week in February. You may know someone that would be interested in becoming a local distributor, if so please call the farm on 01803 762720.

Guy Watson