Guy’s News: A co-operative partnership

I don’t much like big businesses but somehow we have become one. I like making worthwhile things happen but I am a bit mixed up about the need to control and own them. One such worthwhile thing is the South Devon Organic Producers Co-op (SDOP), conceived in a pub 20 years ago when I couldn’t keep up with demand and saw an opportunity for organic vegetables to be grown on other traditional mixed family farms. Through such co-operation I felt perhaps we could get the benefits of mechanisation and scale, while resisting the march towards ever larger farms.

There are advantages to growing veg as part of a long rotation on mixed, ecologically diverse farms, but had I stopped to appreciate the scale of the challenge, I would have stayed at home. We made a lot of mistakes in the early years, struggled to find reliable markets and to meet the exacting specification of supermarket buyers but, with the energy of youth, determination and an EU grant, we survived. Things got easier as we found the right crops for each farm, our skill levels rose and we bought the right machinery, but I think all members would agree that we would have gone under without the reliable market provided by the growing Riverford box scheme. In my more idealistic moments I like to think of the box scheme as a partnership between those farmers and you, with Riverford as the facilitator which has allowed 14 family farms to survive, and supported the conversion of thousands of acres to organic farming. It has also brought a group of farmers together and thereby made a challenging profession a little easier and less lonely.

Last week I visited Antony Coker, a founder member and now SDOP chairman. He recently bought a solar powered robot to help weed and sometimes plant his crops; I want one. He and his wife Mary showed us their crops of runner beans, courgettes and beetroot, all of which will be in your boxes soon. His staff seemed happy, skilled and engaged and my QC team tell me their quality is reliably good. 20 years on we have come a long way and the foundation and survival of the SDOP is perhaps the achievement which I am most proud of. The biggest challenge is now finding the next generation to take the reins.

10 responses to “Guy’s News: A co-operative partnership

  1. A huge thank you once again for all you have done and are continuing to do. We love your produce and our family has relied on you to produce first class organic products – you have not let us down. You’ve seen us through cancer where my diet was paramount in facilitating my recovery and a lifetime of type 1 diabetes for my son where, once again, diet is the key to a healthy life. Keep up the good work and I hope you have siblings who are training up now to continue! Thank you.
    (p.s. a tip for anyone travelling the cancer journey – the ginger beer from Riverfords is the answer to battling nauseous and gives an extra energy boost. Couldn’t have done without it.)

  2. What good news Guy, a portal of light in your worthy and admirable battle against chemical laden, harmful and tasteless, un-naturally-perfectly shaped food. You are an inspiration to us all and we love and thank you for it

  3. Your comment about the next generation worries me slightly but I think the robot may be the lure!!

  4. A solar powered robot for weeding. Wow! Does it even do bindweed? Our allotments are festooned with it.
    Really empathise with your comment about the next generation

  5. Thank you for your blogs which I find very interesting. I hope very much that your approach to farming will spread to others. I enjoy the Riverford boxes immensely and will be ordering some ginger beer for next week’s box.

  6. Please, please put up a picture of the Robot

  7. “we would have gone under without the reliable market provided by the growing Riverford box scheme”
    When I first learnt about veg box schemes in the 1980s or so they worked as a contract of commitment from the consumer: There was a subscription fee with the only variable being box size. You faithfully paid the farmer every week of the year to enable them to plan and budget. You took whatever came, coped with gluts and “hungry weeks” of limited variety, but also rejoiced in the seasonal treats.
    How do you see the relationship today? I notice that the seasonal treats often get marketed separately. And I am afraid I have taken to swapping boxes on a weekly basis to get the combination best for my household. But does that wreck the initial “Contract ” idea and ideal?
    I sometimes suspect that the 2nd best or not so fresh goes in the fixed boxes: The recent strawberries were eaten within 12 hours of delivery, but were already bruised and some gone off. But then there are also positive surprises: I usually use the spinach asap, didn’t get round to it last week and found every leaf still okay on the day before the next box came.

  8. the success of your enterprise is you and your wisdom/beliefs -I suggest you select your replacement asap and put him/her alongside you for a couple of years before risking a handover-and please carry on with your blogs , they cheer me up in a world of greedy self serving companies that sell lovely looking product that taste of nothing!-you may or may not have a large bank balance but you do have lots of happy customers-oh yes -and your web site now works reliably
    Denys

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