Guy’s news: An experiment in benign neglect

We have started cutting pak choi, basil, salad onions and salad leaves, with lettuce, spinach and chard still a week away. In most years we would now be emerging from the Hungry Gap, but with planting delayed by a wet spring, the pack house remains depressingly heavy on imports; some from our French farm, but more from our Spanish growers, and some from further afield.

25 years ago, the hardcore veg box pioneers stopped delivering from March to June – but that wasted the lovely end-of-season UK veg like purple sprouting broccoli, leeks, cauliflowers and rhubarb that were available. Frustration with having to top our boxes up with expensive, poor quality imports, combined with my overconfidence as a grower, drove me to buying a farm in France to grow the stuff myself. Climatic research and many visits suggested that we could steal four to six weeks’ harvesting by going 250 miles south, and staying close to the winter warmth of the Atlantic. That put us in the sunny Vendée region; about the same distance from Devon as the Fens. In the end, the project has worked out well – but not without some expensive, humbling failures in the early years.

Managing a business 250 miles away, with only a very limited grasp of a different language, law and culture, has led me to question what effective management is. In the early years I would dash around on the first day of a visit giving instructions: water this, plough that in, get those crop covers off. During my visit last week I looked, listened and contemplated my purpose. The less I visit, the better the team seems to do – perhaps because they have space to grow. I am astonished by their appetite for learning and innovation. I used to think that was my job, but now I find investments being evaluated, and new crops, varieties and growing techniques being tried; it’s me who is doing the learning. Relationships and roles are fluid, almost anarchic, but decision making is fast and efficient. There is one small office, which is usually empty; most decisions are made in the field, over a coffee or a beer at the end of the day.

Could it be that the most important part of management is knowing when to get out of the way – and its most common failing the underestimation of people’s capability to find fulfilment by managing themselves?

Guy Singh-Watson

19 responses to “Guy’s news: An experiment in benign neglect

  1. Love the Permaculture moment – watch, look, listen for a moment

  2. very good article, and nice to read about other Brits succeeding in France. 8 years ago we plunged into the renovation of two decrepit buildings in Gevrey Chambertin – it was a crazy thing to do, no business logic, no business plan, just carried away by the location and a desire to do something in a wine village. For the last 3 years Hotel Les Deux Chevres has been #No1 Hotel in Dijon and #No2 in Burgundy, with a mainly Polish workforce, and little local contact. Gradually however we are finding reliable French staff, and the business is starting to feel a bit more like part of the local community. The focus of our wine club The Purple Mustard Club is organic and biodynamic wines, and in a wine village which is well behind the curve in moving to organic farming, we are promoting those wine makers who are working sustainably.

  3. Jerry Saunders

    Good blog.

  4. Very good point.

  5. Margaret smith

    Loved the blog. It just goes to show that much as we think we know best, if we stand back and see what happens we can be very much surprised . Learning is lifelong. It must be very difficult when your livelihood depends on others to let go and see what happens

  6. Well done you. Big pat on back.
    I have an allotment & appreciate all that goes into growing fruit & veg
    Especially with the climate changing freezing cold one minute & blazing hot next not to mention the rain.
    Why are there not more people like you. The world would be a better place I think. Good Luck
    Chris Joy

  7. I have no experience with farming but a lifetime working for a succession of managers has convinced me that the best manager is the one who chooses the right person for the job and then spends his time ensuring that the guys and gals at the coal face have the support, encouragement, resources and space to get on with the job. Learning not to be too hands-on is frequently the most difficult part of becoming a good manager.

  8. Thank you for your vision and entrepreneurship and all the delicious fruit and veg that are the result!

  9. Anne Birchenough

    If only everyone could have a manger like you! The world would be a better place and workers would be a lot less stressed.

  10. Kate McFarlane

    Inspiring, as always

  11. David Fosberry

    Having holidayed in France, for the last 15 years, the thing I have noticed is that they are willing to cultivate even small areas that in the UK would be left. A famous lord and business man, whose name escapes me, once said “”the most important thing about my business are the people who work for me””

  12. Yes! What a rare and beautiful combo: guidance, support, and trust. Love your blogs: refreshing, real and informative.

    Thank you!

  13. I don’t know which inspires me most, your blogs or your veg. But there’s an obvious answer to that!
    Keep up the good work; we Riverfordians benefit hugely.

  14. Yvonne Duberry

    I wish more managers/leaders could do likewise. Although there is always the threat of the grass-root workers thinking they should be managers – then you get a system where no-one wants to be led – everyone wants to be the leader. Hope it’s not so with this organisation. Keep up the good work!

  15. Dr. Margaret Lobo

    Due to the sudden loss of my husband two months ago I will now be moving to Delhi and Goa India the end of June to carry on volunteering with our Music Therapy charity. I will continue to buy organic where ever I can and would be grateful if you could give me any guidance as to how I can connect with like minded people, particularly in Delhi. I will miss my Riverford orders but will join again when I return to London. Such a brilliant organisation and I feel very privileged to be on the receiving end of your excellent service.

  16. Re: management.
    A very astute observation and I say this from my own experience of managing and being managed. People can be creative and still adhere to policy when given enough room to consider other more efficient and “better” ways to do their jobs. The leaders must also be flexible enough to step aside at times and allow this process to happen. Sure there are problems but the results can be positive in the long run – and makes for happier employees.

  17. The most important part of management is creating the environment where your people can excel. That takes courage, faith and commitment.

  18. You can’t tell your crop how to grow but you can create the best environment for them to grow at their best, people are very much the same, create the best environment for people to flourish and they will always out perform our expectations.

  19. Dear Guy, I thoroughly enjoy each of your blogs as they develop a deeper understanding for me of what it means to be a farmer and work with nature. As for management I have some experience and firmly believe that the essential role that must be attended to is the creation of an environment for success. Getting into the detail in each area of those I have responsibility for inhibits their creativity and my learning. Give away power and you get far more back, but in a different way. In the end its simple, respect them and support them and they in turn respect and support you through thick and thin. You seem to have found this too.

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