Tag Archives: Observer Ethical Awards

Guy’s Newsletter: feeling good about ourselves

Our veg boxes have just been voted Ethical Product of the Decade at the Observer Ethical Awards; wow, quite an accolade. I am still smiling. Thanks to those of you who voted and to all of you who have supported us over the decade, and in many cases, longer. I like to think that we offer a positive alternative to mainstream food production, but without your trust and occasional forgiveness it would have been hard to resist the calls for compromise, especially during the recession. Turning ethical intentions into ethical business is often simply down to taking the long view and having faith that you (or someone else) will be around long enough to see the benefit. Investing in our collective long-term future, whether in staff conditions and development, supplier relationships, energy efficiency or building soil fertility normally makes sense commercially (as well as ethically and environmentally), but you also need patience and the comfort of not having shareholders and bankers clamouring for short-term returns.

We’ve had a great start to the summer with some very good quality bumper crops. Some of that is down to good fortune (mainly good weather), but there’s a large element of making your own luck in farming, by making the right decisions through experience, good planning, being on top of the work and therefore being able to do things at the right time. In the next three weeks we will plant most of the winter crops; timing is critical and we are bang on schedule and no-one (with the possible exception of the irrigation team) even seems to be stressed; a long way from the chaos of old. How did we learn so much, collect so much skill and organise it so well, so seemingly effortlessly? I reckon doing things ethically has a lot to do with it; our staff like it and are proud to work here.

In 30 years we’ve grown into a big-ish company and at times I’ve worried that this would make us less human, less caring and a bit boring. Last Saturday, witnessing our summer staff party (possibly the best yet) being enjoyed by so many convinced me that big often is, but doesn’t have to be, bad. Scale can help you do things better; whether organising a party, logistics, or managing pest/predator balance in tomatoes. Yes, I’m feeling a little pleased with myself but enough of that. I’m a farmer and better go find something to be miserable about.

Guy Watson

Riverford veg boxes – Ethical Product of the Decade

We are all beyond thrilled to have been given this title by the Observer Ethical Awards 2015. We were up against some truly deserving competition such as the Fairtrade banana, whom we support and respect and who would have been a very worthy winner, along with Divine chocolate which I have long admired for their unerring commitment to their producers. But we can’t help being delighted that it was us.

For almost 30 years, I have aimed to use the business to make the world a slightly better place, one veg box at a time. Put simply we want to give people good, fresh, flavoursome, ethically-produced food that they can trust, produced and delivered in a way that gives a fair deal to farmers, animals, customers, staff and the environment. This means not going for easy answers (which are nearly always the ones that would be better from a marketing point of view), but looking for an informed and balanced solution to the many dilemmas we face in farming, business and food production. This often challenges our customers’ intuitive judgements and our success as a business would have been impossible without the trust and commitment of our many longstanding customers; they enable us to farm and trade with others for the long-term, as we would really like.

Vegetables are at the heart of what we do, and we are happy to be called veg nerds. As well as our four organic UK farms and one in France, we work with South Devon Organic Producers, the cooperative of local family farms I set up, sharing machinery and expertise to show that it is absolutely possible to grow good food at scale, without using environmentally harmful chemical pesticides and herbicides. Everything that we grow is selected for flavour; our carrots taste so good because they are selected and grown to be so, rather than to grow fast or to withstand bulk handling or to be cosmetically perfect. Our meat also comes from small-scale organic farmers with some of the highest animal welfare standards around. We aim for the shortest possible journey from the farm to the abattoir, with all meat handled in a totally transparent operation, with minimum processing and zero abusive practice at any stages. We encourage a ‘meat and ten veg’ attitude to meat consumption: let’s eat less of it, less often, and of better quality.

I really believe that you don’t have to be a bastard to be successful in business. Good business practice is almost as important to me as good farming. People management is not a skill that comes naturally to many farmers (and possibly not many entrepreneurs), me included, but I am very proud of having created a business that staff believe in and increasingly say is a very special place to work.

In summary, I want Riverford to be all about good food, good farming and good business; and about family farms, not factory farms. We hope to encourage people to ask questions about where their food comes from (without being preachy), and to treat food not as something anonymous, but as something to respect, enjoy with friends and family but in the clear and transparent knowledge of the journey it has made to the plate.

As far as we are concerned, the best things in life are shared, and food, good food, is the greatest example of this, and we want it to be available to everyone. It is very rewarding to have had this accolade from the Observer.

Guy Watson

Riverford Sourcing Policy

  • All produce/goods must be organically certified, where possible with the Soil Association, which we see as the gold standard in the UK.
  • We source as locally as is sensible, observing the principle of ‘right plant, right place’, so not growing veg where it does not belong. Each of the four regional Riverford farms grows locally as much of what they sell themselves as possible, using veg grown on our farm in France to fill the ‘hungry gap’.
  • We do not use produce from heated glasshouses, as the carbon footprint of such veg is greater by a factor of between 3 and 10, compared with growing, for example tomatoes and peppers, in the closest place (Spain) with the right climate and transporting them. More details on this at www.riverfordenvironment.co.uk.
  • Each farm has a cooperative or grower group of local farmers who we work with in the long term. Prices and volumes are set in advance, and we stick with our growers, providing a level of income security that is far from how many of the supermarkets operate. We work in exactly the same way with our small group of Spanish growers.
  • We never, ever air-freight anything, due to the enormous carbon footprint of this method of transportation. Anything we import comes by container ship or truck only.
  • We buy direct from the growers. This makes the produce more affordable by cutting out layers of middle men, helps family farms remain profitable, and helps make our farm to plate chain as transparent for our customers as possible.

boxes, websites & the search for a better way

Please, please send us back those empty boxes. We are even keener to get them back right now, before we move onto our revamped box range in June, making it hard to reuse any old boxes lurking in the back of your garage. Please leave out any boxes for your vegman/lady to collect and we will do the rest.

You may have noticed some weird things happening on our website recently, while we changed the mechanics underneath. Sorry to those of you affected. I am pretty sure that by the time you read this we will have resolved the problems, but if you are having any trouble with logging in or with payments, call us on 01803 762059 and we will help you.

We had been swimming along for too long with an idiosyncratic system that had evolved over twenty years, and have now moved to a more conventional platform that will let us join the rest of the world and move forward. Even with much planning and many sleepless nights from our IT crew, it was never going to be easy. But the change will allow us to do lots of things better in the future.

The vegbox scheme is our way of matching grower supply and customer demand. It gives growers a secure market for their produce (instead of having to brave the brutal open market), and brings customers fresher, tastier fruit and veg with known provenance. It works wonderfully for us and for our farmers, but makes the dubious assumption that you are all pretty much the same; clearly a problem. The web, along with savvy IT, offers so many exciting possibilities to do things better: to reduce waste, to inform and inspire you in the kitchen and to tailor our deliveries to your cooking style.

I want to share with you the excitement I feel when I walk around the farm planning recipes for my supper, to make use of seasonal food at its peak and to keep the journey as short and swift as possible. I want to auction you a boat’s catch before it has landed, to sell wild garlic and nettles from our woods when they are at their very best, to stop sending Jerusalem artichokes to people who can’t take the wind… This is hugely exciting, but to make it happen we need those clever spods in IT just as much as we need the burly farmers.

Thanks to your efforts, we have been nominated for two Observer Ethical Awards this year. We’ve made the final shortlist for Retailer of the Year, and I’m proud to be nominated for Campaigner of the Year.

Thank you

Guy Watson