Tag Archives: specialisation

guy’s newsletter: feeling mixed up about being mixed up

It always annoys me when we have to buy stuff in. In a childish, probably very egotistical way, I want us to grow it all ourselves. I would even love to brew our own beer, bake bread, run a cookery school, make sunflower oil on the farm in France and more besides. What’s my problem with specialisation, trade and scale? Maybe it’s time for me to get over it and accept that the economist/moral philosopher Adam Smith and his mates had a point; it is stupid to try and do everything yourself.

I have a neighbour near our farm in France who grows 400 acres of baby leaf salad. He is not evil; he uses a minimum of pesticides and artificial fertiliser, supports several development projects in Africa, looks after his staff well, lends his incompetent and chaotic neighbour (me) his machinery and is thoroughly likeable. Over two generations he and his family have specialised in growing a very narrow range of crops at scale, very well. He did even grow organically for a while but could not find a large enough market. The scale and focus has enabled him to invest in knowledge and machinery and to become so competent that he employs fewer people than me on ten times the acreage. The result is that when he did grow organically, he produced baby leaf salads for €3/kg where I need to get €6 to have a hope of breaking even.

So why do I invest so much energy growing 100 different crops and fighting the progression down the well-worn path towards specialisation? Outsourcing everything and becoming a well-marketed brand with a bit of logistics hidden behind would make our lives much easier, so I can’t find any business logic to support my stubbornness. I like farming, love vegetables and like the idea of you cooking and enjoying them knowing that we have grown them. It’s a personal thing, a deep-seated, perhaps prejudiced belief that something intangible is lost with each trade between grower and table. Growing so many of them for you and sharing the stories of our farmers is a part of what makes Riverford tick, so I reckon we will carry on being mixed up to the the end, however that comes.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: complexity, humanity & nature

According to Adam Smith and most classic economic theory, trade harnesses and drives specialisation and generates wealth. When combined with scale and global trade, specialisation also produces fantastic mobile phones and cars. I’m less convinced that it produces good food in an environmentally and socially acceptable way, but the same trends towards scale and specialisation can be seen in agriculture. Here at Riverford we grow almost 100 different crops and run an incredibly complex business doing everything from farming, to running a restaurant, a commercial kitchen, farm shops, a website and making home deliveries. There is no doubt that things would be easier if we just bought in stuff, put our name on it and contracted out the rest of what we do. However this would make us simply a brand and a marketing machine making nothing, just clogging our consciousness with self-serving nonsense.

I sometimes wonder why I so stubbornly resist the pressure towards specialisation and my best answer is that it does not sit comfortably with human nature, at least not mine anyway. We are chaotic, emotional beings with needs that cannot be satisfied without the variety, autonomy and opportunity to grow in our work often found in small generalist businesses. Nature is also chaotic and gains its resilience from diversity. Modern agriculture with its push toward vast monocultures is as likely to produce environmental harmony as a call centre is to produce social harmony. My observation is that the biggest push to specialisation is lazy management, but what we lose through having to manage complexity we can gain by unleashing the potential of our staff through good management.

One of the things that I am proudest of about Riverford is that we are the real thing; a real farm with real people. My brother does wield a meat cleaver and make those tarts, my other brother and sister do chase cows and I do (occasionally at least) grow vegetables when I am not writing this. And yes, I do write it myself.

Guy Watson