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