french floods + fair trade

I am writing this in a bar in the Vendée, taking refuge in a mid-morning Ricard from the deluge that has stopped planting for the day, with even the light sandy soils of our French farm becoming too sticky to work on. Despite being only 250 or so miles south of Devon and only marginally warmer, the famous Vendée light gives plants an extraordinary vigour. The first Little Gem lettuce we planted a month ago under mini cloches will be ready for harvest in March, when in Devon we will have barely started planting.  This farm is our ploy to beat the ‘hungry gap’ that plagues us each year from April to June.  Our first year was a commercial disaster, with bad weather and inexperience resulting in a series of crop failures and cost overruns,  so I am reassured to see the crops looking well, the staff happy and the machines working with metronomic precision.

Fair Trade + trading fairly

Riverford has come a long way from when I started with a wheelbarrow and borrowed tractor 25 year ago, selling to local shops. But I will never forget the value of honest, reliable customers who pay their bills and don’t exploit oversupply for short term gain. Memories of being ripped off by unscrupulous wholesalers and supermarket buyers still linger and feed my belief that there has to be a better way of doing business. Whether in Devon or the Vendée, Yorkshire or Togo, 95% of the fruit and vegetables in Riverford’s boxes is grown by farmers on long term contracts, with prices agreed before planting.  Most of these growers we know personally and have traded with for years; we always favour smaller growers with values we share. Trust arising from mutual long term benefit is the best basis for both efficiency and fairness in a trading relationship – as we have seen in the growers’ cooperative I founded in Devon that provides the model for our relationships further afield.

In the few cases where we don’t know our suppliers so well – for example our banana growers in the Dominican Republic – we still need to be confident that growers and workers are treated fairly.  Here Fair Trade certification is a good alternative, providing an effective brake on the excesses of capitalism which can reduce food to an anonymous commodity, ruthlessly traded for short term gain.   Fair Trade Fortnight runs from 28th February.

Guy Watson from Riverford Farm in Devon