25 Years of Riverford: good food, good farming, good business

Guy Watson

01 November 2011

Twenty six years ago, while aged 25 and pretending to be a management consultant in New York, on leaving my apartment on Union Square I stumbled on what must have been one of the first farmers’ markets. Chatting to the farmers brought back the reality of the Devon farm where I had grown up and had been milking cows just two years previously; I realised I was acting out someone else’s life. The snappy suit and the partying had been fun and the work occasionally interesting, but I couldn’t keep the pretence up any longer and within a few months was back on my father’s tenanted farm, ploughing up the best field to grow organic vegetables.

Exposure to international business life taught me a lot about the brutality of the marketplace and the duplicity of my colleagues, but left me ultimately contemptuous of the emptiness of a life dominated by greed. Above all it made me determined to produce something genuinely useful and, where possible, to control the marketing; a determination that was soon reinforced by my first brushes with unscrupulous wholesalers and then supermarket buyers.

My parents started farming after the war because it seemed like a worthwhile thing to do. They raised five children in a world where food was central to everything, and inculcated us with the belief that we should do something useful with our lives. We have all been away and tried other things but have gravitated back to the farm to run various food businesses; Ben would never have cut it as a lawyer and was the first to return to start a charcuterie business using my father’s pigs, followed by three farm shops and ultimately our meatbox home delivery business. Oliver and Louise run the dairy and look after the infrastructure of the farm. Rachel, our in-house marketing expert, helps us to sell it all. I grow the veg, though while I am not seen in the fields much these days, that is where my heart lies.

Our father was an inventive and progressive farmer (and, in his own way, still is at 86) who had become increasingly disenchanted with the way conventional farming had developed since the war. Perhaps even more influentially our mother was a fantastic cook and gardener who drew her culinary inspiration from what grew around her. She baked her bread, made butter, cured bacon and regularly fed 15 family and staff for lunch. It was a huge privilege to grow up in a house where the creation and enjoyment of such wonderful wholesome food was an integral part of daily life. A desire to grow good food and share it is at the heart Riverford and all our businesses.

Business development

I started growing on the best three acres on the farm in 1986 with a wheelbarrow and borrowed tractor, delivering to local shops and restaurants out of the back of my trusty 2CV. That first field was certified organic in the second year, but most of my early customers were more concerned that the veg was fresh and local. My first advice to anyone starting a farm business, and in particular those thinking of fruit and vegetables, is to pick the right site. The view might be charming but when you are bent over pulling leeks in the rain in January it’s the quality of the soil that counts; spend plenty of time with a soil auger and spade and talk to the neighbours before investing your money, time and love in a site; the wrong one will break your heart as well as the bank balance.

Very few people start and grow a business without making personal sacrifices; I was incredibly determined and more than a little obsessive. For the first five years my head was down and my back bent, and every penny was invested back into the business as I took on more land and expanded from local shops to wholesalers in London and eventually supplying the supermarkets. My second piece of advice is to know your limits; no-one can or should work like that for long. The insane hours kept me largely celibate and sober while my friends were raving, socialising and living a more balanced life. Fortunately as I started employing good staff who complemented my weaknesses I was able to ease off a little. I could never have worked for anyone else, but running your own business is not for everyone; I think you have to be a little bit unhinged to take the risks and make the sacrifices that are needed. It really helps to have a supportive family; the odds are stacked against you if the venture does not enjoy the support of those close to you.

For twenty years the business grew relentlessly at anywhere between 30-80% a year, from sales of £6,000 to £35m; from just me to 400 staff, from my 2CV to a fleet of articulated trucks plus 90 franchisees with a fleet of 200 vans delivering to 40,000 customers a week; from a sign drawn by my mother to a marketing department of 12; from tatty accounts books on the kitchen table and a wodge of notes in my back pocket to an accounts and IT team of 17.

Many people have asked, why did it have to so big? To this day I am not sure what kept pushing me on. It was definitely not greed; I have never been much interested in money, but I was pretty uncompromising and not everyone thought it was great. I fell out with neighbours and family, and some organic growers thought I was the devil incarnate as we grew. Perhaps I was urged on by a need to prove something, though who to I am not sure. Mostly it was the excitement of making things happen and I am convinced this, more than money, is what drives most entrepreneurs. Looking back I can see that through that period of manic growth I made compromises and mistakes but for the most part I am very proud of the way the business developed. My only real regret is a personal one, in that those close to me were neglected at times.

Reaching out

The achievement I am most proud of is founding an organic producer’s cooperative in 1997. In retrospect it was an absurdly ambitious project, but 15 years on eight of the nine original members remain, and have been joined by nine more. There are now 1,500 acres of organic vegetables grown between them across South Devon and Cornwall. Most have become expert growers and it is truly amazing how efficiently and happily it all works. We are completely dependent on the co-op’s veg for our box scheme and they are completely dependent on us for a market. Within two years I had been voted off the board which made me furious at the time, but in retrospect I can see that the power was too one-sided; I was soon wrapped up in other projects anyway so that too was for the best.

In 2001, after an unsuccessful bid to supply Waitrose and Sainsbury’s directly, we decided to withdraw from supplying supermarkets and wholesalers too. Largescale conventional growers were being forced to convert to organic by supermarket buyers, and I could see the writing was on the wall for medium scale suppliers on steep fields 250 miles from the main packhouses (ie Riverford and our co-op). The box scheme, now in its eighteenth year, was growing well and we decided to put all our development effort into growing sales where we could control our own destiny. It was the right decision at the right time and within three years we had grown box sales sufficiently to show Sainsbury’s the door just before they showed it to us; what a pleasure that was.
By 2005, sales had outstripped supply and I was getting increasingly concerned about the ludicrousness of trucking veg from Devon to Kent. I came up with the plan of a family of box schemes sharing marketing, IT, accounts and technical skill but operating at a more local scale with 20 or 30 staff and a group of local growers supplying the veg. It was an attempt to get the benefits of scale but retain the humanity and flexibility of a small business. In 2005 the first of five regional box schemes was started on the edge of the Fens with a local farming partner. This was repeated in Yorkshire, Hampshire and Cheshire with mixed success. Choosing the right partners and gaining their trust proved problematic, there were some fundamental flaws in the plan around control and complexity (particularly in IT) and then we had to deal with the downturn in the organic market.

Tough lessons

In 2007 it all very nearly came crashing down. Since my days as a management consultant I was convinced that business was just the application of common sense on a large scale. Success had brought complacency; I thought I could walk on water and make almost anything happen by force of will, but we lacked the basic systems of management and control that sadly (for someone with anarchic tendencies) become essential in a company of our size. Reluctantly I have had to admit that common sense was not enough; we needed professionals. Since then, after four years of static and even declining sales and little or no profit, the business is in much better shape with budgets, job descriptions and all the rest; I hate most of it but on the whole it works. We are growing, albeit modestly and are once more making small profits. In retrospect we should have been more cautious in our expansion. I remember giving a talk at a Soil Association conference in 2006 saying that change is inevitable and the good days would not last; shame I did not heed my own advice, but then again when I was a management consultant I never thought anyone would be stupid enough to listen to me.

Since the profits dried up I have had to be more cautious with my crazy ideas. This can be a bit boring and I do worry that, with all those professionals and their systems we are becoming too inward-looking and are not trying enough new things. Then again, had I been left to my own devices we would have gone bust by now; there has to be balance.

Over the last few years I have spent a lot of time cooking with customers, trying to understand why so many eat so little veg, despite professing to love it. The reality is that many people love us and what we stand for more than the veg in the boxes. We have to make cooking seasonally and locally easy. We also have our own successful restaurant and I have found time to co-write two cookery books (Jane Baxter, our head chef at the Riverford Field Kitchen wrote most of them) and a few weekly rants. I now spend a fair bit of my time on our farm in France growing veg for the boxes that cannot be grown at home. The phone seldom rings and it’s the only way I get to spend any time in the fields, which is still what I enjoy most.

The future

For 25 years I have shaped Riverford, largely according to the values I inherited from my parents. I loathe meetings, have exhausted my interest in conventional business and my megalomaniacal tendencies have subsided. This year Rob Haward, who used to look after growers at the Soil Association, took over as managing director. We spent a lot of time considering turning Riverford into an employee owned (John Lewis style) business, but the staff weren’t that keen. Then we looked at becoming a customer owned co-op (still a possibility) but it all seemed a bit cumbersome and academic. I have repeatedly said that I will never sell to venture capitalists so for now we will carry on as we are; most people seem to like it that way. These days I toss in a few new ideas and get angry when I see things I don’t like, but the day-to-day stuff is down to Rob and his excellent team. We have spent a fair amount of time navel gazing in an attempt to get everyone pointing in the same direction and the best summary we could come up with for Riverford is thus; good food, good farming, good business.

A neighbour recently admitted to me that back in 1951, when my college-fresh father took on the tenancy of Riverford Farm, he had been convinced that he would not last five years with his ‘new-fangled ideas’. When I returned and started growing organically they all thought I was mad and had visions of me hoeing endless rows of mangels. The biggest change was when the crops starting looking good and I bought a Land Rover. Farmers the world over are, on the whole, an excessively conservative bunch. They advance in small steps, only following what they can see works with their own eyes, particularly if practised by someone like them on a farm like theirs. If the organic movement wants to influence the wider agricultural world, we must be seen to be successful (commercially and in the crops we grow) and be willing to at least pretend to be a bit more like them. I am a fine one to talk, but we should also try not to alienate them and not be too lofty about how the world should be; the solutions have to be practical and at a farm level.

Guy Watson, is the founder of Riverford Organics. He started his box-scheme business in 1986 and it now delivers to 40,000 customers a week, and includes farm shops, a field kitchen and a farm in France.

This article was first published in Mother Earth, the Soil Association's journal of organic thought and policy. We hope you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share this with your contacts. If you wish to support the production of Mother Earth in future, and receive the latest issue direct to your door, then please subscribe to Mother Earth, for just £12 a year.

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