Simon Bennett of Riverside Organics in Cheshire
"So many people have no idea what 'organic' means, or they think it is fancy! If they knew how food was produced most people would choose organic."
Simon farms the 130 hectares at Shipbrook Hill Farm in partnership with his parents. They produce traditional breed beef and lamb, and about 40 hectares of cereals, which is fed to the livestock in winter. The farm also has three acres for growing vegetables. There is an organic farm shop and café, which sells a wide range of organic food, much of which is produced on the farm. The last three years has seen the launch of ‘Farm Tots’ which is an interactive parent and toddler group that do planned activities about what is happening on the farm. The farm has recently become involved in ‘Growing Futures’ which delivers an alternative curriculum to high school children.
Can you give a short history of how you got to where you are now, including why and when you 'went organic'?
My father, Roger, has always farmed extensively rather than intensively so an organic system was never completely alien to us. The decision to convert to organic was taken after I returned home from university with the notion that we, as farmers in Britain (and it's a brilliant climate for growing), should be producing food of the highest quality - not churning out commodities in direct competition with Eastern Europe. I personally have always been uncomfortable with the use of chemicals on crops, and so converting to organic looked an exciting way forward for the business.
About six years ago I had the idea of setting up a small shop - to retail our beef. We decided it should be a really good shop, where people can buy loads of different organic products, not just the beef and lamb we had at the time. Three weeks later I had converted one of the outbuildings into a little shop. Advertising was done by printing postcards and handing them out in town. Then, as more and more people came, word of mouth became very important. The shop has got busier and busier, and we now stock nearly 1,000 organic products. We have recently opened an organic café which sells a range of healthy organic soups and sandwiches.
Can you describe a typical day in your life?
Hectic! Usually starts with reading my emails, then I feed the cattle, sheep, horses, chickens and rabbits. I then take the children to school as Marianne, my wife teaches full time at a local primary school. Then if we have any school visits booked in, which happens quite frequently as we have about 200 visits per year, I will get ready for that and Farm Tots. Farm Tots is an interactive parent and toddler group that get pre-school children involved with food, farming and the environment. Then it is back to the farm for either fencing, ploughing, rolling, etc. Until once again it’s time to check the animals, put the children to bed, eat my dinner, and go to bed myself.
Who are your customers and where are they?
Everyone! But they mainly fall into about five categories. Firstly, people who are passionate about organic food and would not eat anything else. Secondly, people who understand the benefits of organic food and try to do the best they can. Thirdly, people who don't really care about organic food but just want to buy quality, local produce. Also, people with young children who want to buy the best for them. Finally, older people who may or may not have health issues and are trying to eat healthily.
Organic principles – why do they matter?
Without strong principles, public confidence in organic food can be undermined.
What does the Soil Association mean to you?
The most principled and recognised as the best.
What is your greatest achievement?
Having a vision and making it happen.
How do you plan to progress in the future? What is your vision?
I am currently working hard to expand our ‘Growing Futures’ enterprise and offer the considerable benefits to schools all over Cheshire.
I eventually would like to run farm holidays, where you get fairly minimal facilities in the middle of a beautiful organic farm.
And maybe start a micro-brewery producing local organic ale!
If you were starting all over again, what would you do differently?
Better signs from the beginning.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Don't give up, keep your head down, make it happen and enjoy it!
Who or what's your biggest inspiration?
What is the key to your success?
I don't consider myself successful yet, as I haven't got to where I want to be!
What do you love most about what you do?
Talking to customers.
What keeps you awake at night?
Ideas, too many of them!
What do you find most frustrating about what you do?
Not having enough capital to carry out the ideas I have, and not being able to duplicate myself!
How can the organic market be improved?
Information. So many people have no idea what 'organic' means, or they think it is fancy! If they knew how food was produced most people would choose organic.
What's the main benefit of being organic for you?
I believe in it. It is easy to sell a product you truly are passionate about.
What other organic ventures do you admire and why?
I admire the Duchy Brand as it champions quality.
Supermarkets – good or bad?
Bad Bad Bad!!! The single biggest cause of the lowering of the quality of food in this country. They also destroyed the agricultural sector because they have too much power.
What is the biggest threat to what you do?
Red tape, money, GM crops: I feel very strongly about the integrating of GM crops in the UK. Does anyone have any idea of the impact this could have?
What's the best thing about organic farms?
They produce organic food. Not trying to be funny but it's true! Closely followed by the fact they are more in harmony with nature, not against it.
What's the best thing about organic food?
Tastes better, smells better, and is better for you.
What is your favourite meal?
Beef Wellington, with roast potatoes, sprouts, broccoli, leeks in a cheese sauce, and purple carrots.
If I was Prime Minister I would...
Switch all the lights off at night along the roads. Junctions can be lit but not straight bits of road.
The world would be a better place if...
We were all honest and true to our word.
When were you happiest?
When I got married.
What is your greatest fear?
Not being able to carry on farming.
What is your favorite word?
What would be your 'Desert Island' luxury?
Beer or my wife, I am not sure!
Is the customer always right?
Outwardly 'Yes', inwardly 'No'.
To find out more about Riverside Organics, visit www.riversideorganic.com.