June 8th, 2023 Online Retailers

Online Retailers: Guy Singh-Watson (Riverford Organic Farmers)

Guy Singh-Watson kicks off a new series of videos featuring retailers that use online marketplaces that, in this case, deliver organic raw fruit, vegetables and meat largely from small scale independent farms, in planet-friendly packaging. Guy founded Riverford Organics, over 30 years ago. What started as one man delivering homegrown organic veg to friends, has now become a national veg box scheme delivering to around 50,000 customers a week. Guy has always believed that organic food should not be elitist, but accessible for everyone. He sources pork from Helen Browning. Her rare-breed saddleback pigs enjoy an active, outdoor life, raised to Soil Association organic standards. Watch the video and give it a like and a share:

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The best way to understand Guy’s story, from his childhood on his parents farm in Devon, to founding Riverford which in 2018 became employee-owned, is to watch this 2022 ICAEW documentary, Starting a £100m business from scratch.

Guy’s interview for the film is transcribed below:

“My parents brought us up to believe the most important thing you could do was to be useful. For me that meant mucking out the pigs and driving a tractor from a very early age, and that’s how you got approval and status.

I did go to Oxford to study Agriculture and surprisingly to many including myself, got a First. I came back to the farm and began milking the cows again at the weekend, and it became apparent that I was just excessively independent, and I wasn’t going to farm in partnership with anyone, not with my brother, not with my parents.

So I left, I went and bought myself a snappy suit and got a job as a management consultant, and there I was giving strategic advice to ICI’s Marine Chemical Division three months after I was mucking out pigs and milking cows. But I was just a fish out of water really.

I came back to the farm in 1986. My Dad had been mainly a dairy farmer. He’d been selling this white stuff that a truck came and picked up and took away, and was sold in the supermarket, nobody knew where, or at what price or whatever, it was a commodity.

I’d seen him on the verge of bankruptcy for decades, and combining that with what I’d learnt as a management consultant, which was really, anyone who thinks that just by being the most efficient producer that will guarantee your future, there is always someone who can produce it cheaper, somewhere in the world.

The only security really comes from being in control of your own market. There was already a nascent market for organic food particularly in the town of Totnes where I grew up, which was vey alternative, very green. I went round and spoke to a few organic growers. The philosophical commitment to organic really came later though. I have to say when I started it was a way of avoiding being a commodity producer more than avoiding the pesticides.

Over the years I’ve become more and more committed to the whole philosophy that we share this planet not just with 7 billion other people, but with countless organisms, and I want to be a part of that, I don’t want to be sitting above it, dominating it and destroying what’s there.

You know in the early years it was incredibly tough. Most successful entrepreneurs are a bit bonkers actually, there’s something inside them, a deep, deep insecurity in my experience. So when I started I had no idea where I was going. The first twenty years of business was just trial and error really, and a burning need to prove myself and get my father’s approval, which I finally did get when he was on his deathbed. ‘You’ve done well, son,’ he said.

I’ve always been fascinated by what motivated people, and the assumption is that the only thing that motivates people is self-interest, greed, avarice. And its just so untrue. So if its not greed, what is it? How can we incorporate that motivation into a better, more holistic management structure?

They moved towards employee ownership and I was quite inspired by the John Lewis Partnership, and I met the Chairman at that time who was quite inspirational and that was the route we chose to go down.

The best decisions made within businesses are made by the people who are closest to the action. As we approached employee ownership, together with some of the senior managers, we embarked on a cultural change. You don’t get the benefits of employee ownership just because they’re sharing in the profits. You know, the important thing is that they share in determining the future of the business, and they are involved.

So since we became employee-owned, decisions tend to be made much more locally to the people who are actually affected by those decisions, even quite substantial investments. And I think that leads to better decisions on the whole. Riverford doesn’t feel any more cumbersome, or slower, or less sleight of foot as a result of becoming employee-owned.

I think in terms of maturity, how a business develops, you know, right at the beginning you need mavericks like me who are just willing to tear everything up and do it in a different way, and probably cause havoc all around them, and probably quite damaging in many ways, willing to take risks, and very fleet of foot, making loads of decisions, coming up with lots of new ideas.

But as the business develops, and normally the market that you’re in develops and matures, it becomes more about incremental, iterative improvement, and at that point the likes of me have to know when to step aside.

When people join the board my first thing is to say I’m not paying you to say yes, I expect you to challenge, you have a different experience, we’re a very narrow business, we want you to challenge us.

Actually I would say prior to employee ownership it was almost all men of a certain age, it was macho. Other people came in to give presentations to the Board and would be torn apart. I look back on it with great regret and some embarrassment. I knew something was wrong and we employed a coach, she had been an opera director actually, and the culture did start changing.

Nye Bevan, the Founder of the NHS in 1947 came up with the concept. It was essentially that we are stronger together, that we should look after each other, and I think exactly the same happens within business. Its very important that people look after each other rather than feel that they’re competing with each other all the time.

And I really feel that that can be the basis of a strong business. I think if you asked most of the owners of Riverford, they would say its better than its ever been.”

Helen Browning

Helen Browning OBE, doyenne of the organic farming movement for a generation, is an inspiration to farmers and to all of us, a living embodiment of the virtues of organic farming – the nourishing of soils, the respect it gives to animals and the delicious healthy and nutritious food it provides. She has been a leading figure at the Soil Association for decades, and the Chief Executive since 2011.

Helen took over running Eastbrook Farm from her father in 1986 and started a gradual conversion to organic, one field at a time. Her aim from the start was to try to connect directly with people who choose organic out of respect for healthy food from happy animals and flourishing, bio-diverse soils.

“Alongside the enterprises that were already here, we started to keep both pigs and chickens, to show that it was feasible to give these animals a good life,” she says. “If we want to eat meat, then we should ensure that animals not only avoid suffering, but have some fun too.”

Helen’s book, co-written with her partner Tim Finney ‘Pig – Tales from an organic farm’ featuring Miss Messy Bed and other notable matriarchs that survived a long harsh winter to wean their piglets the following spring, has had warm praise from, among others, Monty Don, Pru Leith Jonathan Dimbleby and Jonathon Porritt.

The farm now has 200 acres of cereals and pulses, two dairy herds, a beef herd, 300 Romney ewes, 35 British Saddleback sows, and a flock of laying hens, all living healthily and happily in the generous outdoor space that the Soil Association Organic standards require.

Helen’s father Bob had tried as hard as he could to keep up with the developing trends of the time, increasing fertiliser and pesticide use, and digging up hedgerows to enlarge the fields and make mechanised cultivation more efficient.

‘The trouble was yields increased, but wildlife started to vanish”, says Helen.

While studying at agricultural college her misgivings about this type of farming deepened further. A visit to an intensive pig farm was the last straw; the pigs she saw were kept in desperately brutal conditions, sows confined in barren steel cages too narrow for them to even turn around, and the stressed, miserable pigs needing routine doses of antibiotics just to keep them alive in the overcrowded, unhealthy animal factory.

“Seeing it in the flesh, the sow stalls, the farrowing crates and sweat boxes, and to have this presented as ‘the way’ was deeply disturbing,” Helen says. She left the college convinced that there had to be another way; this could never be the future of farming.

“We hardly ever use antibiotics here, because the piglets don’t get ill. They have that early contact with clean soil, freshly rotated fields, so they don’t pick up the bugs, and then they live in this stress-free environment. They are protected by their mother’s milk until they are 8 weeks old. We don’t give them sudden changes in diet, we are not putting them in stressful situations, we are not putting them in close confinement, they have fresh air, all the things that we know that make pigs, and probably us too, more healthy.”

The pigs live outdoors in family groups, with plenty of space and fresh ground to root and play around in. Even in cold wet weather the pigs are outside foraging in the grass, clover and mud looking for roots, bugs and other tasty treats. They have dry, warm ‘arc’ hutches for when they want to shelter or just sleep away the day on deep beds of fresh straw.

“I see first-hand the difference farming my land organically makes – from more bees and hedgerows, to contented, healthy animals, to lots of people gainfully working here,” says Helen. If you’d like to see for yourself, Eastbrook Farm welcomes visitors for walks and guided tours.

One of the many ways Helen has revitalised the wildlife at Eastbrook is through Agroforestry, a system where animals graze under trees that also supply them with fodder through edible leaves, shoots and flowers. Veg and salad crops grow in the shelter between the trees, which also protect them by providing a home for natural predators that feed on plant pests.

“Cherries, damsons, quince, pears, apricots, almonds, mixed berries and more. My latest folly is the planting of thousands of trees at Lower Farm. I’ve long been fascinated by some of the permaculture ideas, and how we can integrate productive trees into our farmland to improve overall productivity while enhancing wildlife, and protecting soils.”

The case for organic farming is overwhelming; it’s shocking that so much of the food consumed today is produced in ‘conventional’ systems that abuse animals, deplete soils and contaminate the environment. As Dr Jane Goodall famously said, “Someday we shall look back on this dark era of agriculture and shake our heads. How could we have ever believed that it was a good idea to grow our food with poisons?”

Helen says, “If you are an organic farmer, the manure is your gold dust, that’s what makes the whole system work. So for us having animals integrated into our farming system makes complete sense, both for growing the crops and for looking after the animals well too.”

For our filming, Helen took us to a spacious sunny field of old grass, full of wild plants and flowers which the mother pigs and their innumerable piglets were happily rooting and grazing, their appetites sustained by the healthy bio-diverse soil and by the mineral rich and tasty wild plants that flourish on old leys.

“I think people want to have fun, enjoy nature, and good food. Quite often they may come to eat with us and wonder why the food tasted so great, and then will be inclined to explore the farm. We’re so keen that more and more people have a deeper and more fulfilling and enjoyable understanding, and connection with nature, farming, and their food.

“When I’m outside; when I’m walking the farm – that’s when I feel most like myself.”

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