Guy Watson guides us at Riverford Organics
Riverford Organics has been one of the great successes of UK horticulture in the last 20 years. Starting from delivering veg boxes to just 30 of his friends in South Devon this business now delivers 47,000 boxes a week! Those organic veg boxes are now available throughout the UK.
Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust visitI was fortunate to visit Riverford Organics in late September. It was my first visit. To be shown around by its founder and owner Guy Watson was the icing on the cake!
I was with a party of other Nuffield Farming Scholars (*) on a brief annual study tour of entrepreneurial horticultural business. This annual tour was based in beautiful South Devon.
We started with a brief outline of what Riverford Organics is about. Guy explained how it had developed from a small business to become the £55 million business that it is today. Guy appeared guarded in our presence and perhaps he had heard that Nuffield Scholars tend to be a demanding group! As the evening progressed and we got to know each other better he [and we] relaxed. I think that it is fair to say that we learnt from each other as many ideas were shared.
There was no way that we could see all of the crops grown by Riverford Organics on our late afternoon visit!
Riverford Organics work closely with other local farmers and growers in a cooperative way and in a less formal alliance. They also have product from a farm in France that they own. This explained their inclusion of lemons and olive oil in their veg boxes. We saw enough to get the feel for this remarkable business.
Guy reckons to spend a third of his time in the field, a third in the board room and another third as a – to use his words – “media tart”! Perhaps this was a reference to his recent appearance on that hugely successful and long running series ‘Desert Island Discs‘. But Guy is no stranger to public broadcasting and uses social media channels to argue his strongly held views such as the debacle that plastic packaging has become. His website newsletter is worth a read too!
Some of the crops
Leaf and salad crops are big at Riverford Organics and the lengths that they go to look after their soil was clear from our field walk. Winter grass leys are sown to protect soils over winter. If too late to sow, the unharvested crop residue and weeds are left to cover the soil. This prevents soil erosion but also holds nutrients in the covering plants. Nutrients are then less likely to be leached out of the soil and into surrounding water courses. This is increasingly something that farmers and growers in general are – in my view – late to wake up to and slow taking action to address.
Cold storage at Riverford Organics
With so many different vegetables and fruits to coordinate for their weekly box scheme adequate storage is a vital component. Rather than a single big cold store for everything, Riverford Organics have several smaller ones! To ensure that their products are at their very best when they reach their customers, the stores are split into several compartments with each having differing temperature and humidity environments.
Such attention to detail is clearly the hallmark of this very successful business! Crops grown under protection such as chillies, peppers, tomatoes and aubergines require very different storage conditions to tougher carrots, parsnips and potatoes!
Packing all those boxes!
With so many variants available to Riverford Organics’ customers they need a sophisticated packaging system. Packing lines use a light system so that if a customer orders say beetroot, a light comes on when that customer’s box passes the point where beetroot are fed into the line! One of the team then places beetroots into the box.
Ordering is of course primarily online which requires an organised order processing and administration department.
Above the packhouse is the nerve centre of the business!
Here a massive open plan office is full of desks and computer screens. I noticed several areas set aside for brainstorming. Only a small area was enclosed and this was where the board met.
I was delighted to see so many stress relieving and air cleaning indoor plants in this otherwise large office setting.
Guy is in the process of selling most of his share of the business to his staff in much the same model as used by the John Lewis Partnership Group. The staff will ultimately share profits in the business but it is a process that will take 5 years to complete.
With a new farm already purchased, perhaps Guy will get around to getting that old David Brown tractor -his first tractor- running again! We saw the tractor sitting in weeds on a field headland and it is the very one that features a young Guy at the wheel on their website here!
Riverford Organic Kitchen
Our evening ended with one of Riverford Field Kitchen suppers. Guy Watson joined us to eat and continued to tell us about this remarkable business and also his future personal plans.
Vegetables featured heavily on the menu – surprise, surprise! Each course from the set menu was delicious! Only the few livestock farmers amongst our group were missing the meat element of the meal! But they were also satisfied when the penultimate course had delicious and perfectly cooked sirloin beef on top!
My favourite was the final course! We were offered a tremendous choice of delicious desserts.
This concluded a inspiring and enjoyable visit.
Visit it yourself
The Field Kitchen Restaurant provides lunch for many of this organisation’s workforce but is open to the public in the evenings. If you’re in the Buckfastleigh area of Devon I can strongly recommend a meal at The Riverford Field Kitchen Restaurant!
(*) My own Nuffield Farming Scholarship was to travel to USA and Canada to study Nursery Stock Container Plant Production and Marketing in 1980.