Growing up on a farm and studying agriculture eventually led Guy to growing his own vegetables in Devon and then delivering them locally to his friends. “I love food, I love being outside. This is my absolute passion in life and I feel very lucky to be doing what I’m doing. If I live to 500 I think I will still be learning about growing fruit and vegetables.”
When he started out it felt like all farmers were just big commodity producers. With Riverford he aims to challenge this system by practicing sustainable, ethical farming and then distributing the produce directly to like-minded people.
“I’ve never wanted to be a commodity producer. I was gobsmacked by the behaviour of supermarkets when I tried to sell to them in the early 90’s. I still see issues around the way they treat their suppliers and the products on the shelf – they are often old, over-packaged, overpriced and anonymous. For me it is about providing an alternative to supermarket shopping.”
Why choose organic?
Guy has chosen to farm 100% organic. He says: “I’ve never liked the thought of using pesticides. My decision to farm organically was initially driven simply by a desire not to handle those chemicals. Now I wouldn’t farm any other way. I feel that in a deep and profound way. In this business you’re trying to learn and manage an ecosystem. It feels right to farm in harmony with nature, I don’t want to dominate and replace it with something of my own need.”
Organic farming doesn’t use artificial fertilisers and pesticides, recognises the importance of biodiversity and integrates the highest standards of animal welfare. The farmers look after the soil, wildlife and birds. And apart from being environmentally friendly, organic food doesn’t use hydrogenated fats and controversial additives including aspartame, tartrazine and MSG.
In his well-followed newsletter, Guy often speaks with refreshing honesty about the challenges they face and the issues within the food and farming system we have today. As much produce as possible from Riverford is grown in its natural season in the UK. Last year 72% of the veg sold was British-grown and 100% of the meat was reared in the UK.
However, wanting to test out their green credentials more fully, a few years ago Riverford worked with Exeter University to measure the carbon footprint of the veg box business as a whole. They published all the results on their website, laying out the dilemmas around things like packaging, food waste and international imports. Despite the complicated issues in many of these areas, what was clear was that organic farming is kinder to the planet.
The role of finance
A Triodos Bank loan enabled Guy and his wife to purchase their farm. There they have converted 140 acres to Soil Association certified farmland. “To finance organic farming it is important to have a bit of flexibility and an understanding of the ethics involved. I think Triodos help in creating the linkages between the people who are interested in supporting organic farming and those who want a fair return on their money, rather than maximising profit at the cost of everything else. Triodos seem to be the only bank that really get this.”
Riverford has more than 650 people working across the business and is currently moving towards employee ownership, with staff due to take a 74% stake in May 2018. Guy is proud of this, a move that will take them in the direction of companies like the John Lewis Partnership.
“Despite our impressive growth over the last 30 years, we’re not here for profit. I started the business to produce something useful to the world. Being employee owned will protect our model of sustainable large-scale food production. It’s an exciting time and a big change.”
Guy Watson started growing organic vegetables in 1986 on his family farm in Devon and set up the vegbox scheme in 1993, delivering to 20 local friends and families. As demand grew, the challenge was to find a way of embracing it while sticking to what the vegbox scheme was all about – local growing and employment and a friendly, personal service. The solution was to find other farmers who shared their ethos. There are now five Riverford farms, all growing, packing and delivering vegboxes. Between the five sister farms, Riverford now covers most of England and South Wales, delivering around 47,000 vegboxes each week.