Riverford: Behind the scenes of a Devon success story
March 22nd, 2017 | By Ross Purdy
The shadows of sparse white clouds raced across the patchwork fields to my left as I made my way to Riverford, a few miles north-west of Totnes. The farm is situated in, and indeed contributes to, some of the most beautiful countryside in Devon.
I was surprised by the scale of the operation as I parked and found my way to where I was scheduled to meet Ed Scott, the site’s Assistant Harvest Manager.
The draw of Devon life
Ed greeted me with a big smile and we took our seats in the glorious outdoors, to make the most of the summer sun. Even before we’d exchanged greetings, I could see how much he enjoys his work.
First of all, I asked him about his role at Riverford and how his involvement began.
‘I started here about 15 years ago now,’ he began, ‘initially just for 3 months and it sucked me in a bit. My official title is Assistant Harvest Manager, which basically at this time of year means I’m in charge of the polytunnels – we grow mostly basil, mini cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, some salad onions and some chillies as well. It’s pretty full on down there at the moment, so I organise which varieties we’re going to grow, I get the staff in, do the rota, and do some picking as well. We have about 20 people down there in the summer.’
You’ll hear similar stories from other enterprising individuals in the area who’ve come to call South Devon home. It’s always nice to hear these tales of people almost stumbling into a career they grew to love. And it seems there’s something about the region, given our high proportion of startups and small businesses, that generates these stories in abundance.
Ed had been working in a bookshop in London for 10 years before making the career change – and an ongoing tendency to horde an absurd number of books turns out to be something we have in common. Still I don’t get the feeling he’d rather be back indoors working in a shop or office.
Riverford’s national reach
We moved on to discuss Riverford and how it all works.
‘Riverford is a sort-of top-to-tail business,’ he explained. ‘We’re involved in everything from the very start. We’ll sow our vegetables, plant our seedlings, take them all the way through the weeding, harvesting and growing… and here we’ve got a pack house, so the guys in the barns will pack them up, it all goes into the boxes and then we distribute them around the country. We handle some of the deliveries centrally, and others are done by franchisees so they’re effectively their own bosses.’
It’s clear this is a substantial operation, hence the large number of people employed by the company – it reaches around 300 in the peak picking season.
‘An awful lot of planning goes into it because things have to be sorted so far ahead of time. Right now, we’re already planting leeks and purple sprouting broccoli; the leeks we’ll start picking in December and we’ll go right through to April or May next year, the purple sprouting broccoli we’ll pick in March next year.
So our guys who do the planning are thinking ‘In May next year, we’ll have 30,000 customers. And of those, 10,000 will be a large box. What are we going to put in it? And then, let’s say there’s a cold winter and everything is two weeks late so they have to reconsider! They have to work around the availability.’
That must be tough, given how modern consumers are so used to getting whatever they want, whenever they want it.
‘Yes, it can be,’ he said, ‘and we’ve learnt over the years that we need to import sometimes, otherwise it would be so difficult in the ‘hungry gap’ (between February to April). At that time of year all you’ve got is potatoes, carrots, onions, maybe some swede. If we gave that to our customers week after week, we’d lose thousands of them! But we don’t air freight anything at all because the carbon footprint is ridiculous.’
Ethics and environmentalism
The previous topic brought us neatly onto the environmental policy that attracts many consumers to Riverford. I wondered how that ties in with the economic need to import foodstuffs.
‘We worked with Exeter University for several years at reducing our carbon footprint and environmental impact,’ he said, ‘and one of the things we learned is that it’s much better to import tomatoes from an unheated greenhouse in southern Spain than to grow them in a heated greenhouse here.’
The other reason for working with other organic producers is that it’s necessary to specialise in order to get the best results. Fruit growing is a fairly specialised area, so Riverford tends not to grow much fruit on their own farms.
Back to the environment, if you spend much time on Riverford’s website and you’ll be struck by how transparent the company is about its practices – discussing all the complexities openly rather than resorting to any vague platitudes.
Ed agrees, ‘Guy [Watson, the founder of Riverford] is very open and he couldn’t fudge anything. He’s more likely to overinform rather than under-inform, which is brilliant actually. He’s not afraid to put his foot in it and say what he thinks. And I think in the long term, if you do try to hide something, people are going to find out and be disappointed. It’s much better to say, ‘Look, this thing we’re doing isn’t very good at the moment. We’d rather do it differently. For example, sometimes it turns out you’ve got to use plastic sometimes because some things can’t be stored in cardboard, like salad leaves which just won’t keep in a paper bag.’
‘You’ll have supermarkets saying things like, ‘These eggs come from Merrydown Farm’ even though there is no such thing as Merrydown Farm. Because of this, it takes a lot of effort from our marketing team to make us stand out, without being twee.’
I was interested to know whether experimentation, taking chances and a bit of trial and error have played a similar role in Riverford’s rise as they have for the other South Devon producers I’ve visited.
‘We’re always learning and there are always things to find out. But I like to think at this stage we’re tweaking – we know what we’re doing pretty much each year, but, for example, we might try sowing the spinach a little closer together to see what happens – maybe that will improve the yield or reduce the impact of mildew, etc. We’ll still try to grow crops we haven’t tried before, but we usually have a pretty good idea of what will happen.’
I asked if Riverford’s plans are ever affected by climate change.
‘Not majorly in terms of what we grow, because most of what we grow will grow anywhere in the UK. But we do find the season can start earlier or finish later. But there are some things – like onions which don’t grow so well here – and that’s partly down to the soil – unlike in our farm in Sacrewell up near Peterborough, where it’s great for growing them.’
‘But then down here along the coast, cauliflower grows very well. That’s because, when the leaves start to open and you see the white head of the cauliflower, if you get a frost at that point it just closes up and dies. Our warmer microclimate’s a big help there. But, broadly speaking, at Sacrewell and here we’ll grow similar things.’
Before long it was time to let Ed get back to his tunnels and for me to start the scenic drive home. I could have chatted all day, making the most of the sunshine and scenery, and learning more about this fantastic South Devon success story.
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