Guy has worked hard his whole life to build what is now a hugely successful business that not only grows sustainable, organic vegetables… But is also 74% owned by the staff that run it. Guy’s knowledge of soil, vegetables and the farming industry as a whole is truly phenomenal. Learn this week the truth about farming and supplying to supermarkets, and why Guy is an anti-capitalist that believes the government NEED to not only help in the way food and farming are regulated – but also how they need to realise the true potential and genuine nature of human beings. Contrary and simply contagious – meet Guy Singh Watson.
00:00:00 Marks Introduction
00:02:41 Meeting Guy, setting the scene in Baddaford farm, up the road from Riverford Farm
- 00:03:28 “Yeah it’s a bit weird, I’ve kind of gone back to where I started 35 years ago… But it’s quite nice to be doing it now with slightly less commercial pressure.”
00:05:19 What does Riverford do? Delivering veg boxes to households…
- 00:50:47 “So 50 to 60 thousand deliveries a week, and that seems to have evolved the business employing 700 staff and we turn over 60 million a year. We really do everything from sowing the seeds, growing, harvesting, storing, packing, delivering, managing all our own IT…”
- 00:06:56 “An underrated element of management is knowing when to get out the way!”
00:07:22 Going back in time to what started organic farming for Guy
- 00:18:13 “Its culturally embedded in me, and really you could say that Riverford is just a fairly huge extension of that. It is a marriage between an enthusiasm for food, largely driven by where it comes from and making the very best of seasonal and local food combined with an approach to farming that is fairly innovative and sort of slightly restless…”
00:08:57 The early days of farming and importance of feeding a nation in the post-war era
- 00:09:43 “My father embraced that – he was at the cutting edge of everything and in 1950 that meant using a lot of ammonium nitrate and herbicides, insecticides etc.”
00:10:37 What was concerning Guy about the way farming was approached in the post war era?
00:12:47 Why didn’t the whole industry notice the impact that poor farming was having on soil?
- 00:13:03 “I wouldn’t of said that the health of the soil was… Even now, its talked about but I’m not sure how much farmers are really reacting to it. More progressive farmers and thinking farmers are, and that’s only really happened in the last five years.”
00:13:50 Why was Guy interested in the soil, what’s different about him and other farmers?
- 00:14:42 “It’s a very, very conservative industry.”
- 00:15:40 “I can remember one of my father’s neighbours describing mixed farming as ‘mixed farming and muddled thinking!’. And there’s no doubt if you are a specialist you are going to be better at doing that… But the sort of complexity that comes from a mixed farm is, I think, inherently more stable.”
- 00:16:53 “People say that we spend 10% of GDP in this country on food, ish, but the reality is that doesn’t go to farmers. The share of GDP that goes to farmers is about 0.7%, assuming that we all earnt the same amount of money.”
00:17:49 Permaculture and why mixed farming is more beneficial to the environment
00:18:53 Farming as a resolvable issue, can it be fixed? The importance of farmers working together
- 00:21:39 “…We rent out the grass to our neighbour who’s a beef producer, and we do grow some vegetables as part of that rotation but we are all working together in a way and co-operating which enables us to have a more balanced and sustainable farming system without that mixed farming and muddled thinking.”
00:22:21 Identifying, solving and funding issues in the industry
- 00:23:06 “It does require an investment in knowledge, it requires trust, it requires long term relationships… all those things that really are the antithesis of modern capitalism that is all about responsiveness to ever-changing customer demands and customer whims…. I think we need to challenge that paradigm.”
00:26:32 The external and internal costings behind the industry – if the cost of growing mais was internalised, no one would be doing it… The clumsiness of capitalism
- 00:27:16 What is a carbon trading price?
- 00:28:08 “What’s driving agriculture and probably driving loads of industries is an economic system that doesn’t account for the true costs of what they’re doing.”
00:29:51 The giving of information to the public… By delivering only vegetables that are in season, has Guy seen a change in attitudes toward seasonal produce?
- 00:32:02 “I have a very entrepreneurial nature and I’m also pretty contrary – when I see everybody else doing one thing, I’m afraid to say it’s a bit childish and not something im very proud of, but I tend to want to go in another direction.”
- 00:33:40 “I did all the deliveries myself for the first two or three years with what was a very crude offering and knock on the doors, someone would open it, and they really did care what the vegetables taste like, that they were grown locally, that they knew the person…”
- 00:34:15 “The first week we delivered 30 veg boxes and I knew from there I was onto a winner.”
00:34:29 The early days of trying to supply to a supermarket
- 00:35:16 “The guy said to me: ‘No sonny, when we whistle, you jump! The only question is – how high?’ and I just thought, you know what, no one’s going to talk to me like that. And that was it. I’d started building this pack house, and I went out with a sledgehammer and I just took out my aggression and that was the end of supplying that supermarket.”
00:37:38 The wastage of crops when working with supermarkets
- 00:38:27 “We used to have to plant two lettuces for each one we sold to a supermarket because you have to make sure you have availability. If you don’t have availability of what they want to buy, even if it’s more than what they agreed to buy, if you don’t have that availability that week they will have a complete and utter tantrum.”
- 00:39:36 “There is so much LUDICROUS waste in the food system and its generally around meeting consumers perceived desires.”
00:43:17 The idea that the middleman/supplier needs to make the decisions for the consumers
- 00:44:08 “It is not realistically up to the consumer, let’s call them food citizens, it’s not up to the food citizen to shape the agriculture we have in this country through that level of knowledge because how are they ever going to know that?”
00:47:45 The difficulty of educating consumers and why the government needs to get involved
- 00:49:03 “If you say something is organic and it’s not, you are breaking the law. But no one will do anything about it.”
- 00:50:15 “They key is to ask those difficult questions and not be fobbed off with the answers. Ask for something specific. When they say its local – say what’s local? What farm does it come from?”
00:53:33 Chatting about supply chains to restaurants
- 00:53:33 “I think it’s impossible to have a sustainable supply chain in food service and have a constant menu – in some cases I’ve spoken to chains of restaurants… Who have planned their menus 18 months ahead. At that point I walk out and say there is no way we can supply you.”
- 00:55:55 “We actually find it quite easy to recruit chefs who are skilled enough to be able to manage an ever-changing menu and to be able to control their costs… and we have a fantastically successful restaurant.”
00:58:52 How does Guy manage to agree prices with farmers a whole year in advance?
- 00:59:11 “It’s taking us many years, three and a bit decades to get there, but trust is absolutely critical in that. In the early days we would agree a price for a cauliflower in January, and you got a cold spell in January and suddenly we wouldn’t have any cauliflowers.”
01:04:02 The beauty of getting what you’re given – with suppliers and restaurants
- 01:06:30 “We won a lot of awards in the early days, we were losing loads of money – but everyone thought we were wonderful!”
01:06:49 Becoming an employee owned company – selling it to the staff
- 01:08:13 “As it happens, we’ve done really well. I probably could of charged a bit more [laughter] but I’m perfectly happy with what I have. So now the staff own 74% of the business.”
- 01:09:25 “Organisations are just so wasteful of our potentials as human beings – I think we are capable of so much more than we give each other credit for.”
01:13:10 What the future is looking like… Guy believes we are on the cusp of positive change
01:14:30 If you want to find out more about Riverford, Guy and sustainable farming – where can you go?
01:16:15 Marks final thoughts and signoff
If you’d like to learn a bit more about Guy, sustainable farming, the importance of soil and how Riverford Farm is doing… Check out the Riverford social channels and website below, or listen to the full episode here.
Riverford Blog: https://www.riverford.co.uk/blog/