Riverford: UK business needs long-term policies and stability | FT Food Revolution


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So, Tim, we’re on the road again, back in Devon again, this time to see Riverford, the organic veg box company.

Actually, I’ve been to see them a couple times before, at various times in their history. And I’m always excited to see where they’re going and what they’re up to. They’ve become a really sizeable operation.

When you think of the big organic veg box delivery companies, you think of Abel & Cole. But they’re not the only ones anymore. It’s an increasingly crowded space, isn’t it?

It’s crowded in different ways. There’s a lot more stuff being delivered to people’s houses. And actually, the people who are doing what Riverford have always done, which is pulling plants out of the soil, dusting off the dirt, and putting them in a box, and deliver to people’s houses, that’s actually not become hugely more crowded.

Good to see you. How you doing? All right?

Good to see you.

What a spot you got here.

Tell us about the past few years. It’s been a challenging time for pretty much everybody. What was Covid like for you?

Demand probably quadrupled, maybe more than that. I mean, there was no way that we could meet that demand. So we just closed our books when we were delivering as many as we could. We simplified our offer. And we increased by 50 per cent or 60 per cent, I think. So we did do well out of it. But it’s all the disruption, and coming on top of Brexit. And now, of course, this year has just been off the chart, in terms of fuel price, and energy, and so on.

All that disruption is just a nightmare. It’s just emotionally exhausting. And so many of the problems that we’re facing, environmental and social, require long-term policies. The economy is driven not by wheeler dealer people in the city of London making deals, who on the whole drive in security. They probably love it because it gives them lots of opportunity. It’s made by the people who actually bloody make things of some value and deliver services of some value.

And to do that, they need stability. And that is something which, I don’t know, government just doesn’t seem to understand with policies just changing so quickly, driven quite largely by the city of London, where you’re lucky if you can get someone to think beyond their quarterly results. Let alone, venture capitalists are very stretched, might talk about three years. We need to be talking about 10, 15, 20 years, and longer. We’re planting trees. We’re talking about centuries.

What do you think of the organic veg box? Do you think of Riverford enabling coal? Were you guys the first?

No, not quite. There were, I think, three, certainly two, box schemes running when I started, which was in ’93 I delivered my first box.

It’s long time ago. What was the organic box business like back then?

Well, it was tiny. No one knew what it was, the idea that you were going to deliver to someone a box of vegetables which you decided the contents of, according to the seasons and availability, rather than going to a supermarket offering you 25,000 different items to buy. It was a complete anathema. Margaret Thatcher was in power. The market was everything. Consumer choice was everything. And we were going in a completely opposite direction. I took a lot of persuading. It seemed like a completely bonkers idea, really.

But when I delivered the first box and walked up the garden path, rang the doorbell, hand it over, and the person actually cared what it tasted like, who grew it, how it was grown, I new straight away, we were on to a winner, really.

And you’re still doing the same thing. Basically, it’s still you choose.

Yeah. Instead of delivering 30, as I did in the first week, we would pack 30 in the first minute of the first day of the week now. We do one every two seconds.

2018, you did something really quite out of the ordinary. And you handed over, what, 80 per cent of the company to your own people.

74 per cent of the company, and I didn’t hand it over. They’d give me a few million quid.

But could you have made a few million more if you had sold…

Definitely. Well, according to the accountants who valued it, it was worth four times what I sold it for. I suppose I have a lifelong problem with the assumption that the only thing that motivates us as human beings is greed and self-interest. I think most people want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

I think, generally, there’s much more to be gained from co-operation than competition. Obviously, competition has its place. And you would be a fool to turn your back on it completely. But all our trading relationships, and our employing relationships, and our relationships with our customers are long-term. And our staff, now co-owners, they have adhered to the values, possibly more than I did, really. I think the very act of having to sit down and write down what are the values? Why are we here? What are we trying to achieve?

What are those values do you want to try and stay committed to?

Well, there is, on our website, the founder’s wishes, which is…

This is brilliant. It’s not a manifesto. It’s emphatically not a manifesto. But you’ve been absolutely clear and really very, very detailed. I would urge people to go and read it.

I mean, some things, I really found really important. I wanted to ban the word professionalism from the organisation.

Because whenever someone says we have to do that because it’s professional, I almost want to leave the room. We had a long, long discussion around pragmatism and what we meant by that, that couldn’t always be purer than the freshly fallen snow. We all have to compromise and bend at times. And then we come up with something which I think is really very meaningful.

We sum it up in the three things. We do it our way. The we is that we’re stronger together and we should look for common values. The do it is the detail really matters, right down to the very, everything matters, right down to the very fine detail. And it doesn’t matter how strong your values are and how much they are shared by your staff, and customers, and suppliers. If you’re not good at what you do, you are going to fail. And our way is that we won’t just follow everyone else.

We will challenge. We will understand our industry. We’ll understand why people do it the way they do it. And then we’ll go away and we’ll think about it. And sometimes, we’ll just copy them and do it because that’s the easiest thing to do. And you can’t be fighting battles on all fronts. And sometimes, we’ll say, no, that is really bloody stupid and we’re not going to do that.

So, Harriet, what’s your job title here?

I’m the regenerative farming lead for Riverford. So I’ve been here for about eight months now.

Is it too early to ask you what regenerative farming actually is? Does it mean regenerating the soil.


Or is it more like a kind of avant garde of farming?

Farming can be quite an extractive industry. So you’re taking out the soil. You’re taking a lot away from the environment. And regenerative farming is about making sure not just that your farm system is being run sustainably, so that you’re at least putting back what you’ve taken out, but the basic principle that you’re regenerating the landscape that you’re in charge of.

So are you finding stuff out, bringing it in, and trying to spread best practise in the company? Or are you telling the outside world about the company’s doing it.

Probably a bit of both. Riverford has a great history, in terms of the way it engages with their suppliers. And we’ve got things like a supplier’s charter that sets the standard of the kind of farming we’d expect from our suppliers and what they can expect from us in return. But we’ve not necessarily previously looked beyond the product. We don’t know, for example, the health of the soil that that product is coming from. Because we’ve never looked at that stuff before. And we’ve never asked.

So one of our first objectives is just to properly, as much as we can, a bit of a challenge, baseline out a lot of data about the land use footprint of our whole supply chain.

Hi, Ed. I’m Dan.

Good morning, I’m Ed.

Nice to meet you.

Yeah, you too, you too.

How’s it going?

Yeah, not bad, thanks.

In true city boy fashion, I’ve come along in shoes which maybe aren’t quite up for it. I mean, will I be all right in these, do you think?

I mean, you can wear them, but you’ll have to replace them at the end of it.

So, Ed, is this a regenerative farm? Is regenerative farm anything new? Or is it just labelling something which has been around for a long period of time?

So organic farming, which is what we do, is all about, I suppose, sustainability, really, and keeping the fertility of the soils and the soil structure in a sustainable manner. So you could farm in exactly the same way in 1,000 years and you’d have the same sort of thing. Regenerative farming is almost adding a bit on to that and going, actually, what can we do? Can we also improve what we’ve got?

You’ve got to look at the whole farm, and, indeed, a network of farms as a wider thing. It doesn’t matter how good our farm is. If the neighbouring farm is a sterile wasteland, then you’re going to have problems with wildlife corridors, and connectivity, and things like that. So you need to look at it at the wider landscape as well. No farmer wants to farm badly.

Or to be next door to somebody who does.

Yeah, exactly. But certain practises have a more harmful effect on the soil and on the environment than others. And it’s a matter of trying to cut those out completely, or at least reduce the harm that you’re doing where you can.

This is one farm that supplies Riverford. That’s 1,500 acres. It contains hedges, woodland forest, tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of soil. So it has a big land ease footprint, and it’s only one of our suppliers. As a company, we have a huge amount of influence between Plymouth and Exeter. All of our farmers are largely based there. How they’re growing food for us influences that whole landscape. So river health, coastal health, biodiversity networks, that is all within potential influence of our business.

So we’re working with the soil association to trial a new tool that they’ve created, called the Soil Association Exchange. So that involves a digital twin of the farm that gives us information about the carbon sequestration potential, the natural capital potential. We can use the digital model to think about, well, OK, if we change this, what would be the implications of that? The key thing is going to be data-led decision making.

I mean, the values that Riverford have, they’re great values. But this is a business. Do you feel that it’s possible to stay true to those values at all times? Or are there occasions when you need to be pragmatic and compromise, maybe?

I mean, yeah, you have to be pragmatic. But that’s not necessarily the same as compromising and compromising your core beliefs. When Guy started the business, he was completely open about the fact that he didn’t want to be skint at the end of it. He wanted to make money out of it, but do things the right way. And that’s what we’ve managed to do. And so long as you’ve got those principles in mind, it’s kind of not an extra expense because you know it’s going to be more expensive in one direction or another from the offset. So you take that into account.

I mean, working on the farm, our highest cost, by far, is labour. Because, I mean, you can see the fields here. We’ve got lettuce, but it’s not bare soil in between. There’s all sorts of weeds and other stuff. And if this was a conventional farm, you’d spray herbicide and there’d be no weeds. So we’ve got to do a lot of weeding. Some of it’s mechanical, but a lot of it is hoeing and hand weeding. So things like that have an extra expense. But you know that from the offset.

Here comes the rain again. A final quick question before we turn into a couple of drowned rats. You mentioned labour and the extra cost of farming this way. What’s the labour market been like?

I mean, it’s tricky. And at the moment, it’s early days. So it’s difficult to see what the long-term picture will be. I mean, we’ve always recruited some local labour and some seasonal labour from abroad. And, pre-Brexit, our regular returnees, we were able to out with the correct paperwork. So they’re fine.

But, yeah, we were hoping, this spring, we were hoping to get 60 new people from abroad. And we got zero. So we had to recruit those locally. And to be fair, most of them worked out really well. But we didn’t have as many applicants as we would’ve liked, for starters. So the choice is slightly smaller.

We need to put more focus on recruiting locally. That means, also, accepting that local labour have their own lives. A seasonal worker from abroad wants to come here and work really hard for six months, take zero holiday, take it all at the end, that’s great. A local worker has a family network and a life. And they want the odd Friday off, or to go to a wedding, or whatever.

Which hits the productivity.

Yeah. But you just have to make allowances for the fact that this person might take two weeks holiday over the course of the summer. This person will take zero. Therefore, I need to recruit one extra person.

I wonder what you make of the rise of the meal kit box. A lot of these meal kit boxes, they use a lot of plastic to keep the ingredients separate.

Yeah, they do. It’s a massive compromise. We’ve experimented with different ways of doing things. And we use a lot less packaging than anyone else. We use per kilo of vegetables sold. When we last measured it, I think we use 18 per cent of the plastic that a supermarket uses. And almost all the plastic, well, I think 100 per cent of the plastics used to wrap vegetables is plant-based, 98 per cent plant-based, and fully home compostable.

But they have little, if someone wants some soy sauce, unfortunately…

…has to come in plastic.

…they just want, and they want the exact amount for that recipe. And we have tried to get away from that. Yes, and people do complain about the packaging. And it’s not satisfactory. I think ours are much better than anybody else’s. But, yeah, I’m not going to say that it’s right. It’s not.

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