I arrived at my 250-acre farm in the French Vendée under darkening skies, as the last sweetcorn was being sown. Even in the rising wind, our experienced, committed team worked together like clockwork; by 4pm, it was done, and a lorry left loaded with pak choi and Little Gems. After some eye-watering early losses, we have found crops that grow well here, while helping to bridge the Hungry Gap between UK harvests. Having invested in irrigation, machinery, and above all people and knowledge, the farm is now modestly, but consistently, profitable.
Visiting neighbouring organic farms on this trip was less inspiring. After a decade of rapid growth, the French organic market is in decline. Prices are in freefall, and many growers are left without a market. Is this tragic waste of human and capital investment the inevitable cost of free market economics? As a supplier to Riverford from my own farm in Devon as well as the Vendée, I can testify to how unique Riverford is in its long-term, committed, open, and honest relationships with suppliers.
The free market, with its competition and global trade, does drive innovation and flexibility; cheap, seasonless food is available in the short term. But in the long run, it leads to the instability that gave us the empty shelves of two months ago, and abuse of the environment, animals, and people. As agribusiness replaces agriculture, smaller, mixed, family farms are driven out in the relentless push for scale and specialisation.
After 35 years spent building Riverford, our supplier relationships, and the diverse businesses they support, are what I am most proud of. These have been enshrined in our Supplier Charter (you can read this here). For our industry, it is a uniquely humane and honourable document. I can only thank our customers; their support, and occasional tolerance of limited choice and cosmetic blemishes, enable us to do things differently.
Fairness goes with sustainability, as surely as the unregulated exploitation inherent in free markets goes with dysfunctional society and climate catastrophe. It is the braver, wiser choice. I challenge the supermarkets to follow us.
Thank you to all who donated to Ripple Effect last week. Your donations, plus the extra from Guy, came to an amazing total of £66,678!