A lesson in the virtues of absent management

I did my best to thank the 35 staff (almost all French) for helping to make it the success it is today; for the beautiful cabbages, the joy they bring to the farm, and their hard work.

Arriving at my farm in the Vendée, France, I stopped to surreptitiously watch the team harvesting cabbages through the hedge.

They were tightly grouped around the harvesting rig, helping each other rather than letting slower members get left behind. This, the murmur of conversation and occasional jokes, and the fact that all were kneeling or bending, but not sitting still, told me that this was a well-managed, motivated and happy team. As the rig moved slowly up the fields, filled with cabbages that will be in next week’s boxes, I knew I was no longer needed.

Despite the tractors running lettuces, cabbages, turnips, and kohlrabis back to the cold room, the roaring bulldozers excavating a new irrigation lake, the click and gush of irrigaton sprinklers, and the hum of the mower cutting hay, there is an unexpected calm here. Six lorries loaded with 140 pallets of veg will leave this week.

I feel like I am watching a well-choreographed dance, made all the more beautiful by the apparent absence of a director. The subtle combination of people, soil, sun, seeds, livestock, landscape and water into harmonious enterprise is, for me, the most satisfying art form. But perhaps I should get out more.

Riverford vendee
The farm team at Riverford in the Vendée.

Looking at the crops with managers Marco and Didier, I found myself marvelling at how far we have come since I bought the farm 14 years ago. The arrogant assumption that I could simply transfer what I had learnt in Devon and have veg six weeks earlier to fill the UK’s Hungry Gap (between winter and spring crops) quickly unravelled, as I discovered how different the soil, climate, and working culture were. We lost a lot of money, fast.

Only stubbornness and pride drove me to persist, and continue to invest in equipment, people, and knowledge. Over the years, crop failures and costs reduced, and quality and yields improved. Now, despite the challenges of Brexit, the farm is consistently if modestly profitable. The next day, I did my best to thank the 35 staff (almost all French) for helping to make it the success it is today; for the beautiful cabbages, the joy they bring to the farm, and their hard work.

I apologised for my appalling French, for my long absence because of Covid, for Boris Johnson – and assured them that most people eating those cabbages do not share his views. From their accepting welcome of their absentee boss, I know that the pursuit of fraternity, liberty and equality will outlive the politicians who have tried to drive a wedge between us.

7 Comments

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  1. Thank you, un grand merci, for your imagination and persistence getting the farm on track. My daughter and son in law are eating one of those cabbages tonight with a shepherd’s pie.

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  2. Last time I was in France/Spain I spent all my time apologising for Brexit and Boris……
    But on the sunny side – the French adore an English apology!
    and the cabbages are great!

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    1. Ha yes i bet the French are reveling in all these apologetic Brits. What is their perspective of this debacle? Do they see it as our own doing, or do they even care at all?

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    1. Do you think it’s unwise to mix farming with politics? Don’t you think food and farming are inherently political?

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