In 1986, realising I was unemployable, I returned to the farm to start my own business – hopefully without the need to sell. Promoting myself as a consultant in New York had taught me that I was a bad and unhappy salesman. To this day I can talk with unremitting enthusiasm about growing and cooking vegetables, but as soon as I try to sell them, people run away. I blame it on my mother; she would have thought it vulgar to push yourself forward.
Like my mother, I would love to live in a world where a good product sold itself based on quality, value and the reputation of the person who made it. By reputation, I mean accumulated real experiences – as opposed to brand, which, too often, is distant from reality and a fiendishly clever manipulation of our vulnerabilities. Riverford is unquestionably a brand, and I would be lying to claim we present ourselves without some consideration. But for the most part I am happy with our compromise. Growing vegetables, however good, is not enough; to keep the show on the road someone needs to sell them, persuasively and persistently. We make the task even harder for ourselves by refusing to entice new customers with ‘tease and squeeze’ discounts, or to outsource the process to commission-driven third parties with highly questionable employment practices (as almost everyone else does, including most charities).
Diversity is a strength to be celebrated. Late one night at Abergavenny Food Festival last week, my wife Geetie and I found ourselves sharing a fire with some of our sales team. It must have been nearly midnight when I witnessed Adam signing up his tenth customer of the day by firelight. The transaction was made with an easy conversational charm infinitely beyond my awkward blunders, and to my surprise I felt not only admiration, but pride. We have learnt to sell our way: with humanity-affirming honesty which is both extraordinary and effective. Adam and the team are largely driven by a deep, sobering belief in Riverford which the rest of us must live up to back on the farm.
Despite our new skills, Adam’s best efforts and the advertising we are running this month, the best, most loyal customers will always be the ones that come by word of mouth from you, our customers – through old-fashioned reputation.