We have started cutting pak choi, basil, salad onions and salad leaves, with lettuce, spinach and chard still a week away. In most years we would now be emerging from the Hungry Gap, but with planting delayed by a wet spring, the pack house remains depressingly heavy on imports; some from our French farm, but more from our Spanish growers, and some from further afield.
25 years ago, the hardcore veg box pioneers stopped delivering from March to June – but that wasted the lovely end-of-season UK veg like purple sprouting broccoli, leeks, cauliflowers and rhubarb that were available. Frustration with having to top our boxes up with expensive, poor quality imports, combined with my overconfidence as a grower, drove me to buying a farm in France to grow the stuff myself. Climatic research and many visits suggested that we could steal four to six weeks’ harvesting by going 250 miles south, and staying close to the winter warmth of the Atlantic. That put us in the sunny Vendée region; about the same distance from Devon as the Fens. In the end, the project has worked out well – but not without some expensive, humbling failures in the early years.
Managing a business 250 miles away, with only a very limited grasp of a different language, law and culture, has led me to question what effective management is. In the early years I would dash around on the first day of a visit giving instructions: water this, plough that in, get those crop covers off. During my visit last week I looked, listened and contemplated my purpose. The less I visit, the better the team seems to do – perhaps because they have space to grow. I am astonished by their appetite for learning and innovation. I used to think that was my job, but now I find investments being evaluated, and new crops, varieties and growing techniques being tried; it’s me who is doing the learning. Relationships and roles are fluid, almost anarchic, but decision making is fast and efficient. There is one small office, which is usually empty; most decisions are made in the field, over a coffee or a beer at the end of the day.
Could it be that the most important part of management is knowing when to get out of the way – and its most common failing the underestimation of people’s capability to find fulfilment by managing themselves?