Between the showers, our neighbours are busy with harvest; watching the grain flowing from the combine harvester, I feel envy and deep nostalgia for the smell, dust, sweat, cider and teas in the field that were the harvests of my youth. When my parents took on the tenancy of Riverford back in 1951, they (like most of their neighbours) kept cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and grew corn, and a lot of grass. Every farm also had its own orchards and cider press. The work was varied, complex, highly seasonal and demanded a wide range of skills and machinery. Managing such complexity was simply the tradition and, some might argue, most farmers weren’t much good at any of it. With rationing still in place and 35% of household income spent on food, perhaps they didn’t have to be.
As the decades passed and food expenditure declined to 10%, one enterprise went after another: first the chickens (“Never did like them much,” says Pa), and then the sheep (“Always looking for a new way to die”). The orchards that once paid the rent were grubbed out, the hedges bulldozed, corn left to those with better land and even Pa’s beloved pigs went; “A conflict of love and money,” he finally admitted. The political economist Adam Smith’s vision was fulfilled as we reluctantly became a specialist dairy farm, expert at turning grass into milk.
I never did much like the irrefutable, soulless logic of Smith and over the last 30 years the next generation of Watsons have somehow reversed the trend, and managed to make Riverford even more complex than Old MacDonald’s farmyard. As well as the cows, between the five of us we have farm shops, a butchery and commercial kitchen, a processing dairy and vast barns packing veg and meat boxes. Meanwhile with 100 different vegetables growing in the fields and polytunnels, my parent’s farm of the ‘50s looks simple in comparison. It feels crazy at times but I love it and reckon we have done an incredible job of managing the complexity with a fair degree of efficiency. It’s all about motivating and managing people; on reflection I’m not sure Adam Smith understood the difference between man and machine.