Having a field day

Jack Thompson has been redeployed from a sales rep to a picker on Riverford's Devon farm. In this two-part newsletter, he writes about life in the fields.

I’m Jack from the Riverford face-to-face marketing team. Normally you would see me at shows, food festivals, markets, and high streets, flying the Riverford banner and talking to people about the virtues of an organic veg box; however, due to the coronavirus, we have been creatively redeployed to other parts of the business.

Hearing about the serious lack of pickers since seasonal workers have been unable to travel over from Europe, I decided to join the field team for the summer. Time to roll up my sleeves and finally get my very clean steel toecap boots muddy.

In these times, in which food security has reentered the national consciousness, it seems particularly relevant to shine a spotlight on the people who play such an integral, but often overlooked, part in putting our fresh food on the table.

Field team
More British people than usual are working as field pickers due to Covid-19 travel bans.

I arrived at the farm and main office in Devon with a mixture of nerves and excitement – which was immediately dampened by the enormous pile of health and safety paperwork laid on the table. During peak season, the field team swells to 30, and when you add machinery and knives to the equation, the question of safety is top priority. When I found out agriculture is the riskiest sector in the UK for fatal injuries, I was somewhat reassured by the pile. 

The farm teams are split up into three departments: polytunnels, salad pack, and the field team, and I found myself in the latter. They told me I had done well to avoid the brutal heat and 5am starts of the polytunnels. Lucky me.

Jack in field
From sales to salad picking.

Observing the make-up of our team, it is clear to see the impact of the pandemic. The proportion of English and local pickers is far higher than normal, and it is interesting to observe the professional backgrounds of the workers and what attracted them to picking.

As well as a number of students, new recruits’ backgrounds vary from conservation biology to zoology, from social enterprise to gardening – but it seems a love of the outdoors is the common denominator. It will be interesting to see what the legacy is of this extraordinary season, and whether this local interest will endure.  

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