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News from the farm   |   Employee ownership

Towards the world Scott wants to live in

It’s wild, grim and muddy out there, bringing growth to a standstill which will last six weeks. With so little vegetable stimulus, my thoughts fell to Brexit for this newsletter, but you are spared; it was so depressing I have junked it. Like many, I feel powerless, tired, and disappointed in our politicians on both sides. Better to concentrate on the positive changes that can be made without them.

In November, five months after becoming employee owned, we elected our first 21-strong co-owner council. Unconventionally, everyone at Riverford, apart from the directors, was a candidate; there is truth in the adage that those who seek power are the least suitable for holding it. We have still ended up with women and national minorities (roughly one-third of our staff are Eastern European) underrepresented, as is so often the case, but otherwise the group feels balanced; they already refer to themselves as a family.

Ultimately the council appoints the trustees, who appoint the board – but in reality, all three bodies in our tripartite governance structure are accountable to each other, and responsible for running a successful business in accordance with our founding principles. It sounds complicated, cumbersome and potentially threatening to conventional management positions; but concentrating power in the hands of one body is dangerous, and wastes the value of the conventionally powerless. We are all realising that harnessing a broad perspective will help us to make better decisions and implement them more effectively.

The pace is frustrating to my impetuous nature but, by feeling our way along slowly, we are growing up together. The thoughtfulness, understanding and magnanimity repeatedly shown by those unfamiliar with power reassures me that we are on the right path; that we can unlock the huge potential of our collective intelligence. In the words of Scott, a quietly spoken, newly elected council representative, “We are creating a microcosm of the world I have always wanted to live in.” At which point I became tearful and had to leave.

Struggling for a Christmas present? We have published a choice selection of Guy’s newsletters, charting his ruminations on food, farming and business over 25 years, illustrated by Guardian cartoonists Berger & Wyse. Yours for £9.99 at riverford.co.uk/book.

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Guy Singh-Watson

Guy Singh-Watson has over the last 30 years taken Riverford from one man and a wheelbarrow delivering homegrown organic veg to friends, to a national veg box scheme delivering to around 80,000 customers a week. Tired of meetings, brands and the assumption that greed is our predominant motivation, Guy converted the business to employee ownership in 2018, using the proceeds to buy a small farm and return to growing organic vegetables. In common with many of Riverford’s new co-owners, Guy is an advocate of using business to shape a part of the world, however small, to be kinder, more considerate and sustainable; more like the world most of us want to live in.  His weekly newsletters connect people to the farm with refreshingly honest accounts of the trials and tribulations of producing organic food, and the occasional rant about farming, ethical and business issues he feels strongly about.

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