We will cut the first lettuce at my farm in the Vendée region of France next week; the earliest in my nine years of farming here. Wheat lies stunted and yellow in the waterlogged fields next-door; testimony to winter rains, the likes of which local elders say have never been seen before.
We managed to make and cover seven hectares of raised beds during one dry spell in October. Those beds are now fully planted. With spinach, cabbage, kohlrabi and lettuces plants arriving weekly from the nursery, we can only lay them out in the yard and pray for a break in the weather that will allow us to get some ground ready for them.
I had hoped to invest in a new irrigation reservoir and more field drainage, but, with the rain pouring down outside, my accountant revealed that the farm finished 2019 with no profit.
This had less to do with the weather or our skill as growers, and more to do with unscrupulous buyers: with the uncertainties of Brexit looming, we accepted cropping programmes for lettuce with one local customer, and melons, aubergines, cucumbers and so on with another.
One failed to pay at all; the other took only a fraction of the agreed quantities, decided to pay only for what they managed to sell on, and did not even honour the agreed price on that.
By contrast, Riverford – the farm’s main customer – once again bought every lettuce, aubergine and Butternut squash that was planned, paid the agreed price, and even occasionally paid early when we were short of cash. We are lucky: across France, small growers without market power are rapidly giving up, just as they have done in the UK. A few have cut back to just growing for local street markets, but even they seem to be under pressure from imports.
I am determined that Riverford will never stoop to the bullying and abuse that supermarket buyers routinely practiced on me before I started the veg box scheme.
On the train home from France, I edited our supplier policy: a commitment to ethical policies and long-term, supportive relationships with our suppliers, with an external ombudsman to adjudicate disputes.
We can’t do anything about the weather, but with your support, we can respect agreements, and build the stable, lasting relationships which remove stress and give farmers fair, secure returns – enabling them to invest with confidence and, on those bad days, to maintain hope in a better tomorrow.