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Rain, lettuce and ethics from the Vendée

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.

Vendee farm in France
Cutting organic lettuce in the Vendée, France.

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.

    Comments

    tangalooma

    11 Months 4 Weeks

    You’re got my business. Not going anywhere else.

    0 Reply

    Su

    11 Months 4 Weeks

    This article reinforces my belief that there are those in the business world who do care about people and about the planet; and that it is possible for profit and ethics to go hand-in-hand. You may be gratified to learn that (at the risk of stereotyping) it’s not just the middle-class woolly jumper lentil-types that appreciate this. I live with my retired husband in a scruffy northern post-industrial town and on a limited income. We do, however, make the most of the green spaces nearby and we do have a small greenhouse as well as an allotment. Coming across Riverford to supplement what we can’t grow ourselves has been heartening. I have even started buying the reduced amount of meat that my husband eats (I’m a veggie) from Riverford. The point I want to make is that our food bill may be high in comparison to the majority of the people we know and relative to our income, but in my view the cost to our health, to our quality of life, to the planet and to society and to general, responsible ethics makes it worth every penny. I

    0 Reply

    neilwilliams986@gmail.com

    11 Months 4 Weeks

    What a great statement. The aggression of supermarkets is a major major issue our lives. We support and admire Riverford and will continuet.
    Not sure if Guy and I would 'get on'. Strident and rants are things I might/would react to but my goodness we need more Guy's and more growers saying the same thing. We have 'celebrity chefs' who seem to have a voice - do we need 'Celebrity Growers?'

    0 Reply

    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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