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Entrepreneurs, autonomy and smut

After a COVID-induced 18-month absence, last week I finally made it back to my farm in the Vendée, France.

I bought the farm 11 years ago, in a quest to keep your veg boxes full and varied through the Hungry Gap: the lean few weeks after the UK’s winter crops end, but before the spring harvest.

Harvest starts in France six vital weeks earlier – yet by road, it’s closer to our Devon farm than the Fens.

Cool, grey and wet, this year has brought its fair share of challenges; we lost our broad beans to chocolate spot, and half of the sweetcorn to another fungal disease, known to us as ‘smut’ (although the black spore-filled galls are called ‘huitlacoche’ and much prized by cooks in Mexico).

But other crops have never looked so good, nor the cows so sleek and content. And best of all, there is a calm confidence growing among the increasingly experienced team.

Through benign neglect, my input has become largely superfluous. An underrated aspect of management is knowing when to get out of the way – even if I can’t take credit for this particular happy accident.

George Bush reputedly confided in Tony Blair that “The problem with the French is they have no word for ‘entrepreneur’.” Musing on the success of this farm, I would counter: the problem with the US and the UK is that we idolise entrepreneurship, with all the associated impatient capital, innovation and marketing, at the cost of just getting on with doing what you do well. 

One reason why the farm is flourishing is because I have not been around making ‘innovative’ suggestions about new crops and radical ways of growing them. No doubt it is important to embrace the opportunities that come with change in the rapidly evolving world of tech start-ups, but when it comes to growing veg there is more to be gained from progressive, incremental improvement and patient investment.

The same is true across the UK more broadly: there is a nobility in doing something well, that lasts, which is lacking from the restless and undignified scramble to identify the ‘next big thing’ and turn it into money.

I headed home determined to visit the Vendée more often, listen more, suggest less – and to build the new reservoir the team have asked for.  

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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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