Risk aversion and staying off the shoulders

Has pragmatic compromise become a creeping move towards ‘the customer is always right', and damn the environment and UK farming? writes Guy Singh-Watson, reflecting on the need to invest in British-grown produce.

With steadily rising temperatures, a fair amount of light, and marginally less rain than we expect in Devon, it is proving to be a good end to the UK growing season – and, consequently, a gentle entry into the Hungry Gap (after the end of winter crops, but before the first harvest of spring plantings in May and June).

Purple sprouting broccoli has escaped the rots that follow frost damage and persistent rain; late leeks are putting on a final burst of growth, before running to seed next month (if you cut them in half, you will likely find the seed head telescoping up from the base); and cauliflowers and greens are rallying after the fungal disease that blighted them in the shorter, darker days, when their growth was minimal.

Over the years, and particularly since I handed over the decisions on what to grow and when to plant it, we have become progressively more cautious. We are more focused on fewer crops, and less willing to try every mad idea gleaned from visits to eccentric growers, gardeners, produce markets, or fringe seed catalogues. We start planting later, and finish earlier, avoiding the risky “shoulders” at the beginning and end of the season – when a crop is on the edge of its preferred temperature ranges, and small deviations from the norm can result in low yields and poor quality.

Should a veg box be constrained by what can be grown locally, or at least in the UK?

Avoiding the shoulders, while maintaining a good variety in our boxes, has been made possible by buying our own farm in France (where the team cut the season’s first lettuces this week), as well as long-term trading relationships with growers in Spain, Italy, and further afield – never transporting by air.

Have we gone too far? Should a veg box be constrained by what can be grown locally, or at least in the UK? Has pragmatic compromise become a creeping move towards ‘the customer is always right’, and damn the environment and UK farming? Personally, I think we are still on the right side of the line.

But to stay that side, we need to invest in more polytunnels and better storage to extend our UK seasons, risk the occasional experiment, and be prepared to pay for local produce even when it is more expensive than imports (as it tends to be over the next three months). Brexit, a pandemic, and now the general breakdown in the global, rule-based order make trade almost as risky as an early planting of lettuce. And above all, we need you to stay enthusiastic about our leeks, greens, and cauliflowers for a few more weeks, until the spring plantings are ready to harvest.


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  1. No air freight is a great rule. 100% agree. That said, I enjoy my local, vale of Evesham tomatoes albeit grown in greenhouses heated by biomass. Food security will likely become an issue. We are getting used to kale. Love leeks and purple sprouting.

  2. I think the fact that you started by asking yourself these questions, then keep on asking them, mean you’re on the right track! And head and shoulders above most.
    On ‘the customer is always right’… that could be something creeping to guard against. Where food is concerned, what the customer expects is so wrapped up in unsustainable practices and the experience of unlimited choice. Don’t be afraid to keep demonstrating how beneficial limited choice can be, in so many ways.

    1. Totally agree with leakybucket. The credo of “the customer is always right” is based on the assumption that the customer is reliable informed.

    2. I think the economist Adam Smith said the same thing with markets. For them to be efficient at allocating resources they need perfect information (like such a thing exists!).

    3. Conversely saying that the “the customer is never right -we as farmers are” will slowly drive customers away – at the moment everybody is entitled to some small luxuries {no doubt this will change] and if they can’t get them in one place they will move to another where they can! Even the most hardened of us find it is nice to take off the “hair shirt” occasionally! This reduces the ability of the farmer etc. to show the rest of us the way forward – if there is such a way?

      The trick I believe is to strike the middle line, keep the “farm” going and keep training the people but allowing them the occasional treat to keep the interest – Pavlov with his dogs (another Russian) pointed the way forward in this.

      As for your comment on how beneficial limited choice can be, on that one I totally disagree, limited choice, maybe but within reason! I guess you have nevr lived through rationing? Lucky you but there is still chance this may happen

      The Walrus

  3. We’re hardcore have been buying the UK only veg boxes for months now. Thanks to your brilliant recipe books we’re never stuck for ideas. Wish I’d signed up years ago.

  4. We love our fortnightly UK only veg box! Not only are the veg So Much Tastier than supermarket veg, I’m also interested to realise how much I’d forgotten over the last few decades about what’s in season when. Alternate weeks, we do a ‘free’ order, and I’m also keen to buy from named Riverford growers in France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands where mainstream agriculture (in the Netherlands and parts of southern Spain, anyway: not sure about other areas) is highly intensified like ours. Like Dunpony, I wish we’d signed up years ago too. Thank you Riverford: love your veg, policies and Guy’s ‘rants’/philosophical writings.

  5. Mmmm. When I sometimes look on my shelves and see an array of dried foods and then think about all the fresh foods we eat as a family, I think should I be eating simpler with less variety.

    So I buy, that week, the 100% British Box, then after a few weeks i see something in another Box, probably grown abroad and think, I could get that. I admire those who choose home grown all the time. Accepting I would have less variety, but supporting Home Growers. Continue to make me think. Thanks to all.

  6. I eat too much and I have too much choice…bit like we need to cut fossil fuels and the alternatives still allow the same consumer choices and consumption, because we dare not challenge the god of capitalism….what was that ‘old’ adage -‘ Live simply so that others may simply live’….and some of us still cannot do without our flying holiday…

  7. I think we should be looking at eating with the seasons. As a child in the 70’s we ate what was available. We do not need to eat fresh tomatoes in the depth of winter, although I do grow a storing tomato called De Colgar and sometimes have fresh tomatoes into February. It is time we relearnt what it is to eat seasonally. We only eat what we can grow, My polytunnels help to extend the season and we aren’t hard done by at all. There is no such thing as food security if we are shipping food in from all around the world.

  8. When I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s we ate what was available, it was the norm, nobody complained or got frustrated, I believe

    . I remember the arrival of the first new potatoes, WONDERFUL, appreciation of the spring and its exciting produce. I think most of us have lost the appreciation of food, its flavour and wonderful freshness.

    Supermarkets have sold the exciting nature of eating seasonably to profit. The produce that is imported, in the main, is tasteless anaemic and not worth the bother of importing it half way across the world.

    Guy, I would much rather tuck into a cabbage grown with love and care, it tastes fabulous.

  9. Guy, I agree with earlier comments Riverford are on the right track. With it unique insight(s) I think Riverford can answer the broad shoulders question. Offering the possible to the customers with high value sustainable processes is a core skill. In business doing the right thing takes leadership. Testing and validating what can be delivered on a commercial basis is always a core process. Thinking about the opportunity to deliver diverse crops has to be a long term foundation. But telling folks you must only have UK products will never be a winner. People now have the taste and techniques for wider sourcing – can Riverford hold onto their environmental gold dust for sustainable rewards? Of course! Your team are already engaged. Good luck!

  10. Understand Riverford being a little risk adverse regarding growing as overheads and importance of the crop mean there is pro bably ‘too much to loose’. Answer to encourage the coop and other growers by rewarding accordingly for ‘ha ving a go’ and stretching the seasons. Lots of farms with lots of very different soils, seasons and expertise …


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