In my least favourite newsletter of the year, I have to inform you that Riverford’s prices will rise by an average of 5.6 per cent next week. With UK food inflation running at three times that rate, you will have heard the reasons. For most farming, energy and raw materials (e.g. fertiliser, seeds, animal feed) are the drivers. For organic veg, where labour typically makes up 50 per cent of the cost of growing and harvesting, rising pay is the biggest factor. Personally, I celebrate the 20 per cent rise in farm worker pay over the last two years as well deserved and long overdue – but it would be fantasy not to expect growers to recoup at least some of that in price increases.
Somehow, we must start rewarding people more for doing useful stuff. The only way I can see that happening is by rewarding people less for simply owning stuff. With the poorest households spending more than 30 per cent of their income on rent and just 14 per cent on food, the answer to ‘food poverty’ might lie more in a landlords’ summit at Number 10 than a food and farming summit.
Arguably, Riverford could have found ways to remain a little cheaper for a little longer. We could have contracted out deliveries to the gig economy, slowed our investment in electric vehicles, abandoned our commitment to being a voluntary Real Living Wage employer, ditched home compostable packaging and our environmental programme, and squeezed suppliers harder. Perhaps, after all that, we could have held prices down for a while. But that is not the world my co-owners or I want to be part of. We want to fight for something better.
For those on limited budgets, with limited choices, co-owners and I can only apologise for making life even harder. I have spent 35 years trying to make good food, grown well, accessible to all. For the first 20 years, I cut corners, didn’t pay enough and neglected health, safety, and even our soil in the process. I am no longer prepared to do that. We just can’t do things right, while providing a future for the next generation, for any less.
Please rest assured that, should we make a profit, the only beneficiaries will be our Planet Action Fund, and the people who grow the veg and get it to your door. We became 100 per cent employee owned this week, so from now on, they are the business. One of the first issues they have raised is: “What can we do to make our veg accessible to those on low incomes?” We are working on it.