We’re debating how carrots should really taste with the MD of the nation’s leading organic vegetable supplier when a chap ambles by with a slightly battered rucksack slung over his shoulder, a weathered jumper ripped at both elbows and rust-coloured Doc Marten shoes.
He looks slightly lost, so we pause the interview as Rob Haward turns to him, then back to me and offers: “This is Guy. He’s the boss”. It also turns out he’s not lost but has got the wrong day for a speech he’s supposed to be giving.
He’s not quite what you’d expect from the creator of the rags to riches Riverford Organic Farms empire, which started with him selling home-grown veg to friends from the boot of his Citroen in the early 90s. But then outspoken self-confessed ‘vegetable nerd’ Guy Watson has always bucked the trend.
His passion for making vegetables our dinner-time stars has turned his fledgling venture into a £45-million business, whose 500 staff at four sites across the UK work with a passion to send out 47,000 veg boxes each week. And his relaxed demeanour and connection with the ethical foundations of his enterprise remain undiminished despite that success… he is, he insists, just a farmer besotted by veg.
So much so in fact that he’s now waxing lyrical about Puntarelle a variant of chicory with dandelion shaped leaves, whose shoots have a pleasant bitter taste.
Minutes later, as we tuck into a hearty winter plate of sumptuous veg accompanied by pork belly, he plonks himself down on the next bench to eat and chat with the guys from the warehouse.
That’s the secret of the enduring appeal of Riverford, the 1,300-acre farm nestling in Devon’s beautiful Dart where Guy was born and where he and his four siblings all now work on the venture. He’s approachable, friendly and part of the team – and it’s no act.
Food scares, growing public awareness, desire for provenance and the quest for healthy eating have, down the years, cemented Guy’s decision, but there is still much to be done.
Harvest Manager Martin Gainsborough hunkers down and beams. “That’s a stonking leek… a megaton, about 35mm in diameter.” His smile is triumphant. He is the man responsible for forecasting the perfect storm, where the number of available vegetables matches the predicted demand.
“The logistical side is the hardest part of the job. We plant based on long-term projections and then pick two weeks ahead, always trying to match the variables. But that sea of detail isn’t something the customer needs to worry about,” he said. “All they need to know is that the time their curly kale, brassica, savoy cabbage or spinach is picked to the time it lands on their doorstep is less than two days.”
Unlike many supermarkets, Martin and his pickers do not discriminate on what the crop looks like, here, it’s all about the flavour.
“Appearance is largely irrelevant. We want to grow carrots that taste of carrot, not the high yield Nairobi that’s judged solely on how resilient it is,” he said: “People are becoming more aware that vegetables can quite easily become the main attraction on a plate if they taste great, but many are just not green-fingered or don’t have time to grow their own. That’s where we help, growing it for them, suggesting simple recipes and even tailoring boxes to those recipes.”
His boss’s take on the movement against mass-produced, tasteless veg taking place in the kitchens of Britain was reinforced by one visit to a farmer in the Fens.
Guy said: “I bent down and picked some lettuce to eat and he said ‘I shouldn’t do that boy’. They’d been sprayed for aphids. This was a farmer growing food who wouldn’t eat the stuff he was growing, which is crazy. Food should be fit to eat straight from the field.”
Martin concurred: “Our lettuces are lettuce and nothing more. There are no pesticides. We use natural predators, hedgerows and nets. A plant will only struggle when it’s stressed, so we get the ergonomy right and the rest follows.”
Price is the main factor stalling the uninitiated, and that disappoints Riverford Organic Farms MD Rob Haward.
“Good organic vegetables at little extra cost can be amazing… vegetables have been taken for granted”
He said: “Of course people have budgets but often it’s the perception of what they can do with vegetables that deters them, and that saddens me a little. Good organic vegetables at little extra cost can be amazing,” he proffered. “Vegetables have been taken for granted, but with a slight tweak, a good, organic cabbage, for example, can be the star of the show without doing a lot to it.”
Rob is the business overseer behind the smooth-running plant, pick and package process, which is complemented by a marketing team equally as passionate about their product.
“That’s the key. We all believe in it, everyone is happy to be here and that comes from Guy at the top, who has maintained the values that he had right at the outset. The enthusiasm for growing great veg is in our DNA and it’s infectious,” said Dan.
“Every business decision we take has to connect to the original values and that is how we maintain that authenticity, which is quite rare these days.”
Comparison with an allotment on a larger, tooled-up scale are welcome here and, surprisingly, Rob and the team applaud those who grow their own. He said: “If you do, it’s fantastic, but if you have a bad year or are busy, we are the next best thing. We’re showing that veg doesn’t have to be a boring accompaniment by explaining what you can do with it through our Recipe Boxes, recipe apps, cookbooks and seasonal recipe guides.”
Mouthwatering dishes like dhal with crispy sweet potato and quick coconut chutney or venison and mushroom stroganoff are made idiot-proof by the website and in-box instructions because, Rob insists, education has to start in the kitchen.
He added: “We have a new website, we’re raising awareness by getting out into communities more and are expanding our product range. The message will remain the same though: try our veg – you’re not tied in – and if you don’t like it, go back to what you were eating before.”
Photography courtesy of Roy Kilcullen