Business defies organic sales drop

Guy Watson, the founder of organic vegetable box delivery firm Riverford, spilt the beans on how he turned his business from an idea imagined at home on his farm into a country-wide success story, at an event in Harrogate,

Mr Watson believes his business has weathered a declining popularity in organic food after a trend in recent years to portray organic as “a lifestyle choice for idiots” and has seen a sales uplift since the horsemeat scandal brought the issue of food integrity to the fore at the start of the year.

Speaking ahead of an after-dinner engagement at Hotel du Vin, Mr Watson said: “Sales since January have been really good, they’re about 15 per cent up.

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“I think the horsegate thing has helped and the quality of our veg is better every year. People have generally lost confidence in where their food is coming from and they want to see a face behind it rather than an audit trail.”

Mr Watson grew up on the family farm in Devon and left to pursue a career as a business consultant in New York. But life turned full circle and he now lives back on the farm in Devon, his base for the Riverford enterprise which has grown from humble beginnings to a network of four organic growers on farms dotted about the country, including Home Farm run by Peter Richardson in Newby Wiske.

Mr Watson explained: “My parents were tenant farmers and I always wanted to be a farmer. I spent a couple of years away from the farm as a business consultant so I picked up a sense of how markets worked. I didn’t want to produce an anonymous commodity.

“I started out in 1996/97. I could see an emerging market for organic vegetables and I had a certain ethical commitment.

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“I was growing vegetables over three acres in the first year and selling produce to local shops out of the back of my car. It was a yellow Citroen 2CV and I used to take the back seat out and load it up so it was almost dragging along the ground.

“I grew to 15 acres in the second year and 30 acres in the third year and sold to shops and wholesalers and then to Sainsbury’s. I was soon fed up.”

He hated the impersonal approach of supermarket buyers, he said, and was only just covering the costs of production so when a friend started a box scheme nearby, he was inspired to give it a try himself.

“I delivered 30 boxes in the first week. When I met my customers they were really interested in where the vegetables came from, how they were grown and what they tasted like.” As his customer base grew he sought business partners in different parts of the country who shared his long-term vision. Yorkshire farmer Mr Richardson said he has no regrets about joining forces.

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He said: “In those days we were 100 per cent supplying the supermarkets – potatoes, courgettes and parsnips – now we have about 20 different crops and only about five per cent of our profits come from supplying the supermarkets. It’s a good, honest product that we sell with nowhere near the waste that we got from the supermarkets because they didn’t like the shape of some veg.”

Now, Riverford delivers around 40,000 vegetable boxes a week to homes around the UK.

The industry remains challenging.

According to the Soil Association, the organic market dipped by 1.5 per cent last year despite growth in online retail, independent outlets and a shift towards younger consumers.