Two go to Riverford
August 10, 2006
Last weekend Maths chick and I completed a much-anticipated pilgrimage to Riverford farm. After slaying the dragons of the M4 corridor and surviving the Slough of Despond that is the M5 south of Bristol, we finally arrived at Riverford farm. The holy grail of the organic movement. A Mecca for the fundamentalist veg box worshipper.
We found the farm, nestling among the picture-book hills of South Devon, slumbering peacefully on a muggy Saturday afternoon. The fields were empty of harvesters – perhaps in the mythical land of Riverford the soft fruit picks itself? Or perhaps the pixies come out at night to lovingly fill our little boxes and sprinkle each one with a pixie-handful of veggie magic?
As we drove down into the farm we passed several gleaming articulated lorries, emblazoned with the snazzy Riverford logo. A first sign of the impressive scale of Guy Watson’s organic empire. Somehow, I’d always imagined our boxes being transported to our doorstep on horse-drawn carts driven by a merry army of clog-wearing rural types. An illusion shattered.
A motley collection of earnest ecopilgrims and sleepy day-trippers gathered expectantly in the Field Kitchen. I’d imagined this would be a M*A*S*H-style mess tent set up in a field with a couple of harassed cooks boiling up vats of kohlrabi soup over stuttering camping stoves.
In reality the kitchen turned out to be an impressive wood and glass building, hung with vaguely disturbing paintings of fruit and veg and boasting a shiny open-plan kitchen. A photo of Gordon Ramsey embracing the Riverford kitchen team was proudly displayed on the kitchen counter. Clearly, we were in the presence of gastronomic heavy weights. No wholewheat pastry flans or Cranks-style nut roasts on the menu, thank goodness. Chard gratin and honey braised with balsamic vinegar caught the eye. New potatoes cooked in a bag with garlic and rosemary emerged as the star of the show.
A ‘fit farmer’ (Maths chick’s words) called Darren led us on our whistle-stop tour of the fields. He spoke with clarity about EU legislation, with passion about crop rotation and rhubarb-leaf pesticide, and with honesty about some of the grey-areas of organic food production.
He spoke about some of the difficulties peculiar to the veg box delivery racket. In mid-summer many customers cancel their orders due to holidays or busier lifestyles – around 10,000 fewer boxes had been ordered over the last couple of weeks. We also learned about the hungry gap in late spring when, for several weeks, there are few crops ready for harvest, and poly-tunnels have to be used to ‘force’ crops to fill the boxes.
He explained how Riverford’s rapid growth has itself created ethical dilemmas, particularly the high number of food miles involved in transporting around 60,000 weekly boxes to far-flung corners of the country. It was interesting to hear about their attempts to rectify this through setting up partnership organic delivery schemes like River Nene in the Midlands.
Darren led us, like a benign Pied Piper, through fields of raspberry and loganberry canes, prickly gooseberry bushes, chewy green celery and retired strawberry plants. Generously, we were given license to harvest and graze as we passed.
One of the wonders of the farm was this poly-tunnel full of basil. We could smell it from a distance, even over the pungent aromas of silage, manure and tractor exhaust fumes. The urge to dive in and roll around on the bed of fragrant herbs was almost too strong to resist.
At the end of the tour we were given free rein to pick as many of these glorious cherry tomatoes as we could. A veggie version of Supermarket Sweep. We ended up with two bulging bagfuls and were constantly popping them through the rest of the weekend, leading eventually to severe gut rot. Deadly when you’re sharing a small tent. In the end we gave away half a bagful to a talkative, dishevelled Geordie we met on a campsite. Maths chick was convinced he had recently made a daring escape from Dartmouth prison and was on the run. If so, I hope he gets away.
Our pilgrimage to Devon was worth getting up at 7am on a Saturday morning for. Passionate people, great food, an imaginatively run business. It made me realise how hard the good folk at Riverford work – often over 10 hours a day, up to 7 days a week. A vocation, not a job.
Strangely, I left the farm with a slight pang. Perhaps a little bit of the mystery and wonder of the veg box has been lost by visiting Riverford and learning about the prosaic realities of the veg-growing business. I guess it’s time to grow up and stop believing in the veg box fairies.