Guy’s newsletter: veg boxes; the vision & the reality

April and May are traditionally challenging months of self-denial for those living with a veg box. 20 years ago it was so hard to make a good box through the ‘hungry gap’ that many pioneering box schemes would close from March to July; some would limp through with repetitions of sprouting potatoes, woody swedes and blown cauliflowers, but either way it took a very committed customer to stick with them. However, this week’s boxes are fantastic. These improvements have come from a mixture of increased grower expertise, better storage, investment in polytunnels, our farm in France giving us a six week jump on the season, plus good, long term trading relationships with small scale growers in Spain and Italy. All in all it’s a long way from the first 30 boxes we packed on the barn floor 22 years ago.

Yet is this a compromise from the vision of those first tiny box schemes? Undeniably, but I would argue it’s a pragmatic, justifiable and sensible one; vision can be inspiring but seldom lasts without a fair degree of compromise. Most of those early box schemes have packed up; more have opened in their place but there seems to be a cycle driven by what a visiting academic writing her PhD on box schemes described as “mutual disappointment”. However ideological sounding and emotionally appealing, the veg box vision asked too much of growers and customers; the customers didn’t get the quality or variety of vegetables they wanted, and the farmers didn’t make the living they needed. It is very hard for one farmer to grow 100 crops well and even harder to do it on a small scale and produce food at an acceptable price without being ground into the dirt by the challenge. Even farmers like to take holidays now and then.

The relentless march to scale and specialisation in farming, like in everything else, is as depressing as it seems inevitable. At Riverford we have put the brakes on this trend with our farming co-op sharing machinery and expertise and thereby helping to sustain the viability of smaller farms. I do occasionally romanticise about our early days harvesting carrots and potatoes by hand or picking spinach with scissors, but there is no way back; the only people wanting to live like peasants are those who haven’t tried it.

Guy Watson

13 responses to “Guy’s newsletter: veg boxes; the vision & the reality

  1. Great blog. In there lies one oif our main challenges, producing great organic food on a commercial, sustainable and viable scale without loosing the core values or bursting the perception bubble. Cheers. Jerry

  2. Janet Campbell

    Like your thinking Guy!

  3. The boxes have been absolutely wonderful. So much green veg – plus deliciously sweet pineapples. Couldn’t do without Riverford, thank you.

  4. Dear Guy,

    I read with interest last week’s newsletter “Veg boxes; the vision & the reality”. Your delight with the quality of your hungry gap boxes is clearly a matter of pride and indeed illustrates just how far Riverford has come from the vision of the first tiny box schemes in the UK.

    I myself am a founder and full time employee of a “tiny box scheme” (90 boxes a week). We are in fact a community supported veg-box scheme, one of over 200 CSA’s currently trading in the UK. In common with all CSA schemes our customers want more from their fresh organic vegetables than simply low cost and convenience. They commit to support our farm throughout the entire growing season, including the hungry gap, because they know that farming is a year round occupation and the work doesn’t stop when the veg does.

    Our customers are also largely ex-Riverford customers who have come to us because they wanted to return to the vision of those first tiny box shemes. They value the fact that everything they receive in their box is grown on a farm they know, they value the fact that they’re not encouraging international freight of staple vegetables simply because it can be achieved at a profit, and above all they value the fact that their growers are paid a living wage and do not operate at the mercy of super market buyers. And despite the fact that they don’t even receive vegetables from us for three months of the year I can honestly say that “mutual disappointment” isn’t a phrase I’ve ever heard from one of our customers.

    You may or may not be aware that a small farmers’ union was launched in 2012 to campaign for the rights of “tiny box schemes” and producers in the UK. The Landworkers’ Alliance now has over 400 paying members and has been incredibly successful in raising the challenges facing small-scale producers with politicians, policy makers and the media over the past three years. Our members are all active producers, nearly all of us still harvest carrots and potatoes by hand and some of us even harvest our spinach with scissors.

    Almost without exception we have joined the LWA because we don’t agree that “the relentless march to scale and specialization in farming is as depressing as it seems inevitable”. On the contrary we are, every one of us, actively demonstrating that an alternative food system is possible. Due to limitations of scale and lack of public investment many of us farm without mechanization, we supply very localized markets and survive on a minimal profit margin. In your eyes we may be living like peasants but the fact is we actively choose to farm in this way.

    While we would commend your attempts at forming a farming co-op, the reality is that Riverford as a business has grown so large that your economies of scale have severely undermined the livelihoods of hundreds of small-scale producers around the country, who are forced to either compete on price or get out of farming altogether. While many of us accept this as a symptom of modern farming we are all, in our own ways, trying to hold onto our own niche that allows us to continue doing a job we love while just about paying the rent.

    Far from romanticizing a “peasant” livelihood we are proud to offer an alternative to customers who still value the roots and culture of the organic farming movement and wish to support us despite the challenges we face. As one of our members graciously put it: “The great thing about being a peasant is that if you can keep the agricultural ‘improvers’ off your back you can produce mostly for yourself without playing the spoiled brat consumerism game. Saves you having to raise the capital to start up farms in France and then trying to justify your credentials as a local food hero.”

    Yours Sincerely Ed Hamer, – On behalf of the Landworkers’ Alliance

    • Well said, Ed Hamer. We agree with you.
      From Camel Community Supported Agriculture in Cornwall.

    • Riverford is a great contact for you – watch what Guy has done since 1987 and appreciate everything has been achieved for organic farmers on his behalf. He has certainly put “organic” on the shelves! His motivation should be celebrated not knocked down again and again. I am getting pretty fed up with small minded individuals who can’t see the future and what it beholds!

  5. Well said, Ed, from a fellow CSA and member of the Landworkers’ Alliance!

  6. Thanks all for really interesting thread. I’m part of another small CSA and box scheme The Community Farm in Chew Magna. Our aim is to create opportunities for people to get on the land, changing perceptions away from ‘yuk soil is dirty please give me glossy clingfilm wrapped familiar stuff’. Yes Riverford had done a great job but don’t diss the smaller outfits, or the creative geniuses who are changing the way we use local and seasonal. I had a Supper Sense meal last night entirely local and seasonal, and all without sight, hosted by Andy Shipley and cooked by St Werburghs city farm cafe. I’m proud to be descended from peasants.

  7. An article to match perfectly between Guy and Ed, written this week by Tolly at Tolhurst Organic, can be read here

  8. I agree with Ed. Small and local beats big and international every time in terms of sustainability.

  9. You can get produce from France for your boxes, yet you don’t deliver to SW Scotland? After reading the above post by Ed Hamer, am not sure I would want to buy your boxes now. The excellent Kilnford Farm has stepped in to fill the gap for me.

  10. Well said Ed.

    Interesting that Guy hasn’t responded. I presume he reads the comments on his blog?

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