Riverford has been quietly mounting an organic vegetable revolution from a small patch of Devon since the 1980s, among the first to recognise the benefits of sustainable, local food. These days even self-confessed cynic Jay Rayner (The Guardian’s renowned food critic) describes the family company as “the progressive face of ethical business”.
We spoke to die-hard organic proponent Guy to ask how it began and why it’s worth stopping in.
How did Riverford get started?
My parents were tenant farmers at Riverford, a traditional mixed farm, not organic. They had five children [Louise, Ben, Oliver, Guy and Rachel], and I’m the youngest of them. We’re all involved in food and farming. I ended up back on the farm growing vegetables in ’86 because I realised I was unemployable and couldn’t bear sitting in an office.
I didn’t like handling pesticides. My brother had just been in hospital with paraquat poisoning; I made myself sick spraying my father’s corn and I saw it as a market opportunity. I had spent two years as a management consultant in London and New York: I thought it might be a growth market and I wanted to be outside. That came together as organic vegetables.
How has it grown?
We turned over £6,000 in the first year – I say we; it was just me – and we turn over £60million now. It started off local shops, then wholesalers, then supermarkets, then the box scheme started in ’93. By 2003 we’d unravelled ourselves from supermarkets and devoted ourselves to the box scheme, covering England as far as Newcastle, across to the Lakes and South, and the South of Wales.
Riverford Field Kitchen
What makes the Field Kitchen a great place to stop?
Vegetables. Fresh vegetables grown in the fields outside prepared by a team who are enthused by their ingredients. We’re not vegetarian but you’d sometimes barely know it. It’s lots of exciting salads and veg like you have never seen before; the meat is a sort of side show. By virtue of the fact that it’s a set meal served at a set time means that our chefs can be very uncompromising in how they do things. They don’t have to precook things and reheat them, which is something that a lot of restaurants have to do, even good ones. The standard of food leaves everyone else trailing in its wake, unless you’re going out to spend £150 in the River Cafe.
What do you take with you on a long journey?
I take lots of fruit. The temptation is to put lots of horrible things in your mouth when you’re driving, bored and trying to stay awake.