Small farms tend to be diverse, sustainable and professional

Riverford Organic Farmers has a proud relationship with small farms. Guy Watson, founder, tells us about the challenges of this and why it is worthwhile.

I started growing on a very, very small scale – just three acres of vegetables.

Starting on a small farm isn’t easy; my main problems back then were ignorance, lack of equipment and having to find a market. You learn to make sure you are in the best possible situation – the right climate and soil is critical for what you want to grow.

We didn’t want to use pesticides. I feel really committed to producing food in a way that is as close as I can get to being in harmony with nature. I wouldn’t consider farming any other way.

Proud of our relationships with farmers

Small farms tend to be more diverse. They have more enterprises, and usually smaller fields. That sort of farming system is inherently more sustainable and ecologically stable than large fields of wheat or whatever. Around 80-90% of what we buy would come from small to medium size farms, and we take great pride in the length of our relationship with our suppliers.

We have a co-operative that supplies us in the Devon area, for example, which I helped found in 1997. There were 10 members, about 15 now, and there is a marketing contract of five years, which is just unheard of in the fresh produce industry.

When we commit to a grower we will stand by them. We give them the security to be able to invest in their business and leave us to get on with selling the stuff.

But they also have to honour their part of the deal. We agree all the prices and the volumes we will buy 12-18 months in advance. We always stick to those, which is pretty unique. So we need our suppliers to be professional in forecasting how much they will have available and doing their best to stick to that. If they let us down, it can have significant costs for buyers like us.

We're close to our customers

It’s important to get close to your customers, whether they’re shopkeepers or on a market stall. That’s a very good way to start a business.

You get direct feedback and get to actually understand what is important to customers in a way that you never would selling fruit to a supermarket, or by just doing market research.

People really care about the human element of how their food is produced, and they like the idea of supporting smaller producers and owners, rather than someone who never goes out in the fields. The public have a preference for something that’s produced with respect for humanity.

What I would say to customers is: ask questions, and don’t be fobbed off with easy answers. There’s a huge amount of lying that goes on in the food trade and food service sector.

People tell you its organic, local and seasonal wherever possible. A lot of people give the answers they think customers want to hear with precious little to back it up. So I think customers should be more persistent in their questioning.

Find out more about Riverford Organic Farmers, our Farm Essentials product or our new Smallholder extension for our Home Insurance Policy.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by NFU Mutual.