Box clever

Box clever

Recently the organic vegetable home-delivery business has seen several doors close in its face. Peter Baber talks to the farmers who will push and push until they swing open again.

When the cruel winds of the recession first blew into the UK, the sages in the national press were quick to report the death of one particular trend. A trend that, in their typical style, they had spent a good part of the past decade naming as the next big thing. The organic vegetable delivery box scheme, through which Britain’s consumers could have organic vegetables delivered direct to their door, was said to be doomed.

Back in June 2008, the Daily Telegraph (more particularly, one writer by the quintessentially Telegraph name of Harry Wallop) was reporting how something that had once been “the ultimate badge of being a member of the foodie middle classes” was now “falling foul of the credit crisis” and that “soil-dusted artichokes, fennel and kale” were losing their appeal.

“Thousands of families have been cancelling their boxes, deeming them an ‘unaffordable luxury’ in the economic downturn,” the report claimed. This would indeed be bad news for a sector once seen as being so sexy that Phoenix Equity Partners had made a substantial investment in one scheme, Abel & Cole, just nine months earlier. The report quoted a sales director from London, who had had to give up her delivery box because she and her husband were remortgaging their house and could no longer afford paying for such a scheme.

And it quoted a civil servant from Twickenham with a double-barreled name, who was giving up her scheme too, but had “no regrets” about doing so, because – horror of horrors – “we never used it up each week.” It then went onto lament the demise of one of the country’s oldest such schemes, based, as it happens, in North Yorkshire – although as is often the case in pieces run by Londoncentred media organisations, North Yorkshire sounded as if it wasn’t much less remote than outer Siberia.

Well, as so often happens with stories from the national press, the truth has proved to be a little more complicated than that.

This year, as we see the first faintest glimmer through the mist of possible brighter days ahead, there is still bad news for some in the organic movementIn April the Soil Association reported that total organic sales – not just those from delivery boxes, but organic sales in supermarkets too – had fallen in 2009 by almost 13 per cent.

It was the first annual decline since the organisation which monitors organic farming first began keeping records in 1993. But there is one organic delivery scheme that is bucking the trend quite considerably – and it just happens to be based in North Yorkshire too. Home Farm, Newby Wiske, near Northallerton, has seen deliveries rise by between 35 and 40 per cent last year. Farm manager Marc Smith says that is partly down to the increasing geographic spread of their deliveries.

“We are going into new areas like Scarborough, Huddersfield, Rotherham, Bradford and Halifax,” he says. The farm is the northernmost outreach of Riverford, the UK’s largest organic vegetablebox delivery scheme with a turnover nationwide of around £34m.

Abel & Cole may be better known, thanks in good part to Phoenix Equity Partners’ investment, but Riverford’s founder Guy Watson maintains that his organisation has a lead on Abel & Cole in terms of turnover of around £7m.

He adds that even after stripping the new areas out, Home Farm’s individual trade has gone up 20 per cent in the last year. The five other main farms in the organisation’s network have not seen growth on anything like that scale, although Watson insists trade has largely stayed level.

“We have seen a dip in certain areas,” he says, “mainly from people who bought into the whole scheme as part of a trend. But we are winning customers back now. People want what is good to eat, they want food that tastes good.” Home Farm itself can also take most of the credit for its growth. Abel & Cole may collect all it stock centrally for distribution, but Riverford leaves delivery very much down to individual farms. In Home Farm’s case this is a network of ten different delivery franchises, so its success is very much down to owner, Peter Richardson, and Smith.

“We have a good support chain too the produce gets delivered to fridges on farms, and then picked up by the local door step delivery franchise,” says Smith.

“So it’s field to doorstep in 24 hours, although we have to work this at certain times.” Allowing individual businesses to organise deliveries over a relatively small area encourages them build up a stronger rapport with local customers: Home Farm has one of the highest customer satisfaction ratings of any of the farms within the Riverford group. It has certainly been a big change for Richardson.

His family haven’t exactly been on the farm for generations, but his father was a tenant farmer who bought the farm off the shipbuilding Duxford family in 1956.

He says he first became aware of the advantages of diversifying into organic farming in the mid-1990s. “At the time we were a conventional mixed farm with a few pigs and sugar beet as a vegetable,” he says. “The accepted wisdom was that you couldn’t convert to organic farming with pigs because of the technicalities of doing it. But we gradually moved over from 1998. We started with potatoes, then courgettes, then parsnips, then brassicas. Four or five years ago I started looking at the idea of having a vegetable delivery box. And was already familiar with Riverford, and decided to join them.” That was in 2007, and becoming part of the Riverford organisation involved a personal investment on Richardson’s side of £500,000. Watson says that a farm just outside Northallerton was “perhaps a bit further north than was ideal.” The other farms in the network are Watson’s own farm and cooperative in Devon, as well as farms in Hampshire, Peterborough and Cheshire.

“But we wanted someone who was trustworthy and had similar aspirations,” he says. “We were looking for a long-term relationship. That has certainly been borne out since with Peter.” Richardson says his family were in the end enthusiastic about the move.

“My dad was actually very supportive,” he says. “He is 75 but can still put a full day’s work in. In the early years a lot of people thought we were mad, but they have since looked over the farm and discovered that we have grown some very good crops. It has certainly surpassed my early expectations. We have been able to increase our higher value crops dramatically. I didn’t in the end take any conversion payments when we changed over, but I still take £20 an acre for being organic, and I still take the single farm payment. Previously you couldn’t claim for that on vegetable land.” Wisely choosing not to put all his eggs in one basket, he hasn’t turned all of his 500 acres over to Riverford. Some 30 per cent is still organically farmed for supermarkets, although he is open-minded about how much longer this arrangement will continue. Stories of individual farmers’ fraught relationships with the supermarket giants are, of course, legion.

Whole books have been written about them, but both Richardson and Smith are particularly irked at supermarkets’ reactions to the scabs that can develop on up to 20 per cent of all the potatoes they grow organically.

These are totally harmless to humans, and easy to peel off.

For Riverford’s own customers the company overcompensates by adding more potatoes to the box. But the supermarkets automatically send all such potatoes back, resulting in enormous waste. Even for a vegetable farmer, however, the move to Riverford has resulted in Richardson growing some crops he might not have been so keen to have before.

Take kohl rabi, forinstance – a root vegetable not unlike celeriac or turnip. “Personally I don’t like it,” he says. “We have also had to grow cauliflower. Lots and lots of cauliflower.” But people’s lack of knowledge about native vegetables and subsequent hostility to them is one thing Riverford has picked up in the copious customer research it carries out.

You could almost claim that this was not so much a lack of knowledge as a loss of knowledge, as our grandparents would be more than familiar with such things as beetroot and swede.

The company has sought to overcome this by including recipe leaflets in every delivery box suggesting what customers can do with this week’s vegetables, and keeping a store of seasonal vegetables on its website which is constantly changing. It can and does supply the kind of more Mediterranean and exotic fruit and vegetables that have become a more staple part of the British diet in recent decades – but these are sourced from farms in Spain.

The company may be committed to reducing its carbon footprint, but Smith, who before he joined Riverford in 2007 worked on a 1,500 acre farm in Kenya with some 600 workers, and comes from a family of Wensleydale farmers, has doubts about whether it would ever be economically, environmentally or socially worthwhile to try to replicate such conditions at home in the UK. “Peppers and cucumbers are usually better under polytunnels in Spain,” he says. The company does however, lorry-freight everything from Spain. It has a commitment to never air-freight anything.

And in the meantime it is also trying to encourage more people in Britain to revert to cooking native vegetables by creating a series of Riverford cook books published by Fourth Estate. In fact, increasing Riverford’s and Home Farm’sprofiles is one of the key objectives Richardson and Smith have for the next few years.

“We are taking part in Open Farm Sunday, which is all about encouraging farmers to open their gates out to the public,” says Smith.“We have had an asparagus evening too, although we are not necessarily opening out more to pick your own. We are having a Mongolian yurt on the farm this summer, too, and an 80-seater restaurant in a field. We will be cooking lots of familiar products during August.” All that is well and good, but how easy has it been in recent months to convert more people to the organic idea? After all, a couple of months ago the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which you might have thought would look kindly on a movement that claims to be removing unnecessary chemicals from the food chain, brought out a report suggesting that there were little if any benefits to be had from eating organic.

The publicity this report attracted, and the associated media comment suggesting that the organic movement had finally been exposed as hype, has, perhaps not surprisingly, considerably angered Watson.

“I am tired of the press,” he says. “After giving us pretty much total admiration for ten years in the past two years they have become totally biased. The FSA was a case in point.” Smith says the company’s research has shown customers are swayed by other reasons than health benefits anyway.

“The main reason consumers buy organic is for their taste and freshness,” he says. “We hear anecdotes all the time on this.” Both he and Watson are pinning much more of their hopes on an EU-funded report being prepared by Professor Carol Leifert from Newcastle University which is examining organic farming much more exhaustively.

“They are looking at the whole thing for a year,” says Smith, “because it’s only after then that you start to see how organic crops get the right antibodies and so on.” Watson is much more scornful. “The FSA are pretty much the only people who came to the conclusion they did,” he says. “Elsewhere in Europe people have reached a very different conclusion, and that leads me to think the FSA had it in for organic farming.” They are not, however, zealots for the organic movement. Neither Smith nor Richardson nor Watson see organic farming as something that will take over from conventional farming.

And Smith adds that it is perfectly all right to farm and eat meat. He does, for one. He says the stereotype image people have about organic food only being a fad for the very wealthy – an idea the Telegraph article may have enhanced – is inaccurate.

Riverford’s research has found that by far its greatest customer segment comes from hard-pressed young families. “Rich people tend to go out for dinner more,” he says. Claims that Riverford products are cheaper than supermarkets, however, start to look a little bit weak when you realise they are only being compared with supermarkets’ organic products. You could say then that the organic movement presents a useful and necessary diversification for a sector that in England has been seen as declining for some time.

Certainly Richardson has noticed the impact going organic has had. “Between 25 and 30 people work on the farm now,” he says. “It was just eight people two years ago. That’s a big change.”