Family-run Riverford farm's famous invention - the organic veg box - has taken the world by storm. Why?
I love Thursday mornings. Come rain or shine, a smiley guy called Paul Jardine will knock on my door with a boxful of fresh fruit and veg, and usually some eggs too - to save me from breaking mine on the walk home from the shops.
Tomorrow I’m expecting a green Batavia lettuce, cherry vine tomatoes, flat beans, a red pepper, broccoli, some clementines and white grapes.
I’ve no idea what I’ll do with it all, but that’s part of the wonder of getting a Riverford vegbox – no agonising over what to buy in the supermarket. Neither do you need to read every label, because all of Riverford’s veg are grown to high ethical standards. It’s usually about 20% cheaper than a supermarket shop and delivery is free.
It’s a family affair
It is unusual for a friendly local supplier to be hidden behind a website and to serve tens of thousands of customers across the UK every week, but Riverford manages just that without morphing into a faceless organisation – far from it, in fact, thanks to Guy Watson, pioneer of the organic vegbox scheme and head of the business.
As well as its famed organic vegboxes, family-run Riverford has a farm shop, restaurant, dairy, butchery and bakery across its patch of Devon, as well as two other shops, in Kitley and Totnes.
Four of five Watson siblings - the family has farmed in the same spot for 50 years - work in the current business, and you’re as likely to see them out in the fields, pulling up bright beets or swedes, as you are staring at spreadsheets.
What is a veg box scheme?
Whether you’ve ever ordered one or eaten from one or not, you’ve probably heard the phrases “veg box” and “box scheme” from friends and family over the past few years.
Yes, we can all put vegetables inside a box should we choose to… what we mean here is fresh produce delivered from a farmer’s fields straight to your doorstep, with no supermarket or grocer intermediaries.
As with all brilliant ideas, the vegbox as we know it had to be invented by someone, and that genius was Riverford farm’s Guy Watson.
In the late 80’s, a few years after turning much of the Watsons’ 350-hectare farm into a vegetable growing business that focused on natural, honest food production, Guy came up with the idea of sharing his veg with his Devon neighbours.
He began by packaging up vegetables to deliver to 30 friends. Today Riverford co-ordinates the delivery of almost 50,000 boxes of organic veg around the UK each week, which means that the Devon HQ oversees an empire of like-minded growers around the country, to make sure that customers get their veg as fresh and using as few food miles as possible.
One size doesn’t fit all
Riverford offers such a variety of fruit, veg and meat boxes that you’re unlikely to find there isn’t something to suit your personal tastes. For one or two people, a mini veg box (£9.85) or mini fruit & vegbox (£11.95), with seven or eight veg varieties or five veg and two fruit, will last the week. Add on a salad bag (£6.45) if you fancy it.
There are big boxes for families, and meat boxes. Perhaps the best thing is that you’re not locked into any one order. Simply go on the website (or call up) at least two days before delivery and cancel or add to your standard order. As well as fruit, veg and meat, Riverford delivers everything you could want in the kitchen, from oil, wine and cake to pasta, bread and soups. This means that as well as supporting other farmers, they can supply items from other small producers whose stuff they rate.
At the moment, for example, they’re doing a marmalade kit which you could use to make Connie Allfrey’s Seville Orange Whisky Marmalade. And the last-minute decisions of customers are managed very well – I’ve never received a wrong order.
The principle of the matter
When Riverford started to champion a return to locally grown, seasonal food over 20 years ago, Britain was in full swing of its shiny supermarkets and frozen food era. Few people knew what organic food was, let alone boasted about eating it to their friends.
But Riverford sells more than just organic food: it concentrates on simple, honest food, selling nothing which has been over-processed, getting a fair deal for farmers and slipping customers a bit of food education along the way.
This doesn’t mean that all your veg is home-grown. In fact, little of my box will be this week, but Riverford tries to use about 80% British produce per year, and if you want to stick to root veg and up that percentage over the winter months, you can.
If this all sounds a bit holier than thou, there’s more: Riverford has shown that eating ethically doesn’t mean you have to eat boring food. Its Field Kitchen restaurant at the farm won an Observer Food Award in 2009 and 2010 for Best UK ethical restaurant, and was reviewed by Jay Rayner for the Observer. And it took the Best online retailer prize in 2010 too.
“Food should be fit to eat out of the field,” says Guy Watson, who likes nothing more than striding through his own fields tasting carrots or lettuces. It’s a simple enough concept, but alien to many farmers, who wouldn’t dream of eating any of their fertiliser-swamped produce without giving it a good wash first.
If you’re happy to brush the mud off first, you can eat your Riverford veg straight from the box too!
Also worth your attention:
- Recipe: Winter Vegetable Herb Pot Roast
- Recipe: Spanish Chicken Pot Roast
For your contact book:
Riverford Organic Vegetables Limited
Buckfastleigh, Devon TQ11 0JU, UK
Phone: 01803 762059
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