Continues from Think about the healthy soil.
Probably it will take a couple of weeks to write all of my travel in England, so I decided to start writing from the highlights. Visiting Riverford farm is definitely one of them. I heard about Riverford's organic veg box from my mother-in-law.
She said: 'I like Riverford, not only because they are organic, but in-fact their vegetable tastes better and keep freshness much longer than the one from a supermarket.'
I could actually see the weekly delivery box during my stay, and all of the vegetables looked fresh indeed. I met several other people (including Ben) who were subscribing to Riverford's veg box, and they all seemed very content.
Seasons Vegbox, £12.95 for two to three people.
I was interested in Riverford, and did a quick research on the Internet.
John and Gillian Watson started Riverford over 50 years ago as a family farm, and it is still a family business. His five children, Louise (Farm), Ben (Shop), Oliver (Farm and Dairy) and Guy and Rachel (Organic Vegetable Boxes) succeeded the farm and its associated businesses. Guy Watson is one of the pioneers in organic vegetable box schemes. He delivered the first vegetable box in 1993. In 2003, they ended supplying vegetables to supermarkets - wholly relying on box sales, and now they deliver to 40,000 customers on its regular order books.
Looking at their website, they look very welcoming people to visit their farm. Riverford was the first farm in the country to open to the public back in the 1970s, and in 2005, they opened Riverford Field Kitchen to serve seasonal organic vegetables fresh from the field.
The kitchen has published two cooking books, Riverford Farm Cook Book: Tales from the Fields, Recipes from the Kitchen and Everyday and Sunday. A new subscriber of the Riverford veg box will get one of the books free, so that she can cook whatever veg is in the box. Their iPhone App also looks neat, offering more than 700 recipes.
I and my wife bought the books. After having cooked a couple of recipes, we loved both of the books. I also found in Everyday and Sunday that Guy Watson actually started the Field Kitchen inspired by Chez Panisse. Since I visited Chez Panisse in Berkeley, my most favorite cooking book has been Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food. It was a pleasant coincidence, and I've already felt some kind of personal connection.
This circle of the farm, kitchen, recipes, and the community looked exactly what I was looking for. In-fact, their business is growing steadily. Its pre-tax profits more than doubled to £1.23 million, raising sales by six per cent to £41.8 million in the financial year to April while supermarkets' organic sector falling by five per cent over the year.
The Riverford farm is located about five miles from Totnes where it is widely know as a transition town. By walking through a beautiful path under the trees, we arrived to the Field Kitchen around 11:30.
After a warm welcome by the staff, we received a map and a MP3 player which had Guy Watson's talks recorded. It was unfortunate that we missed a weekly guided tour which was available only during summer seasons, but it was still great to listen to Guy Watson's talk who knows the farm inside out. The MP3 seems to be updated by seasons, telling how vegetables are planted and how they grow. He even encourages us to pick the vegetable on the way to try the taste.
The landscape around Totnes consists of rolling hills and the farm is cultivated on the gentle slopes. It gave me some kind of protected and private feeling as I walked on, crossing a stream, passing a pond and even through a small forest.
Riverford, accounting for sales of £41.8 million, is the biggest player in the UK's overall organic box scheme market (£167 in 2012, according to the Soil Association), employing 430 workers nationally (including 253 employees at this Wash Farm). The estate is quite big, around 400 hectares including 19 poly-tunnels, but it looks quite different from so called huge industrialized farms. Instead of a boring mono-cropping, the field is full of colors of diverse plants.
When we visited, the salad field was absolutely abundant. Many kinds of baby leaves in different greens, and the flavor was much more distinctive when freshly picked. In 1997, Riverford formed a growers' cooperative, the South Devon Organic Producers, with ten (now 16) local farmers who have converted to organic farming methods.
They share labor, equipment and expertise and have gained an enviable reputation for top quality organic vegetables. Riverford are also the sales agent giving the farmer members the benefit of reasonable prices without the hassle of selling their own produce. (Visit an organic farm, Soil Association)
To satisfy the growing demand for organic vegetables from customers across the UK, they have been setting similar regional box schemes supplied by local farmers at River Nene in Peterborough, River Swale in Yorkshire and second Riverford in Hampshire.
Guy Watson commits to low food miles, local employment, support of local farmers, and a close link between grower and consumer.
My dream is that if these ventures stay small and work together, we will have the professionalism that will allow us to offer a real and substantial, but saner, alternative to supermarkets without becoming like them. ( from Riverford Farm Cook Book )
Probably we could have spend a couple of hours on the field, but 90 minutes walk made us hungry enough before the lunch time at 13:00. We walked back to the field kitchen and sat on the table, sharing with the other four guests.
A friendly staff brought a big dish of generous, seasonal, and tasty food to our table, and we served food on our plate by ourselves. I actually liked that style. It was a good opportunity to start a conversation with other guests, and at the restaurant like there, people tend to have similar interests to talk with. There was also a nice children's play area, and children have a natural ability to make friends whichever languages they speak.
Guy Watson reveals a little background story of the Field Kitchen in Riverford Farm Cook Book.
First-timers at the Field Kitchen can't believe the quality and generosity, given the prices, which reflect our determination to make real food accessible and affordable to all. Indeed, we did lose money for the first two years while we fine-tuned our service but it looks as if we many have made a small profit in 2007. The secret, as with our box scheme, has been to banish choice, keeping things simple, cut out fussy service and make the most of what is seasonally available from the farm.
A delicious lunch after a pleasant farm walk was already one of the best experience during my travel, but I had a greater opportunity a few days later. As a reply to my questions via email, Riverford Field Kitchen Manager, Jenny Thompson, kindly offered me a chance to speak to the head chef of the field Kitchen, Robert Andrew.
Through a friendly discussion with Jenny and Rob, I could learn the ethos of Riverford more deeply. The uniqueness of Riverford comes from the combination of the farm, delivery, kitchen, recipes, and the community. They are the essential parts of a food system, and here, everything is integrated. There is an internal programme called "Riverford Development Programme (RDP)". RDP runs two times a year for around ten participants. Any employee can apply, and she or he works in different areas of the business from field to dispatch and attends seminars and workshops for one day each week, over ten weeks.
Rob kindly took me on a tour of the backstage, as they call 'the barns'. All the office departments, including IT team that manages the Riverford's excellent web ordering system and marketing team that publishes charming brochures and the famous two cooking books, are in the main barn. It was great chatting with people who are in various roles, especially with Kirsty who was a coordinator of the second cooking book.
There is a nice courtyard accessible from both of the barn and the Field Kitchen with a canteen kitchen next to it. A subsidised organic lunch is available for just £1, and the kitchen also provides school lunches for Landscove school, an arrangement pre-dating Jamie Oliver's championing of school meals and winning Radio 4's School Meal of the year award in 2005. A shelf stocks surplus from the veg box, and the vegetables are free to take for home cooking. Of course, they are all Riverford's organic standard !
Rob also took us to the other important areas of Riverford. Large poly-tunnels were in full harvest of red-matured tomatoes. It is my son's most favorite food in the world, so that must have been a heaven for him.
Riverford has a herd of 250 organic dairy cows. Their own dairy unit supply milk, yogurt and cream to the farm shops and through the home delivery box scheme, as well as a wholesale through the Organic Milk Co-operative ending up in products such as Rocombe Farm organic ice cream and Yeo Valley organic yogurt.
All of Riverford's vegetables are first collected to the ground floor of the main barn. All vegetables and fruits from outside the Riverford farm are tested in laboratory for their taste, sugar content, and how long they last.
Huge refrigerators which are set to different temperatures to store vegetables under most desirable condition.
Vegetable cleaning and packing zone. Actually all the veg boxes for customers in south/west England are packed here.
Then the veg boxes are dispatched to the regional franchises, and delivered to your home by the local deliverer.
In the beautiful setting of Devon, the Riverford Wash site is a complete food system to provide the best organic vegetables. It was amazing to see how each role of the system collaborates together, and now the model is applied to three sister farms.
The field Kitchen, an indispensable role to inspire people to cook seasonal dishes, is also traveling around Britain with an elegant 90-seater yurt and 15-person team, inviting everyone in a town to the generous meal cooked with fresh and local vegetables.
Why all these efforts matter ? Here are my favorite quotes from their second book.
Despite the hype from celebrity chefs with their endless fantasy cookery programmes and professed enthusiasm for seasonality, despite the best endeavours of our government with its 'five-a-day' campaign, the consumption of fresh, unprocessed vegetables continues to decline (a 45 percent decline in consumption of fresh green vegetables over thirty years, with a continuing 20 per cent decline in the last ten years). Riverford's future, the future of the farmers who supply us and, to some extent, the nation's health depend on reversing this 60-year trend. Nagging and guilt does not work, even if backed up by statistics and health warnings. If it is going to happen every day, we have to make cooking with seasonal, fresh ingredients easy for the 95 per cent who find it a struggle. That is the purpose of this book.
Cooking with cabbages
A more significant and harder problem to solve is that even if our customers are often good and experienced cooks, they are seldom used to making the most of seasonal veg in a country where cabbages are in season all year but unheated tomatoes are in season for ten weeks, peppers for six and aubergines for about four. For the last two generations, the cooking that has taken place in the nation's kitchens has increasingly focused on the exotic, to the extent that today's generation are more confident with peppers and lemongrass than they are with cabbage and parsley. We do now have growers in Italy and Spain and import aubergines, tomatoes, and peppers (I am not a diehard localist) but if we are to survive without straying uncomfortably far from our founding principles, we need to give our customers more confidence with traditional vegetables like cabbage, rhubarb, and swede, a few new ideas for cauliflowers and chard, and help them to appreciate the potential of the less conventional celeriac, romanesco, kohlrabi and artichokes.
We stayed in Totnes for a week, and almost everyday, we shopped at the Riverford farm shop or at local greengrocer's to buy fresh vegetables.
And I am now confident that cooking local vegetables is as exciting and diverse an experience as visiting sightseeing spot in the area. Thanks a lot again to Jenny, Rob, Kirsty, and all the great staffs at Riverford !