Guy Singh-Watson: “Some farmers were sceptical but I really didn’t care”

Ross Bryant
Ross Bryant

Guy Singh-Watson is the founder of Riverford Organic. A straight-talking eco-warrior who’s reinvented the vegetable box, with bags of entrepreneurial spirit. A successful businessman who has stayed true to his roots.

Today, Buckfastleigh-based Riverford Organic has over 650 employees, packing and shipping around 50,000 boxes of Devon veggies every week, resulting in a dizzying £60m turnover. The business had humble beginnings though. In 1986, Guy wanted to get out of “a horrible machine of some business” he was involved in, and wanted to get back to being outside doing practical, honest and worthwhile work.

Although Guy wasn’t totally convinced about doing things organically at first, that all came a couple of years later as he tells me now from his field – how authentic!

“I started selling to local shops. I got my head down and got on with it, I don’t remember really thinking about it too much, selling to shops, then to wholesalers and by the late 80s/early 90s I was selling to Sainsburys and Waitrose.”

Whilst his parents were livestock farmers there was “a lot to learn”, I’m told, as growing organically, especially in the late 1980s, was a step into the unknown to some degree.

Guy was surprised at the response locally, the farming community showing some scepticism about his organic ambitions. The attitude from the local farmers was “don’t think you’re gonna get me out in the field with a hose”.

As farming technology developed throughout the 20th Century the role of machines in farming had become increasingly time-saving and reliable. “The farmers were happy to leave the physical labour behind them, and I don’t blame them.

‘Some farmers were sceptical but I really didn’t care. It took about……hang on.” Guy disappears and I’m left hanging. He’s a wanted man being pulled in every direction, it seems.

“Where were we, oh yeah, the organic stuff.” The decision to ditch the chemicals was in part due to a childhood experience on the farm. Far from being a kind of ‘save the world’ thing, Guy actually harbours some personal fears about strong chemicals.

“Ammonium Nitrate, or Glyphosate, it’s very productive, all your answers in one chemical container. I find pesticides pretty scary, I made myself ill as a teenager; my brother went into hospital with poisoning too.

‘When I look back on it, I was careless with chemicals as a teenager, don’t get me wrong. I hope that doesn’t come back to haunt me later in life but there we go. I wouldn’t want to farm any other……” – And he’s off again, I can’t tell whether this is an obsessive attention to detail or staff in the field needing his help.

When it comes to the treatment of his over six hundred employees, Guy is attempting a quiet workplace revolution, giving all of his staff some shared ownership of the company. He ensures that the most anyone at the top is paid is no more than nine times the amount of the people at the bottom, a factor which is much higher in many other businesses. But it’s not all about money. To Guy, giving people control over their workload is more important in boosting both productivity and wellbeing.

“Giving people some sense of agency over their work is important, if things go well at the end of the year our staff get a bonus, but the money is only part of it.

‘The common belief for the last 50 years or so is that the only way to incentivise people is through their pay packet, which is ridiculous. If you look at sociological and motivational studies, the ability to have control over their lives is just so much more potent to get people working.
And people need to know they’re being paid fairly too. We’ve increased how much we pay at the bottom, better looked after, better respected.”

But the business has been hit by unwelcome costs. When the UK was originally due to come out of the EU in March, Riverford spent tens, “maybe hundreds of thousands of pounds” on preparations last time. “It’ll probably cost the same in October, but who knows what will happen.”

On Brexit, Guy is a staunch Remainer. And whilst he’s fearful of a No-Deal scenario on October 31st – it’s “a damn site better than March 31st “ from a food perspective.  “I’m a Remainer, I campaigned for that. More than anything I’m a one nation person, the politics that seem to be going with the Brexit stuff, horrible things have been said – I’ve probably said some horrible things myself. But this kind of prejudicial hatred has come from the Leave side, it makes me so miserable and depressed, the whole thing is a tragedy, it’s divided us so much.”

Guy wants a second referendum and isn’t concerned about the prospect of further division that a second referendum could instil in the electorate.
“I think the first referendum was really bogus, we  have
had to suck up electoral fraud and stick it on the chin, and I think the remain side have done so with a good amount of dignity. For three years the whole country has been fu**** up. And the leavers who have been in power haven’t managed to deliver anything. I can’t see any other way out than a second referendum really.”

When it comes to farming he’s particularly baffled by the prospect of farmers voting to leave the EU. “What do they want, we’ve got bloody Welsh Hill farmers who voted to leave who are now are getting all upset about a No-Deal, what did they think they were voting for?

‘There is absolutely no doubt that a second referendum would vote remain”.

But whilst Guy warns of the potential damage of No-Deal, many of the previous predictions by Government and business have been wrong, or at the bare minimum, exaggerated. The most recent figures for growth and employment have been surprisingly positive for the most part, but Guy is quick to shoot this down.

“If your currency drops twenty-odd percent in value and you don’t have a mini-boom, you’d better be worried. So we’ve had that, and the economy has not done too badly as a result. My suspicion is that over the next 3,5 or even 10 years all the effects of the investments that haven’t been made will be felt.  They call it project fear, well it didn’t happen because our currency sunk. I really wonder if politicians really understand it.”

There are other challenges for the business too, thrown up by an increasingly volatile climate, a change in weather patterns that has particularly harsh impacts on organic growers, who have slowly developed their farming methods in line with predictable patterns in weather for decades. “We did run out of water last year, we didn’t this year but we came close, and there’s not a lot you can do about long periods of wet weather.

‘The problem for a grower, especially an organic grower, is that if you know what to expect you can adapt to it but not knowing can be very challenging. Soil loss from excessive rain for example; the heavy rain will wash the fertiliser away but other farmers can just throw more on, we don’t have that option. Us organic farmers, we have our techniques which have developed over the years based on weather patterns that are now changing. It’s a real challenge.”

Guy is also concerned about plastic, but not in the way you might think. Whilst he’s on board with the climate emergency, the issue of single-use plastics gets a little too much spotlight, in his view. Whilst he concedes that as a society we’re using too much of the stuff, Guy doesn’t think the scope for change is possible to the degree that people would be happy with. And as time and energy is put into fixing the ‘plastic problem’ how much attention is diverted from the ‘real issue’ – climate?

“I’m concerned about how informed citizens, through exerting their purchase choices, can direct businesses like us or to do the right thing environmentally.” Guy references an example of the market fixing the problem in the past – battery hens, which are largely phased out, comes to mind.

“There’s so much focus on plastic when the number one issue is climate. When you walk across a beach in Devon and well over half of the plastic on the beach is fishing nets or bits of tackle from trawlers and domestic fishermen, I think to myself, why are we focusing so much on that!?” As for Riverford’s plastic packaging?

“About a quarter of what goes into a supermarket equivalent”, apparently.
Guy makes a salient point. Plastic, unlike CO2, is visible and at times, even graphic. But an issue that must be addressed at its most severe point. “Look, about ninety-odd percent of plastic comes down three Asian rivers. It’s not an issue here in the same way.”

One could argue that the plastic focus is an entry point for someone trying to help with environmental issues, or, you could say it’s a distraction from the real issue. Guy offers a real-world example: “If you’re driving around in a Range Rover but worrying about plastic, don’t worry about plastic, just get out of your fu****g Range Rover.”

The mass climate protests have Guy’s full support. He states it is “our duty” to encourage civil disobedience, through Extinction Rebellion and other groups. The only way to address the issue in the absence of “safe Government”, as Guy puts it.

“I think I’ll look back on this government in disbelief, at this
generation who lie around, indulging themselves. This obsession with freedom of choice, that we can do exactly what we want, and that any interference with that has to be resisted. It’s largely a Right-Wing, Neo-liberal market based thing; until we abandon that, I don’t have much hope.”

But whilst the goal of reducing carbon output seems simple, how this is achieved is often not so clear. What can we as citizens, business owners or the Government actually do in practical terms?  “You know we’re one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t tax air fuel. Japan has 14 cents a litre tax on aviation fuel, even the US has duty on air fuel, not only do we not tax it, we … subsidise it! How can anyone call themselves a Conservative and not want to conserve the planet?”

But is there a possible contradiction here, and I ask Guy about the main thing most ‘non-organic’ people say when the Riverford name is mentioned. If sourcing food locally helps reduce our impact through ‘low-food’ miles, how does Riverford help, in shipping vegetables in lorries across the country?

“No” Guy rebuts. “If you look at food distribution the main cost is in the last mile, we have a thousand orders on a lorry or 80 in a van, if you say that you’ll offer a 20 minute slot, that’s a massive impact on carbon intensity, we simply tell customers that we’ll arrive at a particular time.”

Guy highlights a contradiction as he sees it – how any attempt to
interfere with the free markets is met with resistance but that its
somehow tolerated in many areas where it suits an anti-EU narrative. “It’s not Capitalism to pay hill farmers who provide such little output, we subsidise them, I mean what kind of Capitalism is that? It’s a strange neo-liberal outlook that’s hard to shake.”

Down the road, plans are in place for the business to become more self-sufficient, with solar and wind energy being harnessed in the near future. It’s refreshing to hear a green energy strategy that isn’t just hot air.