Follow the Vegetable Box: How Britain’s Riverford Farms Works.

By Vivian Winterhoff (London). Vivian investigates how one popular vegetable box delivery scheme in London functions. How does Riverford Farms manage their deliveries? Who are their producers and who are their deliveryman? What does a model like this have to show us about the future of food movement? It’s a hard time to be a farmer (as if it ever weren’t). In the UK, population pressure from big cities is driving up land values, making it harder for farmers to resist selling to big developers. Meanwhile, supermarkets, the biggest sellers of both conventional and organic food in the UK, set the prices and contracts with farmers. Farming equipment costs are high and rising as technology becomes more sophisticated, larger and ubiquitous. Climate change is causing additional difficulties with extreme and unusual weather patterns. Immigration laws are ever changing and ever more strictly regulated, which affects agricultural laborers, a large part of which are immigrants, and imposes administrative costs on farmers. Imagine, then, being an organic farmer with higher operating costs, probably lower output (through smaller scale and less intensive farming), probably higher uncertainty about how much can be delivered in what state, and selling products at a relative premium (meaning there is lower demand).

Thinking Inside the Vegetable Box

Riverford farmers, a produce delivery service 25 years in the making is one example of not just cooperative production and complex distribution logistics, but also the opportunity for consumers to still feel connected to a local, organic farmer–something that seems increasingly important to city dwellers. Though supermarkets still dominate the organic food market with over 70% of market share, demand for organic food through organic box schemes, independent online shops and other home-delivery outlets grew by 11% in 2013. Riverford is one of the two big suppliers of organic food boxes, aka veg boxes, and is the veg box delivery pioneer in the UK: it was the first to take veg box deliveries to national scale. It is family-owned and was founded by Guy Watson, an international management consultant who returned to farming in his father’s footsteps. How is Riverford successful in not just producing, but also delivering the desired organic, local produce to Londoners? Riverford has a business model that includes smart logistics–using spoke-hub distribution—friendly marketing and diverse farming practices in order to stay present in the dizzying world of local and organic farming initiatives.
Where Riverford fits into my food web.

Where Riverford fits into my food web.

How the Box Comes to Be:

One thing that sets Riverford apart from other big players is that they produce their own food. Here is Riverford’s map of UK areas covered by their different farms. Produce from Riverford comes together from a network of organic family farms, small producers and cooperatives predominantly in the UK, though also occasionally from abroad. Perhaps encouraged by family history and connections, Guy shares and borrows farming equipment with 16 other farmers via his local cooperative, which keeps the usually tremendous cost of equipment as low as possible. Guy also owns and runs a farm in France, which gives Riverford a longer growing season and helps it plug “hungry gaps”, e.g. in early spring when the weather in the UK is still cold and crops haven’t developed sufficiently for them to be harvested. Moreover, box schemes now no longer only supply vegetables. Through Riverford, for example, you can buy anything from fruits and vegetables to meat and delicatessen to dairy products, desserts and even wine. Riverford also has a dairy, butchery, bakery and farm shop as well as a local “farm restaurant.” The diversity and cooperation in Riverford’s supply chain is important in an industry where resilience is key. Guy spoke of losing £500,000 (over $780,000) worth of crops on one farm alone in 2012, which is the sort of disruption food producers and distributors must prepare for.
My first ever Riverford meat box, insulated with sheeps’ wool and reusable ice packs, to be returned to Riverford the following week.

My first ever Riverford meat box, insulated with sheeps’ wool and reusable ice packs, to be returned to Riverford the following week.

A typical “veg” box from one of my March deliveries.

A typical “veg” box from one of my March deliveries.

How the Box Gets to Me:

Riverford uses a franchise model for its distribution (see this video). Food is produced and delivered through hubs—the regional farms/producers and delivery centers—and spokes—the local franchises, about 70 of them. Fedex famously pioneered this spoke-hub distribution model as an alternative to point-to-point transit systems. Riverford doesn’t have delivery slots like other delivery services. The box always arrives on the same day depending on where you live, but the time can vary slightly. Guy explained that Riverford’s environmental impact would double if they tried to meet different delivery slots in different areas. Giving customers a choice of delivery time would also pose a logistical challenge and cost the company more (more on this below). Riverford delivers close to 50,000 boxes per week with the spoke-hub system.

My Riverford Franchise

Cristina and Graeme are my local “Walton on Thames” franchise owners  and I can contact them directly with queries, such as when I requested information for this article. Much of my food comes from Riverford’s Wash Farm and vicinity. Produce from Wash Farm’s veg box packing hall is taken away on pallets by 10 to 12 contracted trucks at 1,000 deliveries per truck, which then go out to up to three different hubs. According to Graeme, my boxes are stored in “our cold store in Ashford, where they sit until morning, when we load up our vans and then deliver to households.” So my local delivery van driver, Jim, delivers to me within two days of the food being harvested.

My Delivery Guy: Jim

While I don’t normally catch Jim when he’s delivering, the one day I did speak to him he had 80 deliveries to make in the area between Staines and Kingston, towns that are located about 12 miles apart. That may sounds like a lot, but he explained that he thought this model worked well. In contrast, Iceland for example, a frozen food supermarket he once made deliveries for, had trouble with its delivery scheme because drivers had to cover great distances to make dispersed deliveries in freezer vans at delivery slots chosen by the customers. His guess is that this was inefficient and costly. Moreover, according to Jim, Graeme and Cristina take care of their drivers, and this could not always be taken for granted. Jim told me about another well-known specialist delivery company he worked for in the past: in their efforts to make maximum returns from deliveries, they were asking their drivers to work long hours and late shifts, with lack of time off for rest–a dangerous and inconsiderate approach.
Map of how food is transported and stored before reaching Vivian"s house.

Map of how food is transported and stored before reaching Vivian”s house.

Jim's delivery van outside my front door.

Jim’s delivery van outside my front door.

A peek inside the delivery van.

A peek inside the delivery van.

Riverford as a vertical, multifunctional business: the future of farming?

The multifunctional nature of Riverford’s business means that Riverford has a huge act of coordination and meticulous planning on their hands. They have to grow a wider variety of food in increasingly volatile weather, coordinate with other producers, and ensure it is ready to harvest at the right time, so it can go out in boxes together with the relevant recipes and news. This coordination, combined with all the functions needed to run a conventional modern business, suggests that it is difficult to operate a successful veg box scheme on only a small scale.

The Little Touches

A final quality of Riverford that sets it apart is a successful marketing ploy, as far as I am concerned. Recipes arrive in every box with witty and insightful “blog posts” from Guy on the back. Guy is clearly the face of Riverford, and on a mission to stir the passion for good, sustainably produced food in people, which is particularly obvious from these “blog posts”. I personally find it interesting to read about the effects of a wet winter, for example, when Guy explains that the carrots will be shorter than usual due to a dry summer, or that there will be fewer spring greens available because “a marauding herd of cows” broke into the field and chomped away at “half a million or so”, i.e. most of the crop. I feel that this gives customers a greater understanding of the challenges of farming and therefore makes them more amenable to certain produce not being as readily available or not looking quite as expected. Guy also explores political challenges related to farming, for example, the much debated TTIP that is currently being negotiated behind closed doors.

Future Promise and Challenges

Riverford faces a few particular challenges as a food producer and distributor. One such problem is a group of aging farmers with very few young ethusiasts to replace them. For example, only two of the 16 local Wash Farm coop members have definite successors. Part of the problem is that farming is hard work. So, to keep people taking care of crops as happy as possible Riverford started  a vertical working method in which a group of employees would take care of a particular crop from preparing the soil for seeding to harvesting. This structure means that a person’s work varies and that they understand the importance of doing a good job at every stage of the process. Maintaining local sourcing might be another looming challenge for Riverford. When I spoke to one of their regular suppliers recently at a local farmers’ market, it seems that Riverford has included some produce from further afield–Spain–to fill in gaps when suppliers drop out or aren’t able to find successors. While this is simply sourcing in the way that many supermarkets stock their shelves, the main premise and marketing point of Riverford is that they provide local produce. Riverford is an interesting player in the UK food system; as an alternative to supermarkets and their delivery schemes, but also in particular as a food producer and multilayered, vertical business. There are surely still challenges to overcome in technology and marketing, but, in a nutshell, I think they could be an interesting and hopeful model for  good business in the wider food system. Nevertheless, as Riverford grows, and when Guy retires, I wonder whether Riverford will maintain the basic principles that have got the business this far, or whether they will simply turn into just one more internet retailer and home delivery service.
Posted in London