Natalie and Lois, two of the Real Food Store’s managers, have been travelling around Devon over the last few months to visit as many of The Real Food store’s producers as possible. This time we took Olivia, a GCSE work experience student, along with us to show her aspects of organic farming. Olivia was a huge help in writing this blog post – thank you very much Olivia! At the Real Food Store, we are proud to support local farmers and producers across the South West, and through these posts are hoping to introduce our customers to the faces behind the names.

We started off our day by visiting Riverford Organics, a large supplier of our fresh fruit, veg and dairy products. Wash farm was established in 1987 in South Devon by the Watson family, and has enjoyed a continual period of expansion ever since, now supplying veg boxes, shops and caterers up and down the country. When John, our tour guide for the day, first started working there (he was Guy Watson’s second ever employee!) organic food was still considered very niche, with very little supply and demand. Thankfully that is now changing with demand for sustainable food on the rise, and increasingly, organic principles are even becoming incorporated into more conventional farming practices. We were told on good authority that anything John doesn’t know about organic growing isn’t worth knowing- so felt as though we were in good hands for the day!

Wash Farm is part of a co-op of South Devon farmers, which was formed in response to an increase in demand for organic veg boxes in the 90s. Being part of the co-op also makes it easier to share tools and knowledge with other farms. The co-op currently has 12 members, which are mostly small family farms with a mixture of crops and livestock. Alongside co-op members who grow local crops, Riverford also has relationships with growers in other areas of the country who grow crops that are difficult to produce in the Devon climate. Working with regional partners also helps to reduce food miles.

As the Riverford veg boxes grew in popularity, they didn’t want to expand Wash farm any further, so joined up with organic farmers around the country who share their passion for great tasting affordable vegetables. Working with regional farms helps to keep food miles down, supports local farms and also allows for a variation in produce according to each regions climate.

Currently, the packhouse at Riverford HQ is producing an incredible 30,000 boxes of produce a week for their award-winning box scheme (nationwide this goes up to 50,000!), from 1000 acres in Devon alone. In addition, they supply produce to the wholesale market (Real Food Store included!), and their own farm shops, just down the road from the farm itself.

Riverford do import some of their fruit and vegetables from abroad, although they ensure that none of their produce has been air-freighted as they believe the environmental impact of this to be unacceptable. They forge good relationships with their suppliers both in the UK and abroad, and ensure they work with growers who share the same passion for good quality organic produce and environmental ethos.

We were lucky that the sun was out for our tour around their site, as the farm is set in the beautiful rolling hills of Devon. Our first stop was the cardoons, which look very similar to artichokes. John explained that they always like to try out unusual crops, and introduce their customers to something they may not have tried before. We were also interested to learn that the flower heads are a source of rennet which can be used to make vegetarian cheese!

John showed us how they use enviromesh over planted crops (in place of chemical sprays) to protect them from insects (cleverly the mesh has different sized holes for different pests) as well as encouraging, and buying in predatory insects that help control pest populations. Riverford spend around £9000 a year on bugs brought in for the tunnels such as parasitic wasps which predate on aphids. Cucumbers are especially vulnerable to pests and diseases such as cucumber mosaic virus, so the Riverford team do regular crop inspections to ensure they spot any early signs of pests or diseases.

There are 4 acres of protective cropping; from which, amongst many other delicious crops, they harvest about 4 tons of tomatoes and 30,000 mini cucumbers- so pest control is essential! The location of Riverford is rich in wildlife due to an abundance of natural habitat like field margins. This also helps to encourage beneficial insects to the farm.

After our tour, we had a quick chat with Henry, the wholesale manager about the environmental impact of the business, and the steps they take to reduce their impact. He explained that they closely monitor waste, and have many procedures in place to deal with excess, such as using it in their on-site restaurant, passing on to staff, or (if they have very large amounts) teaming up with the Bristol Gleaning network who direct food to those who need it. They also recycle everything they can, and also reuse any cardboard boxes that transport produce from one point to another.

Unfortunately we visited on a day when there had been an accident on the A38, so we had to skip our tour of the packhouse as the staff were very busy dealing with delivery lorries that were stuck on the road. We did however get to see the new warehouse they are in the process of building, which will be up and running by the end of the year. This will become the new packhouse and will allow even more vegboxes to be distributed to the eager public! Missing the packhouse tour was a shame, but we got over it quite quickly after Henry told us we could have lunch in the staff canteen! The canteen uses excess produce that cannot be sold to customers, allowing them to produce delicious lunches for very reasonable prices- It was also really lovely to see all the staff from different departments eating together.

After lunch, we had another little wander around the site and admired the work that had been done to make the site as visually attractive as possible. We also had a look at their award-winning on-site restaurant, the ‘Riverford Field Kitchen’. This has been running for 6 – 7 years, and is bringing in more and more customers. The food there is delicious and you get such a great amount of it for what you pay for. They serve a variety of vegan, vegetarian and meat meals, so there’s no chance that you won’t find something that you’ll like. The Real Food team had our Christmas meal here and we can assure you that it is a restaurant not to miss out on!

Thanks again to everyone at Riverford for taking the time to show us around and answer our questions, we really enjoyed our morning with you!

Find out more here – www.riverford.co.uk.