Cream of the crop
Riverford is well known in the UK for bringing fresh organic fruit and vegetables to your door, but did you know it has a farm in Vendée to meet demand? Sue Bradley talks to founder Guy Watson and the expat farmers who work there
How Riverford Organics founder Guy Watson started farming in Vendée to meet demand in the UK
Filling ‘the hungry gap’ is a challenge for British vegetable growers and was once a perennial headache for Guy Watson, founder of Riverford Organic Farmers. He knew all but a tiny ‘hard core’ of customers didn’t want to be restricted to cabbage, parsnips and sprouting potatoes in their veg boxes between April and June, with most looking for lettuce and other less hardy crops. Nevertheless he was reluctant to extend the ‘shoulders’ of the British growing season using heated glasshouses, only to end up with less tasty produce. Nor did he want to import vegetables hundreds of miles from Italy or Spain, and closing between March and July wasn’t an option. His solution was to purchase Le Boutinard, a 300-acre former dairy farm in Vendée, a department of the Pays-de-laLoire region in west central France, not far from the Atlantic Ocean.
Setting up an organic vegetable-growing operation here allowed Guy to take advantage of the marginally warmer maritime climate and, most importantly, better light levels and free-draining sandy soil, in order to extend the growing season. And, at 250 miles door to door, the French farm is reasonably close to Riverford’s Devon base.
“I started looking at a climatic map of Europe and decided this area along the west coast of France, a few miles north of La Rochelle and south of Nantes, would give us vegetables six weeks earlier,” says Guy, who now splits his time between Devon and Vendée, which is also close to the home of his wife Geetie Singh’s father.
“The weather starts warming in February and things grow faster and are healthier,” he says.