the why is to be useful
Guy Singh-Watson is an organic farmer, entrepreneur and self-professed veg nerd, passionate about reinventing the food system. Founder of Riverford, Guy vowed not to allow the company to become driven purely by the bottom line, so in 2018 sold 74% of Riverford to its employees at about a third of the market value. Passionate about sharing his decades of organic farming and business knowledge with others, Guy wants to prove that business can be a force for good and has always believed organic food should not be elitist, but accessible for everyone.
Made by Jo Barratt. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews, Lily Piachaud and Hadeel Elshak.
Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.
I bought Baddaford with my wife Geetie six years ago or something when Riverford was sold to the staff, into employee ownership and we moved two miles up the valley and bought this place. I suppose my sort of dream for the place is to, at best, is sort of a garden of Eden, but with rather more than two people in it. I’m probably there and hopefully no serpents, um, that it would be a productive landscape as in producing food, but also productive and, uh, you know, in providing habitat for wildlife and beauty. And I see those and, and kind of socially as well. So we have, we host quite a number of businesses here that are land-based businesses. So there are this farm, which would have provided employment for half a person is providing employment for already 15. And that will probably double in the next year. You know, I think in the six years, since we came here and converted it to organic and changed some of the husbandry practices, it has really come to life.
We’re in south Devon, it’s rolling hills, you know, thick hedges, relatively small fields, very little level ground. I mean, it lends itself to sheep and beef and dairy, I suppose that’s what the area is kind of known for. I mean, there are little pockets that are vaguely suitable for vegetable production, which is what I’ve spent 35 years doing, definitely pre school I was out stumping around the farm and a pair of wellies, and I kind of think it was always destined that that was what I was going to do. I flirted with the idea of doing other things and I was a management consultant for two years in my early twenties, but it never really suited me. I mean, I am a farmer through and through. That’s what I love doing, even though, you know, I built up a business with a hundred million turnover employing a thousand people, I’m actually much more comfortable not running that and back, you know, stomping around the land..
And to me, it’s an incredibly creative pursuit. I mean, it is that you are shaping a landscape in a productive way. You know, you’re working with people in that landscape, hoping that they will be productive together. And then, you know, the aspect of the business of interacting with the public and selling stuff, I guess there is a kind of creativity to that.
I think capitalism has delivered lots of good things and it’s, you know, I would never dispute that it’s the most effective model in liberating innovation and arguably even creativity actually, you know, so, you know, it has a lot of things going for it and it has a lot of problems as well. You know, there have been a lot of failures around capitalism and, you know, climate change, which may well kill 90% of us, is the most obvious one. I would say capitalism works best when you give it a simple problem to solve, really a well-defined simple problem, you know, that businesses can get around and innovate and find a solution and people make money along the way and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that.
If you get to, you know, more complex issues, you know, issues around health care, education, social wellbeing, you know, it’s an abject failure, or anything that requires long-term planning. You might say, developing a renewable energy network, you know, definitely requires planning that only the government can do. If you then get onto, you know, biodiversity and, and the environment and, and carbon and climate change, you know, the issues are so complex. It is completely hopeless. They’re so complex and so long term to think that we, that our market based capitalist system is in any way going to be able to deliver the solutions is just patently ridiculous. And that’s why I just feel so depressed by the state that we’re in and why I want to just withdraw to my home and pull up the drawbridge and just try and do something good here at Baddaford, because I just feel, I’m afraid I feel a bit hopeless in this, this model, which I don’t think many people believe in it, but unfortunately those in power believe in it. You know, the model that the market will provide the solution for anything. It doesn’t tie up with what we as human beings, what motivates us, what gets the best out of us, you know, which is undoubtedly, you know, most of us want to do something, want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. We want a purpose in our life. You know, most of us want to do things well, you know, we want to be masters of whatever the things we do. So for me, growing vegetables, and most of us want a degree of sort of autonomy, agency and so on. That’s what, that’s what makes me, that’s what motivates people. That’s how you get the best out of people.
You know, expecting people to be motivated solely by money is just disastrous. I can, you know, whether it’s someone foraging for wild garlic in a wood pulling leeks, or an accountant or anyone managing a department, whether you’re going to, it’s always a disaster.
So I started thinking about ownership of the business I mean, probably I’m going back to it must be about 2000. And I think I came up with employee ownership and we did have a sort of staff council at that time. And I did go along and I said, well, how about if we make Riverford employee-owned and then we pay for it by you (they all used to get a profit share every year) and I said you forgo the profit share and, you know, in 20 years time you own the business. And they all told me where I could stick that, cause you know, most people obviously weren’t gonna be around in 20 years time and and it was a sort of, I’d got a bit ahead of myself really and just thinking about things in a very academic way, as opposed to what it actually meant for the people involved. So that was my plan and I went away and scratched my head a little bit more and I came back having thought about it a little bit more and I think it was about 2006 or something and I got quite close to employee ownership then. And then we had also with them, we had the financial crisis and we had an IT crisis in the business anyway, it went on hold until again, until about, so I suppose I have been thinking about it for quite a long time and I’d been thinking about it. I just don’t, I suppose my politics are definitely left of centre. I don’t, you know, I don’t completely reject capitalism. But I, yeah, anyway, I think social fairness, you know, I actually, I think it goes hand in hand with environmentalism. I don’t think we’ll solve our environmental problems whilst there is such a grotesque inequality of wealth. And while, you know, the aspiration is just to get richer and richer led on by a few greedy individuals at the top. And then I can’t remember, I met Stewart Hampson who was the chair of John Lewis, he presented me with an award many years ago and we started talking about it and he said, yeah, you really should think about this. And he actually sent down a bloke from Waitrose, John Lewis to talk to us. And anyway, in the end, in 2016, after a lot of umming and ahhing, we became employee-owned. I sold 74% of the shares to the staff at about a quarter of what the accountants told me the business was worth, but that still amounted to, I think it was about five or six million rather than the 22 million they said it was worth. And at that time, I thought well what on earth could I do with four million quid. However, I, you know, had I had the 20 million quid, I wouldn’t be any happier and I probably wouldn’t have, I, you know, I don’t regret any of it. And I’m absolutely delighted with the way Riverford has developed since becoming employee-owned. And they have a meaningful say in the decisions that are made within the business, they really do through an elected staff, elected co-owner council, yeah, so sharing in the profits and having some say in how the business is run and how its strategy is going forward, I think it’s been really, really good.
My only reservation about it really is how we maintain an innovative culture, which I do have some concerns about, but actually, I don’t think it’s fair to blame that on employee ownership. You’d think the more you consult, the less innovative you’re going to be. I think that is probably a fair, you can, I think it’s something maybe it has a little bit to do with, you know, everyone being a little bit worried about what everyone else thinks, which is a good thing, you know, mostly it’s a good thing, but sometimes when you have to think about a decision from so many different angles, you know how it’s going to be perceived, I think that can curb the appetite for doing new things. And part of that could be the consultation and the employee ownership, I think part of it is just getting bigger, you know, we’re a thousand people now and, and, you know, need more systems. So that’s my only slight reservation. And I do think it’s something that we can resolve. Based on our experience today, I am definitely an advocate of employee ownership and yes, you know, I have another 10 million quid if I’d gone down another route, but I don’t think I would take such pleasure in going in and, you know, seeing what’s going on on the farm and the responsibility that people are taking for the decisions locally and so on.
I grew up in a household with a dad who kind of believed that everyone could do anything so long as they had the right attitude. He gave people a huge amount of autonomy I mean, you might say threw them in at the deep end and left them to drown. And I guess that’s what I grew up with, this sort of assumption that most people did want to do a good job and the best thing was to get out of the way and let him go on with it. I think I probably inherited a lot of his behaviours, I tend to go probably too quickly towards the oh just get on with it. But that is generally how I manage people. I just say, look, this is what we want to achieve and as far as possible, I’m going to leave you to just get on and do it the way that you see fit.
In most cases, I think giving them the opportunity to use their own sort of innovation, creativity, agency. I think the benefits of that are bigger, are more than the costs. I hate structure, I think I’m quite anarchic myself, I probably thrive in a sort of chaos. I like figuring out new ways of doing things every year, every day, actually.
So I’m not, whereas most people, I think progress through iterative experimentation and improvement, and that’s how a lot of improvement, and I’m not very good at that. I mean I will have a rough idea of how I think it should be organised, but the actual shape of it is formed by the people that are around and that, and it’s quite a fluid thing. And I think there’s a lot of sort of creativity in that rather than having this rigid model that everyone has to sort of fit into. I just don’t think that’s the human condition, I don’t think that’s how we work. I know that sometimes, you know, as businesses get bigger, it’s, you know, it’s very hard not to have more formal structures and that’s what I found at Riverford. In the end, I kind of excluded myself because I don’t, I don’t perform well in that environment and I had created something which, you know, and I think it was absolutely right that I sold it to the staff and took a step back when I did and it’s now a very much more structured environment. And I don’t know, there are problems with that. Some people are very happy with it, some people are, I think my concern is that with all those structures that you get a, you lose a kind of innovative culture and I think that may prove to be quite problematic. I’m wondering whether my last act in my, you know, 35 years with Riverford may be to try and ensure that we don’t become too systems driven and that we leave space for individuality.
I realised I just couldn’t work for anyone else. You know, I tried and I just, I’m too bloody minded and independent and innovative and have lots of ideas and if I can’t put them into practice, I’m going to get quite frustrated. So I knew I had to, you know, to make a living. I knew I had to have my own business and do it my own way. And I knew having spent two years sitting in an office that I needed to be outside. And I was very lucky in a way that I stumbled on vegetables because I used to help my mum in the garden, but we didn’t really grow vegetables. But when I came back from being a management consultant, I’d been in New York and I know, people were starting to talk about organic and particularly organic vegetables. And I just decided that looked like a growth market. As a management consultant I’d always been looking for growth markets, and that’s what I decided to do. And I think I was incredibly lucky just stumbling on my thing because I just love growing vegetables. I mean, I do, you know, 35 years later, I’m every bit as enthusiastic, in fact more enthusiastic than I was when I started. No sign of that wearing out.
I sort of stumbled into it that way, but what really drove me on, and I have no doubt about this and I’ve heard many people say the same thing was a subconscious but very strong desire for the approval of others, in particular my father. I think that is very, very common. So really a lot of entrepreneurial drive comes out of insecurity. I bet if you go to Murdoch and you scrape underneath the surface you will find a basically very insecure individual. You know, there’s something a little bit missing, there’s a hole in them somewhere that they’re trying to fill. And that’s normally what drives them on in a way that other people who are probably more sorted out whoever, you know, more content within themselves and more resolved, probably nicer people, you know, won’t make it as entrepreneurs. You need, it’s a kind of madness that drives people on. And dyslexia is also very common as well. That sort of combo, I dunno whether it’s brains wired differently in some ways. But I mean, in my generation, you know, when dyslexia wasn’t really acknowledged and no one told me I was dyslexic and I don’t think I’d even heard the word until I was 30, probably certainly late twenties. I just had awful handwriting, couldn’t spell, was really slow and my children begged me not to read them bedtime stories. You know, it was, I mean, I was very, very dyslexic to the point where I wrote from right to left for my, you know, and like. But the interesting thing is that no teacher could tell me that I should write from left to right. I was also just bloody pig headed and stubborn, you know, the whole neuro diverse thing it’s become almost sort of fashionable hasn’t it? Which I think is brilliant actually. Just accepting that difference, I think is one thing that is definitely a step forward over generations.
Even if you’re just growing the same crops essentially in the same way, every year is different and you have to find a solution and, you know, even, you know, it’s how you plough the field or indeed whether you don’t plough the field this year or, you know, cultivate it in some other way or, you know, when it’s ready to go and or, you know, it’s too late to say that, but say something else, there’s this kind of matrix of decisions to make all the time.
And you know, that’s yeah quite exciting. I mean it’s also exhausting. I’m fortunate that I can grow things in different ways and not worry too much about, you know, certainly it’s, I have to be able to see a path that this might be economically viable at some point, probably in my lifetime. I’m not interested in doing things as a hobby, but, you know, I spent the last two years planting a lot of walnuts and hazelnuts and a few chestnuts and, you know, the risks in that you know, of doing it wrong and having the wrong variety, planting them in the wrong way, pruning them in the wrong way, planting them on the field that I can’t get harvesting equipment onto that there would be no market for them, that they’ll get some terrible disease. You know, there’s no end of, you know, potentials or risks that I couldn’t honestly go to a cash-strapped farmer and say you should plant walnuts. I mean, my role is to try and reduce some of those risks to a point at which I hope other farmers will, it would be an acceptable kind of risk profile for other farmers to come into it.
The why is to be useful. And that comes directly from my father. Probably both my parents actually, you know, demobbed after the second world war, they were both fairly upper middle class, you know, privileged people whose parents grew up in the colonies and it was a time of huge social change. They wanted to do something useful. And that’s why they went into farming it was so tangibly useful, especially when they went into farming in the fifties when we were still in food rationing. So I know exactly what I mean by useful, and it can be applied to, in a very broad way. It can be socially useful. It can be environmentally useful, you know, and, and it’s just at the end of the day, whatever you’ve done, you’ve kind of left the world, or your bit of the world, a little bit better than it was, or hopefully no worse, hopefully a bit better.
So why organic? I have to say initially it was that I thought there was a growing market for it. You know, that was my management consultants speaking, but as I, I find it now, when I see my neighbour at this time of year, they’ve all been out spraying off, ready to plant their maize and you see that field slowly going yellow, it’s like watching someone being strangled, you know, it’s an act of sort of brutality. It makes me unhappy. It makes me miserable. I hate seeing it. I would never want to do that myself. One of my neighbours, I walked across his field, you know, and all the stinging nettles had gone like that and the docks, you know, he just sprayed it off with Asulox, I don’t know it’s just saying, oh God, this is a lovely day, I might’ve just actually laid down in this field and, you know, eaten an apple or smoked a cigarette, it’s full of fucking toxic chemicals. It’s just, I don’t know, anyway, that’s just not how I want to farm. And I suppose over the years and getting a greater appreciation, which I still think even after 35 years, I’m still learning of, you know, what makes for a healthy soil.
Over the years, I’ve just wanted to farm more and more, you know, in harmony with nature. And initially that was organic and I don’t think organic has all the answers. And I don’t think it’s the only solution, I do think, I still think even with all the hype around regenerative agriculture, I think it’s the best show in town because it has a legal definition and it’s not subject to marketing bullshit, which I’m afraid there is a lot of that around. People have been trying to grow cereals, you know, seeded into cover crops and all the sort of things that, you know, regenerative. You know, there are plenty of people who have been quietly trying to do that and figure out how to do it for 20 years, they haven’t had a word for it, they haven’t built a brand around it, but they’re quietly getting on and doing it. And you know what, they’re a damn sight better at it than most people who call themselves regenerative. So you can probably tell that all the hype around it, I do find quite irritating. I mean, there is an argument, from what they’re doing, which I do support is that, you know, you have to give the farmer a market for the product, you know, in order to, you know, cause you probably are, you’re going to have to pay them a premium for growing it in that way. So you’ve got to develop the market and perhaps that is an argument for some, let’s say greying of the truth. I think putting, putting sort of marketing ahead of the reality of farming is, it’s going to upset quite a lot of people, me included I’m afraid.
I think there always have been a significant number of people who wanted to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. They haven’ been as vocal as they are now. And probably because it wasn’t seen as a way of making money, it was seen as something that people just wanted to get on and do, you know, and mostly they did it in a quiet and sometimes very effective way. So I sort of feel that the desire has always been there in a significant number of people, but clearly it’s surfaced a lot more, you know, probably as a result of the biodiversity and climate change crisis.
Because all these issues are so complicated, it really leaves us wide open to (those are our Guinea Fowl in the background) it leaves us wide open to it being corrupted, you know, by people making a few sort of little claims and then assuming that everyone will assume you’re doing the right thing, you know, outside of that. I don’t think it helps to be sceptical, but I do really, I think we should be a little bit wary of some of the people that are trying to build brands around whether it’s carbon trading or regenerative agriculture, you know, there are some of them which are I’m afraid, complete charlatans.
Are you optimistic about the future? It doesn’t sound like it.
No, I’m not. I’m sorry. I’m really not. I’m sorry to all your younger listeners, but it’s you know, we are, we’re probably fucked aren’t we but, you know, I wake up every day and it’s not long before I’ll think that. And I find it very upsetting. You know, I love our country, I love nature. And, you know, just to be destroying it in such a bloody ignorant. You know, we’re so clever, but you know, lacking the wisdom to use our sort of cleverness. You know, I don’t have very much hope. However, you know, I would rather go down, you know, feeling I’ve done my bit, and made whatever effort I can, you know, personally, and, you know, with the businesses that I can have influence over.
There’s lots of reasons for optimism. Most people want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And I think given good leadership would be prepared to tolerate, you know, there will be some sacrifices, pretty bloody marginal.