Organic farming has lost glamour – Riverford boss

The farmer behind the UK’s largest and most successful organic fruit and vegetable box scheme says his business is facing a crisis as fewer farmers are interested in producing food organically.

Devon farmer Guy Watson, who set up farming co-operative Riverford Organic, said the glamour had gone from organic production, as falling consumer interest had put off farmers.

Speaking at the Oxford Real Farming Conference on Friday (4 January), Mr Watson said that while his company provided organic fruit and vegetables to 70,000 customers and had a turnover of £45m, plummeting sales of organic food in supermarkets had made growers cautious of entering the sector.

“Since 2008 there’s been a 25% drop in the organic market,” he told delegates during a session on community agriculture and farming cooperatively.

“More than 90% of groceries go through the supermarkets and when the recession hit they took lots of it off the shelf and replaced it with bargain food, because that’s what they thought consumers wanted. It was self-fulfilling and sales dropped.”

Mr Watson said Riverford Organics, which provides customers with food produced by growers across the country via four co-operatives across the country, said no new grower members had joined the co-op in the past year.

He also said he was concerned the co-operative structure was stifling innovation as there was “little dynamism” amongst the brand”.

“I can see a crisis coming,” he said. “It’s not because people don’t necessarily want to farm cooperatively, it’s because the glamour has gone from organic farming since its 2008 peak.”

Mr Watson said he was also concerned for the future of the company, as he had no clear idea of how to sell or hand over the co-operative.

“I have considered the idea of becoming an employer-owned business, but there was little interest in that,” he added.

“The co-operative has been fantastic from many years, but I am struggling to find a model that reflects the risk I have put in.

“I don’t know how to deal with succession. Perhaps a customer-owned business could be a solution.”

Despite his concerns, Mr Watson insisted there was still a future for his business and for the sector as a whole.

“Organic is still growing worldwide and our customers are committed, so we expect to see growth in future.”

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