The Watsons and Riverford – one family, one farm, several connected businesses
The Watson family has farmed the 350 hectare Riverford Farm for over 60 years, more than twenty five of which have been spent working to bring back the taste and quality of traditional foods through the farm shops with their butchery, fresh vegetables, grocery and deli counters, the organic vegetable box business and the dairy. All are separate businesses but have much in common. As well as name and locality a shared belief in quality, unadulterated, fresh food and good farming makes the name Riverford stand for far more than just organic. All five children, Louise (Farm), Ben (Shop), Oliver (Farm and Dairy) and Guy and Rachel (Organic Vegetable Boxes) are actively involved in the farm or its associated businesses. The great patriarch, John Watson, though supposedly retired, is still actively involved with all things Riverford.
Thirty years ago, organics was barely a seed in the public’s mind. It certainly had no legal definition. So, Riverford concentrated on quality, value, additive free, unadulterated and simple food production, low food miles, fair trade etc. Since then nothing has changed. If something is certified, so much the better, but it must also satisfy other criteria. Often the magic word ‘organic’ is not enough. For example we try not to sell over-processed, production line, organic food but we do sell spanking fresh, non-organic vegetables from a grower just down the road. What we like most is to produce foods ourselves from start to finish – from farm to table, the Riverford way. Food should tell a story and, because we know what it is, we can tell you. Food from the farm, not the factory; there is an alternative to large scale monoculture, long production lines and mega supermarkets. And it doesn’t have to cost the earth.
- 1952 John and Gillian Watson take on the lease of Riverford Farm from the Church Commission. Soon to be added, the tenancy of Hole and Caddaford Farms, making a total of 500 acres.
- Sometime around 1970; it had all been pretty normal so far but something was stirring. An exhibition at Totnes Comprehensive Schools Environmental Science department featured a photograph of Caddaford Farm with the caption ‘typically barren post war agricultural landscape’ or something similar. JR was most upset and things started changing from that day on. His first attempt at diversification was Riverford Farm Visits; tours around the farm followed by a cream tea in the barn. Showing a load of ‘townies’ around only heightened the feeling that we weren’t doing right by either land or animals, so he began moving towards higher welfare, less intensive farming. That was before anyone was using the word organic.
- The first spin off was the farm shop at Riverford, which opened in 1984, selling ‘English charcuterie’, made on site from the farm’s high welfare, additive free pork. Nobody else wanted to pay a realistic price for the pigs so it seemed like a longshot, but worth a go.
- In 1986 Guy started the vegetable growing business, followed a few years later by the vegetable box home delivery scheme.
- In 1990 Oliver and Louise take over the farm as John and Gillian ‘retire’.
- A second shop at Kitley, Yealmpton, together with café was added in 1997.
- The farm dairy opened in 2000 and now produces organic milk, double and clotted cream and yoghurt. These are sold through the shops, box scheme and other local outlets.
- Then, a third shop followed on Totnes High Street in 2004.
- The multi-award winning Riverford Field Kitchen opened in 2006.
- We opened a fourth shop in Sidmouth. It was a disaster and closed twelve months later.
- 2012 – Riverford Organic Vegetables celebrates its 25th birthday.
- 2014 – Riverford Farm Shops is thirty years old.