An Interview with Rob Haward – the Managing Director of Riverford
- Written by Alicia Drewnicki
- September 14, 2020
- 5 min read
Riverford is an organic farm with its headquarters in Devon, and it’s also well-known for being one of the UK’s most popular organic vegetable box delivery companies. Before the coronavirus pandemic, we had a chat with the Managing Director of Riverford – Rob Haward about the importance of organic farming and what it’s like to work at Riverford.
1) Can you tell us a bit about your career journey at Riverford, and what you were doing before you joined the company?
I joined Riverford from the Soil Association, a charity supporting the development of organic food and farming in the UK. My time there reinforced to me how difficult it is to farm organically and why organic is the best show in town when it comes to sustainable food production. When I joined Riverford in 2004, Guy (Riverford’s founder) and the team had already been putting this in to practice for 17 years and I relished the chance to be part of helping them to grow Riverford away from the Devon base.
2) I’m really impressed that you’ve worked at Riverford for over 15 years. At a time when it’s increasingly common for people to change jobs frequently, what do you think it is about Riverford that has made you stay loyal to the company for so long?
I found a place that matched my values more than I ever thought was possible – why would I want to leave! I have also been lucky to do a number of different roles here over the last 15 years. I am sure one day Riverford might have had enough of me – but for now I really can’t imagine being anywhere else.
3) What do you know now, that you wish you knew at the start of your career?
People work best when they are happiest and feel good about themselves – holding people to account through criticism is a terrible long term motivator.
4) Are there any people that are doing amazing things in the world of sustainability/organic farming that you’d like to give a shout out to?
I love the Organic Herb Trading Company. Organic pioneers in the world of organic herb growing and herbal teas, they have changed the lives of organic growers all over the world over the last thirty years.
5) What do you enjoy most about your job?
Knowing that what we do today, is being enjoyed by our customers tomorrow – that quick direct link is quite rare, we are very fortunate to have it and I think its a great motivator for the team here.
6) What do you think are the most underrated vegetables and why?
Cabbage, in all its glorious forms. Like so many I was taught to fear the cabbage at school. Since working here I have learnt that it is a king of the uk seasons. Robust to grow, fantastically healthy to eat and delicious if treated properly (generally cooked quickly, unlike they did at school).
7) Are there any other countries that you really admire when it comes to their approach to organic farming/the food industry in general?
The Danish government has been progressive for years – instead of protecting the status quo while making warm noises about organic food they have been committed to supporting food and farming that is better for the planet for many years. This has helped the Danish organic food and drink market grow to well over 10% of the market, compared to under 2% in the UK.
8) Which facts do you wish more people knew about the UK food industry?
The pursuit of cheap food, driven by supermarkets claiming to respond to the needs of customers is a disaster for farmers, land, biodiversity and ultimately the planet. The land and how its managed needs to play a big role as part of the solution to climate change but this can only happen if there is a food and farming revolution.
9) What have been the biggest challenges in your career so far, and how did you overcome them?
I was here through the recession when the organic market declined by 25% in a few years. Riverford had experienced considerable growth up to this point so suddenly having the brakes applied was pretty terrifying. We had to be honest about our failings, reorganize and work very hard to get through a difficult period. I am proud that our sales did not drop through this period and despite some ups and downs we continued to make profit. It was also difficult to watch the government and supermarket turn their backs on organic so quickly when times were tougher – naively I had thought the growth we had seen for the 10 years prior to that was going to just go on and on and the future was very much 100% organic.
10) What are the most important reasons that we should all be supporting organic farming?
Organic farming is the most tightly regulated system of food production anywhere in the world. It is proven to be beneficial for animal welfare and biodiversity. It’s also going to play a really important role in the battle against climate change through its focus on building soil organic matter at the heart of the farming system. This has massive potential for locking up carbon dioxide.
11) How do you find great people to work with? Are there any lessons you’ve learned along the way?
A place like Riverford attracts people with strong and aligned values. That makes for a culture that is really good fun and immensely rewarding.. We are now employee-owned which adds to that feeling of togetherness and collective sense of purpose.
12) We’re a fan of a pun at Honestly Good, so just wanted to know who’s responsible for genius naming of your online magazine – Wicked Leeks?
Marketing team effort, we think it’s great too!
13) In your opinion, what individual steps can we all take to ensure a more sustainable future and less of an impact on our planet?
The most important decisions you can make are around travel, having children and what you eat. I would never want to tell people they should have less children and travel is a personal choice – so I would really encourage people to think about their diet. Eat more vegetables, preferably organic, eat less meat, but where you do make sure its organic,
14) Are there any interesting books/articles that you’ve read about the food industry recently that you’d recommend?
Not about the food industry but a very simple book on management called Going Horizontal – it’s very easy to read but does have great tips on good leadership and management in a business that seeks to have a more forward-thinking approach to management,
15) Are there any fun facts/behind-the-scenes secrets/or even embarrassing stories during your time at Riverford that you can tell us about?
I planted an orchard 12 years ago at our farm in Peterborough (with a bit of help). The trees are still only a few metres tall. I knew then that I needed to leave the growing to others far more capable than me. Unfortunately, it’s next to a road on to the farm so everyone sees it and no one lets me forget it.
Thanks so much Rob for doing this interview with us – if you want to learn more about Riverford, you can visit their website here.