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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

INTERVIEW: Allan McKie from River Nene

You may remember me mentioning River Nene Organic Farm in my post called ‘Desperately Seeking Veg’ back in August. At the time I talked about how I had found it so difficult to find an organic veg delivery scheme in Nottingham but named River Nene as one which operated nearby.

Since then however I have been talking to Allan McKie who works for River Nene and indeed runs the business for the east side of Nottingham. So impressed was I by his description of the farms, their customer service and by the fact that they are branching out that I wanted to interview him for City Hippy.

So here’s what Allan had to say about River Nene

V: Hello Allan. First of all can you tell us a little about the history of the River Nene farm?
A: River Nene’s first Organic Farm sits in the Nene Valley, in a village called Sutton. The River meanders along the farms border and occasionally, if you’re lucky, you will see the Nene Valley steam train chugging through the farm. Stan Cliffe, the farm manager, has managed the farm organically since April 2000 and River Nene joined him in 2004 to launch the box scheme. His 44 years of growing experience and tremendous enthusiasm gave him the perfect springboard to take on the organic challenge.Stan sees growing for the vegboxes as a wonderful opportunity to connect thefarm with its customers and communities throughout the East Midlands and tomake fresh, healthy, organic vegetables widely available. We also work with agroup of local organic farmers to share expertise and make sure we keep theboxes full of exciting vegetables all year round. All our farmers are committed toprotecting wildlife and the British countryside and we meet regularly to shareideas, plan production and consider ways that we can improve. The fruit and vegetables from our growers are currently packed in Yaxley, though we haverecently taken over a 500 acre site at Sacrewell Farm, just north of Peterborough. This site adds to our existing available organic land and it is from here that the boxes will be packed and distributed.

V: Where do you come in and how does River Nene Nottingham branch of the business work?
A: River Nene’s organic produce is distributed to customers through an enthusiastic and dedicated franchisee network who employ local people to promote and deliver the produce. The customers order either online, by phone or e mail up to 2 days before their set delivery day. These orders are communicated to the farm the morning before delivery and the boxes are then packed and prepared. They are then sent to the franchisee hub, ours is just outside Nottingham where they are stored overnight before delivery takes place the day after. So if you receive your delivery on Thursday, the box will have been packed and prepared the day before, on Wednesday at the farm.

V: Any plans to expand into other areas of Nottinghamshire?
A: Yes, we are currently preparing to open up delivery into Grantham and Newark areas, this is on schedule to happen in November 06.

V: What would you say is River Nene’s mission statement or main ethos?
A: Our ethos is quite simple. To bring high quality organic fruit and vegetables to the communities of the East Midlands at prices that are affordable to the customer, give fair reward for the farmers’ effort and investment, and to do it all in a sustainable ethical manner that will do least damage to the environment.

V: River Nene organic farm was set up in February 2005. What would you say is its proudest achievement since then?
A: Without question it is the achievement of becoming the fastest growing box scheme operator anywhere in Europe within its first 12 months. From a standing start 18 months ago, the farm now distributes over 7000 boxes every week to an ever growing and loyal customer base.

V: What would you say makes River Nene stand out from other organic farms in the Midlands or in fact the UK?
A: There are a number of things. The first is the quality of produce. The produce is supplied through a cooperative group of 10 farms all farming on highly fertile Fenland with its rich peat soil. These farms have diversified away from supplying supermarkets and now rely largely on River Nene for their livelihoods so top quality is essential. The second is quality of service. Each franchise area covers quite a small geographic area and this enables each business to provide its customers with a fast and responsive service as well as a wealth of knowledge and experience from its grower group. The third is award winning web site where customers can manage their orders and accounts online with ease. The fourth is flexibility and affordability. We don't insist on a regular order, if you only want a delivery on an ad hoc basis that is absolutely fine. With our smallest box retailing at £7.50 which includes delivery, we have very few complaints about value for money.

V: Farming organically is very hard work. Is there anything City Hippy readers (or anyone for that matter) can do to support organic farms?
A: Organic farmers do work very hard but they will all tell you they enjoy their work tremendously now that they are seeing a reasonable reward for their effort instead of fighting for every last penny when supplying the large supermarket chains. Don’t get me wrong, they are not on a ‘get rich quick’ scheme, but at least they are no longer operating largely tenant farms at close to breakeven. City Hippy readers and others can best support UK organic farmers by transferring their buying habits away from the supermarkets and toward box scheme deliveries, be it River Nene or any other supplier. This will encourage more farmers to convert and it will both improve the quality of the countryside and the life of its wildlife occupants and reduce the use of environmentally damaging fertilisers (8 tonnes of oil make 1 tonne of fertiliser)

Thank you Allan. So, once again check out the River Nene website if you’d like to know more or get in touch with Allan.

Also, good news for Make Noise members is that next week River Nene will be offering an exclusive discount. So if you haven’t already, join Make Noise NOW! Then look out for the newsletter in your inbox and on the Make Noise website.

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