Leading the way in sustainable vegetable production

Farming 8,000 acres across Cornwall while employing 587 members of staff producing field-scale vegetables 365 days of the year is impressive in itself. Couple this with being sector leaders in sustainable practices and it clear to see Riviera Produce is an extraordinary business.

David Simmons and his son Tom are the fifth and sixth generations running this long-standing family farming business. Originally a mixed farm, the business has focused firmly on vegetables for the last 20 years. Nowadays, much of their output is brassicas destined for major retailers, with cauliflowers accounting for 47% of production and the courgette crop alone requiring a daily labour force of 112 pickers.

Over the last six years, the Simmons have made wide-ranging changes to build environmental resilience believing it’s ‘the right thing to do’. Starting from the ground up, building soil health through minimal tillage, cover cropping and increasing soil organic matter has been a priority.

David Simmons, owner and managing director of Riviera Produce, said: “We have stopped ploughing due to the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere when the ground is turned over.

“In recent years, we’ve been making the most of cover cropping, which has really improved our organic matter and soil structure and increased the number of earthworms in our soils. It also helps water infiltrate the soil at times of heavy rain and retain moisture in periods of draught.

“We don’t leave the ground bare over the winter anymore. This paired with improving our soil structure and reducing compaction means there is less run off. It also makes fields more workable, as tractors aren’t sinking in as much or getting stuck in wet conditions.”

To add back into the soil, buckwheat is grown to release phosphates and clover leys to fix nitrogen. These changes among others have resulted in a sharp drop in fertiliser use.

David and the team have also been growing companion crops in a bid to attract predators of the insects affecting their vegetable crops, thereby minimising the use of pesticides.

Innovation is at the core of the Riviera operation, and for the past three or four years, methane-fuelled tractors have been trialled, with a vehicle now on order. Powered by methane gas captured from slurry, David describes this system as having a carbon negative effect, by stopping the release of methane from slurry and preventing carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.

“We enjoy the same level of output from the methane-fuelled tractors as a conventional one. The only drawback is they need refuelling about twice a day,” he said. “We’ve also been trialling an HVO-fuelled tractor with great success. HVO can be used in most tractors without any changes to the tractor and has a performance equal to diesel.”

Moves to renewable energy have seen the installation of a ground source heat pump, which also captures heat emitted by the chillers and is used in the staff accommodation and offices. An additional 1MW of solar power is provided by panels sited in fields and on the roof.

David explained: “We are not making these changes because any customer or regulation is forcing us, but because we believe in it. We, as farmers, have a responsibility. There is so much bad press about agriculture, and we need to be making proactive changes.

“Ultimately as a business we want to be net zero. The industry is working to a target of 2040, but we should get there sooner.”

Finalist, Best Sustainable Farming Initiative category, Cornwall Farming Business Awards 2023.