Saturday, 28 September 2019

The road to Riverford

My process in finding my work placement 

As I said in my last post I have always been interested in environmental issues and conscious of the need for better, more sustainable practices. I, however, was and still am a hypocrite. I knowingly practice an unsustainable lifestyle… but I am trying to change. I have begun a slow and mostly imperfect journey to reduce my plastic consumption in the hopes of going plastic free. Someday I wish to go waste free, but I believe in tackling mole hills before I hit the mountains. All that being said I want to be better; I want to make Greta proud and take action right now. I don’t want to wait around to be proactive and productive in my sustainable journey.

I guess I should slow my roll and explain a little about what I understand sustainability to be, make absolutely no mistake I do not claim, nor do I believe I am any kind of an expert in sustainability. More like a tiny fish in a sea filled with plastic (if you’ll allow me an awful pun). For any second-year students reading this, most of what you’re about to read should seem familiar to you as It’s come from Quinn’s notes.

Sustainability is the ability to live in balance with the world around us, to ensure that future generations will have the same ability to live in balance with the world around them. That sounds easy enough, however the present system that we live in uses far too many natural resources too quickly. The earth isn’t capable of restoring these resources at a pace that is deemed sustainable for future generations. Although we are feeling some of the effects of the climate crisis, heat waves and extreme winters to name just two. Realistically, the majority of these effects will be felt by future generations.

To understand sustainability we must understand that it is a tree part system, known as the pillars of sustainability. To ignore one of the pillars is to ensure the mutually assured destruction of all three. The three pillars are; social, meaning all the communal and social aspects that we as human beings need to lead happy fulfilled lives, no one can or would want to sustain a society that has no society or community. Economic, meaning all financial aspects of a society, economy is an important part of any society as it is how money is made and shared. Environment, meaning any and all ecosystems within a society, human or animal alike. of course a massively important part of sustainability and it has for too long been the most neglected pillar of sustainability. Science has been warning us of the damage we have been doing, but it is only now that we are really waking up to what it all means. To the damage we’ve already done and to the damage will we do if we don’t change the tide of unsustainability. It’s important that we accept our responsibility in the environmental changes we’re seeing and take action to ease to the change.

Hope is not lost, we can make small steps (at first) until we can leap headfirst into a different, without doubt, but better more sustainable lifestyle. My first steps have been the easiest steps a person can take. I stopped using cosmetics or beauty products that came in plastic; I use a shampoo bar that contains coconut oil which covers all my hair needs, I have a bar of soap both come in recycled carboard boxes so no plastic. I have purchased a metal double blade safety razor, so I don’t have to rely on disposable razors (unfortunately the blades come in a plastic holder that is packaged in some plastic. I have a metal water bottle and a bamboo coffee cup that I (try to) take with when I go out. I have begun buying my essentials like toilet paper and laundry soap from zero waste shops that use recycled paper and allow you to refill your jugs of laundry soap. I also purchase my fruits and vegetables with as little plastic as possible wherever possible from local vegetable shops. I buy my meat (yes, I still eat meat I just choose local organic sustainable meats) from local butchers, once they get over the initial shock of it, they’ll happy allow you to use our own containers instead of their plastic bags. All these small steps do make an impact, I know this, but I didn’t feel like it was enough of an impact as I went to work every day and unpacked already washed and peeled vegetables from plastic bags.

Although I liked my job I felt as if I was never going to make any effect on the climate crisis if I spent my entire career unpacking plastic wrapped vegetables. So I began to wonder, how could the job be different so that it didn’t have to come vac-packed?

My process from vegetable-based restaurants to organic farm/restaurants.

In the most dramatic fashion a person can describe a situation I had a little bit of a crisis in career choice. I knew I couldn’t give up on my sustainable journey, it was what felt right to me. I couldn’t come to terms with how I could be a chef if it meant relying on plastic packaged goods flown in from massive mono-cropped farms? That’s when it struck me, it didn’t have to be this way. Surely there had to be place that cared about the food and the environment? I just had to find it. I began my search looking at vegetarian and vegan restaurants, although a good start, after some deeper digging I discovered that some vegetarian/vegan restaurants still rely on plastic wrapped produce. What about fine dining? One my lecturers asked me, so I did look into them. If I’m honest fine dining has never really appealed to me, too much pomp – not enough circumstance. But look I did non the less. A lot more respect is shown for the produce; where it comes from, how it’s produced and, in some situations, even how well the producers are paid for the produce. However, ultimately the gourmet end of the spectrum was still not the right fit I was looking for. It might not have relied on plastic wrapped packing, the food wastage was such that I couldn’t ignore it.

That’s when I began looking for different types of eateries, I wanted to know all the varieties of establishments in which I could work i.e. hotel, cafes, restaurants, diners, factories etc. it was in this search that I was discovered organic farms and restaurants. The closest thing I could compare it to in Ireland would be Ballymaloe. These are establishments that have some kind of restaurant that serves food obtained from a (usual onsite) garden and/or polytunnel. I knew this was exactly the kind of place I wanted to work for. These are the kinds of establishments that work in harmony with the environment around them not only because they want to but because they must. They rely on their environment to supply them with locally produced products.

Once I knew the kind of place I wanted to work for, I needed to find the right place to work for. I began researching different types of farm restaurants, not all are the same or uphold an equally sustainable ethos. Through this research (I know it sounds like I did loads of research but honestly a couple of google searches and some Wikipedia reading can teach you a lot) I devised a list of qualities I wanted from my work placement. I wanted to work from an organic, local, ethical restaurant with either an onsite or affiliate farm where they sourced their produce.

As I don’t speak a second language with enough command to feel comfortable working in a kitchen that didn’t speak English my choices in where I could search for my placement where limited to English speaking countries. I choose to keep my search within the U.K and Northern Ireland for sheer convenience. There where no places that met my criteria in Northern Ireland, however, I did find a place in England (Riverford Organic Farm – Riverford Field Kitchen), Scotland (Pillars of Hercules) and Wales (Rhug Estate). I was excited about my decisions, despite some grumbles from a lecturer about spending my year hanging out with hippies (which I’m doing anyway, in a funny twist of irony). I took my chances and applied to all of them in the hopes of hearing back.

Now when I say I applied; I don’t mean I filled in some pre-existing application form. I found contact information on their websites to whomever I thought was closest to the chef. I emailed them explaining who I was, that I was looking for a work placement and why I wanted to work for their restaurant. Only two responded, Pillars of Hercules in Scotland and Riverford in England. My two top choices where Rhug estate and Riverford, so of course I choose Riverford.

Glyn, the general manager in the Field Kitchen - the restaurant associated and located on the original site of Riverford Organic Farms, was my initial contact. I spoke to him through email and explain in more detail who I was, what I was hoping to do and the parameters of the work placement in terms of the college’s needs. He was very kind and open to the idea of the placement, referred to as an apprenticeship in the U.K. I was honest and told him that I was hoping to get to speak to or work with some of the farmers in the hopes of learning about their way of organic growing. Unbeknownst to me the Field Kitchen has a Field Garden, a small garden and polytunnel where food is grown for show and use in the kitchen. So, Glyn arranged for me to do a two-part apprenticeship, I would work two days in the garden with Penny, the gardener and three days working with the chefs in the Field Kitchen.

I must admit it was difficult for me to decide to follow my gut and go to Riverford. I heard grumbles from a few who told me I was wasting my time, that what I was looking for couldn’t exist. Well, they were wrong. Riverford is above and beyond what I could have imagined. They care about the food, the environment, their local community, their employees and their customers. It’s a shining example of what a business can be when care is put into the effort not just the outcome. If you’re questioning your choice in placement, don’t! Don’t be afraid to try something outside the kitchen either, its great fun to learn and work outside or at least outside the confines of a hot kitchen.

My process to Totnes

I began my search before Christmas of second year, but it wasn’t affirmed that I was going to Riverford until March or April of the following year. So don’t panic if it feels like impending doom come second semester, that’s normal. It can take a long time to sort a placement, especially if you’re the first one to have a placement there.

In terms of money, although I had spent months saving for the placement year, I still lived a life and the savings I had didn’t feel like they were going to be enough to get me over, settled and comfortable. I took out a small loan from my credit union. When I got my first installment of my Eurasmus+ grant I paid a good portion of it back. Realistically I probably just end up taking out another loan for second semester and use my Eurasmus+ money to pay some of that off, but it works for me. I know everyone’s already telling you to start saving but really do, things get so expensive when you have to uproot your life. Its little things that you don’t think of that end up getting to be the most expensive. For instance, I had to drop £100 on a bike because there’s no public transport that travels to Riverford. I also bought things for comfort or entertainment in the house that made me feel more at home there.

I used my loan to book my original flights, as well as a trip home to Ireland for a family wedding, all my travel needs as well as my air B&B and my housing needs. You’d be surprised how quickly money files out the door when you’ve none coming in. All of this was paid for before I’d even begun my first day at Riverford and don’t forget the joys of working a line week.

I flew into Exeter on the 12th of June, five days before I was meant to start work. In hindsight I’m glad I gave myself those few days as it allowed me time to arrange housing, transport and explore the local area a little. I took a bus from the airport to the train station, where I got a train directly to Totnes. The first thing I did in Totnes was to get a U.K. sim card, this was a nightmare story for another day, but I recommend getting a U.K. sim card as quick as you can as google maps is a life saver. Once I got that I set out to find my air B&B, I original booked myself for one night in the air B&B but due to some issues with housing that I had prearranged falling through I stayed a second night. I was able to find a nice top floor room in a shared house in the town centre on I pay £100 a week, all bills included. The bike I bought is a great investment, it’s a good sturdy bike that I purchased from a bike shop in the town. It had been fully refurbished with new parts before I bought it. It came with a three-month service warrant as well. It takes me 35 minutes to cycle into work as I’m not the most physically fit and a lot of it is uphill. Luckily Devon is a very cyclist friendly area so most of the journey is on a national cycle path or mostly unused country roads. There are plenty of cycle friendly paths to explore the local area and carriages on trains for bikes so you can take it with you to explore other areas.

So this has been my general long-winded description of my story. I hope it wasn’t to much, but then if you’ve gotten to the end then it couldn’t have been to bad for you. As I’m all for a quick and easy round up of information I’m going to leave a little list of tips/recommendations for anyone going through this process too. None of it might be of any use to you, but sure look it was helpful to me so why not throw it up here?

Don’t be afraid to drop me a message if you’re looking for an info about Riverford or work placements in general. šŸ˜Š

  • ·        Start thinking about where you’d like to work, the dream, and go from there.
  • Start researching and prepping early, the sooner you know the sooner you can get plans made.
  • Overestimate the money you’ll need by at least a third.
  • Book as far in advance as possible.
  • Book as many house viewings in advance as you can, book them on the same day if possible. Expect some of them to fall through, they definitely will.
  • Be ready to pay two months rent upfront, one for rent one for the deposit.
  • Research all the local travel options before you decide, if you’re not prepared to walk or cycle some areas might not suite you.
  • If you are going to cycle rent or buy a bike as soon as you can.
  • House sharing websites are a great place to find just a room for rent in a local area. Be sure to tell them you’re a student there for a limited time, they might offer you a reduced rate.
  • Book a B&B, hostel, hotel or some other sort of accommodation before you go, book for at least two nights. Never expect to be in a house right away. If you’re using a personal air B&B or other B&B be sure to tell them you’re a student, I got a discount at my air B&B.
  • Buy a local sim card, splurge for the unlimited data, facetime eats up lots of credit but is great for keeping up with family and friends. 
  • Look up local attractions, go out and explore like a tourist. Its great fun and when in your life will you be paid to be a tourist?
  • If you can, book a small trip home. Its great for the homesick and talking about your placement reminds you why you’re there.
  • Set yourself some goals, personal and professional, try to achieve them.
  • Allow yourself to try new things.
  • Allow yourself the privilege of ignorance, by this I mean don’t be afraid to admit don’t know something and learn how to do it. This is meant to be a year of learning, no one is expecting you to come in knowing how to do it, that’s why you’re there after all.
  • Keep a journal, just for yourself. Its amazing how much you forget about your experiences. Its nice to read over them to remember in your own words. 

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