Guy’s news: Trust, partnership & choice

We are enjoying a bumper crop of excellent quality runner and French beans, sweetcorn and some of the best carrots I’ve tasted in 30 years; 2016 is turning out to be a good summer for most crops. About 90% of your box contents are meticulously planned a year or more ahead but yields and maturity dates vary, creating gluts and shortages. Inevitably we deviate from our ‘ideal’ contents to accommodate these variations up to a point (which we argue about a lot); it’s a compromise between keeping you happy in the kitchen and at the table on one hand, and avoiding waste and supporting committed growers on the other.

One of the things that I am most proud of about Riverford is that while we are not perfect, we are good to our word; if we agree to buy a crop from a grower and it meets our quality criteria (where the emphasis is on flavour, not appearance), we take 100% of the agreed tonnage and pay 100% of the agreed price. This is a remarkable achievement in our industry where a third of farmers’ crops are regularly left in the field, and growers are expected to sell their souls along with their crops to keep petulant buyers happy and shelves full.

How do we manage it? In part because as farmers ourselves, we understand the realities of growing; partly because we invest heavily in long term relationships with growers and don’t have a buyer’s tantrum at the first sign of trouble and in part because of meticulous planning. But a lot is down to how your trust allows us to tweak the veg box contents to keep both growers and cooks happy, avoid waste and so create the value that means our veg is usually 20% cheaper than supermarket organic veg. It’s a partnership, and mostly it works incredibly well.

Choice, flexibility and convenience (arguably not our strong points) come at a price which the consumer seldom sees; it is paid by the fulfilment centre worker and Hermes delivery driver earning less than the living wage, by the farmer whose crop is left unsold, by the environment as vans chase delivery slots, crop surpluses rot in fields and airplanes fly clothes to achieve quick turnarounds and keep up with fashions. All of that sacrifice to give us endless choice. Frustrating when much of the time, I for one, don’t really know what I want anyway.

Guy Watson

Ethical eggs: organic vs. free range

What do you picture when you hear the words ‘free range’? Bright, spacious hen houses? Small flocks roaming on green pastures? If these are the sort of idyllic images that spring to mind, you’re not alone. Thanks to some well-publicised media campaigns in recent years, many people are now aware of the terrible suffering experienced by caged laying hens. Fewer people understand that free range, whilst better than caging, does not guarantee the highest standard of welfare for hens; nor the healthiest option for ourselves.

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It is worth understanding the difference between free range and organic. Organic farming isn’t just about avoiding artificial chemicals; it’s a holistic ethos that encompasses a profound respect for our livestock as well as the land. Compassion in World Farming states that organic farms certified by the Soil Association offer the highest standards of animal welfare of any system. Many people choose to buy free range eggs with the best of intentions. However, only buying organic guarantees you a high welfare hen, and eggs that are free from chemical nasties.

Here are some of the ways that organic goes further than free range:

More space, fewer hens
Organic hens get 10m2 of pasture per bird. Inside the houses, a maximum density of 6 birds per m2 is permitted. Flocks can be no larger than 2000, and can be as low as 500.

fieldFree range hens get less than half that amount of pasture per bird (4m2), and pack 50% more hens into the same living space (9 per m2). Their flocks can be any size; a single hangar can contain tens of thousands of hens.

Real freedom to roam
Organic farms must provide plenty of ‘pop holes’ (exits from the hen house) to ensure that their hens have easy and continuous access to the outdoors. The pasture is rested for at least 9 months between flocks to allow vegetatchicken-in-shadowon to grow back and prevent the build-up of disease in the soil.

Free range farms don’t have to provide a specific number of pop holes, and their pasture need only be rested for a meagre 2 months. This can leave free range hens with restricted access to a bare, muddy, parasite-ridden pasture. No wonder many so-called ‘free range’ birds spend little time outside.

No beak-trimming
Beak-trimming is commonplace in free range systems. To prevent stressed birds from pecking each other, the front third of chicks’ beaks are removed using infrared burners – without anaesthetic. The Soil Association strictly forbids this painful and mutilating practice.

No nasty surprises
Free range hens can routinely be fed anti-biotics to pre-empt illness, and are often given GM feeds.

Love your hens!
It seems like a no-brainer to us: happy hens lay better eggs – and eggs that you can feel better about eating. But how can you guarantee that your eggs come from hens that are well cared for?

Labels can be very misleading. Discerning buyers must wade through a sea of carefully crafted language (‘farm fresh’, ‘barn reared’, ‘corn fed’) and bucolic images that bear little relation to the reality of life behind the box. The only way to trust the ethical credentials of your egg is to trust the producer. That’s why Riverford has built close relationships with our organic egg farmers, Jerry Saunders and Duncan Janaway.

Wherevfeeding-chickenser possible, Jerry and Duncan go above and beyond the Soil Association’s already rigorous standards. Their hens have a fantastic quality of life. They live in small flocks, and spend 365 days a year pottering freely on rich pasture. There is grass and clover for them to forage in, trees, shelters, and sand pits for scratching. The hens are encouraged to leave their houses each morning and engage in natural behaviours. They get plenty of human interaction, being checked on and chatted to throughout the day. Everything they’re fed is organic – including some of Riverford’s graded out veg! See these lucky hens for yourself.

counting-eggsMaintaining this high standard takes extra resources. By understanding this, and paying a little more for their eggs, our customers allow Jerry and Duncan to keep taking such good care of their birds. Hens are not machines; it’s not natural for them to produce eggs that are all completely uniform. By accepting mixed boxes that include the smaller eggs laid by younger hens and the larger, paler eggs laid by older ones, our customers prevent waste, and allow the hens to enjoy longer lives.

In return for this, Riverford customers get organic eggs that are tasty as well as trustworthy: fresh, full of flavour, and laid by a hen who couldn’t be happier.

chickens&jerry

Choose organic
Of the 12.2 billion eggs eaten in this country in 2015, only 2% were organic. We need to do better by our hens. For a truly ethical egg, please buy Soil Association-approved organic. Look for the S.A.’s label on the box: they audit every stage of the production process, so you can be confident in the quality of the eggs and the welfare behind them.

Like the sound of our Soil Association-approved organic eggs? Buy your own from our website:
http://www.riverford.co.uk/shop/dairy/mixed-eggs-half-dozen

To learn more about organic farming, visit the Soil Association:
https://www.soilassociation.org/

…and Compassion in World Farming:
http://www.ciwf.org.uk/farm-animals/chickens/egg-laying-hens/higher-welfare/

Coming soon – The Riverford Recipe Channel

recipe channel header

Next week we will be launching a new recipe channel on YouTube, designed to be the go-to place for anyone who needs to get to grips with the green stuff. Whether you need a little help getting through your veg box or just fancy trying something different for dinner tonight, we are planning on having something there for you.

If you’ve been with us a while you will know that we go for inspirational rather than aspirational cooking; we reckon our job as farmers, cooks, and veg nerds is to show you just how exciting and easy cooking with vegetables can be. Guy and our team of cooks here on the farm are total veg experts and they will do just that with recipes including Kale, Fruit & Nut Pilaf, Thai Sweetcorn Fritters, Courgette Kuku and Radicchio & Bacon Pasta. If you’ve eaten at the Riverford Field Kitchen Restaurant here on the farm in Devon, it’s likely you already know how making veg the star of the plate is at the heart of what we do.

All the dishes will be very ‘Riverford’; heavy on the veg, mostly vegetarian or using meat as a seasoning, and designed for flavourful home cooking that will truly broaden your veg horizons. You’ll find plenty of beautiful vegan recipes there too. In addition to specific recipes we will be creating ‘How to…’ videos for every single vegetable we sell, so soon you’ll be flying through that pile of courgettes or bag of beetroot! We’ll be releasing new videos every week, so make sure you subscribe to the channel – you’ll get an alert every time there’s something new to get stuck into. The videos will be shared on our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest pages, and we’d love to hear from you if you have any video suggestions.

It’s been a very busy few months filming them here on the farm; we hope you like what you see and that these videos and those that follow will help more people than ever to live life on the veg with Riverford!

Guy’s news: Weeds, blisters & ignorance

My wife Geetie and I have just taken on a large kitchen garden, but the gate is too small to get a tractor through. Do I knock the wall down, a travesty she would not easily forgive? I have been musing this dilemma while pulling up weeds in her father Gurmukh’s garden in France. On a good day, when the weeds come up easily, it’s a meditative and rewarding task. As I reach tougher plants my hands erupt with blisters and the Zen calm dissipates; without a tractor I’m more of a hunter-gatherer as ultimately, weeds are just plants in the wrong place. Today’s cultivated crops were originally bred from wild, weedy ancestors that grew around early settlements after all. To add to my frustration, much of what I’m pulling up is edible; fennel, purslane and amaranths.

Yet it is through such interactions that the best gardeners know more about plants and the soil than most farmers; they are closer to them than a farmer, who is generally insulated inside an air-conditioned tractor cab with 150 horsepower throbbing beneath them. Cheap fossil fuels have given us cheap food, but in gaining a brute force to grow them we have reduced the connection and understanding of the ecological context of our crops. Not so Gurmukh, a restlessly experimental gardener. He tells me not to weed his untidy looking asparagus beds which are shared with self-seeded coriander; some is eaten green as a herb, some is harvested as immature seeds to use in salads, curries, salsas and for pickling (excellent), but most just set seed for next year.

On my way home I stop at our farm in the Vendée where the last of our sweetcorn is being picked. In areas there is an understorey of succulent summer purslane which escaped the tractor hoe, but appears not to be competitive with the crop; indeed, some claim it traps in moisture and aids root penetration. Purslane is a popular salad leaf in Greece and with among the highest levels of Omega-3 known in the plant world, it is also being heralded as a superfood. Whether it can be picked economically is questionable, but I plan to try, and it may even be available to add to your order next week. As for the garden gate, I think it stays for now; I might learn something in there on my hands and knees.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Sweetcorn, earworms & plastic

Sweetcorn is one of the few crops you don’t have to bend down to pick, so we like to make the season as long as possible. When I bought our farm in France, I couldn’t believe the height and vigour of the closely-related maize grown to feed cows in the region; both sweetcorn and maize have a slightly different way of photosynthesising compared to most plants, and it becomes more efficient when the weather is warmer. As temperatures climb above 20°C you can see the maize changing gear and taking off, while the nearby grass starts to wither. It’s a great crop for France; I’m less convinced about growing it in the UK where it needs a lot of nursing, and its late readiness for harvest can lead to soil erosion through the use of heavy machinery on wet ground.

Maize’s cousin sweetcorn lacks some of that vigour, particularly as seedlings when their high sugar content makes them more susceptible to fungal attack, but the crop still does very well on our farm in the Vendée. Sown in March and brought on under crop covers, we started picking last week and will be finished well before the UK crop starts in late August. Picking has been slowed by the need to inspect each cob for the grubs of corn borer (laid by a butterfly) and corn earworm (laid by a moth); neither has ever bothered us in the UK but they thrive in the warmer conditions in France. We get some degree of control by introducing a micro-parasitic wasp called Trichogramma, which lays an egg inside each borer egg. The wasp larvae that hatch then consume the borer eggs from within, before emerging 12-15 days later to mate and repeat the cycle; gruesome, but we love it. Effective control relies on monitoring butterfly numbers and getting the timing of wasp releases right.

As some of you may have noticed last week, control is not perfect; where we spot infestation we trim off the damaged tip, but the only way to be 100% sure is to strip the husks from every cob and wrap them in plastic as the supermarkets do. If you get a bad cob and feel aggrieved, let us know and we will replace or refund. Meanwhile, should you tire of the simplicity of corn-on-the-cob, try the sweetcorn fritter recipe on our website; even better with salsa verde made with our tomatillos.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: No pockets in a shroud

Twenty five years ago, as I helped load seed potatoes with Gordon Strutt, an older, gentler and wiser neighbour, he advised me, “There are no pockets in a shroud, Guy”. My business was starting to take off and I was probably a bit smug; at 80 his was winding down but he showed no rancour at my success.

Ten years later, having inspired a generation of local growers, Gordon had joined his beloved potatoes underground and Riverford had grown manyfold, but his words stayed with me. The sale of Abel and Cole to venture capitalists brought a stream of bankers to our door, all promising to lubricate my exit into well-heeled retirement. Building Riverford has been an intensely personal, creative endeavour; exhausting, but hugely rewarding. As I once explained to a banker before showing him the door; to sell Riverford as a tradable chattel, whose purpose would become to maximize short-term returns for external investors, would be tantamount to selling one of my children into prostitution.

I love my job and am a long way from hanging up the hoe, but through the recession, as the chaos resulting from greed grew, so did my interest in finding a better form of long-term ownership. Initially I was driven by a leftward leaning idealism; more recently, with a growing distrust of all ideological dogma, my motivation has come from a frustration that most external, profit hungry ownership results in short term, narrow-minded management practices that are poor at harnessing our human potential.

Having visited many employee-owned companies I have found little dogma; they have been as diverse in their ideologies as in their activities, but united in a desire to find a better form of ownership combined with enlightened management which gets the best out of people. They also share a refreshingly optimistic view of humanity; that most of us, most of the time are as good as our organisations allow us to be. I want Riverford to be part of that better, kinder, optimistic world. Like Gordon I’ll be part of Riverford until I join my veg underground, but the plan is for employees who have helped create it to own most of it well before I go.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Hot harvesters & bothered bees

July is our busiest month. As neighbours make hay and grease their combines for harvest, our planting and picking reach their peak; all pushed on by the growth-accelerating heat which, at the same time, saps the energy of those tasked with keeping up with the work. Ed and his team of pickers arrive at our polytunnels at 5am with the first glimmer of light. Basil is picked first; partly because it is the most susceptible to heat and partly because, unlike tomatoes, full light is not needed to select ripe fruit. By mid-morning, temperatures are climbing past 40°C. At 45°C the bees, brought in to aid pollination, make an exit if they can, and keel over if they can’t. However, the heat means our tomatoes are tasting great; as well as the usual cherry tomatoes we have punnets of baby plum, yellow and deep red varieties; all selected for flavour from our trials last year. By 11am we hope to finish picking tomatoes, cucumbers and salad onions and move onto side shooting until fatigue makes work impossible, even with frequent breaks and lots of water; normally by noon.

Cucumbers are a notoriously fickle and demanding crop and unsurprisingly they struggled in the cold, overcast May and June; we kept the tunnels closed to boost temperatures but the resulting humidity has led to an outbreak of downy mildew, a virulent fungal pathogen. We have sprayed them with an organic mixture of garlic and seaweed and they seem to be fighting back with new, healthy growth, though this could be down to the change in weather.

After lunch anyone willing and resilient enough moves on to picking broad beans and currants (both nearly over), and planting the last of the radicchio, lettuce and winter leeks, cabbage and purple sprouting broccoli, all of which must be finished in the next week. Some field workers, having done their eight hours, go to the beach, river or reservoir, and who could blame them.

Riverford at Valley Fest: 2nd-4th September

We’ve teamed up with Valley Fest for a celebration of organic farming, fantastic food and music. When you book your tickets through us, we’ll invite you to a free cooking demo and supper in our pop-up kitchen. Plus, parking’s on us. Find out more on our website.

Guy Watson

Ben’s meat news: 10 years & goodbye

I can’t remember exactly, but it must be about ten years since we started the Meat Box, or Riverford Butchery as it’s now known. Back then, organic food was on the crest of a wave. Vegetable box sales were soaring and it felt as though the next step was to do the same with meat. We were right but, at the same time, very, very wrong. Yes, you did want quality, organic meat with sound provenance, as straight from the farm as possible, but, as things turned out, you didn’t want someone else writing the equivalent of your fortnightly dietary prescription. We’d like to say ‘suggested fortnightly menu’ but, in practise, meat doesn’t seem to offer the flexibility of vegetables. It all felt a bit prescriptive and became like a never ending drive around the M25 – ‘back at Cobham Services – it must be time for leg of pork again and what can we do with it this time?’ Potentially, the practical advantages were considerable. We never quite mastered it but being prescriptive should have enabled us to balance the carcass to a ‘T’ – hence solving the butchers’ perennial nightmare of having too much stewing meat and not enough steak. But times have changed; we’ve moved on from Sunday roast, Monday cold cuts and Tuesday cottage pie. If it makes people think about their food, who are we to say it’s a bad thing. If it means they live on ready meals and takeaways, I’d go for the cold cuts and cottage pie any day, or rather every Monday and Tuesday.

Quite rightly, we all see choice as being our birthright and the success of the Riverford Butchery has been down to lowering the minimum spend and allowing people to buy what they like. There’s still the old ‘fixed weight’ conundrum but the same applies in a shop – watch the pain in a butchers’ body language when you ask him to trim a couple of centimetres off a joint of topside. I could almost do it for pleasure.

But while the onus might have moved from set boxes to pick-your-own, our relationship with our farmers hasn’t changed. Many of them have been with us from the start. Some, through being members of our vegetable growing co-operative, since before then. Some might disagree but I’d like to think Riverford has bought them the best of both worlds – the professional predictions that allow them to plan ahead, together with the knowledge that they’ll be getting a fair price, independent of short term market oscillations.

So it’s been rewarding but, as I’m sure you can tell, after ten years I’m running out of things to say, so this is my last meat box newsletter. But don’t worry, I leave you in the very capable hands of the Riverford chefs to help you make the most of your meat.

Ben Watson

Ben’s news: Wine with a story (to go with your veg)

My brother Guy might know his onions, but he’d be the first to admit wine isn’t his thing, and he’s happy to leave it to me. Outside the world of big brands and supermarkets, wine is the benchmark agricultural product. Done right (as ours are) it is simply grapes, grown under a nurturing farmer’s eye, minimally processed, and sent to you, via us, in a bottle. We don’t have a big list, but we aim to keep it interesting and in tune with the Riverford offer – and to work with producers we’re getting to know. Here are a few new wines for the summer; a couple are a little off the wall but we thought them too good not to try. All 100% organic too of course.

Who’s ever heard of frappato? It’s a red grape indigenous to south east Sicily and in days gone by, they’d have had a bottle waiting, lightly chilled, for the tuna boats to come in. These days it’s more likely to be a sardine boat. Outside its affinity with oily fish it’s a red wine pretending to be white; good with all sorts of vegetable dishes, from caponata to spring risotto. Equally summery (and red) is Moinho do Gato from Quinta do Romeu in Portugal. Good for a summer lunch or picnic. Nothing fancy – just a lovely glass of wine.

If there was a wine of the decade award it would have to go to Picpoul de Pinet, a kind of southern French Muscadet – good with shellfish. Olivier Azan, of Domaine de Petit Roubie’s farm is a bit like Riverford 30 years ago, with family members and relics of old ideas all over the place, together with a couple of caravans and a fair bit of rusty corrugated iron. It immediately felt like home and I was desperate to put off the long drive back to Blighty. Another great find is Chardonnay Terroir 11300 from Domaine Begude near Carcassone. It couldn’t be more different. Owned by Englishman James Kingslake it’s about as idyllic as it gets. Rosbifs abroad might not seem like fertile Riverford hunting ground but that’s the great thing about wine and its makers – they come in all guises. James is a perfectionist, who uses the best grapes and lets them do the talking. You can be a non-interventionalist in a traditional, or a modern way. They both have their merits and that’s the wonderful thing about wine. All that really matters is that we enjoy drinking it.

Ben Watson

Guy’s news: A UK-only box; but will anyone buy it?

Back in 1993, when we packed our first veg box, what little imported organic produce available was fit only for the compost heap by the time it got here, so our veg boxes were UK-only by default. Back then organic box customers and organic growers alike were widely characterised as freaks on the fringe, prepared to pursue the principles of local and seasonal even if it meant a diet of cauliflower, stored roots and cabbage for months at a stretch.

23 years and 30 million veg boxes later, I am happy to be part of a broader church. While our veg is still around 80% home grown, it is supplemented mainly by our French farm and a small grower group in Spain. Together they provide tomatoes, peppers and the like year-round without the environmental disaster that is UK heated glass production, and without losing the closeness to our growers. But globalisation has not passed organic farming by; if you want to buy organic and are not too worried about how or where it is produced, the supermarkets will provide you with just about anything at any time. Some of the organic pioneers whose advice I sought in the ‘80s would be delighted that trade and scale have led to success and accessibility, but I suspect more would be appalled by the way trade has arguably prevailed over principles.

I reckon we strike a pretty good balance between principles and pragmatism in what we provide. Eating can be a political and philosophical act but mostly it is just eating, and I don’t think it is our job to tell you what to eat (though we may nudge you in the direction of a sustainable as well as pleasurable diet and do draw the line at things like airfreight). Having said that, many of you have a strong preference for homegrown veg and I do get a regular ear bashing from the hardliners for importing at all, so we are going to offer a 100% UK box again. Our last attempt amounted to just 1% of sales, but maybe things have changed and more of us do without peppers for longer. We plan to run this box across the year bar a break for the hungry gap, when only the hardest of the hardcore would be satisfied with its limited contents.

The timing of this may strike some as a little ill-judged; I can only say that it was planned way before the EU referendum!

Guy Watson