Guy’s news: Revenge of the tomatillos

Some seeds will be taken by the birds, some will fall on stony ground, and some will be choked by weeds – but a few will find fertile ground and multiply ‘a hundredfold’. So goes the parable; and two millennia later, despite agricultural advances improving the chances for many crops, one saleable sweetcorn cob per four seeds sown is still a fair expectation. Here in France, we sow 86,000 seeds per hectare for the early crop. In a good year, we expect 55,000 to establish, and to pick around 20,000 cobs, having discarded those poorly filled and pest damaged. With increasing competence and favourable weather, we are managing around 30,000 cobs per hectare this year; something I assured my team was virtually impossible. Like Paddy Ashdown, I must eat my hat.

We might even have had more were it not for the tomatillos. They have self-seeded from previous years and grown as ‘volunteers’ with such vigour that we have struggled to control them between the rows and avoid them engulfing and choking the sweetcorn. Should I be driven out of France by Brexit, their seed may be my revenge, left to curse future farmers of this land. If all crops had
the vigour, disease resistance and sprawling dominance of tomatillos, farming would be a doddle. Luckily they make an excellent salsa verde with chilli, coriander and lime, to go with your barbequed sweetcorn.

We also have bumper crops of padron peppers, aubergine, squash, borlotti beans, and many different types of pepper, which will all be in your boxes over the next couple of months. The padrons taste infinitely better than any I have bought, though with the flavour comes more heat than might be optimal for some tapas eaters. As with so many crops, the flavour is better when grown outside rather than in a tunnel, but they are later and less regular in shape.

After six years, the French farm is finally doing well. It’s taken some hard lessons to find the crops that suit the soil, our skills, and hopefully your tastes; the experience has humbled and occasionally humiliated me, and I won’t be repeating it. But it gives me some satisfaction to suddenly find myself superfluous, and even an irritation. We’ve built such a skilled team that they no longer need me. So, I’ve left them to it and am writing this from the beach – with not a tomatillo in sight.

Guy Watson

Happy 10th Birthday, Home Farm!

This summer marks ten years since Riverford first arrived at its home in the north, Home Farm. Since then, so much has changed – and we couldn’t have done any of it without our customers’ support. Thank you, everyone, for being part of the family!

Guys news: Cautious steps & revolutionary leaps

We were double winners at the Soil Association Best of Organic Market awards this month; best and most innovative organic farmer. The urge to innovate stems from our restless dissatisfaction with the way things are, a determination to find a better way and constant pushing of the boundaries. It got man out of the cave, brought us the Industrial Revolution, the Green Revolution and the internet but arguably also the Enclosures Act, climate change, deforestation, gun powder and industrialised farming. Clearly it can be a force for both good and bad; as yet we are incapable of distinguishing the useful from the destructive before lunging forward into the chaos that ensues when we let the marketplace decide. The innovations that are scaled up are invariably the profitable ones (usually to a small minority), not necessarily balanced, beneficial to all or thought through in their consequences for humankind and the planet.

I am an irrepressible innovator and sometimes loathe the restless dissatisfaction that comes with it. I know it makes life hard for my staff and those around me and have determined to take time to celebrate achievements before dashing on. On this occasion, celebration involved a lot of organic vodka, imbibed on a warm London night with some self-satisfaction.

To be a good, maybe even the best, organic farmer requires much more balance, and some wisdom. Innovation has its place but, unless preceded by a lot of observation, patience and bit of humility we would be charging around creating clever solutions to the wrong problems. Last week we were clearing up the yard and I noticed a number of my early inventions disappearing into the skip (I couldn’t help retrieving the long-abandoned, barely used, lie-down weeder; a genius idea which my staff hated). Mercifully, over most of my 30 years of organic growing my impetuous nature has been balanced by our more considered farm team, particularly John, our cautious farms manager of 25 years. I appreciate his patience and consideration but will never emulate it; I will be an innovator to the grave. To succeed and persist another 30 years we need both approaches, and the wisdom to recognise when each is appropriate; when to risk my revolutionary leaps and when to progress in John’s cautious steps.

Our new beers and ciders and their stories.

We’ve introduced four new beers and ciders to our drink offering, carefully selected for flavour from independent breweries. As with most of the small-scale producers we work with, they have interesting stories to tell. Here’s a little about what makes each brewery and beverage special.

The first addition is from Barnaby’s Brewery, made quite literally a stone’s throw away from us at the Riverford dairy farm in the old stable block. Their Pilsner lager is made with fresh spring water from the farm, which allows its delicate malt flavour shine through; you’ll struggle to find another brewery using spring water from an organic farm!

Team Barnaby and Tim set up the business after brewing as a hobby for years. What really helped Barnaby take the plunge was realising that with three teenage sons quickly growing up, his household was soon going to get through a lot of beer!

Tim’s engineering experience has allowed them to build their bespoke brewhouse using innovatively adapted reclaimed equipment.

What’s really impressive about Barnaby’s Brewhouse is their integrity in their efforts to make sure every by-product is put to use. Their spent grain is fed to the Riverford dairy herd; waste water is filtered in hand-built reed beds then fed back onto the land; the yeast slurry is either harvested and used for future brews or fed to pigs and the used hops are composted. On top of that the business is moving towards becoming completely sustainable business and already uses renewable energy from solar panels on the farm.

Ultimately, this is a lager you can really feel good about drinking.

Next up is Black Isle Brewery in the Scottish Highlands, the only organic brewery in Scotland. Based on a working farm, they grow their own barley for brewing and breed Hebridean sheep who feed off the spent grain.

Their Goldeneye pale ale has a beautiful golden colour, with a fruity aroma and rich, robust malt and marmalade flavour. We recommend it with anything spicy, smoked or BBQ’d.

David Gladwin was one of the very first craft brewers in Scotland when he started Black Isle in 1998. He saw a gap in the market for modern, fresh styles of beer to oppose the mass produced, pasteurised and ‘bland’ offerings in Scotland.

Organic is important to Black Isle; it costs three times as much for organic hops as it does for non-organic materials, but like us they are committed to organic and producing the best quality beer while looking after their beautiful Highland environment. They are also members of WWOOF (Working Worldwide On Organic Farms) if you fancy volunteering on the farm!

Our third addition is Blonde lager by Hepworth Brewery, Sussex. Clear golden in colour, the flavour is smooth, crisp and refreshing, with some lovely floral notes from the organic hops.

It’s naturally gluten free, too! This is achieved by using the best brewing practices at every stage: from choosing Sussex barley that is low in protein, to traditional floor malting and boiling the worts (the liquid extracted from the mashing process during brewing) at higher temperatures in the British-style brewhouse. Slow, cold maturation allows the beer to stabilise and the gluten to drop out, before filtering and bottling.

Lastly is a new addition from the Samuel Smith’s brewery, Perry, a sparkling pear cider.

Samuel Smith’s is brewed at the literally named Old Brewery, Tadcaster, is the oldest brewery in Yorkshire. Since 1758, ales and stouts have been brewed here using the highly mineralised water drawn from an aquifer, 85 feet below ground.

Perry has a delicate pale straw colour, smooth body, and lovely flavour – crisp yet rich, and bursting with fragrant summer pears.

All four drinks have been made by real people who really love what they do, and with a commitment to organic. As with everything we grow and sell, flavour is at the top of our list when choosing new products from small scale producers and these all get top marks. Cheers to that!

Guy’s news: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”

We taste everything that goes in your veg boxes; in fact at one time we tested the palates of all our staff and formed a panel from those with the most sensitivity. It was an admirably democratic exercise, but proved useless as it failed to accommodate the fact that taste is subjective, highly related to the individual and therefore defies objective measurement.

Forty years of business mantra maintains that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. If you can’t manage it, the easiest thing to do is pretend that it doesn’t exist; an approach that has been misapplied to healthcare and education as well as the quality of vegetables. What measurables there are have improved over the years: shelf life, uniformity, yield, even the elements of flavour which can be quantified like sweetness and crunchiness/turgidity. However, these improvements have been won at the cost of harder to measure, more subtle flavours, and almost certainly nutritional quality. Flavour comes from the crop variety, soil type, growing conditions (most notably the availability of nitrogen and water) and freshness. The best flavour normally comes from vegetables and fruit that have grown slowly, often with a degree of hardship that falls just short of stress (which can result in bitter/off flavours). As such, most commercial farmers cannot risk aiming for flavour when cosmetic appearance is what their buyers will judge quality on.

Introducing…The Riverford Flavour Tour

To bring the focus of food back to flavour we are launching a hands-on, mouthwatering experience of organic vegetables farmed for flavour. Drop by for veg growing, cooking classes, veg games, tastings, demos, and much more! We’ll also be running our new Master Veg cookery classes and Pop-Up Feasts nationwide – see website for details.

WOMAD: 28th-30th July
Riverford on Home Farm: 4th-6th & 8th-9th Aug
Riverford on Sacrewell Farm: 18th-20th Aug
Abergavenny Food Festival: 16th-17th Sept

Guy’s news: Plants; not so dumb & passive

Much of horticulture is about managing the urge of plants to reproduce. Humans need and crave the more digestible, nutrient-dense food found in the reproductive parts of crops; that is the flowers, fruits, seeds, bulbs and tubers. As growers we devote ourselves to manipulating plants to maximise the yield and quality of those tender and tasty reproductive organs, which is a tricky balance to strike. If only we could sell you grass for your supper; alas the easy to grow, non-reproductive parts of plants are largely indigestible to humans.

Plants in their wild state have survived the challenges of pestilence, drought, flood, ice ages and now Homo sapiens by mastering a long-term strategy of balancing growth and dominance against risk. Getting bigger to increase their reproductive capacity must be balanced against the risk of not making it to maturity. At a cellular level the strategy all boils down to whether a cell in the apical meristem (growing point) differentiates into leaf or flower (above ground) and root or starch-saving tuber (below). If things are looking good a plant will
typically extend its vegetative life, assuming the chance for greater fecundity will come later; if things are getting tough (drought, lack of nutrients or light etc) it will switch to sexual mode early so at least some genes are preserved.

Such were my musings as I observed our early runner beans which have grown and grown but failed to produce a crop. The generally-held wisdom is to build a strong plant, then stress it with water deprivation to make it flower, then give it everything it needs so it feels confident and fills every pod. As our plants reach for the polytunnel roof and the soil is covered with aborted flowers and just a few crates of beans to show for it, it’s plain we haven’t grasped the subtleties.

There is a tendency to regard plants as dumb and passive, yet their interaction with the world goes far beyond the basic tropisms we learnt at school. They can sense, even “hear” pest attack and respond with defence chemicals, much as our own immune system works. They may not moo, baa or rush around, but the apparent passivity of plants hides subtleties and complex responses which have served them well. It remains to be seen how well they will survive us.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Hot, hot, hot

It hit 41˚C in the polytunnels yesterday; too hot for people and too hot for crops. Picking starts at 5am to get the cucumbers, salad onions and basil picked and tomatoes side-shooted before it becomes unbearable. Even the bees head for the exit when it reaches 30˚C, as would most humans. I’ve headed to some shade by the reservoir to write this; not a bad office for today.

On our French farm we hire a helicopter to spray lime on the tunnels which is remarkably effective at reducing temperatures and stopping the peppers getting sunburnt; it’s hard to believe, but in the quest for the perfect pepper we seem to have bred out tolerance to the sun. Such is my frustration with overbred veg and overpriced seed that we are experimenting with some older varieties from central Europe this year. Meanwhile our early tunnel-grown runner beans are aborting their fruit in confusion at the extreme heat, so we are yet to pick a bean. We have started picking the first padron peppers which will be available next week; they have so much more flavour than anything available in a supermarket or any tapas bar I’ve visited. Shallow or dry fried until 50% of the skin blisters and sprinkled with sea salt, they are the perfect appetiser.

Even outside the polytunnels the heat is causing stress in many crops, particularly our cool-loving brassicas. Plenty of water can help by affording the plant the chance to cool itself through evaporation from the leaves (as we do by sweating) but in this weather most farmers, us included, don’t have access to enough water pipes, pumps and sprinklers to get around needy crops and back to the start in time. Broccoli has been the worst affected; every head harvested this week ended up being fed to the cows. It was fine when picked but even with the best refrigeration nothing could undo the stress suffered in the field.

Sweetcorn on the other hand is lapping it up; it has a slightly different method of photosynthesis (the C4 pathway) which comes into its own as temperatures rise and water gets scarce. In France we have the biggest, greenest, most uniform crop I have seen in 30 years of growing, and expect to start picking some thumping cobs in early July ready for your BBQs.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Exodus; not a good time for slugs

For the last month, our irrigation reservoirs have been rimmed by a black mass of writhing tadpoles. I reckon there are over a million in the one I swim in, even after the carp have feasted. Last week they got their legs and this week they are off; the ground around the ponds is heaving as they go in search of their first terrestrial meal. Facing this hungry biblical plague, slugs have no chance. It will be two years before the toads return to breed, by which time they’ll have made a home on the waterless hill half a mile away.

“What we do about slugs” is always the visiting gardener’s top question on our organic farms. The answer, with the occasional exception of our polytunnels, is nothing; they aren’t a problem for our field crops. I know you will find the occasional slimy surprise in our lettuces and our sprouts are often scarred (which we hope and assume you can live with), but I cannot remember ever seeing any organic crops suffering significantly. Most conventional potato growers will routinely apply vast quantities of slug pellets and still have substantial damage. Likewise, slugs can be a huge problem in winter wheat and barley even after applying pellets, but almost never when the ground has been organic for three years or more. The reason is undoubtedly that our soils, free from pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, are teeming with life looking for a meal; toads, frogs and carabid beetles like to munch on slugs, nematodes will parasitize them, and there are almost certainly many other predators and pathogens. No-one makes money from their activity, so this unglamorous part of ecology hasn’t been studied much.

The principle of organic farming is to find balance; the population of every indigenous pest (except Homo sapiens) is regulated by predators and pathogens. It doesn’t always work; sometimes you have to encourage them a little (e.g. flowering plants to foster the lacewings and hoverflies that control aphids), but with slugs all you have to do is spare the soil those toxic chemicals, and soil ecology will do the rest. Annoyingly I know this approach does not work in a garden; I suspect there is just too much cover for the slugs to retreat to. If you can handle the poo and keep the foxes away, get a duck.

Guy Watson

Recipe boxes by Riverford restaurant chefs

For two weeks from Monday 26th June, our Vegetarian recipe box will be taken over by James Dodd and Peter Weeden, the kings of the kitchen at our two award-winning organic restaurants.

Nestled the middle of our Devon farm is The Riverford Field Kitchen, lead by head chef and serious veg nerd James. He even has a tattoo of all his favourite vegetables! James’s cooking is a joyful celebration of what’s fresh on the farm, with a global influence from his round the world travels. Expect colour, creativity, and bags of flavour.

Eating at The Riverford Field Kitchen is a unique experience – not just in terms of the food, but also how it’s eaten. We believe that good food tastes better shared, so the whole restaurant is served together at communal tables, with generous platters to pass around and share. There’s always lots of dishes to dig into; James and his team magic up unforgettable seasonal feasts, showcasing the bounty from the fields around.

Far from the rolling Devon hills, in the heart of urban Islington, is Riverford at the Duke of Cambridge: Britain’s first and only certified organic pub. It’s here that head chef Peter gets to work, delivering pub grub like you’ve never seen it before.

Peter believes in ‘good, clean and fair’ food, sourcing organic ingredients with impeccable provenance, and cooking simple, rustic dishes which let their natural flavours shine. Seasonal veg is the star of every plate, of course – much of it from our own farm. He is also passionate about underutilised fish, and works with colleges to promote sustainable seafood.

Peter and James have created these limited edition vegetarian recipes to give you a taste of our restaurants’ inspiring organic food at your own table. Each chef’s recipes will be available for one week only, starting with James from Monday 26th June – so try them while you can.

Visit our recipe box page to order a Vegetarian recipe box with recipes by Riverford restaurant chefs, delivered Monday 26th June – Friday 7th July.


Guy’s News: Baby orcas & the rarity of certainty

Last year a dead orca was washed ashore on the Isle of Tiree in Scotland. PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) levels in its body were 20 times greater than what scientists consider manageable for cetaceans. The 20-year-old whale had not bred in its life; indeed observers have not seen any orcas born in British waters for 25 years and there is strong evidence of impaired reproduction in many sea mammals from heavily polluted European waters. PCBs were manufactured and marketed as coolants, lubricants and sealants by Monsanto and others for 30 years until their ban in the 1970s, when their toxicity could no longer be denied. The stability and persistence which contributed to their industrial value means they still pollute our oceans and waterways, and have accumulated in top predators globally. Clearly testing and regulation were inadequate. Manufacturers profited and moved on; the planet is still paying the price.

A recent report commissioned by the EU suggests the dangers posed by pesticides are underestimated and that the systems of safety assessment are flawed. The collective damage to our nervous systems and the consequent loss of IQ alone is valued at a staggering £125bn per year. I am a little sceptical as to how they arrived at that figure, but once again the NFU made my blood boil with their response: “It is important to point out that this report makes it quite clear that our understanding in these areas is limited, the evidence is not conclusive, and the significance of the findings for public safety is unclear.” So should we carry on using nerve toxins and endocrine disrupters until it is clear? Surely we don’t need 100% certainty to restrain the quest for profit at any cost?

Certainty is rare; perhaps there’s only a 50% chance that we are substantially underestimating the risks of pesticides, perhaps the chance of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change is only 80%. Yet for those with power to knowingly expose our planet and future generations to such risks in the name of profit is psychopathic. I am so tired of hearing farmers and businesses lobby for less regulation when there is such evidence that we need more. Sometimes it will be wrong and prove over-cautious, but that is a small price to pay for the times that it proves right.

Guy Watson