Riverford Growers Day – putting names to faces (or fruit and veg!)

Last week, over 80 organic growers and producers descended on the Devon farm. People came from all over the world, including all our Spanish growers – such as Pepe who grows our first spring asparagus, and Paco who supplies tomatoes and ramiro peppers outside the UK season.

Our overseas farmers brought the beautiful sunshine with them; just right for food and chat outside The Riverford Field Kitchen, a farm tour, and some interesting talks in the Riverford Yurt.

Choosing who we work with carefully is very important to us. We’re lucky enough to have a fantastic network of growers who share our passion for growing flavoursome organic food, with utmost respect for the environment.

These relationships are especially important to us when working with growers overseas, because organic standards aren’t always as strict as they are in the UK. Working with farmers we know and trust means we can provide our customers with the assurance that their food has always been grown with integrity, and is fully traceable from field to plate.

Here are a few snaps from the day.

Guy’s news: Samphire canoes & cold milk

The rain came and went, leaving our soils recharged and our crops refreshed; just as we started to worry it would never stop, a week of dry weather allowed us to make silage and catch up on the sowing. I have to pinch myself lest we take this faultless weather for granted, but the near-perfect year continues.

After eight weeks of foraging for wild garlic in the woods, our nimble-fingered and flexible team of youths have had a short break before starting this week on marsh samphire. With wild garlic the challenge is avoiding the toxic weeds that share the same shady habitat, and then carrying the boxes out of the often steep woods. With samphire the challenge is the tide and the extreme fiddliness of the task. On a good day a picker may manage 10kg before being driven off the marsh by the incoming tide; they often end up paddling the crop to the margin in a canoe. The marshes are remote and staggeringly beautiful and occasionally I achieve a state of bliss when picking but, to my shame, my mind keeps trying to invent a machine to aid harvest. All my inventions so far have been discarded in favour of scissors and garden shears but I keep sketching inventions; the sign of a Zen-less Henry Ford-like mind.

One of the advantages of doing our own deliveries via your local veg team (rather than contracting out to drivers in the burgeoning “gig” delivery economy) is that we get our packaging back, so can ensure it is re-used or recycled. Our boxes are made from 98% recycled materials, are 100% recyclable and often used ten times or more but, counter-intuitively, still account for a larger carbon footprint than our road transport. The single biggest thing you can do to reduce the environmental impact of your fruit and veg (and help us keep prices down) is to fold the box (the bottom goes down, not up) and leave it out for your driver to collect. We are also starting to use silver bags cooled with ice packs to help look after chilled products better; we can use these many times if you put them out too. We cannot re-use other Riverford bags so, if your local authority recycles plastic bags please let them; if not put them (just ours please) in the empty box and we will recycle, and so close that loop.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: I wish they wouldn’t call it ‘dirt’

A week of rain has restored soil water to ‘field capacity’, much to the relief of our crops and hard-pressed irrigation team. Field capacity is the maximum amount of water the soil can hold: what’s left clinging to the particles after gravity has drained away what it can, but before evaporation or root absorption remove any more. Imagine a wet sponge left to drain for a bit but not squeezed. The finer the particles and the larger the area, the more water can be held.

As a very general rule, well-established plants start to suffer when about half the water held at field capacity has been lost (the ‘wilting point’). The difference between the field capacity and the wilting point is the ‘available water capacity’ (AWC), and is hugely variable; it can be four times higher in a sticky, heavy clay than a coarse, light sand. As well as water, clays also hang onto nutrients better, making them potentially more productive than sands – but also more prone to waterlogging and structural damage, harder to create a fine seed bed, and
generally harder to manage. Clay-land farmers refer to sands as ‘boy’s land’. The sweet spot is a sandy clay loam which has a mixture of particle sizes (large sand, through silt, to very fine platelets), combining their best qualities.

Too much info? Actually, that is a gross simplification. You could spend a lifetime studying soil and still be ignorant. Though its physical makeup is important, farmers’ management of the soil also has a massive, long-lasting effect. Adding organic matter, particularly stable and mature compost, can, over years, increase sands’ ability to hold water, and make clays easier to manage by stabilising the structure. Increasing the organic matter in a sand from 0.5% (typical of an over-cultivated, chemically fed arable sand) to 3% (more typical of well-managed sand in an organic rotation) could double the AWC, allowing crops to thrive well after they would have wilted. The impact of good soil management is huge – not just in agricultural productivity, but also in reducing flooding, fighting climate change through sequestering carbon, controlling water pollution and increasing biodiversity. Organic farmers are well ahead, but conventional farmers are starting to get interested in proper soil management too. Perhaps, after half a century, we have finally managed to show them what is possible.

Guy’s news: Why I do it organically

I admit it; I farm organically largely because it just feels right. Is that an admission of weakness? I have a science degree, my tractors use GPS, and I wholeheartedly embrace the IT revolution. But I still find that what feels right is a good aid to making good decisions. Some condemn being guided by emotion as weak-minded, muddled thinking – which it sometimes is. But over the 30 years since I started farming organically, much of what felt wrong in farming has turned out to be wrong for very tangible, logical and scientific reasons.

Decisions that don’t use what feels right as a sanity check can be just as dangerous as emotional decisions made without checking the measurable evidence. I do have concerns about selecting evidence to support a predetermined emotional bias, but what brings me back to the debate and makes me such a big mouth is frustration with the far more pervasive tendency to select evidence to support a commercial bias; something our agrochemical industry are masters of. Take the example of the ‘world’s favourite herbicide’, glyphosate. In my early days as an organic grower I really missed glyphosate, which kills every part of the weed without the need for costly, soil-damaging ploughing. Given a free rein, my own standards would have included the occasional use of glyphosate, had I not been restrained by organic rules. But I would have been wrong. I am retrospectively grateful for what seemed like an illogical, perhaps emotionally-driven restraint at the time. There is now strong evidence that glyphosate is safe neither for users nor for the environment, and debate rages in Europe over whether it should be banned.

History has told this story again and again – so-called ‘safe’ pesticides are later banned. To be organic sometimes feels extreme, even provocative to chemical-using neighbouring farmers. Yet I am confident that time will reveal the ‘extremists’ are not the organic farmers, but those who use mindbogglingly toxic chemicals with such casual abandon; that science will justify those who embraced ecology, rather than those who exploited incomplete knowledge of how to disrupt life without the humility to appreciate the risks.

For those with the time and interest, please see riverford.co.uk/pesticides-you-decide-glyphosate for an extended version with references.

Guy’s news: Northerly winds, love & Wendell Berry

The new growing year has started with a blissfully dry and bright spring and no major gales, frosts or pestilence. Night time temperatures have been low with a few frosts, but nothing damaging. Most crops were planted into perfect seedbeds and are doing well; a few are even ahead of schedule, helped by super-light (just 17g/m2) fleece crop covers which retain moisture and keep off the recently prevalent northerly winds. The swallows have only just arrived, a month later than last year; presumably delayed by those dry winds.

With so little to moan about, let me instead recommend those with time to listen to an exceptionally good Start the Week on BBC Radio 4, titled Wendell Berry: The Natural World. Andrew Marr interviews the delightfully drawling 82 year old poet and Kentucky farmer, along with the environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth and economist Kate Raworth. The discussion was marked by a refreshing humility and refusal to bow down to the “grown up” notion, prevalent in economics, politics and neo environmentalism, that the world can only be measured in, and be guided by, hard numbers. Above all there was an acknowledgement of love; if we can’t admit to loving our surroundings, whether people, nature or food, how can we care for them? Love, often written off as a childish, romantic or unaffordable emotion, actually provides a more powerful motive to care for what we value than the fiscal incentives favoured by economists and politicians. Despite Berry reading perhaps one of the most depressing poems ever written (which he quickly and endearingly acknowledges), I urge you to listen. I suspect as a society we need a few numbers to check our more outlandish emotions, but I long for a world shaped by love over one which denigrates the unmeasurable, and will fight for it unashamedly in the boardroom, in my fields and in this newsletter until my dying breath.

Penny’s gardening blog – Some advice on growing your own

Growing some of your own veg, herbs or flowers is a very rewarding and satisfying thing to try. It gets you outside, connects you with nature, and gets you on the move so is good physical exercise.

What you decide to grow depends on what space and time you have. Growing and nurturing plants takes time, a little commitment, and some planning ahead. I’ve put together some simple tips to give novices a good start. You’ll have the growing bug before you know it – positively running out, aproned up, plucking fresh herbs, cutting salads and a few edible flowers to place in your trug, pretending to be what’s-her-name from The Good Life!

What you need

Sun
To grow successfully you need sunlight, and ideally a bit of shelter from the wind. Not much will grow in dark areas, but leafy crops like spinach and chard will tolerate some shade.

Soil and prep
If you have a garden, you can create beds to grow your produce in. This will need digging over to create a crumbly tilth, unless you’ve mulched the area with black plastic, old carpet or homemade compost (4” layer) over winter. If so, you simply peel back the mulch, remove any slugs or snails, add some organic farmyard manure or organic chicken pellets, and lightly fork over.

If you don’t have a garden, you may have a patio, balcony, or window box. You can grow lots of herbs, veg and flowers in pots, growbags, buckets, and so on. People are incredibly inventive; I’ve seen salad leaves, herbs, edible flowers, and strawberries growing out of old defunct suitcases, drawers, gutters… Basically, you need a container which will hold some decent quality multi-purpose compost, with some drainage holes pierced in the bottom to allow water to pass through.

Seeds or seedlings
You can germinate your seeds in seed trays using seed compost. Place them somewhere warm, ideally a greenhouse or poly-tunnel but also possibly on a warm, light windowsill in your house.

I buy a lot of my seeds from a fairly local seed company called Tamar Organics that do a large selection of veg, herb and flower seeds. Most seed packets come with good instructions on what depth to sow the seeds, when to sow etc. and when you are likely to start harvesting the produce. There is also often more detailed growing advice on the seed company’s websites.

You can also buy lots of seedlings, ready to plant straight out, from garden centres, farm shops and nurseries, and via mail order. I have bought lots of seedlings from Delfland Nurseries, to grow organic plants for gardens and allotments. They give you a head start, and if you’re a beginner are a good way to start.

What to grow

If you’re a complete novice, start small. Don’t be too ambitious, as it may all get out of control and put you off forever more. Grow a few herbs to flavour your meals, some salads and edible flowers, and a few flowers to cut and bring inside. Having flowers in your garden looks great but also attracts insects like lacewings and hoverflies, which are natural predators for aphids, and of course bees which are great for pollination.

Here are a few easy things to try:

Veg
– Radishes are so easy. Sow them now and you’ll be harvesting them in 5-6 weeks. Follow the instructions on the packet.

– Lettuce. Germinate in small batches, as they will mature at the same time and you don’t want to end up with hundreds of lettuces all at once.

– Spinach and chards. Sow direct and then thin them out to the spacing recommended on the packet. These are cut and come again.

– Beetroots. Sow direct or multi-sow in cells (pictured), three or four per cell, and plant out when the roots have filled the cell. Try Chioggia beetroot, a beautiful candy-striped variety.

Flowers
– Borage, calendula, viola tricolour, nasturtium and cornflower are all edible flowers (nice in a vase too) and easy to grow. Sow the cornflower fairly generously, directly into a drill (a long furrow in the soil). Once up, stake with bamboo and string. The others are best sowed in cells, one seed per cell.

– Dahlias are great as they flower later in the season, August to October. You can buy them as tubers. Sarah Raven has a fantastic range of these showy blooms.

– Cosmos flower later too, and right onto first frosts in the autumn. Bring on as a seedling – they’re very easy to grow.

– Gladioli are a favourite of mine. They’re widely available, and come as a corm.

– Nigella, otherwise known as ‘love in a mist’! Very Mills and Boon, don’t you think? Sow the same as cornflowers, but they won’t need staking.

Herbs
– Buy rosemary, sage, oregano, chives, and thyme as plants.

– Sow coriander, dill and rocket direct and in succession every three weeks to have a constant supply. Leave some to go to seed; fresh coriander seed is delicious, and dill in flower is stunning mixed with your other blooms.

 

Guy’s news: I just couldn’t eat it all myself

When I started packing veg boxes on a cow shed floor in 1993, my assumption was that our customers would be (or at least should be) just like me; same chaotic cooking style, same approach to life, with an equally messy kitchen and the same hungry family to feed. Such egocentric lack of appreciation of household diversity and contempt for the marketing process was a flaw from the start, but seemed to serve us remarkably well for many years. When I finally learned how most people cook I couldn’t (and still can’t) believe how little veg they ate, so, as a committed veg nerd it became my mission to spread the word. As the legendary Welsh drug dealer ‘Mr Nice’ reputedly said in court, “I never meant to sell the stuff; I just couldn’t smoke it all myself ”.

25 years on my household has shrunk, as has (mercifully) my appetite and ego. I still think most of you should eat more veg, ideally stuff that we have grown, but I now fully see the virtue in listening to you and meeting you halfway. I hope we will always be unashamedly opinionated in our veg enthusiasm and try hard to nudge our customers towards veg-centric, seasonal eating, but how we do that needs to be better informed to achieve the greatest impact. As such we need your guidance on how many cauliflowers we should send you in a winter; how many aphids are acceptable per lettuce; whether we should offer flexibility in delivery days; and if it is fairer to charge for delivery and drop the minimum spend. Our plan is to recruit a panel of customers who are happy to participate in forums and polls on such topics. You can join in as much or as little as you like, so if you might be interested please contact the delightful Polly via research@riverford.co.uk.

Many people claim to eat seasonally but so few actually do it; we have twice before had a ‘UK-only’ box and twice dropped it when uptake failed to reach 1%. Last autumn we tried again and maybe we are getting better at it, as sales topped 3% this time, so we are much encouraged. As we enter the hungry gap we cannot muster eight UK items with any degree of rotation so we are suspending it for a few weeks; rest assured it will be back in June and we will be nudging all of you to try it.

Another visit from The Happy Pear


Last time we teamed up with Irish chef duo The Happy Pear, their joyful, nourishing cookery went down a storm with our recipe box customers. Now we’re thrilled to be working with the boys again for some new limited edition vegetarian recipe boxes, delivered from 8th May.

The Happy Pear, identical twins David and Stephen Flynn, are chefs who run a natural food shop, wholefood café and restaurant, superfood sprout farm and online shop, as well as giving health education talks – all to ‘inspire a healthier, happier world’. A quick look at their cookbooks (both bestsellers in Ireland) shows their infectious passion for vibrant, veg-packed cooking is a brilliant match with our own approach to food.

A bit more background on dynamic duo: after studying business at university, David and Stephen travelled the world, tasting many local dishes and unusual ingredients along the way. When they returned to Ireland, their aims were to start a food revolution by making fruit and veg exciting, to get involved with their community, and to drag as many people along for the ride as possible.
Today, The Happy Pear is a community itself, all about making natural, nutritious food mainstream, and creating really good products that make it easier for people to be healthier and happier. They have a huge following on social media; every week they release videos on their YouTube channel, and they’re also part of Jamie Oliver’s Food Tube, the largest foodie community in Europe.

David and Stephen live with their families in Greystones, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. They really ‘walk their talk’ by eating a wholefood and plant-based diet, practicing yoga, swimming in the sea, keeping bees, and smiling every day.

When the boys came to see us on the farm in Devon, they were a pleasure to have along – just as full of energy and warm enthusiasm in person as they are in their videos. Riverford founder Guy Watson gave them a tour, where they harvested leeks and tasted their way through the green leaves in our polytunnels, before heading to our development kitchen for a bit of cooking and a photoshoot. Here’s what they had to say:

“We’re delighted to be working with Riverford; their food culture and the way they work so close to the land and the people who farm it is inspirational. One of our missions is to get people to eat more veg, and this is very much central to what Riverford do, so it’s a beautiful marriage of goals. Our recipes plus Riverford veg – what could be better?”

We couldn’t agree more.

Limited edition Happy Pear recipe boxes, with everything you need to make three colourful, flavour-packed vegetarian meals for two people. Pre-order now for deliveries from 8th May.

Guy’s news: Why I don’t trust the regulation of pesticides

According to the gov.uk website “On the best science available, no harm will come to people who consume an amount of pesticide that is below the safety limits for that pesticide”. Yet 147 pesticides I was assured were safe in the 1970s, based on the “best science available” at the time, have subsequently been banned, as risks to users, the environment or the public have emerged. Why has the regulatory approach repeatedly underestimated risk from pesticides?

The “cocktail effect” might explain some of the failures. Assessments almost always look at toxins in isolation, despite the fact that synergistic or “cocktail effects” (whereby two toxins can create effects together greater than the sum of their individual toxicities), were first proven in the 1960s and are now well established. With two thirds of fruit and veg containing detectable pesticide residues, and with so many chemical toxins in our environment, the possible combinations are almost infinite, making realistic assessment impractical.

A second possible reason for science getting it wrong is the assumption that the dose determines the poison. Hormones don’t work in this way; their action, through time and site specificity, is much more subtle. Many pesticides are known endocrine (hormone system) disruptors, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find unexpected effects at minute doses, often below those considered “safe”.

It’s easy to design an experiment to determine whether a chemical kills or damages a rat (and by extrapolation poses danger to humans) if the effect is quick, short-lived and in isolation. If the effect is slow, things get harder. If it is complicated by interactions with other chemicals, environmental factors or disease, things get progressively more complex until convincing results become
practically impossible to obtain. Absence of convincing results has too often been taken as evidence of safety.

Based on the evidence of history and on common sense, I believe there can be no absolutely “safe” level for pesticides (especially endocrine disruptors); only degrees of risk which you may or may not deem acceptable. For those with the time and interest please see riverford.co.uk/pesticides-you-decide for an extended version with references.

Guy’s news: Musing on misery & contentment in farming

My current state of contentment is unusual for a farmer; we have a reputation for misery. Could a dour anticipation of calamity be a prerequisite of farming success? Thomas Hardy’s Gabriel Oak didn’t save the harvest by revelling at the harvest festival; he was out virtuously sheeting the ricks against the gathering storm while everyone else was getting legless in the barn. Joe Grundy, David Archer and Brian Aldridge maintain the tradition across the class divide with their variations on rural self-pity in Radio 4’s The Archers. Folklore would have it that there is always some form of deluge, drought or pestilence waiting to wipe rare smiles off a farmer’s face before they settle.

The challenges facing farmers may be tangible and dramatic, but I suspect they are no more onerous than those suffered by many professions, and we do have many compensations. What greater privilege could there be than to be working amongst the rising birdsong, part of the annual renewal that is spring, ploughing and sowing as returning life erupts around you? Even my ageing bones feel a hint of youth returning.

As the years pass and experience gathers, the calamities seem less personal; as I remember collapsing exhausted to my knees and weeping by a broken-down tractor as potatoes died of blight around me, I am grateful for the serenity and perspective that comes with age. As in all businesses one must be mindful of the risks and prepared to react quickly to minimise their impacts. Experience helps, but, longer term, humility and feeling part of nature rather than personally embattled is key to contentment and effective management. Misery is a waste of emotional effort; it just gets in the way.

It has been a glorious spring; my dairy farming brother says he can’t remember an easier farming year than the one past. Could this contentment be the start of a complacency that will be our downfall, or could it be maturity arriving? A really good farmer should feel cradled by nature; its ally and friend rather than its adversary. This perfect spring, that aspiration feels within reach. Hence the contentment.