by Luke King, Riverford’s Commercial and Operations Director
Many of our growers have been supplying us for over a decade and have become good friends. Having close relationships with farmers is hugely important to us, so regular trips are crucial to reaffirm existing relationships and talk through future crop plans.
I recently visited the Spanish farmers we work with, alongside our Devon farm manager, James, Technical Manager, Dale, and Flemming Anderson, who co-ordinates our work with them.
During the trip we also visited a number of potential new suppliers with interesting new crops . Our journey lasted four days, visiting ten growers and covering 1,200km across southern Spain.
Here is my slightly rambling report about the growers we visited; we hope you may find it interesting too.
After setting off from Seville, our trip began in an area near Cadiz where around 60% of the sweet potato we sell is grown. We deliver around 240 tonnes across the year with sales rising each year.
The Spanish season runs from August to February/March and all comes from one grower, Jean Claude Mathalay, who we’ve worked with for over 10 years.
The area around Cadiz is wetter than usual for Andalucía, with rainfall near 800 ml/year; that’s more than our farm in Cambridgeshire. This predominantly falls in the winter but means there is plenty of water for a thirsty crop like sweet potato. The area has sandy but fertile soils, and is not as hot as other areas due to its proximity to the Atlantic, which the crop likes.
Jean Claude has been organic for 25 years. A Belgian national, he started out as an agronomist, before deciding to set up a wholesale business in France and then becoming a grower.
Sweet potato has become a major product for us so it is important we have a good relationship with our core supplier and we are certain about his integrity and practices. The sweet potatoes were all harvested at the end of last year so there was nothing to see in the field, but here is the 2 hectare nursery where the cuttings will be taken and planted outdoors in the soil.
Avocado and mango
We worked our way past Gibraltar and back to the Mediterranean coast to see a company called Jalhuca who we’ve worked with for two years. They specialise in mango and avocadoes and although they are a commercial business, they are progressive, do an excellent job and are very principled.
The coastal strip from Gibraltar to Motril, locally called The Tropical Coast, has a unique climate where the average temperature during the autumn/winter is high enough to support commercial avocado and mango production.
Jalhuca have planted a new 50 hectare plantation with avocado trees in an isolated valley which should provide a good supply in the future. Steeper land is more favourable for avocado trees as it is less prone to frost and has better drainage (avocadoes don’t like wet feet!). The team will start cropping in two years’ time and will be in full production in five.
Lemongrass, lime fingers, kumquats and hand of Buddha
Next we travelled North to an area just outside Malaga to visit Enrique Vallejo and his son, Juan, who we met about five years ago when looking for growers to plant a winter broad bean crop. Unfortunately the beans didn’t work on their citrus focused farm abundant with grapefruit, oranges, clementines and lemons. We already have a good supply of these products so I didn’t think we would be back, but since then the farm has been trying some interesting niche products which we are very interested in:
Enrique agreed to trial lemongrass for us after our previous grower stopped trading and it’s been very successful so far. The long grasses are harvested and then cut to a bulb with 30cm of leaf.
Lime fingers, or lime caviar, are a crop we’d not seen before. They come from a small citrus bush of which there are only a few per plant. The flavour is beautiful; a real delicacy. At this stage we’re not sure whether we’ll be able to source it in the numbers required or at a workable price, but it’s one of the most interesting products I’ve tried in long while.
Limequats are a hybrid of a lime and kumquat. The fruit is small, oval, greenish-yellow and contains seeds or pips. It has a sweet tasting skin and a bitter sweet pulp that tastes similar to limes. The fruit can be eaten whole or the juice and rind can be used to flavour drinks and dishes. We were impressed and would like to offer them to Riverford customers in the future.
For those who don’t know, kumquats are a group of small fruit-bearing trees. The edible fruit (which is also called kumquat) is similar to other citrus but is smaller and you can eat the whole fruit, including the skin. They have an interesting flavour profile which is slightly bitter at first, but then sweet. We hope to sell these too.
Hand of Buddha
The hand of Buddha is an unusually shaped citrus variety whose fruit is segmented into finger-like sections, resembling those seen on representations of Buddha apparently.
You peel off the yellow skin and reveal the hard pith underneath which has a subtle, sweet and lemony flavour without the sourness. These may a bit too much of a challenge to sell, but Dale and I were surprised about how nice they were.
We then headed towards Seville to Horticola Sierra at the Finca La Turquesa. We have been dealing with Jose-Miguel for 10 years and he exclusively does our Spanish asparagus. The 19 hectare production is located in a national park which has a large water hole with abundant bird life, including flamingos. The asparagus was not out of the ground yet so after a brief look we went down to the water hole to have a look at the wildlife.
Spinach and romanesco
After the national park we then travelled east towards Granada to Loja to meet our friend Pepe who grows our fantastic winter spinach. This year we’ll also have winter romanesco from him to bring a bit of variety alongside cauliflower and broccoli through the winter months.
It has been a difficult season so far with the spinach badly affected by hot and then cold weather extremes and also pests. The crop is finally growing well and Pepe expects to harvest in the coming weeks. The romanesco look very good and are about 3 weeks away.
Pepe is a licensed paragliding pilot and flies in the mountains around Loja. He’s recently bought a dual paragliding kite so he can take friends out, so we’re hoping next time we visit we may get a flight!
Specialty tomatoes and custard apples
Our next stop was further south at Motril on the coast to visit Frulupe.
An area of weakness within our cropping program is our over-reliance on Paco and his business Eco-Sur for peppers and tomatoes. We have two main problems: one, if Paco has an issue with the crop we don’t have a suitable back-up, and two, he understandably prefers to stick with the crop varieties he knows will grow really well on his farm.
Some months ago we had a conversation with Flemming about finding a grower in Spain to extend the season of mixed tomato varieties we grow in our tunnels. Dale sent through varieties preferences and Flemming contacted a small business called Frulupe run by Jose Manuel about a trial. The tomatoes are now ready for us to start delivering in the coming weeks. They are a little larger than the ones we grow and would ideally want, but taste great and are a good starting point for a new crop.
Frulupe also supply our custard apples, a unique heart-shaped fruit with a sweet taste related to the magnolia. The fruit has two short seasons, one in February and one in October. The fruit is looking fantastic and almost ready for the February season.
Next we met Paco, our tomato and pepper grower, for lunch and a catch-up before heading to meet two companies that can potentially fill gaps where we need to. There are times when our core growers may have problems with their supply so we need have credible alternatives. Finding suppliers who match up to our standards is difficult but Flemming has found two, called Balcon de Níjar and Murgierverdi, who can cover bell pepper and tomato volume shortfalls from Eco-sur.
We had tours of both businesses, which were clearly well-run with good leadership, investment and systems. We prefer to work with exclusive suppliers of a smaller size but need alternatives we can trust if there are problems.
From there we travelled north to Murcia where we had dinner with Sebastian, our calabrese broccoli supplier.
Calabrese broccoli and watermelon
It’s taken a long time to find a reliable, trustworthy supplier of calabrese in Spain. Over the past 10 years we’ve dealt with a succession of cooperatives with little interest in forming a meaningful, long-term relationships and are also market focused and will sell to the highest bidder. This made life very difficult so when Flemming found Sebastian 2 years ago we were finally able to get to a reliable supply at a confirmed price.
Sebastian was an engineer before he became a farmer and he approaches his farming with technical precision. He uses the best infrastructure and expertise in growing and packing his product which means reliability and quality for what is a very important vegetable for us.
His latest investment is a new packhouse because his present one is too small. It’s in the early stages of construction so our farm manager James, who has extensive experience in managing projects of this magnitude, offered some helpful tips for a successful build.
We then head for our final destination near Alicante to visit Ecollevent. We’ve bought fennel and celery on and off from them over the years but this year we started a winter spinach program to compliment what we already get from other growers. Ecollevent is owned by Jaime who grows a small number of crops.
We have a good supply of Italian fennel at the moment so don’t take his, but we’re especially interested in sourcing the tops, or fronds, to sell separately.
We returned to Devon feeling very positive from reinforcing relationships and excited by the interesting developments and potential future fruit and vegetables.