What is the Hungry Gap?

From time to time, you might hear us refer to the Hungry Gap. This is the hardest time of year for UK farmers: a few weeks, usually in April, May and early June, after the winter crops have ended but before the new season’s plantings are ready to harvest.

It all comes down to the UK’s latitude. We sit right at the geographical limit for many spring crops, which would not survive our cold winter temperatures if grown any earlier. At the same time, as the days warm up into spring, many hardy winter crops like sprouts, kales, and caulis ‘bolt’ (abandon leaf growth to start producing flowers and seeds). The result is unproductive fields – and sometimes, rather repetitive boxes! In fact, our 100% UK veg box has to stop completely for a few weeks every year.

If it’s such a dire time, why hasn’t everyone heard more about the Hungry Gap before – or noticed its impact on their plates?

Airfreight and artificial heat

The name ‘the Hungry Gap’ harks back to a time when an empty field really meant going hungry. Traditionally, the gap had to be bridged with a spartan diet of cabbage, old potatoes, and fruits preserved during kinder months. These days, however, very few people eat a local, seasonal diet; the supermarkets can easily top up their shelves with even more imported produce, or crops grown in the UK under heated glass, and no one need notice the difference.

Of course, we don’t want anyone going hungry – but unfettered airfreight and artificial heat isn’t an environmentally responsible solution. Over the years, Riverford has worked out a pretty good system of workarounds and intelligent compromises, allowing us to keep our veg boxes varied, fresh and full without sacrificing our founding values…

Finding a better way

Like the supermarkets, we rely more on imported produce during the Hungry Gap. However, whether in the UK or abroad, we only work with small-scale organic farmers that we know, trust, and look after for the long term. A few of us recently went out to visit some of our growers in Spain, who have been keeping our shelves stocked with broad beans, garden peas and more… read all about it in Luke’s blog.

Importing isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s far less damaging than growing the same crops in the UK using artificial heat. Take the example of tomatoes. The huge amounts of heat used in glass hothouses is produced by burning gas or oil. For every kilo of tomatoes this way, 2-3 kilos of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. Trucking tomatoes over from Spain uses just a tenth of the carbon compared with growing them in the UK using heat. It’s not perfect, but it’s the least damaging option.

Our imports are always brought over by land or sea, never by air. Airfreight causes 40-50 times the CO2 emissions of sea freight.

Guy’s French farm

Seven years ago, Guy decided on an interesting addition to his armoury against the Hungry Gap: he’d buy his own farm in France. Le Boutinard is 10 miles from the coast, in the Vendée region of Western France. He chose the situation very carefully: the light and rainfall there are just right for producing a bounty of colourful spring crops that are ready to harvest just a few vital weeks ahead of the UK. It’s environmentally friendly, too: by road, Le Boutinard is the same distance from our Devon farm as the Fens.

Watch Guy’s video to learn more about his reasons for buying the French farm – and the learning curve he’s faced along the way:

Using our imagination

As well as all these solutions from overseas, we’ve learned to be a bit more resourceful with what greenery we can gather on our own shores. Foraged wild garlic and bitter dandelion leaves both offer some welcome pep for palates that are dulled with winter stodge.

On our Devon farm, we also grow lots of Hungry Gap kale. The clue’s in the name: this reliable variety is at its best when the rest of its kale-y cousins have bolted, and has been helping people bridge the gap for generations.

The Hungry Gap is on its way in the next few weeks. We have planned carefully, and hope you’ll enjoy an interesting, good quality and bountiful mix in your box. In the meanwhile, for a tasty little glimmer of homegrown green, why not order some Hungry Gap kale – it’s available online now.

12 responses to “What is the Hungry Gap?

  1. Barbara Rhodes

    Maybe I am a throwback, but I feel absolutely compelled to make loads of preserves in the Autumn, even now we all have freezers! If I don’t, I find it a bit unsettling. Just call me a dinosaur.

  2. Barbara you are like those precious plant varieties which we try to keep alive through seed libraries and seed banks because we believe that one day we will really need them again!

  3. I am from Canada and this is not a hungry gap! For me this is a feast!
    Before I came here I had never heard of kale let alone ‘hungry gap kale’
    and all I knew about dandelions was the wine my grandfather used to make- probably as a distraction to get him through the blizzard of the hungry drift of snow. I grew up in the middle of no where in the sticks and the only hungry gap is the one on the mouth of a brown bear if you get too close to any early wild blueberries. I am thinking of what a 100% Northern Canada veg box would contain: iceberg lettuce and alot of ice cream, popsicles, ice cubes and brandy, whiskey and rum- almost 5 a day with a bottle of wine. Medium On the Sauce box – 1 veg & a changing selection of organic home brewed booze. Add flannel pajamas- spot on!

  4. Marian Davidson

    I love al the Brassicas. (Cabbage is one of my favourite veg.) I have noticed a new one lately, Kalettes. They are like tiny kale plants which I presume grow like Brussel sprouts off the main stem. They are sweet, tender and delicious when steamed briefly. I would live to buy organic ones from Riverford. Please do!

    • Hello Marian, one of our growers has been trialling kalettes for us for the last few years, but each year something has gone wrong unfortunately. We got very close this year but again had some quality issues. Fingers crossed we’ll get there next year!

    • Hi Marian, we love Kalettes too and they are a winter staple for us, we also absolutely love the leaves in late summer and autumn. This year though has been tricky because of the whitefly and cabbage aphid, so they need cleaning really well, but we are happy to put the effort in because we love them so much. As an added bonus I believe they are the most nutritious of all of the common brassicas and we often get a second crop too later on in the season!

  5. Margaret Whittaker

    I am new to the home delivery system and have nothing but praise for Riverford. Nothing but praise for the quality of the veg. Texture and taste wonderful. Nothing but brakes needed to stop me buying for 6 when there are only two of us. I need to notice what Barbara Rhodes has said about preserving and bottling so research and a new hobby in my proverbial spare time.

    • Hi Margaret,
      That’s great news. I hope you find it as satisfying as I do.
      It’s great to have a way of using up surplus fruit and veg, and you can do a bit of foraging for Autumn berries and apples too. It’s very pleasing to look at a shelf full of pickles and preserves when it is ‘all your own work’. With a bit of help from Riverford of course!

  6. Susan Davidson

    Thanks for this info, especially about the carbon and energy use of hothouse and airfeighted veg – I had no idea the difference was so huge!

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