Guy’s news: Pumpkins, plastic & pushing our luck

This week, I woke to find the lightest of ground frosts rolling off my southfacing pumpkin and squash field and settling in the sheltered valley meadow below. During the day, temperatures are still climbing to 20°C; this will help to harden the squashes’ skins, sweeten the flesh and seal the stalks. With good, well-cured skins, some varieties will keep to the spring – but even a light frost will soften the skins and prevent them from keeping. We are pushing our luck.

Some heavy rain last week, followed by a few days of dry weather, have made ideal conditions for potato harvesting. But if they are to store through to the first new season’s liftings in May, we must be patient and wait for the skins to set. Organic potato crops are normally brought to an abrupt, premature end by potato blight: a voracious pathogen that, under warm, humid conditions, can go from a few black specks to 90% leaf loss in a week. Without care the blight can also reach the tubers, resulting in a foul, putrescent smell unequalled in the plant kingdom. Our strategy is to remove the foliage when 30% of the leaf area is affected, by mowing or burning it off with a giant tractor-mounted gas grill; we then wait two weeks (three this year) for the potatoes’ skins to set before harvesting them into wooden boxes. For two or three weeks the store is ventilated with ambient air to dry the tubers and allow any harvest damage to heal. Until Christmas, most varieties can be stored at ambient temperature or cooled with just night air; after that we must use fridges to fool those drowsy spuds that spring is still a distant dream. Typically they are kept at 4°C until it is time to gently warm them prior to grading (cold spuds bruise easily). Valor, the most naturally dozy variety, will keep until June.

For the last nine months we have been agonising about what is the least bad packaging option, particularly when it comes to plastic. We have settled on 100% home-compostable punnets and bags by the end of 2020 – but it has been a hugely frustrating process. Try as we might, we cannot deliver a sensible policy while the government abdicates its responsibility by allowing countless different kerbside collection policies across the UK. Those with the time and inclination can hear my thoughts at facebook.com/riverford.

Guy Singh-Watson

20 responses to “Guy’s news: Pumpkins, plastic & pushing our luck

  1. Moving away from paper to any form of plastic packaging is really bad news in my opinion. Plastic leaches into the food contained in it. I’ve spent a lot of time ridding my home and life of plastics and now it’s going to turn up in my best organic veg. I’m really not happy.

    • Hi Louise, we are still developing our new home compostable punnets but they will be made of FSC accredited recycled paper and wood pulp, and the home compostable bags from plant cellulose. We are really pleased to have a sustainable solution to packaging fruit & veg that needs a bit more protection on its journey from our fields to your plate, and there will be lots more news about this over the next couple of years as we continue to make progress.

      • Hi,
        Thanks for that information. I’m so glad it’s not going to be plastic. But hopefully the wood pulp etc. of the punnets wont contain any nasty chemicals in any bonding material or anything like that.
        Thanks,
        Louise.

        • Hi Louise, we will only use packaging made from sustainable natural materials that can be safely and easily home composted.

          • I’m not sure that means that there will be no chemicals in it? My main concern and priority is what goes into my body. Sustainability etc comes second to that. I do not want toxic materials in my packaging just because it may have a smaller carbon footprint etc.

  2. Many thanks for giving a clear definition of the difference between degradable plastics and compostable ones. The more reliable information we have, the better we will be able to steer clear of packaging that harms the environment.

  3. This is great initiative. Any plans to use glass for the organic yogurts?

    Thanks

    • Hi Jaque, unfortunately not. I’m afraid we do not have the facilities to stock, sterilise and transport the glass jars and can only provide our organic yoghurt in recyclable plastic pots.

  4. Hi Riverford
    I must admit I’ve been continually frustrated to receive many of my veggies from you, covered in plastic. So much so, I have considered cancelling my subscription. Like Louise (above) I have been attempting to rid my home and my food shopping of any plastic. Why do so many of your items come in plastic bags or punnets? It seems really unnecessary and the farm down the road who we also receive boxes from, just place all veg in their box uncovered. This is exactly what we’re after. It must not be very cost effective to have all of those Riverford branded bags either?
    I’d been keen to hear when you are phasing this out. 2020 seems too little too late.
    Thanks
    Natalie

    • Hi Natalie,

      We plan to have the home compostable packaging ready for 2020, due to the timeline needed to put this in place.

      In the mean time, do take a look at our recycling and packaging guide to see what can be returned to the farm or recycled: https://www.riverford.co.uk/exe/aboutus/environment-ethics/how-green-are-we/recycling-guide

      We would like to avoid using any packaging completely however some of our produce is easily damaged or separated without the packaging. We also have to monitor our produce to ensure that it doesn’t dehydrate and the moisture retentive properties of plastic really help with this. Without packaging some of our produce, it would arrive with you a little worse for wear.

      We only use packaging where we really feel it is necessary and have been working hard towards the solution to change to home compostable packaging.

      If you’d like anymore information on this, do feel free to call the farm on 01803 227227 – we’d be happy to talk to you about our packaging.

  5. I’d like the milk to come in glass bottles or cardboard cartons rather than plastic.

    • Don’t be deceived about cardboard cartons, they are even worse than plastic bottles because the cardboard is mixed with plastic in a way that makes them very difficult to recycle. But I’m with you on the glass bottles! I would gladly wash and return them with my boxes.

    • Hi Benjamin,

      The dairy moved from using Tetrapaks to plastic cartons, having looked at the alternatives including glass.

      Using glass bottles wasn’t an option for the dairy due to several factors including the size of the dairy.

      Plastic bottles are actually a lot better for the environment in the long run. The old cartons although they were cardboard based they had a plastic lining and actually used a lot more resources to break the pulp down to make the carton which used a lot of water! After all that they still couldn’t be recycled in the majority of the UK due to the plastic lining. So we have been looking into this and have found that the plastic BPA free bottles are the best alternative for the moment as they can be recycled.

      The new bottles are recyclable including the labels. Compared to our old cartons which had a plastic lining inside which made them only recyclable in certain areas.

      • It shouldn’t all be about carbon footprint. It should primarily be about what’s healthy for us to ingest. Plastic leaches and there are chemicals other than BPA in it that are harmful to us.

  6. Carol Parker-Smith

    I’ve loved reading your newsletters Guy over the past few month since my family have been enjoying your produce.
    It’s so easy as a consumer to let the world know how the farmers like you must try harder to get it perfect. And in my opinion non of us can ever get it absolutely right all the time but you seem to get our fruit and veg etc to us in almost as Mother Nature intended in the best packaging that jump the hoops of bureaucracy just to please them. You are giving it your all. Keep writing beautifully. I’m there with you when you do. Thank you

  7. I have been pleased that all the fruit and veg delivered to me over the last few weeks that I have been a Riverford customer, have been either loose in the returnable box, or packaged in cardboard punnets/paper bags. One of the reasons that I choose Riverford is because I like the packaging policy.

  8. I appreciate all the effort you take in giving us wonderful organic choice. Hopefully we will get on top of any packaging issue with understanding, help and support.

  9. This is the first year my few rows of potatoes were not affected by blight before I got to them in advance of the dreaded blotches taking over. I live in a part of Ireland where blight is an annual scourge but the unusually good summer (and so far autumn) has been good to us.

    As a postscript: if you are a school teacher, and you want to illustrate the impact of the Great Famine of the 1840s, all you need is a badly blighted potato to pass around in class. No one forgets this lesson.

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