Author Archives: Riverford

Guy’s news: Too clever for organic?

I spent last week with my team in the French Vendée, attempting to learn from this year’s mistakes, plan crops for next year, and form some sort of plan to mitigate Brexit risk (29th March happens to be the date our first truck of lettuce will head north to Plymouth via Roscoff). After a wet and cold spring, we had a scorching five-month drought; the old gravel pit that fills with water every winter, which looked huge and unfathomable when I bought the farm, was down to the last few inches when the rain finally arrived last week. We have plans to build a new 50,000m3 reservoir, but €20,000 and four months later the authorities are still deliberating. It will be a miracle if we get enough dry weather to build it (followed by enough wet weather to fill it) before next season.

I am full of admiration for our French workers but, as in the UK, each year it is harder to find people who can ‘cut the mustard’ in the field. Like everywhere else, this is increasing the pressure to mechanise, specialise and simplify cropping to reduce hand work, and to look to Eastern Europe for staff more familiar with working on the land. I must restrain my restless urge to try new crops and new ways of growing them; we need to focus more on how to grow what we are best at, better and with less labour.

When I bought the farm, France’s fledgling organic market was about half the size of the UK’s. Ten years later it is four times the size, and growing at 18% per year. The trend is similar throughout Europe, and indeed most of the developed world, as the UK sinks from being a leader to a laggard. I would never claim that organic farming is the only or a complete solution to the challenges facing food and farming, but its benefits to the soil, wider environment, human health and animal welfare seem unquestioned elsewhere, while viewed with scepticism here. Perhaps it is that largely male, peculiarly British group who consider themselves independent thinkers, too clever to be taken in by the mysticism of it all; “What’s wrong with glyphosate in your bread, anyway?” Or perhaps, having been the first nation to industrialise and need to feed poorly paid urban populations, we are culturally more wedded to cheap food – and more estranged from its production.

Guy Singh-Watson

Monbiot-backed group takes direct action to highlight climate emergency

Environment journalist and activist George Monbiot addressed the new Extinction Rebellion group in London. Photo credit Michael Kay

A new direct action group demanding action on climate change is currently obstructing access to key government buildings as part of a week of non-violent uprising.

Extinction Rebellion, which is backed by prominent environment journalist George Monbiot, is protesting against what it calls the government’s “criminal inaction” on the climate emergency and ecological crisis.

Seven people have been arrested so far for being glued to the fence outside Downing Street, while another team are blocking vehicle access. Activists have also dropped banners from Westminster bridge.

The week is due to culminate this Saturday (17 November), dubbed Rebellion Day, when the group will block five bridges across the capital.

The group wants the government to reverse all policies inconsistent with addressing climate change; introduce legally binding targets to greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025; and create a citizen’s assembly to oversee these changes.

Those joining the action and who said they are prepared to be arrested include labour councillor Skeena Rathor and her daughter, who said: “We believe in miracles and human genius but the reality is we are on the threshold of social and climate collapse. We are about to lose all our present freedoms and so we offer ourselves for arrest with hope and courage in our hearts – to ask for leadership and truth – for our children.”

The group is encouraging people to rebel against the government’s inaction on climate

Another protester, Joseph Mishan, a father and healthcare professional, said he joined the group after seeing the recent IPCC report, which warned the temperature rises must be limited to 1.5 degrees if climate collapse is to be averted.

He said: “I am putting myself forward for arrest because I was shocked by the IPPC report and the silence that followed. It was like being given a terminal diagnosis but without a treatment plan. I wondered if I was the only person who heard it. Or if I had dreamt it.”

The Extinction Rebellion action began this week with a march address by Monbiot and other activists, and occupation of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Speaking on a podcast episode by news outlet Novara Media, Monbiot said radical action such as that taken by Extinction Rebellion could help other members of public, as well as politicians, wake up to the severity of climate breakdown, and inspire a more wide-ranging and effective response.

‘Circularity is the new sustainability’

A growing interest in the entire farm-to-bin journey of a product including how it is recycled is leading to a new era of ‘holistic’ sustainability, according to a new report.

The definition of what people understand by sustainability is expanding, according to leading consumer research company Mintel, noting that “circularity is the new sustainability”.

“The definition of sustainability is extending to encompass the entire product lifecycle. From farm to retailer to fork to bin and, ideally, to rebirth as a new plant, ingredient, product or package, this 360-degree approach will ensure resources are kept in use for as long as possible,” the company said.

A “seismic shift” in how people think about plastic is already underway, Mintel said, and from 2019 onwards the focus will increasingly turn towards access to recycling, incentivising people to recycle and offering more ‘upcycled’ products.

There will also be a move to a more “holistic” approach to sustainability with key aspects that will become more important to people including restoring soil health, embracing regenerative agriculture and improving air pollution, as well as waste.

“In 2019, demand for more corporate sustainability programmes will grow as consumers better understand what’s required to get closer to achieving a truly circular food and drink economy,” said Mintel’s associate director for food and drink, Jenny Zegler. “These sustainability efforts will include not only improving access to recycling, but creating products with ingredients that are grown in accordance to regenerative agriculture practices.”

As well as the interest in circularity, Mintel identified two other trends that will shape the future of food innovation as the impact of food on wellness and healthy ageing, and ‘elevated convenience’ that could see meal kits and recipe boxes with restaurant-quality meals expand into other meals during the day, such as breakfast.

Let there be soup

The clocks have gone back, heavy coats have been hauled from the cupboard, dark nights are drawing in… Winter is upon us. Good thing we’ve launched our new range of (almost) homemade organic soups to warm you through!

Soupy ambitions

Many moons ago, we set out to create an inspiring range of organic soups. This wouldn’t be the usual characterless supermarket fare, most often made with frozen veg, blended smooth, and given flavour with the conjurer’s trick of bouillon powder. Instead, we wanted to make a selection of recipes with a real Riverford twist. Chefs Bob and Kirsty set out to the kitchen, ladles in hand, with these aims:

  • Lots of our own fresh veg at the heart of every recipe
  • Meat (where it’s used) just as a seasoning, not as the main ingredient
  • Not all blended smooth, but some more like chunky pottages
  • Real depth of flavour from fresh herbs, aromatics and stock
  • A range that can change throughout the year to reflect the seasons

After a lot of experimentation, they whittled it down to four ideas: two veggie, two with meat, and all extremely satisfying.

Dreaming up soup recipes was one thing; working out how to make those same recipes on a larger scale, and keep the vibrant homemade flavour, was another…

A little help from Pegoty Hedge

Pegoty Hedge is a small kitchen owned and run by the Surman family on their organic mixed farm in the Worcestershire countryside, at the foot of the Malvern Hills. As fellow farmers, they share our belief that quality ingredients, treated with care and attention, will give consistently delicious results. Every one of their organic meals is handmade from scratch. The team already cook up our recipes for nut roast and chicken stock, so we were sure they would do the same wonderful job with our soups.

Having received our recipes, Oliver Surman kindly invited Bob up to the farm, to spend some time tasting and tweaking until he was happy that the soups had been faithfully translated into a bigger batch.

As they soon discovered, a chunky soup is much more time consuming to cook and to pack than one that’s blended smooth. The veg needs to be uniformly chopped, and the liquid and chunky bits must be equally divided into the pots. To make our chosen recipes, the team at Pegoty Hedge must prep the fresh veg by hand, and strain and portion each pot individually. But everyone agreed that the extra effort is well worth it for the homemade result.

All adjustments to the recipes were agreed over a civilised cuppa at the farmhouse table, before Bob headed back to Devon with a boot full of soup to unleash on our lucky tasting panel.

Beautiful soups

After all that pondering and tweaking, these are the recipes we’ve ended up with, all spot on for a hearty lunch or light dinner for two people.

Chicken, spinach and courgette laksa

A noodle-laced elixir shot through with fresh veg and slow-cooked chicken. The fresh chicken broth is flavoured with a restorative South Asian fusion of bright Thai-style spicing and deep, earthy turmeric. There’s enough chilli to make you take notice, but nothing too potent, and a good squeeze of lime to finish.

Carrot dhal

This smooth carrot and lentil soup is packed with sweet Riverford carrots and onions, fragrant Indian spices, coconut, ginger and chilli. We’d recommend serving it with warm bread or naan.

Moroccan vegetable harira

This soup is a true meal in a bowl. With all the fragrant flavours of North Africa, it’s chock-full of veg (including Riverford potatoes, carrots and red peppers), rice and chickpeas. A robust lunchtime repast for two, or easily teased into an evening meal with a poached egg, some shredded chicken or warm flatbreads.

Smoked bacon, kale and borlotti soup

A sturdy soup, reminiscent of an Italian ribollita. It has a backbone of Riverford onions, carrots and celery, and creamy borlotti beans, slow-cooked with plenty of sweet tomatoes and finished with robust black kale and smoked bacon. Chunky and filling – made to sate the keenest appetites.

Our new organic soups are available to order now – you can browse the selection here.

Small farmers feed the world

Small-scale farmers produce over 70 per cent of the world’s food on a quarter of the world’s farmland. That was one of the central messages of the We Feed the World exhibition, a pioneering global photography initiative that celebrated the diversity and expertise in small farming communities around the world.

Organic revolution feeds Cuba’s capital

Can you feed an entire city through organic urban farms? Yes, if necessity calls, and that’s exactly what happened in Havana, capital of Cuba. Overnight, the city was faced with the challenge of growing enough food to feed itself after imports were banned following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent US sanctions. But it wasn’t just food that was banned, agrochemicals and fertilisers, as well as oil, were also on the list, meaning Cuba’s new food system had to be primarily organic. Urban farms called ‘organaponicos’ appeared across the city and offered training and jobs to those who were now out of work. One of the largest, Vivero Alamar, was set up in 1997 and now harvests 300 tonnes of vegetables, including lettuces, herbs, beans, tomatoes, mangoes, bananas and guavas, produced using agroecological methods. Most of this is eaten within the Alamar district, an area that previously had no fresh produce. Among its 150 workers are former sailor Jose Manuel, Fradel Martinez, an ex-tobacco worker, Juan Portal, worked in the petrol industry, and Juan Ramon, who used to be a fisherman. Today, almost 90 per cent of Havana, a city of two million people, is fed on organic food produced by 4,000 or so organoponicos within the city limits.

Michel Pou is a Cuban photographer from Havana.

Sourdough links mountain communities in Asia and Europe

Bhutan and Austria may not be the obvious countries to forge a connection but a pioneering partnership between an artisan sourdough baker and an organic farming community has done exactly that. Roswitha Huber makes her own sourdough bread from alpine rye, grown by her husband and his family, high up in the Austrian alps where it has a long tradition, and is passionate about passing on her skills. “I am convinced that for the self-confidence of a child, it is essential they have the feeling I can feed myself,” she says. News of Roswitha’s ‘school in the mountains’ spread as far as Asia, and it has now become part of a far-reaching exchange programme with Bhutanese farmers. Despite living seven thousand miles away, these farmers work on similarly small-scale farms in a similar mountain landscape. Tshering Wangmo wanted to learn how she could make use of buckwheat for bread baking, but after spending two weeks with Roswitha she learnt many other skills relevant for a profitable small-scale mountain farm, such as milk processing to make cottage cheese, herb cultivation and jam making.

Zalmaï works as a freelance photographer and has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Time Magazine, The New Yorker Magazine and Harper’s Magazine.

Tackling climate change one grain of rice at a time

Climate change and food security can seem overwhelming, but for one man in India they have become his life’s work. On a small farm in the eastern state of Odisha, Dr Debal Deb is singlehandedly preserving some of the most resilient rice varieties in the world, a process he sees as vital to the future of food and farming in an increasingly unstable climate. Incredibly, he receives no financial support and stands alone in trying to protect India’s genetic diversity in rice. It is estimated that the country has lost up to 110,000 local varieties since farmers started using commercial hybrid varieties, sold by seed companies with promises of higher yields and disease resistance. To date, Debal has cultivated 1,420 rice varieties on just two acres of forested land, some of which have the ability to grow for months under 12 feet of water, whilst others can tolerate high salinity. He says: “After 60 years and billions spent on gene mining, the GM industry still doesn’t have a single variety which can withstand a drought or seasonal flood or sea water incursion. But all of these characteristics are available in many of our farmers’ varieties.”

Jason Taylor is a photographer and filmmaker who met and became friends with Debal while he was living in India.

Haymaking preserves ecosystem and family traditions

The Borca family’s 40 haystacks high up in the Carpathian Mountains of northern Romania will feed their animals during the hard winter months to come, but that is not their only benefit. The ancient haymaking ritual, which is celebrated as an annual event that brings the whole family together, also preserves a rich ecosystem with more than 50 species of flowers and grass attracting huge numbers of pollinators. It’s a little-known fact that Romania has the highest levels of self-sufficiency in Europe, and its millions of small-scale farms are some of the last remaining areas practising traditional agriculture in the continent. Over 60 per cent of the countries’ milk is produced by families with just two or three cows and used by local people within the same village. But this traditional way of life is under threat as multinational corporations, agribusiness groups and banks see it as a good investment. Small farmers in Romania face having their homes, culture and livelihoods taken away as common land is sold off to foreign companies, left with the option of becoming landless labourers for big agribusiness companies. It is estimated that already around one million hectares (ten per cent of Romanian farmland) is controlled by foreign capital. Anuța Borca sums up the close connection that her family feels to their land: “It is our land. We have to take care of it. We have to teach the children the traditions,” she says. “It’s important because the tradition is a treasure. If they learn it, they will be richer.”

Rena Effendi is a social documentary photographer, whose early work focused on people’s lives in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. She has worked with the National Geographic, The New Yorker, Marie Claire and more.

Colouring competition winners!

Thank you to everyone who entered our Pumpkin Day colouring competition – we were overwhelmed with the number of entries, and the skills on show!

Arianne, our designer (and illustrator of the blank picture), has picked her favourites. The two winners will both receive a Christmas dinner box, and, as it was so hard to choose, we’ve also picked some runners up (from age categories of 5 and under, 6-8, 9-11, 12-15, and 15+) who will receive an organic advent calendar. We’ll be in touch next week to arrange everyone’s prizes.


Under 15 – Erin from Oxford

Arianne says: Erin, everyone who passed your drawing on our wall studied it in awe. We all loved your imaginative concept, and the idea of a Stranger Things-style dark side to Riverford. Your concept was executed with real talent and passion!

Over 15 – Tom from Plymouth

Arianne says: Tom, your painting is really imaginative and I love the colours. You’re obviously really talented with ink and watercolour, and you really made an effort with staging your post.

(In no particular order)


Guy’s news: Grey, grim & muddy

November is the grimmest month. With one water-laden weather front after another driven in off the Atlantic, dumping their loads at the first landfall, we are constantly reminded of the proximity of the water surrounding us. Away from high ground, the oaks and beeches are hanging onto enough leaves to make a wonderful show – but the combination of wind, rain, frost and falling light levels have brought our tenderer outdoor crops to an end. Cime di rapa, spinach, chard, and the last of the salads are all now too diseased and wind-damaged for us to conomically sort the good from the bad. Hard frosts have felled the last artichokes, leaving the young heads bowed like ears of barley; even the normally hardy cardoons have lost their outer leaves. (Incidentally, to my glee, yesterday a visiting student told how in her village in Northern Spain, they cook cardoons with almonds for Christmas dinner.) Only the hardiest crops and pickers remain. It requires a combination of physical and mental strength, and a zen-like ability to rise above hardship, to survive a winter in the fields; very few can do it, and we should be hugely grateful to those who can.

Meanwhile, in our polytunnels, heat-resistant Sicilian Joe (who controls the irrigation taps) provocatively proclaims “I am god in here.” They are pretty flimsy structures; better not to provoke the big man’s wrath, lest He send a mighty storm to enforce some humility. There in the calm, dry warmth, we have completed the autumn turnaround: ripping out the last tomatoes, chillies, cucumbers, aubergines and so on, to replace with a mixture of landcress, rocket, claytonia, various mustards, ruby chard, dandelion, endive, baby lettuce leaf and radicchio. We expect to harvest 35 tonnes of leaves before cutting the first spring lettuce from outside. Dare I say that, after years of experimentation with varieties and growing techniques, we are now pretty good at winter salads?

We have been overwhelmed by your art. Thanks to all, young, old and in between, who entered our colouring competition. It was all inspired by our designer Arianne, who created a colouring wall for Pumpkin Day. There is a long wall in the office covered with glorious, chaotic colour, which makes me smile every time I walk past.

Guy Singh-Watson

Beating the cold with bitter leaves

Bitter leaves offer a welcome break from winter veg

Colder temperatures might get you reaching for the soups, stews and roast dinners, but sometimes you need a fresh taste alongside all that veg. Step forward winter salad, and more specifically, the bitter leaves such as dandelion, mustard, rocket and cress, whose peppery flavours warm you up in a very different way.

Farm manager Ed Scott is a veteran salad grower and polytunnel expert

Walking through the polytunnels, farm manager Ed Scott says even he was initially sceptical about growing salad in winter. “Everyone gets a lot of winter veg at this time of year, and actually a bag of salad once a month is really nice,” he says, crouching by the neat rows of dandelion leaves inside one of the big arched tunnels. The dandelion variety in question, Italiko, is different to the one found in most gardens, although they are also edible, as it grows vertically making it easier to pick and leaves are cleaner as this variety grows away from the soil.

The winter salad leaves are known as ‘cut and come again’, explains Scott, as they will be harvested around every four weeks, depending on the leaf, from November until March or April. A side-effect of this technique is that the more peppery leaves, such as cress or mustard, tend to get spicier on every pick – believed to be an evolutionary trait as the plant tries harder to deter predators.

“You can also cook with these types of leaves, every now and then we might leave the dandelions to grow a bit longer and put out a recipe to cook with them, or you can do things like a risotto with rocket,” Scott continues, walking through the rows of tunnels which in summer are bursting with the heady smell of tomatoes, chillies and basil, and tropical-looking vines of cucumbers.

Under a cosy-looking layer of fleece are the green shoots of baby ruby chard, covered in the early stages to encourage it to grow. Then there’s the bright green frilly mustard leaves with their distinctive taste, and land cress, a cousin of water cress but grown in soil so it is safe from any risk of water-borne bacteria that water cress growers have to be so careful about.

Salanova is a red variety of Butterhead lettuce

And it’s not just bitter leaves that are selected for winter cropping – Butterhead lettuces are also a popular choice, explains Scott, holding up a beautiful dark red variety called Salanova, with its bi-coloured leaves bright green at the base and dark red at the head.

“They have a longer shelf-life and thick velvety leaves that are more cold resistant than something like a Cos lettuce, which is more watery so it doesn’t do too well in the frost because all the cells freeze and then burst,” he says.

Cut by hand, the bitter leaves and winter lettuces are harvested by teams of pickers through the day before being whisked off to the packhouse at Riverford HQ, less than a mile away. When it comes to food miles, there’s certainly nothing bitter in these tunnels, and as Scott says: “Every bag of salad we can produce here is one less lettuce that we have to import from Spain.”

How much meat?

We’ve known for a long time that many of us eat more meat than is good for us and the planet, but the recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report has emphasised the urgency to collectively change our diet before it is too late.

At Riverford, we’ve always made vegetables the star of the dish, with a little bit of good (organic) meat as a treat; less and better is our guide. But when scientists claim this warning is the ‘final call to save the world’, it prompts us to question: should we all turn vegetarian or vegan? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t straightforward.

Pigs, poultry and intensively-produced (grain fed) cows compete with the world’s poor for grain produced on fertile arable land. In turn this increases the pressure for deforestation and intensification of production on existing land.

For forage-eating ruminants (grass-fed cows, sheep, goats) the argument is much more complex for several reasons:

They can graze on land that is unsuitable for growing crops for human consumption; as such it could be argued that they produce some food where there would have been none. With a growing population to feed, this is important to consider.

By eating grass and clover they are an important part of a balanced rotation, allowing fertility to be maintained without using energy-consuming fertilizers. On our land it would be very difficult to farm organically without growing forage legumes and using the manure from the livestock that eat them.

Ruminants belch and fart, releasing large quantities of methane (about 20%) of the world total. As methane is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide it has been argued that ruminants contribute substantially to global warming. Indeed it has been calculated that around 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions are the result of farm livestock, compared to around 13% for transport, so this is obviously a huge issue. Furthermore it also seems to be true that extensive, grass-fed animals (such as we like to promote, for reasons of health, animal welfare and flavour) cause higher emissions per litre of milk or kg of meat than intensive ones, though we think some of the calculations used to argue this are flawed.

The calculation is made even more complex by the fact that the cultivations (e.g ploughing) needed to grow arable crops promote the breakdown of organic matter in the soil, releasing CO2. Under grassland, carbon is normally sequestrated, locking up CO2 from the atmosphere as soil organic matter. It could therefore be argued that maintaining grassland for animals to graze has the effect of reducing global warming.

Confused? There are no simple or authoritative answers to this question. We certainly do not feel qualified to give a definitive answer but there seem to be a lot of reasons for eating significantly fewer animal products. If we’re going to eat meat and dairy, let it be better quality, eaten less often, in smaller quantities and with complete confidence that the animal has been treated respectfully. And above all, let the veg be the star of the show.

Guy’s news: Respite, planning & ostriches

A thin layer of ice formed this morning on the rising waters of my newly built irrigation reservoir, and hung around all day; a week of frost and northerly winds has brought an abrupt end to two months of sun, warmth and unexpectedly luxuriant autumn growth. The plunging temperatures give our veg box planners relief from the tidal wave of greenery that has been coming off our fields and competing for a place in your kitchens over the last two months. Cauliflower heads that would have matured in a week will now take four to fill out; firm cabbages will stand for a month without splitting, and kales will hold until needed, while leeks plod on steadily, gaining weight regardless.

It has been a wonderful autumn to work outside, with good light and low humidity helping most crops go into winter strong and relatively disease free. There are still lots of potatoes in the ground; harvest has been delayed by their reluctance to set the firm skins that will protect them during harvest and help them store through the winter, so we must hope for an unusually dry November. Green manures are sown and have grown vigorously, soaking up the soluble nutrients that would be susceptible to loss by leaching from winter rain. Our last task in preparation for winter is to rip up any tractor ruts that have damaged the soil structure and reduced percolation rates (the speed water enters and moves down through the soil), to prevent run off and the risk of soil loss.

No sooner have we finished than it is time to plan for next year. Idealised contents of your boxes have been planned through to May 2020; it never works out perfectly, but (since I stopped doing it) reality comes remarkably close to the spreadsheet. Seeds must be ordered, rotations planned, manure and compost stockpiled and staff hired. Will we be able to get our crops back from my farm
in the Vendée, or from Pepe and Paco in Spain? Will Milan be here to drive the tractor? Can we trust that sanity, in some form, will prevail over vitriol, political egotism and collective madness? Despite the all-pervasive uncertainty, we are trying to mitigate risk with our Brexit plan – but with no firm ground to stand on, my leadership has crumpled. I can only sulk and bury my head like a
(mythical) ostrich. Please someone tell me when it’s over.

Guy Singh-Watson