Author Archives: Riverford

Guy’s news: “So how does it feel?”

I’ve been asked that question more than a few times in the three weeks since we became employee owned. The answer? I am starting to feel the soil under my feet again, my shoulders definitely feel lighter, and an unfamiliar smile keeps settling on my face. Maybe I’m imagining it, but I think my fellow co-owners are smiling more too, and everyone’s energy has gone up a gear.

I knew it was the right choice on the day: when we had the best party the farm has ever seen, full of spontaneity and joy; when my staff gave me a seat fashioned from the remains of last winter’s fallen oak; when we all signed a giant scroll as witnesses to the occasion; when several staff, old and new, spoke movingly of what Riverford means to them and their hopes for our future, to rapturous applause; when I found myself standing on the shoulders of two acrobats with a rose in my teeth… but most of all when I staggered off, inebriated and overwhelmed, to take a few minutes on my own and enjoy dusk falling into the valley. For years I have loved that view, across the fields that I have walked, planted, and hoed so many times – over the reservoir where my children learnt to swim, to the wood-shrouded Tor Hill. After a few moments, I saw that I was not alone: four equally inebriated, previously landless co-owners were also taking in the landscape. I shook myself when I realised it was no longer mine – to do with as I pleased, to share if I wanted, or not if I didn’t. Now it was ours, forever, with no going back. To my surprise and relief, in the last light of a perfect day, that felt perfect – and it still feels perfect three weeks later.

My smile stems from the conviction that together we have taken action and made a small change. I often return to this quote from Chomsky: “If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.” To have sown a seed of hope and made a step towards the world I want to live in seems a very good reason to smile. So… it feels good. Some rain would make it even better.

Guy Singh-Watson

Packaging update: recyclable meat trays

Here’s our packaging technologist, Robyn, with an update on some changes that are on the way to your box. Read Robyn’s first blog post to find out more about her role at Riverford.

Hello packaging enthusiasts!

Following our move to beech nets and ditching the plastic wrapping on some popular veg, another packaging improvement is on its way. If you buy our meat, you may already have spotted the change in the last few weeks; we’re working on phasing out the non-recyclable black trays, and replacing them with recycled and recyclable clear PET.

Why are black trays a problem?
Many recyclers can’t detect the black plastic due to optical sorting systems being unable to see it. While work has been done to change this with the introduction of new pigments, we’ve decided to move away from black plastic altogether and have found a clear alternative. Our new meat trays are made from clear food-safe recycled PET, which can be recycled with rigid plastic pots, tubs and trays.

Please bear with us while we use up the last of our stock of black trays. We hope to have moved to the clear recyclable trays for almost all meat products over the next few weeks. However, we still have a larger stock of black meatball trays (these are a specific shape designed to protect the product), which we will be using up until later in the year. At that point, they too will swap to a clear recyclable and recycled PET alternative.

But why plastic in the first place?
I often get asked why we use plastic rather than a wax paper wrapping for our meat. The short answer is to make sure the meat has a good shelf life once it gets to your kitchen.

How to recycle your new meat tray

  • Remove all the film on top of the tray and the pad from underneath the meat. Please dispose of these in your general waste bin; the film is not currently recyclable (there aren’t any top film solutions that are recyclable yet, but we are always searching for alternatives)
  • Recycle with you kerbside recycling or at your local recycling centre

To find out more about our existing packaging and research with the University of Exeter, visit our packaging manifesto.

5 recipes to celebrate The Veg New Year

Each season brings its excitement and pleasures in the kitchen; spring starts with scarcity (The Hungry Gap), then follows with abundance and variety, and what we call The Veg New Year. Each year, by June, a new crop is starting every week. Even after 30 years Guy gets excited by the first broad beans and their symbolism of plenty.

After the last month or two of relying on our French farm and other trusted growers overseas to help us fill boxes and offer variety, our boxes are now bursting with homegrown greenery.

Now’s the time to really embrace a life on the veg and celebrate the wealth of colourful, flavoursome veg, fruit and salad our fields and polytunnels have to offer. Here are 5 recipes to bring the best of the season to life.

Crushed Broad Bean Bruschetta


A delectable vegetarian starter. If you make this early in the broad bean season, while they’re still small and soft, you can skip the double podding that broad beans usually call for. Two lovely additions: spread your toasted bread with a little fresh ricotta before piling on the beans, or top the crushed beans with crispily fried pancetta or bacon lardons.

See full crushed broad bean bruschetta recipe

Summer Ham Hock Hash with Cucumber Pickles


The hash is a tick-list of the summer season. We have included some wet garlic which is, essentially, just young garlic, picked before the cloves fully form. It looks like an oversized spring onion or an undersized leek and only needs a very light cook to mellow any raw pungency. If you are an allium aficionado, you could even add it raw and finely sliced. The cucumbers, quickly pickled, make an ideal condiment to the salty ham hock.

See full summer ham hock hash with cucumber pickles recipe

Courgette, Fennel & Kohlrabi Salad


This fresh, summer salad uses crunchy raw courgettes, fennel and kohlrabi, paired with citrus and spices. The fennel seeds accentuate the fennel bulb’s natural flavour, while the caraway is a good match for the brassica flavour of the kohlrabi. If you don’t have all the spices just use those which you do.

See full courgette, fennel & kohlrabi salad recipe

Broad Bean Fritters


These simple fritters make a good vegetarian main course but you could also serve smaller ones as starters or canapés for a summer party (they can be made in advance and gently warmed through in a low oven). Kids generally love them, particularly the dinky-sized ones.

See full broad bean fritters recipe

Tomato & White Bean Panzanella


At its simplest, a traditional Italian panzanella is a way of turning stale bread into salad by mixing it with tomatoes, vinegar and oil. We’re aping stale bread by drying it in the oven for a while. The tomatoes and oil soak into the bread and revive it. Any extra ingredients are open for debate; try mini cucumbers, broad beans, peppers and whatever else takes your fancy.

See full tomato & white bean panzanella recipe

Guy’s news: Not an easy start to the year

After less than an inch of rain in seven weeks, and nothing much forecast for the next three, crops beyond the reach of irrigation are starting to suffer. I wish we had ploughed and made our seeds beds earlier to save some moisture; but, after a waterlogged April, it was hard to switch mindsets so quickly from drying and aerating the soil to conserving the wetness we were recently lamenting.

Most years in spring, as soon as the soil is dry enough we plough and create a ‘stale seed bed’ – an ancient technique that creates beds with a loose, fine top layer. This prevents capillary action from drawing water to the surface of the soil, allowing any rainfall to accumulate and reducing water loss to near zero. Stale seed beds also encourage weeds to germinate, so we can kill them with ‘weed strikes’ (shallow cultivations) every ten days until the crop is sown. In a good year, when it is dry enough in March-April to make seed beds, but wet enough in May-June for weeds to germinate, this technique can reduce handweeding costs on crops like carrots from a crippling £2000/acre to almost nothing. Very wet then very dry has made this the worst of years for our carrot-growing co-op members; hand-weeding teams are moving at a painstaking 30m/hour up the rows, making organic farming, with its rejection of chemical solutions, seem close to the pedantic, luddite madness its detractors accuse it of being. Fortunately these are exceptional circumstances.

More positively, we are moving from an average winter-sown broad bean crop into an excellent spring-sown crop. Cabbages, chards and greens are doing well, and the courgettes have started – helped by our co-op’s purchase of a water wheel planter. This wonderfully simple but highly effective device gives each plant a drink as it is planted, helping it get off to a quick, stress-free start (more than we can say for ourselves this year).

Guy Singh-Watson

No longer freaks from the fringe? Guy on Desert Island Discs
Riverford founder Guy Singh-Watson will be on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs on Sunday 1st July at 11.15am. Host Kirsty Young will be talking to him about his life in food, organic farming, and his quest for a more ethical way of doing business.

5 Riverford recipes for June

June is the start of The Veg New Year. The Hungry Gap has ended and our fields are suddenly bountiful with all sorts of greenery and vibrant veg; new potatoes, spinach, British asparagus, broad beans and more are in abundance.

Make the most of them in these gorgeous summer dishes, picked by legendary Riverford cook Kirsty.

Warm Potato, Radish & Bean Salad

When new potatoes and radishes are in full swing, how better to celebrate than with this superlative salad. The herbs and capers create a salsa verde – a perfect match for the beans and eggs too. Just be careful with your seasoning, as the capers and olives both lend a saltiness to the finished dish.

See the full warm potato, radish & bean salad with eggs, olives & saffron mayo dressing recipe.

Frying-pan Spinach Soufflé

The word soufflé seems to strike fear into the hearts of even competent cooks, but this version is simple and accommodating. All you’re looking for is to get the eggs to rise slightly, then crisp a little on top, like a puffy omelette. The two things to get right with any form of soufflé are to whisk your egg whites until you can tip the bowl over your head without them falling out (really!) and to fold them in gently to keep as much air in the mixture as possible.

See the full frying-pan spinach soufflé recipe.

Gnocchi with Courgettes, Broad Beans & Peas

The gnocchi and courgettes cook fast, leaving you plenty of time to pod your peas and beans. Podding has a meditative quality to it (for anything less than a kilo!). If it’s speed rather than enlightenment you’re after, split the pile in half and race someone. You can use the broad beans with their skins on, but if you have time it’s worth slipping them from their skins to reveal the bright green bean inside.

See the full gnocchi & crème fraîche with courgettes, broad beans & peas recipe.

Asian Raw Green Bean Salad

Raw beans can add a great crunch to a salad, but they don’t hold a dressing well when kept whole. Slicing them finely creates more nooks, crannies and surface area for all the flavour to cling to. Here we’ve dressed them with an Asian dressing and added radish and peanuts for a satisfying crunch.

See the full Asian raw green bean salad recipe.

Asparagus & Portobello Noodles

Seasonal asparagus is brought to life in this quick, simple stir-fry dish, with Asian flavours from ginger, sesame oil, hoisin sauce and chilli. The cooking for this dish is done at such a pace that it is vital to have all your ingredients prepared and to hand before you start, preferably in the order they are to be used. Peanuts finish the noodles with a salty hit and satisfying bite.

See thefull asparagus & portobello noodles recipe.

Guy’s news: Soil, analysis & hope

“Low pH, low or very low Potassium and Phosphorous … lime and adequate fertiliser application essential”. According to the soil analysis on my desk, my pumpkins should be dead, or at least stunted. I am kicking myself for not sending off the samples earlier when we could have limed, spread some muck or even chosen another field. I shouldn’t be surprised; this is thin, grade three land where no conventional commercial grower would dream of planting veg.

Too late now; the crop is in the ground. Yet the five-week old pumpkins are romping away with good leaf colour despite only 1cm of rain since planting. I suspect they are having to work hard to find their nutrients; a scrape at the soil shows roots already stretching over 40cm with growth of 2cm a day and accelerating. A little hardship can make for a healthier, tastier and more nutritious crop which shrugs off pests and stores well, though it may not produce the highest yield. It is a long way to harvest but, walking the field, I have a good feeling despite the lab’s suggestions of doom.

One would be a fool to ignore measurement of soluble nutrients (available to roots now) and total nutrients (possibly available later), but they are just one indicator of how well a crop might do and offer only a snapshot of a dynamic situation. Further information can be gleaned from leaf colour, how previous crops have grown, which ‘indicator weeds’ dominate and their leaf size/colour (if docks and chickweed look strong you can be pretty sure most veg will do well); the feel, structure, colour and even the smell of the soil also help. How easy it is for the roots to extend and form intimate contact with the soil is just as important as concentration of soluble nutrients. much will depend on the microbial activity breaking down and releasing the nutrients from the previous crop and mycorrhizal fungi that form a bridge between the roots and the soil. A soil analysis is one small indicator along with others that come for free.

Despite my confidence we have applied a top dressing of sieved compost and cultivated it into the top, most active, 10cm of soil with our first inter-row hoeing. Next year, I will get the samples done earlier. But ultimately, like a growing number of crops, what these pumpkins need most of all is rain.

Guy Singh-Watson

Riverford’s UK-only veg box – one way to buy local veg

Our 100% UK veg box returns this week after its hiatus for the Hungry Gap. We’re celebrating its return with the story behind our most local, seasonal offering.

Birth of a box
Back in 1993, when we packed our first veg box, what little imported organic produce available was fit only for the compost heap by the time it got here, so our veg boxes were UK-only by default.

25 years and many, many veg boxes later, we’re happy to be part of a broader church. While the majority of our veg is still homegrown, it is supplemented with imports, mostly from Guy’s French farm and a group of organic growers in Spain, with some from further afield (transported by sea or road; never airfreighted). Together they provide things that have come to be regarded as year-round staples in most households – tomatoes, peppers, bananas, citrus, and so on – without the environmental disaster that is UK heated glass production, and without losing the closeness to our growers.

We reckon we strike a pretty good balance between principles and pragmatism in what we provide. Having said that, we do believe in a sustainable as well as a pleasurable diet wherever possible, and wanted to provide a truly local veg box for anyone who sought to minimise their food miles and embrace the UK seasons.

The first time we tried to launch the 100% UK veg box, it barely sold at all, and we had to withdraw it. But following lots of customer requests, we decided to give it another go a few years later – and this time, it has been a steady success! Sales of the UK-only box have now climbed to 6% of all veg box sales; that’s 50% up on last year, and treble the year before.

Easier said than done
It might seem like filling a box with local veg would be easier, because there’s no need to deal with importation – but actually, it presents a totally different set of complexities.

The Hungry Gap
The Hungry Gap 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. In the early days of local veg boxes, all deliveries would stop during this time of bare fields.

25 years later, there is still no way around the Hungry Gap apart from the use of heated glasshouses. For every kilo of tomatoes grown in a glass hothouse in the UK, 2-3 kilos of C02 are released into the atmosphere… we’d far rather go without. So the 100% UK veg box must vanish from our shelves for a few weeks every year, and its buyers temporarily swap onto one of our other boxes.

Repetition
When we plan the contents of our veg boxes across the year, we work hard to avoid repetition. The team look carefully at how often each box has contained all different varieties of veg, so that no one ends up bored with the same items week after week, or overwhelmed by a mountain of cabbages.

That thinking has to totally go out of the window with the 100% UK veg box. In winter, you will get heavy root veg every week; just right for hearty cold-weather cooking. In summer, you will feast on sweet, fresh salads – but not see a tomato again for the rest of the year. We expected more complaints about this, but people have been very understanding of the limitations; they know that it represents a real seasonal diet. And because the vegetables are being eaten in their natural seasons, they are always at their best.

Unexpected perks
While there are obvious benefits to eating 100% local veg – most prominently the confidence you can have in the sustainability of your diet – there are further benefits to the box that we hadn’t anticipated.

Veg that grow together, go together
Another reason that the repetitive contents of the UK-only box might not bother customers is that the flavours of each season tend to complement each other very well.

Every week, our chef Bob looks at the planned contents of each veg box, and offers his culinary perspective: can these veg be easily combined into a week of flavoursome meals? Often, Bob will suggest changes to make the selection more harmonious. With the UK box, he barely ever has to make any tweaks; the veg, grown in the same local season, usually go perfectly together without any intervention.

Grown by us!
More so than any other box, the UK-only box is packed with veg from our own Riverford farms. It’s the box that is most representative of our fields – which gives us a little extra affection for it!

Summer bounty

The 100% UK veg box is now back from its hiatus for the Hungry Gap. Going into summer is a great time to give it a try: on the horizon, a bounty of homegrown delights, from new season bunched carrots, asparagus spears and tangy rhubarb, to juicy tomatoes, award-winning mini cucumbers and freshly picked salad leaves.

Order the 100% UK veg box online today. If every week is too much of a plunge, why not try a pragmatic weekly alteration with one of our other boxes?

Guy’s news: The vegetable new year arrives

Geetie, my wife, says I stink of artichokes. My fingers are bitter with their sap, and my shoulders ache from lugging the tea picker-style baskets down the rows. Sitting in the office, I itch to get back to them, jealous if anyone else even suggests doing the picking. Fortunately Geetie likes the smell – as does our new dog, Artichoke (Arty for short). Globe artichokes are probably our least profitable crop, but this has done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm. 25 years on from smuggling my first plants back from Brittany and planting them from a pram shared with Alice, my first born, I love the crop more than ever. While they are in season I will cook them several times a week, until even I tire of their earthy bitterness. I appreciate that many find them a ridiculously timeconsuming, expensive and wasteful form of foodie one-upmanship, so they will seldom, if ever, be in the boxes. Instead they will be available to buy as ‘extras’; the large ones for boiling, and the baby ones for stews, frying, BBQs or roasting.

I might be mad about artichokes, but perhaps more significantly for everyone else, we have also started harvesting new potatoes, cucumbers, lettuces, spinach, salad onions, basil and various salad leaves, with cabbage and carrots just a few days away. After the spring deluge, we have now had less than an inch of rain in six weeks; beyond the reach of irrigation, it is getting dry. Early potatoes are struggling, and overly dry soil creates the danger of bruising at harvest – but most other crops are doing well, and catching up a little after a late, wet spring. Overall we’re happy, if a little anxious about those spuds.

Meanwhile, my youngest, Donald, and his mates are earning for their summer revelries by picking samphire from a local tidal salt marsh. After a few failed attempts to mechanise the painstaking task, they have returned to scissors and garden shears; on a good day, they manage just 15kg each in the six to eight hours between tides when the beds are accessible. Given the small quantities,
samphire will probably be an ‘extra’ only too. Wild marsh samphire (not to be confused with the cultivated stuff that is airfreighted in year round) is only around for about six weeks before the stems become woody. Grab it while you can – samphire’s tangy saltiness is delicious with scrambled eggs and fish.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: The day has come

After 12 years of thought, debate and prevarication, we become 74% employee owned on Friday 8th. There will be a huge party on the day; our customer services line will be closed from 1pm so everyone can celebrate. And on Monday, assuming they don’t sack me, I will come to work as one of 650 co-owners. Amongst all the signings, meetings and legal documentation, I am tearful, grumpy and awash with churning emotions – but doubt is not one of them.

I am convinced most people are kinder, less greedy, more creative, more thoughtful and can contribute more and be more productive than our institutions allow them to demonstrate. The best indication of business efficiency (and most valid prediction of future success) is getting the best out of people while giving the most back; return on capital is a poor, short-term proxy. I want to be part of an organisation that helps us be the best version of ourselves – that facilitates and grows people, rather than  undermining their humanity by appealing to ignoble sentiments, as capitalism too often does.

I could sell to the highest bidder and use the money to support good causes (the Bill & Melinda model), but I have nagging doubts about charity and would prefer to embed the changes I want to see in everyday life. To quote Ghandi: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change… We need not wait to see what others do.” The popular paraphrase, be the change you want to see in the world, leaves out the critical advice not to wait for others.

So, this Friday we will take Ghandi’s advice and get on with it. Time might prove me hopelessly idealistic, but I don’t think so; over the last year we have been working towards a more inclusive, human style of management, and the signs are so good that even our more militaristically minded managers are embracing the change. It feels as if an oppressive cloud is already lifting and a new dawn, full of exciting possibility, is revealing itself. In the end, the most critical factor is confidence: in each other and in our shared humanity; the confidence to be our whole selves, and not to wait for others to lead the way.

Those with the time and interest can now read Guy’s full ‘Founder’s Wishes’ statement at riverford.co.uk/founders-wishes

Guy’s news: An experiment in benign neglect

We have started cutting pak choi, basil, salad onions and salad leaves, with lettuce, spinach and chard still a week away. In most years we would now be emerging from the Hungry Gap, but with planting delayed by a wet spring, the pack house remains depressingly heavy on imports; some from our French farm, but more from our Spanish growers, and some from further afield.

25 years ago, the hardcore veg box pioneers stopped delivering from March to June – but that wasted the lovely end-of-season UK veg like purple sprouting broccoli, leeks, cauliflowers and rhubarb that were available. Frustration with having to top our boxes up with expensive, poor quality imports, combined with my overconfidence as a grower, drove me to buying a farm in France to grow the stuff myself. Climatic research and many visits suggested that we could steal four to six weeks’ harvesting by going 250 miles south, and staying close to the winter warmth of the Atlantic. That put us in the sunny Vendée region; about the same distance from Devon as the Fens. In the end, the project has worked out well – but not without some expensive, humbling failures in the early years.

Managing a business 250 miles away, with only a very limited grasp of a different language, law and culture, has led me to question what effective management is. In the early years I would dash around on the first day of a visit giving instructions: water this, plough that in, get those crop covers off. During my visit last week I looked, listened and contemplated my purpose. The less I visit, the better the team seems to do – perhaps because they have space to grow. I am astonished by their appetite for learning and innovation. I used to think that was my job, but now I find investments being evaluated, and new crops, varieties and growing techniques being tried; it’s me who is doing the learning. Relationships and roles are fluid, almost anarchic, but decision making is fast and efficient. There is one small office, which is usually empty; most decisions are made in the field, over a coffee or a beer at the end of the day.

Could it be that the most important part of management is knowing when to get out of the way – and its most common failing the underestimation of people’s capability to find fulfilment by managing themselves?

Guy Singh-Watson