Author Archives: Riverford

25 years of Guy’s news

We have a new Riverford book in the pipeline for next year, and we need your help.

We’re asking customers of more than 10 years to tell us about their favourite newsletter – the older the better. Is there a story, opinion or rant which is particularly memorable? Email the title, date (if you know it) and your reason to emilymuddeman@riverford.co.uk.

Unlike today’s digital age, records were scarce in the early days. If you have any physical copies of our newsletters from 1993 to 2000, we’d love to see them.

Please photograph or scan to to emilymuddeman@riverford.co.uk , or pop in the post to:

Emily Muddeman
Riverford Organic Farmers
Wash Barn
Buckfastleigh
TQ11 0JU

You could get a mention in our next book!

Guy’s news: Toxic exports

When I was a teenager, my brother was hospitalised with Paraquat poisoning after spraying weeds with a leaking knapsack; skin contact alone was enough to make him seriously ill. I frequently suffered headaches and nausea as a young man spraying crops, and my decision to farm organically was initially driven simply by a desire not to handle those chemicals. Despite assurances of safety
by manufacturers and regulators, most of the pesticides we used in the ‘70s and ‘80s have since been banned as evidence of damage to the environment or human health accumulated. Paraquat is among the most toxic both to humans and animals, and has also been linked to the development of Parkinson’s disease in farm workers. The danger it poses to human health is such that the chemical was outlawed by EU states in 2007, yet this week The Guardian revealed that Paraquat is still being manufactured in the UK, but for export. According to the article, 122,831 tonnes has been exported since 2015, 62% of which has gone to developing countries including Mexico, Indonesia and India.

Many farmers using Paraquat and other agrochemicals in these countries are illiterate and have little appreciation of the dangers involved, frequently applying them with no protective clothing whatsoever. Profiting from the lack of chemical regulation and education in such places is a human rights abuse up there with modern slavery; for the UK government to be complicit is staggering. While Paraquat is banned in over 40 countries, including Switzerland (home to manufacturer Syngenta), it is so unregulated and available in these developing countries that it is the suicide tool of choice, often by the very poverty-stricken farmers to whom it is marketed.

History has shown that the agrochemical giants profit from the chemicals they produce for as long as possible and move on, leaving the environment and the rest of humanity to pay the price. The fact is there’s no shortage of genuinely effective alternatives to Paraquat, but no-one makes money from sharing this farming knowledge, so GM seeds, Paraquat, and many other agro-chemicals are peddled unchecked to the uneducated and vulnerable as ‘progressive farming’, while the ethics that surround it could not be more backward.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Tomatoes, weeds & building regs

A gorgeous, sunny and warm May and June were followed by a persistently damp and cool July and early August. Good for our newly-planted, cool-loving winter brassicas and leeks which have established well, and even the beans are benefitting from the rain and cropping heavily despite cool temperatures, but our sun-loving salads are struggling. Time is also running out for our tomatoes. Sown in February under glass and planted out in unheated tunnels in April, picking starts in late July. By mid October, with light levels and temperatures dipping, flavour deteriorates and ripening slows so we start ripping them out and planting the polytunnels with winter salads. The market for green tomato chutney is limited so last week we “stopped” the plants (ie. removed the leading shoot) to encourage them to fill and ripen the fruit already set. It’s a race against time to hit the 40 tonnes of tomatoes we budgeted for this year as we’ve only picked 12 tonnes so far; we desperately need sun for ripening to catch up, but flavour is surprisingly good despite the grey skies. We could heat the tunnels to extend our tomato season as most commercial growers do, but the CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels to heat uninsulated greenhouses make this environmental madness; indeed if greenhouses contained humans rather than tomatoes, building regulations would make it illegal.

Leeks, kale and cabbage love rain; but so do the weeds. Our strategy to minimise hand weeding is to create a fine and firm “stale” seedbed a month or more ahead of planting; repeated shallow cultivations expose weed seeds to light and changes of temperature, stimulating germination only for the emerging seeds to be killed by the next cultivation. With the help of rain or irrigation, it is possible to remove 90% or more of the weed “burden” so the crop emerges virtually weed-free. If we get it right, mechanical cultivation between the rows combined with moving soil to smother emerging weeds can be enough, especially for vigorous crops like kale and cabbage which quickly form a canopy that out-grows competing plants. This year we got it wrong; a dry May and June meant the weeds waited and germinated as we planted instead. The result will be many hours spent hand-weeding leeks; boring, but not a disaster.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news – The price of a swim in a clean river

The River Dart, which flows past Riverford, was so polluted in the ‘60s and ‘70s that, as the flow dropped in summer, the bottom became covered in several inches of brown slime; we seldom swam past June. The nearby sewage works was the main culprit but farmers and the local tannery were also to blame. Over 40 years of investment – prompted by legislation, grants and occasional prosecution – farms, industry and South West Water have cleaned up the river; an achievement we should collectively celebrate. Today the once fetid Dart is a delight all year for swimmers, fisherman, canoeists and anyone seeking tranquillity on its shaded banks.

25 years ago, pulled by a grant and pushed by tightening legislation, my brother built a huge concrete pit to store cow slurry through the winter until ground conditions allow it to be spread and fertilise the land without fear of pollution. This autumn he is building two sheds; one to store manure under cover to prevent leaching by winter rains, and another to house livestock during wet
winters to prevent damage to soil structure by heavy hooves, and stop faeces running off into water courses. Again there is some grant aid, but also financial benefits from making better use of the manures. Collectively, a desire to do the right thing, the threat of prosecution, and grants have combined to bring progressive improvement in our river and others around the country. I am not
convinced it would have happened without added pressure from EU directives on water quality. It is a knee-jerk response of most farmers to complain about red tape and interference. I would argue that, on our over-crowded island, it is the cost of living in a civilised society with a relatively clean environment.

Guy Watson

A change to our minimum spend
We’ve managed to avoid increasing the minimum spend for years, but delivery costs have risen and the sums are no longer adding up. If you have a veg box, meat box or recipe box in your order, this won’t affect you.
– For all non-meat items, the new minimum spend will be £15
– The meat minimum spend will remain £15
Delivery is still free for everyone!

Guy’s News: Auditing virtue

History tells us that no organisation is capable of reliable self-regulation, whether a newspaper, government, the police, the Catholic church and certainly not a supermarket; yet Sainsbury’s appear to be on the verge of ditching the established third-party Fairtrade Foundation certification system in favour of their own “fairly traded” labelling.

I do have some sympathy with Sainsbury’s on two counts; firstly, Fairtrade is far from being a perfect or complete solution to producer exploitation and secondly, the auditing of ethics can be an expensive and bureaucratic process. It is tempting to think that a commercially-focused organisation could do better on its own. Despite my own misgivings about Fairtrade (mainly around rewarding quality and securing long-term markets) my visits to, and contact with, producers has convinced me that despite its faults, it is by far the best option available and has delivered substantial gains for producers. As such we continue to support it through the certified bananas, pineapples, avocadoes and mangoes we sell. As for the cost; it must be accepted as the price of progress.

Riverford is currently moving towards employee ownership (EO), with staff due to take a 74% stake in May 2018. This has led to a lot of navel-gazing about what values Riverford stands for, and how we will protect them into the future. We have visited other values-driven and EO companies, studied their governance structures and researched what works and what doesn’t. Through this I have almost managed to grow out of my knee-jerk antagonism to the idea of someone else auditing my virtue.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Revenge of the tomatillos

Some seeds will be taken by the birds, some will fall on stony ground, and some will be choked by weeds – but a few will find fertile ground and multiply ‘a hundredfold’. So goes the parable; and two millennia later, despite agricultural advances improving the chances for many crops, one saleable sweetcorn cob per four seeds sown is still a fair expectation. Here in France, we sow 86,000 seeds per hectare for the early crop. In a good year, we expect 55,000 to establish, and to pick around 20,000 cobs, having discarded those poorly filled and pest damaged. With increasing competence and favourable weather, we are managing around 30,000 cobs per hectare this year; something I assured my team was virtually impossible. Like Paddy Ashdown, I must eat my hat.

We might even have had more were it not for the tomatillos. They have self-seeded from previous years and grown as ‘volunteers’ with such vigour that we have struggled to control them between the rows and avoid them engulfing and choking the sweetcorn. Should I be driven out of France by Brexit, their seed may be my revenge, left to curse future farmers of this land. If all crops had
the vigour, disease resistance and sprawling dominance of tomatillos, farming would be a doddle. Luckily they make an excellent salsa verde with chilli, coriander and lime, to go with your barbequed sweetcorn.

We also have bumper crops of padron peppers, aubergine, squash, borlotti beans, and many different types of pepper, which will all be in your boxes over the next couple of months. The padrons taste infinitely better than any I have bought, though with the flavour comes more heat than might be optimal for some tapas eaters. As with so many crops, the flavour is better when grown outside rather than in a tunnel, but they are later and less regular in shape.

After six years, the French farm is finally doing well. It’s taken some hard lessons to find the crops that suit the soil, our skills, and hopefully your tastes; the experience has humbled and occasionally humiliated me, and I won’t be repeating it. But it gives me some satisfaction to suddenly find myself superfluous, and even an irritation. We’ve built such a skilled team that they no longer need me. So, I’ve left them to it and am writing this from the beach – with not a tomatillo in sight.

Guy Watson

Happy 10th Birthday, Home Farm!

This summer marks ten years since Riverford first arrived at its home in the north, Home Farm. Since then, so much has changed – and we couldn’t have done any of it without our customers’ support. Thank you, everyone, for being part of the family!

Our new beers and ciders and their stories.

We’ve introduced four new beers and ciders to our drink offering, carefully selected for flavour from independent breweries. As with most of the small-scale producers we work with, they have interesting stories to tell. Here’s a little about what makes each brewery and beverage special.

The first addition is from Barnaby’s Brewery, made quite literally a stone’s throw away from us at the Riverford dairy farm in the old stable block. Their Pilsner lager is made with fresh spring water from the farm, which allows its delicate malt flavour shine through; you’ll struggle to find another brewery using spring water from an organic farm!

Team Barnaby and Tim set up the business after brewing as a hobby for years. What really helped Barnaby take the plunge was realising that with three teenage sons quickly growing up, his household was soon going to get through a lot of beer!

Tim’s engineering experience has allowed them to build their bespoke brewhouse using innovatively adapted reclaimed equipment.

What’s really impressive about Barnaby’s Brewhouse is their integrity in their efforts to make sure every by-product is put to use. Their spent grain is fed to the Riverford dairy herd; waste water is filtered in hand-built reed beds then fed back onto the land; the yeast slurry is either harvested and used for future brews or fed to pigs and the used hops are composted. On top of that the business is moving towards becoming completely sustainable business and already uses renewable energy from solar panels on the farm.

Ultimately, this is a lager you can really feel good about drinking.

Next up is Black Isle Brewery in the Scottish Highlands, the only organic brewery in Scotland. Based on a working farm, they grow their own barley for brewing and breed Hebridean sheep who feed off the spent grain.

Their Goldeneye pale ale has a beautiful golden colour, with a fruity aroma and rich, robust malt and marmalade flavour. We recommend it with anything spicy, smoked or BBQ’d.

David Gladwin was one of the very first craft brewers in Scotland when he started Black Isle in 1998. He saw a gap in the market for modern, fresh styles of beer to oppose the mass produced, pasteurised and ‘bland’ offerings in Scotland.

Organic is important to Black Isle; it costs three times as much for organic hops as it does for non-organic materials, but like us they are committed to organic and producing the best quality beer while looking after their beautiful Highland environment. They are also members of WWOOF (Working Worldwide On Organic Farms) if you fancy volunteering on the farm!

Our third addition is Blonde lager by Hepworth Brewery, Sussex. Clear golden in colour, the flavour is smooth, crisp and refreshing, with some lovely floral notes from the organic hops.

It’s naturally gluten free, too! This is achieved by using the best brewing practices at every stage: from choosing Sussex barley that is low in protein, to traditional floor malting and boiling the worts (the liquid extracted from the mashing process during brewing) at higher temperatures in the British-style brewhouse. Slow, cold maturation allows the beer to stabilise and the gluten to drop out, before filtering and bottling.

Lastly is a new addition from the Samuel Smith’s brewery, Perry, a sparkling pear cider.

Samuel Smith’s is brewed at the literally named Old Brewery, Tadcaster, is the oldest brewery in Yorkshire. Since 1758, ales and stouts have been brewed here using the highly mineralised water drawn from an aquifer, 85 feet below ground.

Perry has a delicate pale straw colour, smooth body, and lovely flavour – crisp yet rich, and bursting with fragrant summer pears.

All four drinks have been made by real people who really love what they do, and with a commitment to organic. As with everything we grow and sell, flavour is at the top of our list when choosing new products from small scale producers and these all get top marks. Cheers to that!

Guy’s news: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”

We taste everything that goes in your veg boxes; in fact at one time we tested the palates of all our staff and formed a panel from those with the most sensitivity. It was an admirably democratic exercise, but proved useless as it failed to accommodate the fact that taste is subjective, highly related to the individual and therefore defies objective measurement.

Forty years of business mantra maintains that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. If you can’t manage it, the easiest thing to do is pretend that it doesn’t exist; an approach that has been misapplied to healthcare and education as well as the quality of vegetables. What measurables there are have improved over the years: shelf life, uniformity, yield, even the elements of flavour which can be quantified like sweetness and crunchiness/turgidity. However, these improvements have been won at the cost of harder to measure, more subtle flavours, and almost certainly nutritional quality. Flavour comes from the crop variety, soil type, growing conditions (most notably the availability of nitrogen and water) and freshness. The best flavour normally comes from vegetables and fruit that have grown slowly, often with a degree of hardship that falls just short of stress (which can result in bitter/off flavours). As such, most commercial farmers cannot risk aiming for flavour when cosmetic appearance is what their buyers will judge quality on.

Introducing…The Riverford Flavour Tour

To bring the focus of food back to flavour we are launching a hands-on, mouthwatering experience of organic vegetables farmed for flavour. Drop by for veg growing, cooking classes, veg games, tastings, demos, and much more! We’ll also be running our new Master Veg cookery classes and Pop-Up Feasts nationwide – see website for details.

WOMAD: 28th-30th July
Riverford on Home Farm: 4th-6th & 8th-9th Aug
Riverford on Sacrewell Farm: 18th-20th Aug
Abergavenny Food Festival: 16th-17th Sept

Guy’s news: Plants; not so dumb & passive

Much of horticulture is about managing the urge of plants to reproduce. Humans need and crave the more digestible, nutrient-dense food found in the reproductive parts of crops; that is the flowers, fruits, seeds, bulbs and tubers. As growers we devote ourselves to manipulating plants to maximise the yield and quality of those tender and tasty reproductive organs, which is a tricky balance to strike. If only we could sell you grass for your supper; alas the easy to grow, non-reproductive parts of plants are largely indigestible to humans.

Plants in their wild state have survived the challenges of pestilence, drought, flood, ice ages and now Homo sapiens by mastering a long-term strategy of balancing growth and dominance against risk. Getting bigger to increase their reproductive capacity must be balanced against the risk of not making it to maturity. At a cellular level the strategy all boils down to whether a cell in the apical meristem (growing point) differentiates into leaf or flower (above ground) and root or starch-saving tuber (below). If things are looking good a plant will
typically extend its vegetative life, assuming the chance for greater fecundity will come later; if things are getting tough (drought, lack of nutrients or light etc) it will switch to sexual mode early so at least some genes are preserved.

Such were my musings as I observed our early runner beans which have grown and grown but failed to produce a crop. The generally-held wisdom is to build a strong plant, then stress it with water deprivation to make it flower, then give it everything it needs so it feels confident and fills every pod. As our plants reach for the polytunnel roof and the soil is covered with aborted flowers and just a few crates of beans to show for it, it’s plain we haven’t grasped the subtleties.

There is a tendency to regard plants as dumb and passive, yet their interaction with the world goes far beyond the basic tropisms we learnt at school. They can sense, even “hear” pest attack and respond with defence chemicals, much as our own immune system works. They may not moo, baa or rush around, but the apparent passivity of plants hides subtleties and complex responses which have served them well. It remains to be seen how well they will survive us.

Guy Watson