Author Archives: Riverford

Guy’s News: A co-operative partnership

I don’t much like big businesses but somehow we have become one. I like making worthwhile things happen but I am a bit mixed up about the need to control and own them. One such worthwhile thing is the South Devon Organic Producers Co-op (SDOP), conceived in a pub 20 years ago when I couldn’t keep up with demand and saw an opportunity for organic vegetables to be grown on other traditional mixed family farms. Through such co-operation I felt perhaps we could get the benefits of mechanisation and scale, while resisting the march towards ever larger farms.

There are advantages to growing veg as part of a long rotation on mixed, ecologically diverse farms, but had I stopped to appreciate the scale of the challenge, I would have stayed at home. We made a lot of mistakes in the early years, struggled to find reliable markets and to meet the exacting specification of supermarket buyers but, with the energy of youth, determination and an EU grant, we survived. Things got easier as we found the right crops for each farm, our skill levels rose and we bought the right machinery, but I think all members would agree that we would have gone under without the reliable market provided by the growing Riverford box scheme. In my more idealistic moments I like to think of the box scheme as a partnership between those farmers and you, with Riverford as the facilitator which has allowed 14 family farms to survive, and supported the conversion of thousands of acres to organic farming. It has also brought a group of farmers together and thereby made a challenging profession a little easier and less lonely.

Last week I visited Antony Coker, a founder member and now SDOP chairman. He recently bought a solar powered robot to help weed and sometimes plant his crops; I want one. He and his wife Mary showed us their crops of runner beans, courgettes and beetroot, all of which will be in your boxes soon. His staff seemed happy, skilled and engaged and my QC team tell me their quality is reliably good. 20 years on we have come a long way and the foundation and survival of the SDOP is perhaps the achievement which I am most proud of. The biggest challenge is now finding the next generation to take the reins.

Guys news: Cautious steps & revolutionary leaps

We were double winners at the Soil Association Best of Organic Market awards this month; best and most innovative organic farmer. The urge to innovate stems from our restless dissatisfaction with the way things are, a determination to find a better way and constant pushing of the boundaries. It got man out of the cave, brought us the Industrial Revolution, the Green Revolution and the internet but arguably also the Enclosures Act, climate change, deforestation, gun powder and industrialised farming. Clearly it can be a force for both good and bad; as yet we are incapable of distinguishing the useful from the destructive before lunging forward into the chaos that ensues when we let the marketplace decide. The innovations that are scaled up are invariably the profitable ones (usually to a small minority), not necessarily balanced, beneficial to all or thought through in their consequences for humankind and the planet.

I am an irrepressible innovator and sometimes loathe the restless dissatisfaction that comes with it. I know it makes life hard for my staff and those around me and have determined to take time to celebrate achievements before dashing on. On this occasion, celebration involved a lot of organic vodka, imbibed on a warm London night with some self-satisfaction.

To be a good, maybe even the best, organic farmer requires much more balance, and some wisdom. Innovation has its place but, unless preceded by a lot of observation, patience and bit of humility we would be charging around creating clever solutions to the wrong problems. Last week we were clearing up the yard and I noticed a number of my early inventions disappearing into the skip (I couldn’t help retrieving the long-abandoned, barely used, lie-down weeder; a genius idea which my staff hated). Mercifully, over most of my 30 years of organic growing my impetuous nature has been balanced by our more considered farm team, particularly John, our cautious farms manager of 25 years. I appreciate his patience and consideration but will never emulate it; I will be an innovator to the grave. To succeed and persist another 30 years we need both approaches, and the wisdom to recognise when each is appropriate; when to risk my revolutionary leaps and when to progress in John’s cautious steps.

Guy’s news: Northerly winds, love & Wendell Berry

The new growing year has started with a blissfully dry and bright spring and no major gales, frosts or pestilence. Night time temperatures have been low with a few frosts, but nothing damaging. Most crops were planted into perfect seedbeds and are doing well; a few are even ahead of schedule, helped by super-light (just 17g/m2) fleece crop covers which retain moisture and keep off the recently prevalent northerly winds. The swallows have only just arrived, a month later than last year; presumably delayed by those dry winds.

With so little to moan about, let me instead recommend those with time to listen to an exceptionally good Start the Week on BBC Radio 4, titled Wendell Berry: The Natural World. Andrew Marr interviews the delightfully drawling 82 year old poet and Kentucky farmer, along with the environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth and economist Kate Raworth. The discussion was marked by a refreshing humility and refusal to bow down to the “grown up” notion, prevalent in economics, politics and neo environmentalism, that the world can only be measured in, and be guided by, hard numbers. Above all there was an acknowledgement of love; if we can’t admit to loving our surroundings, whether people, nature or food, how can we care for them? Love, often written off as a childish, romantic or unaffordable emotion, actually provides a more powerful motive to care for what we value than the fiscal incentives favoured by economists and politicians. Despite Berry reading perhaps one of the most depressing poems ever written (which he quickly and endearingly acknowledges), I urge you to listen. I suspect as a society we need a few numbers to check our more outlandish emotions, but I long for a world shaped by love over one which denigrates the unmeasurable, and will fight for it unashamedly in the boardroom, in my fields and in this newsletter until my dying breath.

Guy’s news: Musing on misery & contentment in farming

My current state of contentment is unusual for a farmer; we have a reputation for misery. Could a dour anticipation of calamity be a prerequisite of farming success? Thomas Hardy’s Gabriel Oak didn’t save the harvest by revelling at the harvest festival; he was out virtuously sheeting the ricks against the gathering storm while everyone else was getting legless in the barn. Joe Grundy, David Archer and Brian Aldridge maintain the tradition across the class divide with their variations on rural self-pity in Radio 4’s The Archers. Folklore would have it that there is always some form of deluge, drought or pestilence waiting to wipe rare smiles off a farmer’s face before they settle.

The challenges facing farmers may be tangible and dramatic, but I suspect they are no more onerous than those suffered by many professions, and we do have many compensations. What greater privilege could there be than to be working amongst the rising birdsong, part of the annual renewal that is spring, ploughing and sowing as returning life erupts around you? Even my ageing bones feel a hint of youth returning.

As the years pass and experience gathers, the calamities seem less personal; as I remember collapsing exhausted to my knees and weeping by a broken-down tractor as potatoes died of blight around me, I am grateful for the serenity and perspective that comes with age. As in all businesses one must be mindful of the risks and prepared to react quickly to minimise their impacts. Experience helps, but, longer term, humility and feeling part of nature rather than personally embattled is key to contentment and effective management. Misery is a waste of emotional effort; it just gets in the way.

It has been a glorious spring; my dairy farming brother says he can’t remember an easier farming year than the one past. Could this contentment be the start of a complacency that will be our downfall, or could it be maturity arriving? A really good farmer should feel cradled by nature; its ally and friend rather than its adversary. This perfect spring, that aspiration feels within reach. Hence the contentment.

Guy’s news: Trust, partnership & choice

We are enjoying a bumper crop of excellent quality runner and French beans, sweetcorn and some of the best carrots I’ve tasted in 30 years; 2016 is turning out to be a good summer for most crops. About 90% of your box contents are meticulously planned a year or more ahead but yields and maturity dates vary, creating gluts and shortages. Inevitably we deviate from our ‘ideal’ contents to accommodate these variations up to a point (which we argue about a lot); it’s a compromise between keeping you happy in the kitchen and at the table on one hand, and avoiding waste and supporting committed growers on the other.

One of the things that I am most proud of about Riverford is that while we are not perfect, we are good to our word; if we agree to buy a crop from a grower and it meets our quality criteria (where the emphasis is on flavour, not appearance), we take 100% of the agreed tonnage and pay 100% of the agreed price. This is a remarkable achievement in our industry where a third of farmers’ crops are regularly left in the field, and growers are expected to sell their souls along with their crops to keep petulant buyers happy and shelves full.

How do we manage it? In part because as farmers ourselves, we understand the realities of growing; partly because we invest heavily in long term relationships with growers and don’t have a buyer’s tantrum at the first sign of trouble and in part because of meticulous planning. But a lot is down to how your trust allows us to tweak the veg box contents to keep both growers and cooks happy, avoid waste and so create the value that means our veg is usually 20% cheaper than supermarket organic veg. It’s a partnership, and mostly it works incredibly well.

Choice, flexibility and convenience (arguably not our strong points) come at a price which the consumer seldom sees; it is paid by the fulfilment centre worker and Hermes delivery driver earning less than the living wage, by the farmer whose crop is left unsold, by the environment as vans chase delivery slots, crop surpluses rot in fields and airplanes fly clothes to achieve quick turnarounds and keep up with fashions. All of that sacrifice to give us endless choice. Frustrating when much of the time, I for one, don’t really know what I want anyway.

Guy Watson

Guy’s News: Rampant vegetation & bucolic harmony

Last night I dreamt of being entombed in rampant foliage under an impenetrable forest. After a wet June, Devon is cloaked in luxuriant vegetation; branches and hedgerows are sagging into roads under the weight of it and paths walked freely a week before soak legs with encroaching dewy nettles and cow parsley. Most years a lack of moisture is restricting growth by now but, with the sun at its zenith, the air steamy with humidity and soil temperatures still climbing, growth shows no signs of slowing. Anyone trying to manage it, be they gardeners or farmers, will be able to interpret my dream.

In my early years as a grower, June would typically bring feelings of panic and occasional despair as plans which seemed so achievable when conceived in January’s hibernation disappeared under weeds. Of course real wisdom lies in appreciating untidy diversity; working with nature with minimal intervention rather than fighting it with mowers and herbicides (for some). Such heady and bucolic harmony is our aim, and we’re getting closer, but we would still lose the good fight without our tractors; yet for the last two weeks they have been parked up, waiting for the soil to be dry enough to support them without compacting it. The weeds, which we like to hoe from their roots in vulnerable infancy, are getting a hold and will be harder to kill; leek, cabbage and lettuce plants are stacking up in the yard and our sowing programme is disrupted.

A cause for concern, but nothing that a few dry days will not sort out. The inevitable mud is clinging to veg and no doubt to your kitchen and fridge; we avoid washing veg where possible, partly as it keeps bettter that way and partly to remind you of its origin, but is it time to reassess? Opinions welcome.

In case this sounds like a farmer’s moan, I should say that most crops are as lush as the hedges; so despite a little woe it looks like being a pretty good year.

Guy’s News: Stress & rhubarb

There has been frost on the ground in the morning but we have been irrigating by midday. The recent cold, dry weather is ideal for ploughing, mucking and preparing seedbeds, especially from a heated tractor cab, but outside it’s hard on both the plants and the planters. Even with the protection of crop covers the cold, dry north-easterly winds of the last two weeks can desiccate lettuce and spinach plants before they are able to get their roots into the moist soil two inches down. But with half a million spinach, chard, lettuce, cabbage and more to plant in the next month we cannot wait; in Devon the warmer westerlies normally bring the rain that stops planting, so we have to get on the land while we can. Our plants will just have to tough it out; getting good crop establishment in a year like this is all about managing the transition from the warm, humid glasshouses where the seedlings were raised, huddled in a tray with regular computer-controlled watering, to sitting in an open field blasted by an easterly wind. Our tools are irrigation, crop covers and preparing seedlings by slowly hardening them off before planting out. Generally, it works.

Meanwhile, when time allows, we are splitting and replanting rhubarb crowns. Given plenty of muck, the huge umbrella leaves of an established rhubarb crown will outgrow most weeds, but as soon as we harvest even a small amount from each plant, we are robbing it of its competitive ability. Over the years we have lost the battle with couch grass, creeping buttercup, nettles and docks; rather than dig up the weeds it is easier to dig out the crowns and divide them into three, carefully remove the weed rhizomes, and replant the crowns in a clean, fertile field. Over 20 years we have experimented with many strategies for controlling perennial weeds in perennial crops, and settled on covering the rows with biodegradable starch-based plastic mulch in late autumn, which lasts long enough to suppress weed growth before breaking down the next year. It’s not perfect because turning plant starch into compostable plastic is an energy-intensive process, so we will keep experimenting, as we always do. The newly planted rhubarb will not yield much this year, but we have another established field which we will be picking for your boxes, starting next month.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: farming to order

Back in 2007 we took on the tenancy of Sacrewell Farm near Peterborough, just off the famously fertile Fens, to grow veg and pack our veg boxes for customers in the east of England. After a lifetime in Devon’s restrictively small, hilly fields I was seduced by the prospect of farming 500 acres of level, freely draining, relatively uniform soil; surely this would be easy. It turned out that the land was exhausted, flogged by 20 years of continual conventional cropping with potatoes and cereals. We set about sowing grass clover leys to restore natural fertility, planting an orchard and hedgerows and converting to organic methods; early crops were disappointing but eight years on our farm team are getting better crops each year as the life comes back into the soil and we learn which crops suit the silty loam. The harder climate and lower humidity means we get much less fungal disease so we now grow most of our onions here to avoid the mildew that inevitably hits us in damp Devon, and this year’s crop is looking very good.

Watching the transformation of Sacrewell has made me appreciate how much farms on our relatively small island can vary as a result of their natural geology and how the soil has been treated. In Devon the mixed farming my father employed for 50 years has protected the loamy, balanced (if shallow) soils, and the thick hedgerows are a blessing; it turns out that they help keep insect pests under control by providing habitats for insect predators to overwinter. In the east, while we have created a rich, biodiverse farm at Sacrewell, monocultures and huge fields are the norm where a ‘hedge’ is a sparse, stunted row of thorns. While their influence means we still have rapid outbreaks of aphids here that we never see in Devon, the change in the past eight years has been incredible; an RSPB survey last year counted 70 species on the farm including lapwings, corn buntings, grey partridges and red kites.

Organic farming means treating each farm as an individual and finding its virtues; it has taken us a few years to appreciate them, but now we are undoubtedly bringing out their best.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: an aphid’s view

If things are this good why grow wings, why even move? Why have sex and risk producing variable babies that may not be as good as me? Sexual reproduction is so full of uncertainty. Why not just stay put, plug in, suck that sweet, sweet sap and pour out a stream of babies identical to me through parthenogenesis; they need only shake free of my abdomen, plug in and enjoy the same good life. Within five days the young’uns will be squeezing out their own; it’s perfect.

Two weeks ago, looking around the peppers on our farm in France I calculated that about 20 million wingless aphids were sucking the life out of my crop; each leaf had up to ten mothers with a stream of look-a-likes plugging in within millimetres of their mother. Marco, my ever-calm agronomist, told me not to worry; “I’m on top of it,” he said. The temptation for the macho and inexperienced would be to wade in with some soap spray (restricted but permissible under organic regulations) which effectively suffocates the aphids it touches by invading their spiracles, but this would also risk killing the predators already feasting on the aphids and destroy our chances of reaching the holy grail of organic pest control; balance. Marco’s policy was to wash off the worst colonies with water and introduce more ladybirds to mop up the rest. I was nervous; a ladybird can eat 5000 aphids in its life but can’t compete with their reproduction rate. Who would eat their way to the top? As well as ladybirds we often seek help from my favourite aphid predator, Aphidius colemani. This tiny parasitic wasp oviposits a single egg in each aphid which slowly digests them from within before emerging two weeks later, alien style, as an adult wasp ready to lay another 200 eggs; we introduced some of them for good measure.

Two weeks later, Marco was proved right; the ladybirds won and it looks like we will have a good, if slightly delayed, crop of peppers. Having seen the scenario played out so many times since we gave up spraying soap on aphids 15 years ago, I should have had more faith in the under-promoted virtue of using less and understanding more. If a fraction of the money spent on pesticides and GM went into studying agro-ecology, most insecticide use could be avoided.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: competition, collaboration & car manufacture

Last week we were visited by some of our growers from Andalucia. For years they’ve produced veg for us that we can’t grow at home without heating with fossil fuels. As I approached Pepe, who this year has grown the spinach and asparagus which precedes the UK crop, I extended my hand with typical English reserve, only to be pulled into an extended Andalusian embrace. After six years, what started as a trading relationship has developed into a lasting friendship; one that’s benefited us and our box customers and will, I expect, see one or both of us into retirement.

The contrast couldn’t be greater with our (now long past) annual trips to supermarket HQ: having scrubbed up for the nightmare session of abuse from a buyer, the visit would start with the ritualistic humiliation of a two-hour wait (calculated to soften you up) before finally we would be summoned to meet the latest testosterone-charged buyer. Thankfully, that was fifteen years ago, but I gather things at some supermarkets haven’t changed much.

Does business have to be done like this? After thirty years of trying to find an efficient and courteous alternative I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that competition is pretty good at driving innovation and improvement. Brutal as it sounds, if you don’t have the incentive to find a way of both doing what you have to do today, and doing it a little bit better tomorrow, it’s only a matter of time before someone else does and your number is up.

This is not to accept that short term, cut-throat deal making is the best way. A school friend has spent his working life making parts for the automotive industry. I’m always amazed to hear how the larger car manufacturers, having selected a partner, invest heavily in making the relationship work, in the long run and for both parties. Car manufacture must be one of the most competitive and sophisticated industries in the world; it is heartening that there, like Pepe and me, they have reached the conclusion that building and maintaining relationships is critical to long term success.

Guy Watson