Category Archives: Guy’s newsletter

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

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

Guy’s news: Size; does it matter?

Last week London’s Bargehouse Gallery hosted We Feed The World, an international photography exhibition focusing on the smallholder farmers who still produce 70% of the world’s food. I braced myself for patronising peasant-porn, but my prejudices were quickly allayed by the intimacy and truth of the images. They gave a window into a world in which we all have ancestral roots; one that is fast being replaced by large-scale brutality and destruction. It moved me, as art should, to ask questions: of our world, and of Riverford’s part in it.

Technology and globalism have transformed many industries, often at huge human cost. It would be hard to say to an ex-coal or steel worker that small farmers should be the exception. But how we farm has environmental, social, landscape and health impacts that provide strong arguments against sacrificing it on the altar of global, neo-liberal economics. Big doesn’t have to be bad, but in farming, it usually is: for wildlife, for food quality, for animal welfare, and for the communities which lose the infrastructure of integrated small family businesses. Big cannot cope with the intricacies of mixed farms and varied landscapes, so it uses all its power to make things the same: in neighbouring fields, then on neighbouring farms; in Cornwall and Cambridgeshire, then in Cambridgeshire, Kansas. The same varieties sold by the same three global seed companies. The same commodities sold to the same four global grain traders, and retailed through the same few supermarkets under the same global brands.

The reality of small-scale farming in the UK is hard: we expect to spend only 10% of our income on food, with just 0.6% going to farmers. A dogmatic battle with scale would sink Riverford, but, with your help, we can apply the brakes: by our preference for small growers, by supporting the co-op I founded twenty years ago, and by being a fair and reliable customer to all. Indeed, this is perhaps the side of Riverford that is most exceptional and gives me the most pride. With this in mind, once a month over the winter we will profile one of our growers in place of this newsletter – hopefully without patronising anybody.

Price changes – As explained last week, there will be a small price rise on our boxes and some individual items from 29th October. You can find out more at riverford.co.uk/box-price-rise.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Redressing the balance

Despite the recent kind weather, it has been a hard year for growers – and possibly an even harder one for purveyors of veg boxes. Come snow, rain or shine, we must fill those boxes and get them delivered for a fixed price. After losing four delivery days to snow late last winter, we were already financially stretched; a wet spring then delayed planting, forcing us to rely on additional imports made expensive by a weak pound. This was closely followed by a sweltering three-month drought that led to widespread crop failures. Some sun and heat-loving crops have exceeded expectations, but to nothing like the degree that the failures fell short of them.

You are probably getting the gist of this; we are putting our prices up next month by somewhere between 1.5% and 5% (or 20p-£1) – less for the smaller boxes, more for the larger. We are not alone; under pressure from a weak pound, rising employment costs, scarcity of labour, and weather anomalies, fruit and veg prices across the UK are rising at this rate and more. It is tempting to hang on and hope that the pound will rise against the euro before the UK’s critical Hungry Gap (the late-winter time when fields are bare, before spring crops arrive); that we can claw back summer losses through our winter crops, or that we can press more out of our staff and growers by delaying pay rises and squeezing prices. But none of these options would provide a sustainable and ethically acceptable future.

We completed the elections for our first staff council last week with a 95% turnout. As an employee-owned company, we have some hard decisions to make to balance the needs of staff, suppliers, customers and the environment, while striving to make the right choices on ethical issues like packaging. We hope this modest rise will feel fair to customers, staff and growers alike.

Pumpkin Day is on the way – book your tickets now!
Pull on your wellies and join us on our farms in Hampshire (20th October), Cambridgeshire and Devon (27th October) for our annual family-friendly pumpkin celebration. To find out more and book your tickets now, head to riverford.co.uk/pumpkinday.

Guy’s news: Devon Champion lost forever

Sally Tripp, the coastal farmer whose clifftop field is home (amongst her sheep) to my ancient converted bus most summers, invited me to try one of her swedes last weekend; “They aren’t organic but they eat well… though not as well as the Devon Champion we used to get from Tuckers”. Sally favours eating them with clotted cream and pepper. I will stick to butter.

Tuckers, our local agricultural merchant, stopped selling horticultural and agricultural seeds this year. For thirty years, Geoff Penton, the seeds manager, provided advice on varieties, sowing and harvest dates specific to our local soils and climate. Like so many things in life, we took it for granted until it was gone. This will be the last year we grow the flavoursome and floury Cosmos, my favourite roasting potato; with modest yields and a tendency for growth cracks when grown quickly it has been dropped by the breeders. Likewise Diana potatoes (good flavour but a tendency to bruise if machine harvested) and the carrot variety Junior, which helped Riverford to build a national reputation for the best tasting organic carrots, but is too brittle to handle mechanically.

Three companies now account for almost half of the global seed trade. They are not interested in local varieties with tiny specialist markets. Instead the same varieties are promoted globally; many GM, most hybrids, high yielding, increasingly sweet and uniform; ideal for the well-marshalled shelves of the globally uniform retailers. Like most highly bred specialists they give up at the smallest hardship, so it becomes the farmer’s job to maintain ideal conditions, often at high environmental cost. One might be reassured that many of our old varieties are preserved in an ice vault in Svalbard, but I take more heart from the emergence of a ragtag bunch of small scale maverick breeders and obsessive plant collectors (see Real Seeds in Wales and Incredible Vegetables in Devon) who observe, enthuse and swap seeds, building a dispersed depth and diversity of knowledge lost to Monsanto and, incidentally, maintaining a British tradition stretching through Kew Gardens and the Victorian plant collectors.

Guy Singh-Watson

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

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

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

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

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Can a vegetable sell itself?

In 1986, realising I was unemployable, I returned to the farm to start my own business – hopefully without the need to sell. Promoting myself as a consultant in New York had taught me that I was a bad and unhappy salesman. To this day I can talk with unremitting enthusiasm about growing and cooking vegetables, but as soon as I try to sell them, people run away. I blame it on my mother; she would have thought it vulgar to push yourself forward.

Like my mother, I would love to live in a world where a good product sold itself based on quality, value and the reputation of the person who made it. By reputation, I mean accumulated real experiences – as opposed to brand, which, too often, is distant from reality and a fiendishly clever manipulation of our vulnerabilities. Riverford is unquestionably a brand, and I would be lying to claim we present ourselves without some consideration. But for the most part I am happy with our compromise. Growing vegetables, however good, is not enough; to keep the show on the road someone needs to sell them, persuasively and persistently. We make the task even harder for ourselves by refusing to entice new customers with ‘tease and squeeze’ discounts, or to outsource the process to commission-driven third parties with highly questionable employment practices (as almost everyone else does, including most charities).

Diversity is a strength to be celebrated. Late one night at Abergavenny Food Festival last week, my wife Geetie and I found ourselves sharing a fire with some of our sales team. It must have been nearly midnight when I witnessed Adam signing up his tenth customer of the day by firelight. The transaction was made with an easy conversational charm infinitely beyond my awkward blunders, and to my surprise I felt not only admiration, but pride. We have learnt to sell our way: with humanity-affirming honesty which is both extraordinary and effective. Adam and the team are largely driven by a deep, sobering belief in Riverford which the rest of us must live up to back on the farm.

Despite our new skills, Adam’s best efforts and the advertising we are running this month, the best, most loyal customers will always be the ones that come by word of mouth from you, our customers – through old-fashioned reputation.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: An ideal descent into autumn

The soil is still a little drier than ideal for some crops, but as the dews get heavier, the sun lower and the days shorter, most crops are growing well. The dry weather and good light make for healthy plants, good weed control and easy harvesting. Perhaps the one exception to the latter point is potatoes; very dry, fine soil runs away so quickly through the harvesting webs (picture vibrating sieves) that the emerging tubers can be vulnerable to bruising. If we are too impatient, this will show up in your kitchen as blackening under the skins.

Soil temperatures at the surface are already declining, but at depth they remain at their annual maximum. The warmth accelerates the activity of invertebrates, fungi and bacteria: feeding on residues of previous crops, manures and each other, breaking down large, complex carbohydrates, and releasing soluble nutrients that can be absorbed by roots. With so little rain to carry those nutrients away into the subsoil (and ultimately rivers), this is the time when organic crops look at their best; in some cases they can become almost too lush, making them susceptible to the fungal diseases that typically arrive with the dampness of autumn. For this reason we seldom apply manure later than June.

Soluble nutrients means vulnerable nutrients, especially with the approach of winter rains. As crops are cleared, it is critical to get the ground covered as soon as possible. In early September we sow rye mixed with quick-growing legumes like vetch or crimson clover; the rye grows rapidly and roots deeply, even at low temperatures, and will mop up any soluble nutrients near the surface and even bring some up from the deep where weak-rooting vegetables seldom reach. If left into the spring, the legumes will secure some valuable nitrogen as well. As we get into early October we will sow just rye, and by late October it is best to leave the weeds (we generally have plenty) to do the job. Have I written this before? Perhaps something similar last September, or the September before…

Vegetables, Soil & Hope, ruminations of a lifelong veg nerd

For those of you who enjoy Guy’s weekly rants, ruminations and reflections, we have put together a choice selection of newsletters from the last quarter century, in a beautiful volume illustrated by Guardian cartoonists Berger & Wyse. Yours for £9.99 at riverford.co.uk/book.

Guy’s news: Glyphosate part 2 (following on from last week)

Gunpowder, nuclear bombs, PCBs, DDT, burning fossil fuels, antibiotics fed to animals as growth promoters, factory farming and overconsumption of meat, overfishing, deforestation… If we can, and someone can benefit from it, we will. Can we ever learn to balance public benefit against as-yet-unquantified public and environmental risk, and then implement the necessary global restraints?
Will we ever put wisdom ahead of cleverness and greed? I heard a philosopher asking why, given our infinite universe, we have not found any sign of intelligent life on other planets. He argued that intelligent life would inevitably destroy itself, and would therefore be gone in a blink of geological time. Is it inevitable that our incredible powers of innovation combined with our voracious appetites will destroy humanity, taking most other life on this planet with us?

Coming back down to earth, I spent the morning wrestling with the perennial weeds that threaten to engulf some trees we planted last spring. The only effective organic way to control them is exhaustive cultivation: tilling the area three or four times, at two weekly intervals. It takes time, fuel, and beats the life out of the soil, depleting organic matter and releasing CO2. Is that better for me and for the environment than applying 0.5g/m2 of glyphosate? Actually I doubt it, especially as it would only take two applications, just around the trees (10% of the area), in a two-hundred-year cycle. But this would be a tiny fraction of the glyphosate used globally. Most is used to make large-scale arable farming a bit easier, particularly as a pre-harvest desiccant of grain crops that will be harvested just two or three weeks later and are often destined for human consumption (the reason why most of us have glyphosate in our urine). Given the small benefit to a small number of people, and the risk to so many and to our planet, this seems an example of failure to balance risk and benefit.

How can such a balance be achieved? For now, I have more faith in fear than in wisdom. Last week I mentioned the legal challenge being put up by Client Earth. A customer has brought to my attention the attempts of an international group of lawyers to designate ecocide as an international crime arbitered by international courts, as with war crimes. Learn more at eradicatingecocide.com.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: If polar bears could sue

Dewayne Johnson, a 46-year-old former groundskeeper suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, was awarded $289m in damages from agrochemical giant Monsanto this month. A San Francisco court found Johnson’s terminal cancer was attributable to his use of glyphosate, the world’s ‘favourite herbicide’.

Monsanto has a long history of suppressing evidence of risk to extend the life of profitable products, and then ducking the consequences. From the 1920s, they led in the manufacture of electrical coolants called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are hormone disrupters that cause reduced fertility. As early as 1937, Monsanto were presented with evidence of PCBs’ danger, but continued to sell them until they were finally banned in the 1980s. By then 150m tonnes had been manufactured: highly persistant, leaking into the environment, and accumulating in animals at the top of the food chain – most significantly marine mammals and polar bears. Monsanto’s other products include Agent Orange, DDT, bovine growth hormone, and a dominant role in GM technology (alongside others that have been safe and of genuine benefit).

Monsanto has now merged with Bayer who, if possible, have an even more questionable history: stretching from the use of forced labour and human guinea pigs in trials in Nazi Germany to, more recently, knowingly causing thousands of haemophiliacs to be infected with HIV, through a plasma product known to be contaminated but deemed too costly not to sell.

We will never banish risk if we are to progress, but government, legislation and the law have repeatedly failed to balance the risks and the benefits of progress, and to hold accountable those responsible for diffuse and long-term pollution. Corporate interests have too loud a voice, placing shareholder value above a broad and balanced assessment. Should glyphosate be banned outright? Actually, I am not sure (more next week perhaps), but its use certainly needs tighter regulation. Monsanto will appeal and Johnson will probably be dead before he gets a penny. Encouragingly, there is a movement led by clientearth.org to use the law to challenge corporate and government environmental performance; I reckon they are worth supporting if you have some spare cash.

Guy Singh-Watson