Category Archives: Guy’s newsletter

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

Guy’s news: The return of green

The drought is over. I wish I had followed my wife Geetie’s advice and spent more time on the beach instead of wandering around getting miserably stressed about my crops. Then again, you don’t get to be good at growing vegetables without sharing their pain. I’ve never met a self-satisfied organic veg farmer who was any good; we are mostly a contradictory mix of optimism and mild depression, focusing on the sick plants rather than the strong ones, without losing faith in the Eden our fields will one day become.

We had over two inches of rain last weekend, with leaden skies and occasional showers since. The warm ground is still gratefully sucking in anything that falls and is far from saturated, but with shortening days, heavier dews and the sun lower every day, we will not be worrying about water again this year. We have lost a good part of our carrots, swedes, chard, spinach, and early crops of lettuce, but what is left looks good. The drought and heatwave seem like distant memories; pastures have already regained their green, and once-parched vegetables are bursting out of themselves in a hurry to make up for lost time.

Planting of winter crops is largely finished for the year and, with so many customers on holiday, there’s less for us to pick and pack. We are enjoying a lull which will last to mid-September. We are even largely on top of the weeds; most of them struggled as much as our crops, making them easy to hoe out.
The cows will be short of good quality grass for another week or two while growth catches up with their hungry mouths. Like most livestock farmers, my siblings at Riverford Dairy have been feeding the herd their winter silage ration for many weeks. In the longer run, this risks shortage in the winter; in the short run, silage is nothing like grass in its fresh form. The cows eat less, and what they do eat is less nutritious. Milk yields are down as a result; so much so that, for the first time, they anticipate not being able to meet orders next week. Some of you who are used to Riverford milk may receive Acorn Dairy milk instead; based in Yorkshire, Acorn supply our customers in the North and East with organic milk year round. With many cows due to calve and re-join the Riverford herd this month, Acorn should not need to lend a hand for long.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Packaging: Doing our best in the world as we find it

As promised in February, we have spent the last 6 months reconsidering our packaging, with particular emphasis on plastics. Our conclusions and actions are as follows (and in more depth at riverford.co.uk/future-packaging):

1. We will continue to reduce the amount of plastic we use. Our research suggests that our veg boxes already use less than a quarter of the packaging of a major supermarket. We think we can reduce this further to nearer a tenth in the winter, when produce is typically less perishable.

2. By 2020, 95%+ of the single-use plastic we do use will be home compostable (fully degradable in 12 weeks under the temperatures typical of home composting). After polling our customers, it turns out that a staggering 83% of you home compost. We will ask those who can home compost to do so, and those who can’t to return all packaging for us to compost at the farm and use to grow our next crops.

Although not a perfect solution, it is a huge improvement; we are doing our best in the world as we find it. With that in mind, I have two comments:

1. Anthropogenic climate change is unquestionably the biggest environmental threat our planet faces. We must not allow the plastic debate to detract from this. Reducing plastic use does nothing to address climate change; in some instances, it can make it worse. We need pragmatic policies that balance all environmental impacts.

2. It is impossible for citizens or companies to instigate good packaging practices while every local authority has a different approach to kerbside collection. Of all the ‘recyclable’ plastic used in the UK, only a third is actually recycled. We desperately need an intelligent, long-term, national policy on what materials will be recycled, composted and incinerated or landfilled. In the current vacuum, effort is being wasted on ill-informed company policies and headline-grabbing claims that will deliver little of value. To abandon policy to individual choices and market forces is an abdication of responsibility and a failure of government… Time for action, Michael Gove.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: A temporary reprieve

Three months of dry easterlies ended last weekend with a westerly gale sweeping in off the Atlantic, accompanied by persistent, anxiety-quenching rain. Even our drenched pickers were relieved. Should we thank our cosmically attuned farm worker Raph and a few other rain dancers? Did a butterfly flap its wings somewhere? Whatever the cause, it feels like balance and benevolence have temporarily been restored; even the cooing of our pigeons sounds pleased.

The rain was patchy and localised, but we got lucky, with 44mm showing in the rain gauge. The water disappeared without trace, sucked down into the thirsty ground with no run-off. Within two days the surface looked almost as parched as before – but, critically, digging shows that the moisture from the surface soaked in to meet the moisture at depth. The effect on our plants’ turgidity, leaf colour and growth was almost instant. Most fields could suck up another 3-4 inches of rain before any soaked away to the subsoil or ran off to water courses.

The rain has saved many crops, giving them time to develop the root systems that will find moisture at depth. We have now finished planting the leeks, cabbage, kale, cauliflower and broccoli that will provide most of the greens in your boxes through autumn and winter. The more demanding summer crops will be okay for a fortnight, but once they have a full canopy of leaves, potatoes will draw an inch or more of water from the soil each week… We are not yet out of trouble. For now, it is a pleasure to walk the fields and see crops growing without stress, in ideal conditions. The gale accompanying the rain damaged delicate crops like courgettes and pumpkins, and lodged (bent over) some sweetcorn, but this was a small price to pay for the water.

It is too soon to count the cost of the drought. The bolted lettuces, yellowing spinach, stunted cabbage, failed peas and so on have put us £200,000 behind budget. More rain within a fortnight and a favourable autumn could see us catch up on the veg, but many dairy farmers have already had to feed a good part of their winter forage rations to their cows. With luck we will have a long back end (autumn stretching into early winter), allowing cows to stay out grazing fresh grass for longer, and forage to be preserved.

Guy Singh-Watson

 

Guy’s news: Is this how it starts?

Ever hotter, ever drier, with empty reservoirs and no sign of respite. ‘Stay calm,’ says John, our serene farm manager – but I feel myself becoming increasingly unhinged in the heat. It feels personal. Tantalising but ever-receding suggestions of thunder are torture as we watch stressed lettuces run to seed for lack of water and normally robust cabbages retreat into themselves, attempting to hang on to what they have. Those who have seen Gérard Depardieu as the tax inspector turned farmer in Jean de Florette will have the picture: he loses his mind while his farm collapses around him for lack of water. Gérard’s drought turns out to be caused by nothing more than a covered spring, maliciously blocked by his covetous neighbours. I am not sure our problem is so simple.

The sun, normally welcome, becomes a cruel and unforgiving enemy when water is short. Is the driest and hottest summer since 1976 mere weather, or anthropogenic climate change? Our primitive ancestors might question whether they had buried enough corn dollies or worshipped the right deity. If all else failed, they might sacrifice a goat. Of course, we know better; we are so clever and enlightened that we burnt millions of years’ worth of fossil fuels in one generation, dashing for growth. Is this an early manifestation of the predicted resulting climate change? Perhaps it is too soon to say with authority – but by the time we have that authority, it will be too late; the melting regions of permafrost will be emitting methane in a positive feedback loop with consequences the most accomplished climate scientists can only guess at.

So, is this how it starts? Is this how it will be when our self-regulating natural planet, that has looked after us and tolerated (even compensated for) our abuses, can no longer take the punches? As the crops wilt and the ground cracks, I must remind myself that no one here will die; this is a matter of convenience and bank balances. But it is also a window into the world where food security and seasonal rains are already matters of life and death for subsistence farmers. There will be no spring to unearth; corn dollies will not help. For those farmers and for ourselves, we must learn to share more and live with less. It is our appetite for cheap and convenient energy, not goats, that we must sacrifice.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Smiling in the face of calamity

The reservoirs are all but empty. We have kept back just enough to water our five acres of tunnels; the outdoor crops will have to fend for themselves. Without rain, the shallow-rooting, quick-growing and water-demanding crops like lettuce, spinach and rocket will start suffering within a week and be unmarketable in two. Prospects for broccoli and potatoes aren’t much better.

Beyond the reach of irrigation pipes, we are planting out leeks, cabbages, kales and cauliflowers; the crops that will keep your boxes full over the winter. In most cases the land was ploughed and a seed bed made while still moist in May; this effectively seals the moisture in and conserves it until planting. We plant as deeply and as firmly as possible, and most of the plants are getting their roots out and down into the moisture before the sun sucks the life out of them. Though we will probably invest in more winter fill reservoirs, the cheapest way to provide water is to prepare a ‘stale’ seed bed (with a loose, fine top layer that prevents capillary action from drawing water to the surface) early in the year; this also helps with weed control. However, leaving bare seed beds for extended periods while we wait to plant brings the risk of catastrophic soil loss from erosion in heavy rain. Damned if you plough early, damned if you plough late.

In contrast, tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, sweetcorn and basil are lapping up the heat; in fact, we face a basil glut, so this is the time make pesto (£4.25 for 200g). Our cardoons, long since too tough to eat, are now coming into flower; the bees love them, but I reckon they can spare a few. You can order one for £1/stem, with 90p going to Send a Cow. They look and smell fantastic.

Despite the impending disaster, everyone seems remarkably calm, relaxed and even happy. Like our World Cup team, there is a feeling that we have done our best and what will be, will be. It could be the sunshine or the move to employee ownership; it could be that we have our best team ever and increasingly are leaving them to make their own decisions. Whatever the reason, we are making the most of our chances, which is all we can do in a year like this. In an act of defiant optimism, we are still sowing and planting salads; there seems to be some hope of a change in the weather towards the end of the month.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Praying for thunder

Diving into the last swimmable reservoir is getting perilous. Carp are digging into the mud in those already empty. Two thirds of our irrigation water is gone, leaving only enough to water our vulnerable crops for another two weeks; had we not invested in sealing a leaking reservoir last year, we would already be dry. Now, with high pressure anchored over the Atlantic, only thunder can help us.

Our agronomist’s report makes grim reading: carrots, cabbages, lettuce, chard, potatoes, leeks… all are delayed or reduced in yield, with quality problems anticipated for what remains. The reasons are always ‘delayed planting due to the wet spring’ followed by ‘lack of water’. To give some sort of return to our co-op farmers and keep the boxes full, it is likely that we will need to be more flexible on specifications where eating quality is not significantly impaired. It is often better to harvest a struggling lettuce, cabbage or head of broccoli at a lower weight, than to leave it another week to limp on, gaining a few grams but becoming yellow, tough and bitter with dehydration.

We have had some nervous summers before – but the crunch has never come so early. We still have the right to draw water from a tributary of the River Dart under an abstraction license my father took out in the 1960s, but it would leave the stream bed virtually dry, and still not be enough to satisfy the thirst. Slate, our underlying rock, is relatively impervious, so boreholes do not work unless you are very lucky. The only commercially viable option (and the most environmentally favourable) is to build clay-lined winter fill reservoirs wherever there is a valley bottom wide enough. To invest in an asset that is used so unpredictably (on average every 30 years) is a bold move, but perhaps climate change is shifting the odds – and at least we will have somewhere to swim.

It isn’t all doom. The heat and sun-loving tomatoes are early and looking great. Cucumbers are massively ahead of schedule with heavy yields, and sweetcorn and pumpkins are also looking good. We have had a few thundery showers this week, amounting to a very welcome inch of water; enough to germinate the swedes and allow recently planted leeks, cabbages and caulis to get their roots down into the moisture reserves below. Now we’re just praying for more.

Guy Singh-Watson