Category Archives: Guy’s newsletter

Guy’s news: Compost; evangelism from a new convert

Composting is a near religious experience for many organic growers; a matter of faith rather than reason. Liking plain muck and lacking the required faith, for years I was irritated by the smug assurance of those with an elevated relationship with their organic matter. In retrospect, I suspect my resistance was more irrational than their faith.

So why now, in my 57th year, have I seen the light? Firstly, given the environmental impact of livestock, we need a more sustainable source of fertility than muck. Secondly, I met a man who sent ten tonnes of cooked crab waste, packed with valuable nutrients, to landfill every week at huge cost to him and the environment, then another bloke in the pub looking for a home for thousands of tonnes of wood chip; the perfect high carbon material to mix with the nitrogen-rich crab. Thirdly, our agnostic and practical farm team attest to compost soil and its crop improving properties. Fourthly, I met Milan, a highly practical Bulgarian organic grower and compost expert who, with alchemist wizardry, seems to be able to make compost from almost anything given a thermometer and loader. Milan brewed up a little crab, wood chip and spent sheep wool insulation and tried some of the resulting compost on my cardoons and artichokes; they love it. So, I have seen the errors of my youth and come inside. Milan tells me we have only just started.

It is shocking how much compostable material is wasted at such cost to our environment: food waste, sewage sludge, whey, wood chip, hedge trimmings, seafood waste, abattoir waste. The reasons are: partly the unintended consequences of well-meaning environmental and health legislation; partly the chronic failing of businesses and our market economy to solve complex longterm problems involving bulky, perishable, highly variable and locally specific raw materials; and partly that the alternatives are just too cheap. Time is running out; we cannot afford 100% safety when environmental destruction is 95% certain if we continue on our current path. We just have to find the will and the way to create solutions, even if they cost businesses the flexible luxury of not planning full life cycles, and even if they carry some risk and are occasionally smelly.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Peering out from the cave at robots

Our young and techy IT team are excited about us starting to farm with drones and robots. The possibilities are exciting, but the intricate electrical stuff inside needs a pristine environment that’s free of damp and dust, so our galedriven, mud-encrusted leek pickers are safe for a while. Logistics and delivery are another matter; drones, driverless vehicles and predictive algorithms that know what you are going to order before you do are pushing the boundaries of possibility at an incredible rate. My guess is that there will be unforeseen problems and progress will not be as fast as the spods predict, but even a clod-hopping, cardoon-wielding dinosaur like me cannot deny that it is coming.

With online sales in western Europe alone growing at 15% a year, investors are in a spin, pouring money into tech enabled start-ups, especially food home delivery. The huge majority lose money at an eye-watering rate, often spending several times their sales on marketing and IT in a dash for growth. Most will fail, but the allure for investors is the possibility of finding the next Google, Facebook or Amazon. The underlying assumption is that the demand for choice and convenience is insatiable, and that the clicking customer is always right, however whimsical and fleeting their desires or planet-draining it is to fulfil them. As an online food retailer we have found ourselves at the centre of a hurricane; it can be hard to keep your feet on the ground and one might easily forget about the potatoes. All that technology, choice and eager investment cash working itself into a furious maelstrom in search of growth makes me want to retreat into a cave with a bone. After 30 years, I remain doggedly resistant to the mantra that the customer is always right; there are just too many things for them to be right about, and no-one can hold that much information.

I love our tech team’s tigerish enthusiasm – without them we would be getting hungry in a cave – but I particularly like that they walk. I find them all over the farm, talking earnestly about I have no idea what. I can’t help thinking their proximity to the potatoes gives us a better chance of using technology than being used by it. If they do end up building a robot to pull up leeks, they will just have to retrain our harvesters.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Improving farmers’ lives where it counts

18 years ago, after 12 years as an organic grower, I could take no more taunts of, “It’s all very well for the wealthy west, but organic farming will never feed the world”. I had a lurking suspicion they might be right, so I took a sabbatical in sub-Saharan Africa, where good farming is a matter of life and death rather than affluent preference.

I spent my final two weeks staying with Timothy Njakasi in southern Uganda. Timothy had worked at Riverford as part of his training in sustainable agriculture. My heart lifted as he showed me the most inspiring farming I had ever seen; all small scale and always diverse with mixtures of livestock, bananas, coffee, cocoa, trees, vegetables, keyhole gardens and more, all in an intimate mixture that seemed chaotic but was anything but. On the face of it these farms bore more resemblance to the surrounding forest than to any agriculture I had seen; what seemed disordered was actually shaped by levels of ecological knowledge unknown to farmers in the developed world, and yet these smallholdings were many times more productive than neighbouring monocultures. Best of all, the most skilled farmers appeared to be happy, relaxed and prosperous. It was obvious I had more to learn than to teach, so we funded Timothy to turn his farm into the Kasenge Riverford Organic Centre, which has trained thousands in these techniques over the last 15 years.

The difference between the average and the best farming I saw was huge, as was the difference between the most and least effective interventions by charities. Timothy introduced us to Send a Cow, who embraced the same techniques on a larger scale but who remain grounded, patiently persistent and community based in their approach, which is always a hand up rather than a hand out. Most impressively they’re unbelievably effective at addressing the social (largely gender) issues which too often block constructive change; 85% of Send a Cow farmers are women. To date, you’ve helped us raise over £208k for the charity. This winter every £1 donated until 31st December for their Mother and Child appeal will be matched by UK Government. Donate by adding a £1 donation to your order.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Packaging; trying to be less bad

In 2005 we spent two years working with Exeter University looking at Riverford’s environmental footprint; in keeping with the thinking of the time we focused on climate change. The conclusions (many of which were counterintuitive) were published, none have been challenged and, though it is time for a review, they remain true today. Transport creates the biggest impact, but packaging is a significant, if confusing issue. The key findings include:

• Recycling does not make packaging OK, just marginally less bad. Never forget the mantra reduce, re-use, recycle in that order. With China’s recent threat to effectively ban the import of plastic waste, the packaging and recycling industry will need to change very quickly. We now have a team, headed by Robyn, who are devoted to questioning every bit of our packaging. As a result, we are confident you will see big reductions in the next year, particularly of plastic.

• Our cardboard veg boxes, despite being made from 100% recycled materials, being re-used several times and being recyclable, still contribute four times the CO2 footprint of all the plastic we use, and almost as much as our lorries. The most effective thing you can do to reduce the environmental impact of your veg is still to leave the box out for collection. I hope that we will one day move to a deposit-carrying, reusable tray that will do hundreds of trips; a substantial obstacle is customer acceptance of plastic, while the £3m cost is another.

• Perhaps most contentiously, on CO2 emissions alone, plastic bags are normally better for the environment than paper. Much as most of us loathe plastic, it should not be condemned out of hand as a lot of its impact depends on how it is disposed of. If your local authority does not recycle plastic bags, please leave ours in your folded-down veg box and we will sort and recycle.

Climate change is not everything; society has underestimated plastic as a source of marine pollution and must work harder to reduce its use, though I still question moving to paper. For onion netting we just switched from plastic to a net made from sustainably managed beech wood; read Robyn’s blog about it online. We intend for this to be just the beginning of a change in the tide.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: ‘Puddling’ & unpredictable water

Organic veg growers obsess over how to build and preserve an open, stable soil structure with lots of pores to allow free passage of water and air. This creates the perfect environment for root growth and an ideal habitat for the invertebrates, fungi and bacteria that keep our crops fed and healthy. The better the structure, the more resilient it is to damage from machinery, livestock and pickers’ feet. However, this week our mission is to destroy soil structure; we are smashing up those delicate aggregates of clay, silt and organic matter through excessive wetting and compacting with swing shovels, bulldozers, rollers and tractors, reducing that precious structure to something as homogenous and airless as potter’s clay. When we are finished, no terrestrial plant will thrive there for 100 years; which is fine, because we are lining a leaking reservoir.

In the words of the Mercedes-driving, one legged, hazel-stick-twitching water diviner employed 20 years ago to locate a bore hole on the farm, “Water moves in strange and unpredictable ways in these parts.” I can’t remember if he got paid, but his prophecy that, “There is a river running at 150 feet,” proved unreliable; we gave up at 300 feet and have since relied on winter fill reservoirs for our irrigation water rather than bore holes. The Stetson-wearing Cornishman who built this reservoir 15 years ago found our water no more predictable in its movement; he finally gave in after burning thousands of litres of diesel, and left us with a giant leaking hole in the ground. Back in June when we got nervous about running out of water, we promised ourselves we would fix that leak. The plan is now to line the reservoir with 200mm of ‘puddled’ clay, in much the same way as our canals were built 250 years ago. Failing this, we will leave it to the tadpoles, and call it a nature reserve.

Meanwhile, last week’s prediction of a sodden November looks unfounded; the sun emerged as my fingers left the keyboard and has stayed with us since. We are busy harvesting carrots in good conditions and praying the rains hold off long enough to allow lifting of the last potatoes. Another dry week and it will be tempting to sow the winter broad beans, Guy Fawkes being the target date.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news – Don’t be dull; get bitter

The tree leaves are mostly gone, the ground is sodden and the sky heavy, but it is still warm. I find myself impatient for winter. November brings a dull light which keeps crops alive but without vigour, like the last of the fat, dozy flies lingering in the warmth inside my window; the game is definitely over, but death hasn’t quite arrived. Over the years, I have become less convinced of the wisdom of stretching the seasons of summer crops, particularly at the back end. A lot of effort goes into producing low yields which lack vigour, frequently succumb to pest and disease, and often disappoint in the kitchen. Better to let summer go; bring on the first frost, and roasts and stews aplenty.

Radicchio is the culinary highlight in a dull month; so handsome in scarlet and white, with a bitter brightness that restores my vigour. The last of the lettuces are usually a disappointment as light levels drop, but radicchio is from different stock. Descended from dandelions, which thrive in the partial shade of broken deciduous woodland, the dim, damp November weather only adds to its sweetness and succulence. The Italians have many different types of radicchio, with regional recipes to match, and will assert with total conviction that theirs is the only one worth eating. We grow Treviso (shaped like a Cos lettuce), and the more solid and winter hardy Chioggia (shaped like a cannonball). Enjoy them in salads (great with blue cheese, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and pears), in risotto (bizarrely with red wine), grilled, or with chilli, garlic and cream over pasta.

We have had a great sunflower crop in the Vendée. One day we will make oil, but this year we are again offering them as bird feeders. Hung in your garden, they will provide hours of entertainment for you and your birds. £1.95 for two.

I am buoyed by the growing acceptance of radicchio, but suspect my enthusiasm for bitter has gone too far with cardoons; seldom have I had more complaints than when we put them in the boxes last year. But they are at their most succulent now, and I can’t quite bring myself to plough them in. So, in one last throw, I am offering them totally free. All you have to do is order (and cook; my gratin recipe is included). Bitter lovers, enjoy… the rest of you can stick to your dull sweetness.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Freaks from the wet west

Last week ex-hurricane Ophelia ripped the plastic from two of our older polytunnels, trashed the last of our delicate outdoor salads and dropped some unwelcome rain, but we are not complaining; 2017 has been a kind year for growers so far. A warm, if dull, ‘back end’ allowed summer crops to catch up and finish well, and a damp mid and late summer helped to establish the leeks, cabbage, kale and cauliflower that will be our staples for the next six months. But it’s a long way to spring; if anything, we would like temperatures to drop and to slow crops which are now getting a little ahead of themselves.

There have been some brief dry periods; enough to allow an (albeit difficult) grain harvest, but not enough for harvesting roots, especially on heavier land. We still have 30 acres of potatoes and almost all our carrots in the ground. Most non-organic root crops are grown on light sandy soils which drain quickly after rain so are easier to work, usually in the east of England where rainfall is about half that in the west. By contrast, organic, especially smaller scale production, tends to be concentrated in the wetter west and on heavier clay soils. The west bit is partly a hangover from bearded hippy wannabe organic farmers heading for the hills in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and partly because there is more muck out west, where the cows live. Meanwhile, the prevalence of clay soils on organic farms is partly because it hangs on to fertility well, and because those hippies rejecting urban commercialism didn’t know better. In contrast, the sandy soils loved by chemical-wedded commercial growers rapidly lose soluble nutrients in heavy rain. That’s OK if you can tip some more out of a bag of artificial fertiliser (though river life may disagree); more problematic if you have to wait for the soil fungi and bacteria to replace it at a natural rate.

But this is not a moan; I love the west, the wet and our soil and I’m grateful for the muck. I am also convinced that a balanced soil with enough clay or silt grows better-tasting veg than any sand, though this doesn’t concern most growers. Our ‘roots team’ attended a carrot variety trial last week; among hundreds of farmers, they alone tasted the carrots as part of their assessment. They said they felt like freaks from the west.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Cheap food, dignity & Victorian working practices

Our Polish worker Martin arrived 20 years ago with a tent and a guitar. He came back the following summer with some friends, and the farm has become increasingly dependent on eastern European workers ever since. I am frequently asked how we will cope post-Brexit if there are no new migrants; the answer is it will be tough, but not impossible. There will be lots of restructuring in food and farming, bringing opportunities for new entrants and smaller, more human-scale businesses; something I welcome. The relentless march to scale, whether on fruit farms or in poultry slaughterhouses, has been facilitated by the availability of compliant ‘operatives’ who don’t question or complain and are therefore deemed to be happy. They are not; they have the same human needs for decent housing, dignity and respect as the rest of us, but simply have fewer options. Cheap food has too often come at the cost of a return to Victorian working practices. There are exceptions, but it has been too easy to be a bad employer in an industry I sometimes feel ashamed to be part of.

Today non-UK staff, mostly Romanian, Polish, Lithuanian and Slovakian, make up around 35% of our staff at Riverford (the norm in horticulture is closer to 90%); they have made a huge contribution. Most started as seasonal field workers, and the majority return home after a season or two, while some have married, put down roots and worked their way up through the business.

Field work is unbelievably tough for those who have not experienced it. Hours in the gym will not prepare you for the endurance required; it takes at least a month for a fit and able body to become field-hardened. I used to do 60 hours a week but I couldn’t hack it now. It is a good guiding principle to avoid asking others to do what you wouldn’t do yourself. While the commonly heard farmers’ bleat that “Brits just don’t want the work” is largely true, they should spend more time asking themselves why and what they could do to make the jobs more attractive. I for one will not be lobbying for agriculture to be a “special case”; I almost relish the challenge of attracting and retaining staff in a post-Brexit UK. It will force us to do things we probably should be doing anyway.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Help. We need governance

My last boss’s parting words 30 years ago were that I was ‘unemployable, ungovernable and mad’. I thought he was pretty bonkers too; most entrepreneurs are, and they are almost always resistant to rules, structures and governance. Running your own business, when it works, is an extraordinary privilege and indulgence; for the most part you can do what you like without self-justification. 30 years of ungovernability (tempered by my fellow directors) have got me this far, but it is time to grow up. What could be worse than an aging man asserting himself with more force than wisdom?

In six months, Riverford will be employee owned and, as enshrined in our nascent ethos statement and articles, will be accountable to staff, suppliers, customers and community rather than to me (though I am not going anywhere and will maintain a minority share). We are in the process of developing a governing structure that will reflect the dispersed power and devolved decision
making. There will be an elected staff council, a fairly conventional executive board and five trustees (two external) to hold them to account. The biggest challenge will be to achieve this without getting bogged down in treacle. If we get it right, and I have every confidence we will, our staff will be more fulfilled and engaged, we will learn faster, be more innovative and, ultimately, better at what we do. We might even show that there is a better way of doing business.

To help us, we are looking for two external trustees and two non-executive directors to bring in external experience and wisdom and to accelerate our learning, while avoiding some pitfalls along the way. Our path will never be a conventional one, and I hope we will continue to challenge orthodox assumptions about business, but it is vital to understand the conventions we are challenging. To do that, we need trustees and non-execs with broad experience gained in substantial (probably bigger than us) and complex organisations, plus an appetite for both challenging and facilitating as part of a team… in short, enough force and a lot of wisdom.

Know someone who might fit the bill? You will find full job descriptions at riverford.co.uk/aboutus/jobs.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Tomatoes, twerking & work/life balance

Some welcome late sunshine has helped ripen the last of our tomatoes. Over the next two weeks we will harvest what is ripe for your boxes, pick those ‘on the turn’ to ripen in trays in a warm polytunnel, and hope that the preservers amongst you will take the rest to make green tomato chutney. Within 48 hours of the last picking, we will be planting winter salads. One day’s growth now will take a week to achieve in dark December, so it is vital to get the rocket, claytonia, mustards and chards established soon to provide salads in January.

Out in the fields, with planting and weeding finished for the year, the staff is reducing to the most winter hardy, to settle into a steady season of harvesting the frost-tolerant kale, leeks and cabbages that will be the mainstay of your boxes in the coming months. Temperatures and light levels have so far held up, with no sign of our first frost, which in Devon typically comes with the first spell of settled, clear skies in October. We have the normal late plague of aphids; lower temperatures tip the ecological balance in their favour, as they keep on sucking sap and squeezing out babies after their predators, the ladybirds, lacewings and hover fly larvae, have become dozy and lost their appetite. The last generation of cabbage whites can make a mess of autumn cabbages, and give unwelcome movement to a head of broccoli; we reckon you can tolerate a few slugs in your lettuce, but a broccoli head heaving with green caterpillars can deter even the most tolerant organic die-hard. So, we did our last spray with the bacterial toxin Baccilus thurengeniusis (Bt) last week. No pesticide is totally safe but, being naturally occurring (in this case from a soil-living bacteria), short lived, and relatively specific to Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), Bt is safer than most, and thus one of the 15 pesticides permitted under organic rules.

Meanwhile, Beyoncé joined us at our board meeting this month… there was more clucking than twerking though, as Beyoncé is our rescue chicken, incongruously named by my step-daughter Mabel. She waltzed in, pecked some toes, stole some lunch, then stretched herself out in the sun like she owned the place. I am thinking of registering her at Companies House as Director of Work/Life Balance at Riverford.

Guy Watson