Category Archives: Guy’s newsletter

Guy’s news: Time to emerge from the gloom?

A few tantalising breaks in the clouds reveal a sun growing in strength, but with sodden ground nothing has been planted to soak up the rays. To add to our gloom, areas of purple sprouting broccoli are withering, stunted and yellow. Digging up a few plants reveals roots rotting in airless, water-logged soil.

We homo sapiens are incredibly versatile. Given peace, stability and reasonable governance, we manage to grow food in the most extreme circumstances: in deserts, on the sides of mountains, and in the Arctic Circle. I am confident we can adapt to a bit of rain. However, successful agronomy is always based on accumulated experience, and the assumption that the future will be similar to the past. A longer time frame and more objectivity than I can muster are needed to assess whether unusual weather should be attributed to climate change, but perhaps it is time to rethink some of our farming practices.

Based on the last ten years, the biggest challenge we face (in the west at least) is extended periods of heavy rainfall, with consequent problems of water-logging, the inability to plough, plant and weed in critical periods, soil being lost or leached of nutrients, and difficulties in harvesting. Most modern horticultural trends exacerbate the problem: ever larger machines and fields, intensification to squeeze more crops from the same area, and the abandoning of crop rotations which give soil a chance to recover under grass. This ‘progress’ isn’t inevitable; better doesn’t have to mean bigger and more. There are advances in GPS guidance, battery technology, robotics and our understanding of ecology and soil health that could all make a very different type of farming possible.

We are experimenting with permanent raised beds, alley and mixed cropping amongst perennials, low ground-pressure vehicles, and small areas of crops surrounded by buffers of grass. All have the potential to be more resilient, less damaging and even, one day, more profitable than prevailing methods; but inspiring a wider agricultural mindshift will need more investment in machinery and knowledge than a few maverick gardeners and farmers can offer. For now, the sun is beginning to shine. Perhaps by the time this is read we will have started planting.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Still waiting… and starting to worry

I know it’s getting repetitive, but it’s also getting serious; we are still waiting for the wet weather to give us a break longer than 36 hours, to allow tractors to travel and planting to begin. Brassicas (cabbages, cauliflowers and the like) can wait weeks in the yard, with leaves going yellow and roots brown, and still grow well when finally planted. But lettuces grow tall in the tray, become vulnerable to damage and disease, and, beyond a certain point, will never really recover. Then there is the added problem of six weeks’ plants being concertinaed into a few days of planting, which will inevitably result in gluts come harvest time.

In my frustration, I took an old plough out last week during a brief dry spell. My mission was to plough a small, steep but well-drained slope and plant a spinney of beech before the buds burst on the saplings. For all my efforts, it was simply too wet; the soil was soon clinging to the mouldboards (curved blades of the plough), resulting in poor inversion and frequent blockages. I could imagine John Scott, who taught me to plough as a teenager, berating me that I had “left holes big enough to bury pigs in”. Despite my shame, my wife Geetie and I planted the 500 trees; their roots will soon emerge to support them. The beech will be inter-planted with artichokes, which we will feast on until the trees grow too tall and the ground beneath too shady. At that point I will scatter wild garlic seeds from nearby woods, which will flourish in the shade. It is my own version of agroforestry. Thank you to the person who sent in an oak to replace the fallen one – we have planted it at the corner of the new wood.

April is peak wild garlic season. It will make one or two appearances in most boxes, and be available to order through to early May. If foraging for it yourself, be careful to avoid the toxic Lords-and-Ladies and Dog’s Mercury which share the same habitat. We have an experienced team of five in the woods, and another five in the barn painstakingly sorting out any toxic leaves the pickers miss. Wild garlic leaves, or ramsons as they are known in Devon, are great in omelettes, risottos or pastas. Or simply whizz with fresh lemon, olive oil and salt, for a pistou that will lift the dullest soup, stew or grilled meat – and cheer up the most frustrated farmer.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Anxiously awaiting utopia

Easter has passed without a seed going in the ground. With no sign of let up from the weather fronts sweeping in off the Atlantic, it is starting to get serious. A knot of anxiety is growing in my stomach; it could be impatience to plant, but I suspect a larger part is the momentous change just two months away.

After twelve years of research, thought and consultation, Riverford becomes 74% employee-owned on the 8th June (with me holding onto 26%). It all seemed so straightforward when I was planning my utopia, hoe in hand, with only a field of unquestioning artichokes for company. The reality involves lawyers, governance, banks, and hardest of all for me, lots of listening, questions and communication. I have no doubt that it is the right path but, as with sowing my first organic leeks, I never stopped to consider the journey.

I want so much more for Riverford, its staff, suppliers and customers than I have been able to deliver while owning it myself. Management should be about getting the most from staff while giving the most back. Yet in so many organisations, particularly in the UK, people are estimated to achieve only one to two thirds of their potential – resulting in low pay and unfulfilled staff. This is a miserable indictment of the short-term, narrow-minded management so often demanded by conventional ownership.

Too many managers are excited by the numbers and technology that offer predictable returns on investment, but understandably scared of the emotional complications and unpredictable results from investing in people. I should know; I am one of the (mostly male) managers who made it this way. But after thirty years, I am frustrated by the result and want to be part of something less wasteful of our human potential. Over the last year, as we approach employee ownership, we have taken the first steps towards more people-centric management. It will be a long, scary and exciting journey, full of learning, along an unmarked path. But if each of us at Riverford achieves three-quarters of our potential we will fly – and we hope others will follow. I find myself as excited about my involvement in this next leg of Riverford’s journey as when I sowed those first leeks.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Still waiting

For the second time this month, the snow has melted from our fields just in time for more rain. The plough, greased and ready to go, must stay in the shed, and the plants must stay in the greenhouse, or at best be moved to the yard.

We can’t put off ploughing forever; already we are clearing the last of our kales, and cabbages and leeks will soon run to seed. There is one cheering sight in the fields: Red Russian kale is having a last hurrah, telescoping upwards with a superbly tasty stem that we will pick for the 100% UK veg box this week. Looking at sales of this box – formerly known by some within Riverford as the ‘Dogma Box’ – I am delighted to see that last week they were approaching 6% of all veg box sales. This may seem modest, but it is 50% up on last year and treble the year before. I have been known to despair at the gulf between the often-professed enthusiasm for all things local and seasonal, and the contents of many proponents’ fridges, but it seems things are changing; I commend the 2000+ of you who have taken the plunge and are embracing the UK seasons. We have another month before things get really hard in the ‘Hungry Gap’ of May and June, before improving as tomatoes, cucumbers etc. start in July. If you find the 100% UK box too challenging, consider a pragmatic weekly alternation with one of the other boxes. Sometimes it’s better to bend than to break; by voting with your box choice, you are putting a welcome pressure on us to up our game and do all we can to maximise what we can grow at home.

Another homegrown treat has survived the snow to liven up all our plates: we have started foraging for wild garlic in local woods, mostly bordering the River Dart between Totnes and Dartmoor. As always, our skilled and eager-eyed pickers do their best to avoid the toxic Lords-and-Ladies and Dog’s Mercury which share the same shady habitat under mature deciduous woodland. We then sort through what we’ve picked again in the barn to give 99.999% confidence; even so, if you see any unfamiliar leaves, please discard them and let us know, preferably with an emailed photo. As an added reassurance, in the name of honour and science I have eaten small quantities of each and lived to tell the unpleasant tale.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Waiting for the plough

A pair of pigeons is edging closer on the branch outside my room. She is tolerating his wooing… from a distance. This is no weather to be starting a brood – or planting vegetables. Like the pigeons, we are in limbo, waiting for the sun to make its appearance; they could be building their nest, and we should be ploughing in readiness, but nothing is happening.

Ploughed ground usually dries faster, provided the furrows stand up and allow air into the soil; should we have taken our meagre chances and ploughed last month? Plough too soon, and the furrows will slump in heavy rain, reducing to an airless pudding which is slower than ever to dry and can go sour. The ideal is to plough far enough ahead to allow soil fungi and bacteria to start breaking down the residues of previous crops, compost and manures into soluble nutrients, but not so early that those nutrients are leached by the rain before crops can use them. Achieving such perfect timing is not so easy when grabbing whatever opportunities the weather provides.

Ploughing is a well proven, but deeply flawed, pragmatic compromise; by inverting the soil and leaving it bare, soil life is damaged and the danger of soil loss is multiplied many times. Against this, the new crop is given a weedfree start and the aeration can provide a short-term fix for soil compaction, therefore aiding root growth. The truth is, we don’t know how to grow many crops without ploughing – especially without the aid of chemical herbicides. This year, working with other members of our co-op and a research initiative called Innovative Farmers, we are experimenting with only cultivating narrow strips to plant into. The idea is to give the crop enough competitive advantage without ploughing the whole field. Like most innovation, it will almost certainly fail first time, but I hope it will provide experience to build on and be the first step towards a less compromised, more sustainable growing system. It seemed like a great and worthy idea in the calm of January; I suspect I may be cursing my enthusiasm in the heat of June.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Grey bananas & early lettuce

As the last vestiges of snow retreat into north-facing hedges, we are counting the cost brought by the tail of winter that arrived at the beginning of spring. Despite valiant efforts from our drivers, we had five lorries loaded with 30,000 items of produce stuck in the snow, plus many Riverford vans that had to abandon their rounds. Over the last few days we sorted through the returned orders, re-using hardy, unharmed veg like carrots and potatoes in this week’s boxes, and did our best to find homes for what was too ripe through local schools and charities. Bananas were the biggest casualty; they got too cold and turned an unappetising grey.

On the land, the thaw combined with heavy rain and has left our soils sodden, re-opening springs that have been dry all winter. The target dates for planting the first cabbage, lettuce, peas, broad beans and potatoes have passed, and the backlog of plants is building up in the greenhouses and hardening-off yards. With no sign of settled weather ahead, the chances of planting this month seem remote. It is frustrating not to be able to make a start, but the soil is still cold; experience has so often seen later plantings quickly catch up and often overtake those planted weeks earlier in poor conditions. We must be patient; at least it allows time to complete our winter tree planting and maintenance, though mercifully our polytunnels, which are not designed to support heavy snow accumulations, survived largely unscathed. We often lament the steepness of our land which challenges mechanisation and so adds labour cost, but it does have the virtue of draining rapidly and drying quickly; something we are glad of this year.

Meanwhile, 250 miles further south we have been planting crops in the sandy, well drained land on our French farm for two months already. We had nights of -6°C last week but, with the help of crop covers and low-level tunnels, the first lettuce will be ready for your boxes in just two weeks, thanks to the superior light quality and milder conditions. It has not been an easy year, but the growing experience of our team there has helped us to make the best of it by grabbing what weather windows we get.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Risk, consistent blandness & pineapples

Two weeks in Sri Lanka feasting morning, noon and night on the best food I have ever eaten has left me craving coconut, jackfruit, lime and curry leaf, but not their pineapples. Fresh aromatic leaves, fruit, vegetables and spices with minimal meat, a little dried fish and a marked absence of processed ingredients, prepared in the simplest of kitchens with honesty and confidence was available on every street, village and market.

Within hours of returning home I was on the farm in search of greenery to detox from my airline food; there was not much to be had on account of the cold and I found myself embroiled in a debate about pineapples instead. Grown in Togo, ours were better than any I had eaten on holiday but tragically the sweetest and most juicy were being rejected. One in four had small areas of internal browning as they reached their peak of sweetness and, after a rash of complaints, we were playing safe; hopefully most will go to food charities or be eaten by staff rather than by the cows. The tragedy of such waste is compounded by memories of visiting the growers and witnessing the human effort that went into nurturing the fruit; most have been grown using only mattocks and carried a kilometre or more from small remote fields to the nearest road, in the first stage of their long and tortuous journey to your door. Added frustration comes from knowing that those growers would view a such light browning as little more than a sign of ripeness.

If we accept that “the customer is always right” and assess satisfaction by measuring complaints we will, paradoxically, manage ourselves into a situation where we sell consistent but mildly disappointing fruit while accepting ludicrous waste; just like most supermarkets. We must be brave enough to accept occasional complaints and I would ask you, our customers, not to give up on us at the first over-ripe piece of fruit. We must both trust, forgive and take a little risk, in order to avoid a life of predictable blandness.

Outside the ground is hard as iron and snow is falling on snow. Our intrepid drivers will do their best but, in anticipation of logistical carnage, I apologise to those whose boxes arrived late or not at all.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Good news for birds, bees – and organic farmers

Guy is on holiday this week, hopefully enjoying better weather than we are. In his absence, we are using his space to share the heartening results from the 2018 Soil Association Organic Market Report. In fields and shops alike, the organic sector is seeing its sixth year of strong growth. The amount of UK farmland going organic has increased by 22% since 2016, and organic food sales are at an all-time high, growing by 6% (against non-organic sales growth of just 2%).

This is good news for us at Riverford, of course, but also for the planet. Organic farming is about working with nature, not against it. This principle guides all sorts of choices: from never using artificial pesticides and fertilisers, to maintaining wide field margins, mature hedgerows, reservoirs and healthy soil. We leave our hedgerows uncut between March and August so the local wildlife
can breed in peace. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it: new Soil Association research shows that plant, insect and bird life is typically 50% more abundant on organic farms, which can be home to 30% more species.

Organic certification also demands the highest level of animal welfare – setting much higher standards than, for example, free range. Animals have real freedom to roam on open pasture, enjoy a rich natural diet, and are reared without the routine use of drugs, antibiotics or wormers. Riverford’s meat all comes from small-scale West Country farmers we know and trust. Our fresh milk for customers in the South comes from the Riverford Dairy (owned by Guy’s brother and sister), and from the Tweddle family’s Acorn Dairy for customers in the North and East. The cows do a good job of making sure nothing goes to waste here in Devon… they will cheerfully devour any grade-out veg that isn’t good enough for human plates. Broccoli is their favourite!

30 years ago, when Guy first started growing veg in one field of his family’s farm, there was little evidence to support organic methods. In Guy’s own words, he chose organic ‘largely because it just felt right’. Since then, we’ve stuck by organic through thick and thin, supported by you, our customers. It’s good to see this growth, and to know that organic is beginning to feel right to a new generation of farmers and shoppers. Long may it continue.

Guy’s news: Packaging; an apology for drifting

As we prepare for employee ownership I’m writing an ethos statement to be included in the documentation. “Only dead fish go with the flow” made it in there and seems to embody our independent spirit. However staff pointed out that going with the flow can conserve energy for more important battles, that it can be soothing to drift along with others, and sometimes everyone else is right.
On reflection the principle should be knowing when to drift, and when to swim.

In 2007 we did some swimming. A collaboration with Exeter University informed an environmental policy which challenged many popular, intuitive views of the time. We abandoned our tentative move towards biofuels, stopped using biodegradable plastic bags, stopped using UK heated glass houses and argued that plastic often has a lower carbon footprint than paper. Plastic marine pollution was not a widely recognised issue at the time; our assumption was that climate change was the main challenge facing our planet.

Through recessions, an IT crisis, and the collapse and recovery of the organic market, we’ve swum in other areas but drifted on packaging. In our defence, we encouraged you to return packaging for us to sort, reuse or recycle, but the problem is that we’ve drifted into using too much packaging in the first place. There’s always a reason: reducing wilting and waste, separating allergens,
maintaining temperature requirements, carrying vital labels, and occasionally, because it makes our lives and systems easier. But we’ve drifted too far and need to challenge those pressures. That should have come from me but I am ashamed to say it has come from feedback from you, our customers.

Please be assured that we have woken up; all packaging is being critically challenged. We have already moved from plastic to biodegradable nets made from wood and you will see other changes in coming weeks. We’re not going to jump into degradable plastics, or from plastic to paper, without investing in substantial research first. So this is an apology for not living up to the expectations we’ve courted and a promise that we’ve heard you and will change as quickly as we can. While we may be way ahead of most retailers in this area, we have drifted too long.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Planning & long-term relationships

Leafing through the glossy pages of seed catalogues can be a dangerous pastime during short, cold winter days. We know our carrots will be more wrinkled and there will be few onions with such flawless skin, but in a warm kitchen, disbelief can be suspended and dangerous dreams of vegetable perfection can take root. Thankfully, the days when a year’s cropping was based on my emotional state when ordering the seeds are long past; today planning is rational and meticulous. The ideal contents of every veg box from May ‘18 to April ‘19 were decided by September ‘17; by November we’d agreed which fellow farmers will grow what and agreed prices, leaving January to order seeds and plants and plan our own farm cropping. It can be two years before some crops end up in your boxes; last minute adjustments may be needed as crops fail or out-yield, or come early or late, but for the most part it works. Waste is minimal, and (correct me if I am wrong) the variety and balance in your boxes is infinitely better than in the dark ages of my whims.

My greatest pride in Riverford stems from breaking the industry norms of short-term, competitive relationships and almost ritualistic abuse of growers by supermarket and wholesaler buyers who have little knowledge (and even less interest) in flavour or the realities of farming. The waste, brutality and frustration I experienced on the wrong side of those negotiations made me determined to find a better way of working with our own growers. There is usually more to be gained by cooperation and long-term, mutually beneficial relationships than brutal competition for short-term contracts; it all depends on building and valuing mutual trust. We also have a preference for smaller family farms with a heartfelt commitment to organic farming, over large, commercially-motivated growers who keep a foot in both organic and conventional camps and move whichever way the wind blows. Maintaining relationships with growers, whether in Devon, Yorkshire, Spain or Togo, often over 10 or even 20 years, is not always the cheapest way of buying, but it does produce the best veg. Respect for humanity and the environment are included free.

Read about our recent trip to visit our Spanish growers here.