Category Archives: Guy’s newsletter

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.

Guy’s news: Ode to a fallen oak

January’s first gale finally toppled one of our oldest field oaks. It has stood alone for all my 57 years, increasingly skeletal, surrounded by successive crops of grass, rhubarb, chard, cabbages and grass again. Unlike the more aggressively colonising ash tree, which stunts the growth of any crop within 20 metres, oaks allow grass and vegetables to grow right up to their branches; they seem happy to share, knowing that they will outlive their competitors. In my early years, resentful of the cropping area lost to this old oak, we probably took advantage of its good nature and ploughed too close. It pains me now to think my greed may have accelerated the tree’s end by damaging its roots.

It is said to have taken an incredible 1000 oaks to build Nelson’s HMS Victory, and 2000 plus for the larger ships of the line, leading to a severe national timber shortage by the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Riverford is rich in mature 200- to 300-year-old oak trees, probably planted in response to this shortage. Most stand alone in hedges or fields, where the absence of nearby trees gives them a stately grandeur. Their forms, though instantly recognisable for the sturdiness of their trunks and lacelike finery of their branches, are incredibly varied, shaped (like all of us) by a combination of genetics and growing conditions. Each tree is an ecosystem, home to a myriad of fungal and insect parasites, to little deleterious effect; time and evolution have resulted in tolerant, if not quite symbiotic, co-existence. They have provided grace, shade, shelter and food for centuries… and this one, now fallen, will heat my home for a year or more. My veneration of the ancient trees grows with every year I age myself. In my animist moments, I wonder how the survivors will judge our brief custodial tenure of the landscape they grace.

E-receipts
We have finally phased out the paper receipts in all areas (saving 2.6m bits of paper a year). Most of you have responded that this was long overdue. You will get an e-receipt the morning of your delivery – as long as you have an email registered with us. If we don’t have an email for you, or if you have any other questions, please call your local veg team or the team at the farm.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: The proof is in the Rt Honourable’s pudding

It is hard to understand the inhumanity or moral blindness that made 19th century slavery acceptable, but it makes the courage and mental fortitude of those who spoke out all the more admirable. Future generations will surely place our abuse of the environment they will inherit top of their own list of retrospective shame. The generous might cite our inability to find the mechanisms to act collectively in the face of pervasive global capitalism; the angry might say we were just too selfish and busy feeding our appetites to consider those who share our planet now and in years to come.

After an inexplicable two-year delay, our government published its 25 Year Environment Plan last week. I read most of its 150 pages expecting, perhaps even trying, to be cynical, but I reckon it covers most of what it should and reaches most of the right conclusions. It is surprisingly broad thinking in appreciating the hard-to-measure contributions of the environment (eg. to mental health and community) and includes as many firm commitments and as few crowd pleasers as one could hope. Of course, the challenge will be financing all that tree planting, actually getting the packaging industry to rationalise its use of plastic, and standing up to lobbying from wealthy landowners and the agro-chemical industry. The plan falls down in that it includes little meaningful commitment to reducing pesticide use and no mention of the environmental contributions of organic farming (though it advocates much of what we do). And will we support our farmers with their higher standards when faced with US trade negotiations? I do worry about the ability of liberal, market-orientated democracy to turn these aspirations into long-term legislation, rather than short-term vote-winning publicity stunts. However, it feels like an honest appreciation of the magnitude and importance of the problems we face, and is a significant step towards addressing them.

Closer to home, you can add a free sunflower birdfeeder (grown on our French farm) to your order this week. As the Defra report says, farming is about more than just feeding ourselves; I enjoy growing them, a few more birds may make it through winter, and watching their colourful acrobatics may even contribute to our mental health.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Anger, hope & Oprah

Every January, two sides of agriculture gather in Oxford; the 82-year-old, mostly male and suit-clad ‘conventional’ Oxford Farming Conference, and the nine-year-old challenger, the Oxford Real Farming Conference, with no suits, fewer landowners, and a broader spread of age, gender and ethnicity. The former is sponsored by banks, chemical manufacturers and accountants and is bashful about anything not justified by profit, while the latter is sponsored by charities, a not-for-profit bank, individuals and, this year, Riverford. It also challenges the dominance of capital over labour, specialisation over diversity, and champions labourers and the landless. The former, with its defence of the privilege of the most privileged, makes me ashamed of my profession. The latter fills me with hope and inspiration that a more equitable way of farming is within grasp; that, to echo Oprah Winfrey, “a new day is on the horizon”.

Despite driving a Land Rover and liking tweed, I have never identified with my more landed farming peers. Too often they are united by a sense of entitlement without acknowledgement of their (often inherited) privilege or the taxpayer’s money that perpetuates it, or the responsibilities that should come with those advantages. I thought I had mellowed in my middle years but the baying
bigotry of this sector of farming makes my blood boil at times. Secretary of State for Defra Michael Gove addressed both conferences and, to my surprise, stated unequivocally that the current £2.5bn payments that are essentially government subsidies for owning land are “unjust” and will stop by 2024. Perhaps more importantly the sold-out ‘real’ conference had twice as many delegates and a long waiting list, with doers outnumbering talkers. There were impassioned, deeply practical talks on everything from soil structure to weeding by laser-armed robot swarms. Inevitably a lot of time was devoted to Brexit, but the prevailing feeling was that this is the chance for a food and farming policy that represents the many over the few, the wildlife we share our countryside with, and future generations. Mercifully my anger seemed to be an anomaly drowned in a sea of hope.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Stunted growth, spotty sprouts & Sevilles

It’s wild, wet and windy out there. The sun, when we see it, barely reaches the north-facing fields even at midday. If I were a bear, I would find a warm cave and take a nap. Nothing grows in the first two weeks of January, but the stunt doesn’t last long. By the end of the month, kales, leeks and cabbages will begin to grow again as the days start to draw out and the noon sun starts to climb. On our French farm, just 200 miles south, we’ll be planting lettuces before the end of the month. I can’t explain it, but even growers in areas like southern California, where their winter is similar to our summer, avoid sowing in early January. A druid might put it down the need for solar rebirth; a bear might take it as a chance for a nap.

I once got berated as a heartless bully by a number of you for being unforgiving about the repeated failures, and consequent lack of quality, of one of our cauliflower growers (Mr M for those who remember). I ate humble pie, apologised, and we went on buying his caulis, but it made no difference in the end; he continued to hope for the best rather than weed his crop, and went bust soon after. It might have been kinder to be harder sooner; it is a hard judgement to know when to stop working with a grower. Riverford is extraordinary within our industry for the long-term relationships we have with suppliers. It’s something I feel very proud of and hope survives me, but sometimes the farm or the farmer is wrong for the crop and no amount of ethics or support will change the inevitable outcome; it just prolongs the agony and undermines other growers. If you were one of the 20% of customers who had to trim small, spotty Brussels sprouts this year, I am sorry; it was the third year of poor sprouts from this grower, but we won’t give up on him quite yet.

On a lighter note, to mark two more successful long-term relationships, the first blood oranges from Sicily and Sevilles from Ave Maria Farm in Mairena del Alcor have arrived and are as excellent as in previous years. Now is the time to make marmalade. You can even cook alongside me on our YouTube channel if you need a little guidance.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Don’t want to be like Donald

Happy new year; I hope you return to your kitchen well fed, rested and ready to embrace the challenges of the year ahead. For us, 2018 will mark 31 years of growing organic veg, 25 years of delivering them in veg boxes and, in May, the year Riverford becomes employee owned. As the clock ticks down to the big day, the challenge is not so much the legalities, the money or the governance but developing the culture, communication and maturity needed to transition from maverick-led to getting the best out of everyone.

I have met a lot of fellow founders and entrepreneurs. Like me they are typically impetuous, restless misfits who charge through life leaving havoc behind, driven on by a powerful mixture of arrogance and an insatiable need to prove themselves. Donald Trump’s election is a mark of the esteem reserved for entrepreneurs; they can achieve the extraordinary, but often at high cost to
themselves and those around them. The benefits they bring can outweigh the costs in a young, rapidly evolving organisation, but as the need for systems and consistency grows, such leaders can do more harm than good and it’s time for a more consultative approach. If I needed any added motivation to change how Riverford is led, watching the world’s most famous entrepreneur-turned-president floundering around like an overgrown baby, making his own rules while insulting or sacking anyone who challenges him, has provided it.

Maintaining Riverford’s inherent dynamism and youthful excitement while developing the skills to agree and share values and behaviours, and then work collectively towards achieving them, is not easy. Nurturing people and culture in this way makes growing organic vegetables seem easy, as at least you can be fairly sure they will be where you left them; a working culture can shift and slip
through your hands just as you are getting the measure of it. It is a journey which will last as long as Riverford does, but after taking the first tentative steps, all doubt is gone. Trump may dream of wealth and the power to crush anyone in the way; I dream of giving hope that there is another way, where we welcome diversity and help each other to be the best possible version of ourselves.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news – Family, fuzz & metamorphosis

30 years ago, I returned to my parents’ farm for Christmas as a disillusioned management consultant. I never planned to stay but, from the cocoon of family, the fuzz of Christmas and metamorphosis of New Year I emerged as a suit-free vegetable grower. I don’t recall how or why; it was a decision born in the heart, the gut, or maybe even the stars.

The following three decades of pursuing my passion with only minor compromise feels like a life of indulgence. Farming, and vegetables in particular, can be a soul-crushing master on a bad day but the rewards of doing something so tangible, so close to nature and with such daily autonomy have easily compensated. On a good day an extraordinary peace can descend, something I suspect is unknown to management consultants. It was the best decision I ever made.

A second good decision came with starting the box scheme 25 years ago. Things could, and almost certainly would, have gone so wrong if we’d stuck with selling to the supermarkets. There is not much autonomy to be found in being at the metaphorical end of a buyer’s boots, or indulging their tantrums. Without you, our loyal and sometimes forgiving customers, Riverford would have slipped below the sod long ago.

We planned to give you all some popcorn grown on our farm in France for Christmas, but a damp autumn and a plague of corn borers have determined otherwise, so I hope mere words are an acceptable substitution.

Wishing you merry feasting and a good metamorphosis, should you be seeking one.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: A perfect descent & a modest rise

It has been a near perfect descent into winter, with steadily dropping temperatures allowing cabbages, kales, leeks, cauliflowers and salads in the tunnels to adapt and harden themselves for the trials ahead. We’re now left with only the hardcore pickers for the dark months; it takes a very particular mental and physical fitness to see through a winter out in the fields. With plenty of dry
weather, there has been a welcome absence of mud so far; it is the heavy, sticky, all-pervading accumulations on hands and boots which drag down the mood and the pace in the field more than the cold or even the rain.

November, normally the first dull, grey and muddy month of winter, was uncharacteristically kind; bright, dry and even warm for the most part, in Devon at least. The last potatoes are safely in the barn, along with most carrots and beets, and the broad beans and garlic have been planted in good conditions. On the last dry day we even managed to finish lining our irrigation reservoir with clay; it is now filling ready for next summer.

Sadly, such favourable weather and a good growing year overall has not been enough to make up for less favourable changes beyond our fields and outside our control. The pound has plunged 20% against the euro since the summer of 2016, when we planned your current box contents and agreed the prices with our Spanish, French and Italian suppliers. We have weathered the storm and held our prices for over a year but the sums are no longer adding up and, with great reluctance, we must put up our prices. Boxes will rise in the new year by an average of 66p or 4%, with small rises on most of our non-box range in the new year. The UK- only box will remain the same price at £13.95.

Food inflation is currently running at 4.1%; this rise will be 14 months since our last, making our annual inflation rate 3.4%. I hope this will be deemed fair by most of you. Our boxes are still substantially cheaper than supermarkets and our box competition, and you get more in your box: the veg tastes better and, where we don’t grow it ourselves, we look after the farmers who do in a way which is unprecedented in our industry.

Guy Singh-Watson

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