Category Archives: Guy’s newsletter

Guy’s news: Why I do it organically

I admit it; I farm organically largely because it just feels right. Is that an admission of weakness? I have a science degree, my tractors use GPS, and I wholeheartedly embrace the IT revolution. But I still find that what feels right is a good aid to making good decisions. Some condemn being guided by emotion as weak-minded, muddled thinking – which it sometimes is. But over the 30 years since I started farming organically, much of what felt wrong in farming has turned out to be wrong for very tangible, logical and scientific reasons.

Decisions that don’t use what feels right as a sanity check can be just as dangerous as emotional decisions made without checking the measurable evidence. I do have concerns about selecting evidence to support a predetermined emotional bias, but what brings me back to the debate and makes me such a big mouth is frustration with the far more pervasive tendency to select evidence to support a commercial bias; something our agrochemical industry are masters of. Take the example of the ‘world’s favourite herbicide’, glyphosate. In my early days as an organic grower I really missed glyphosate, which kills every part of the weed without the need for costly, soil-damaging ploughing. Given a free rein, my own standards would have included the occasional use of glyphosate, had I not been restrained by organic rules. But I would have been wrong. I am retrospectively grateful for what seemed like an illogical, perhaps emotionally-driven restraint at the time. There is now strong evidence that glyphosate is safe neither for users nor for the environment, and debate rages in Europe over whether it should be banned.

History has told this story again and again – so-called ‘safe’ pesticides are later banned. To be organic sometimes feels extreme, even provocative to chemical-using neighbouring farmers. Yet I am confident that time will reveal the ‘extremists’ are not the organic farmers, but those who use mindbogglingly toxic chemicals with such casual abandon; that science will justify those who embraced ecology, rather than those who exploited incomplete knowledge of how to disrupt life without the humility to appreciate the risks.

For those with the time and interest, please see riverford.co.uk/pesticides-you-decide-glyphosate for an extended version with references.

Guy’s news: Northerly winds, love & Wendell Berry

The new growing year has started with a blissfully dry and bright spring and no major gales, frosts or pestilence. Night time temperatures have been low with a few frosts, but nothing damaging. Most crops were planted into perfect seedbeds and are doing well; a few are even ahead of schedule, helped by super-light (just 17g/m2) fleece crop covers which retain moisture and keep off the recently prevalent northerly winds. The swallows have only just arrived, a month later than last year; presumably delayed by those dry winds.

With so little to moan about, let me instead recommend those with time to listen to an exceptionally good Start the Week on BBC Radio 4, titled Wendell Berry: The Natural World. Andrew Marr interviews the delightfully drawling 82 year old poet and Kentucky farmer, along with the environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth and economist Kate Raworth. The discussion was marked by a refreshing humility and refusal to bow down to the “grown up” notion, prevalent in economics, politics and neo environmentalism, that the world can only be measured in, and be guided by, hard numbers. Above all there was an acknowledgement of love; if we can’t admit to loving our surroundings, whether people, nature or food, how can we care for them? Love, often written off as a childish, romantic or unaffordable emotion, actually provides a more powerful motive to care for what we value than the fiscal incentives favoured by economists and politicians. Despite Berry reading perhaps one of the most depressing poems ever written (which he quickly and endearingly acknowledges), I urge you to listen. I suspect as a society we need a few numbers to check our more outlandish emotions, but I long for a world shaped by love over one which denigrates the unmeasurable, and will fight for it unashamedly in the boardroom, in my fields and in this newsletter until my dying breath.

Guy’s news: I just couldn’t eat it all myself

When I started packing veg boxes on a cow shed floor in 1993, my assumption was that our customers would be (or at least should be) just like me; same chaotic cooking style, same approach to life, with an equally messy kitchen and the same hungry family to feed. Such egocentric lack of appreciation of household diversity and contempt for the marketing process was a flaw from the start, but seemed to serve us remarkably well for many years. When I finally learned how most people cook I couldn’t (and still can’t) believe how little veg they ate, so, as a committed veg nerd it became my mission to spread the word. As the legendary Welsh drug dealer ‘Mr Nice’ reputedly said in court, “I never meant to sell the stuff; I just couldn’t smoke it all myself ”.

25 years on my household has shrunk, as has (mercifully) my appetite and ego. I still think most of you should eat more veg, ideally stuff that we have grown, but I now fully see the virtue in listening to you and meeting you halfway. I hope we will always be unashamedly opinionated in our veg enthusiasm and try hard to nudge our customers towards veg-centric, seasonal eating, but how we do that needs to be better informed to achieve the greatest impact. As such we need your guidance on how many cauliflowers we should send you in a winter; how many aphids are acceptable per lettuce; whether we should offer flexibility in delivery days; and if it is fairer to charge for delivery and drop the minimum spend. Our plan is to recruit a panel of customers who are happy to participate in forums and polls on such topics. You can join in as much or as little as you like, so if you might be interested please contact the delightful Polly via research@riverford.co.uk.

Many people claim to eat seasonally but so few actually do it; we have twice before had a ‘UK-only’ box and twice dropped it when uptake failed to reach 1%. Last autumn we tried again and maybe we are getting better at it, as sales topped 3% this time, so we are much encouraged. As we enter the hungry gap we cannot muster eight UK items with any degree of rotation so we are suspending it for a few weeks; rest assured it will be back in June and we will be nudging all of you to try it.

Guy’s news: Why I don’t trust the regulation of pesticides

According to the gov.uk website “On the best science available, no harm will come to people who consume an amount of pesticide that is below the safety limits for that pesticide”. Yet 147 pesticides I was assured were safe in the 1970s, based on the “best science available” at the time, have subsequently been banned, as risks to users, the environment or the public have emerged. Why has the regulatory approach repeatedly underestimated risk from pesticides?

The “cocktail effect” might explain some of the failures. Assessments almost always look at toxins in isolation, despite the fact that synergistic or “cocktail effects” (whereby two toxins can create effects together greater than the sum of their individual toxicities), were first proven in the 1960s and are now well established. With two thirds of fruit and veg containing detectable pesticide residues, and with so many chemical toxins in our environment, the possible combinations are almost infinite, making realistic assessment impractical.

A second possible reason for science getting it wrong is the assumption that the dose determines the poison. Hormones don’t work in this way; their action, through time and site specificity, is much more subtle. Many pesticides are known endocrine (hormone system) disruptors, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find unexpected effects at minute doses, often below those considered “safe”.

It’s easy to design an experiment to determine whether a chemical kills or damages a rat (and by extrapolation poses danger to humans) if the effect is quick, short-lived and in isolation. If the effect is slow, things get harder. If it is complicated by interactions with other chemicals, environmental factors or disease, things get progressively more complex until convincing results become
practically impossible to obtain. Absence of convincing results has too often been taken as evidence of safety.

Based on the evidence of history and on common sense, I believe there can be no absolutely “safe” level for pesticides (especially endocrine disruptors); only degrees of risk which you may or may not deem acceptable. For those with the time and interest please see riverford.co.uk/pesticides-you-decide for an extended version with references.

Guy’s news: Musing on misery & contentment in farming

My current state of contentment is unusual for a farmer; we have a reputation for misery. Could a dour anticipation of calamity be a prerequisite of farming success? Thomas Hardy’s Gabriel Oak didn’t save the harvest by revelling at the harvest festival; he was out virtuously sheeting the ricks against the gathering storm while everyone else was getting legless in the barn. Joe Grundy, David Archer and Brian Aldridge maintain the tradition across the class divide with their variations on rural self-pity in Radio 4’s The Archers. Folklore would have it that there is always some form of deluge, drought or pestilence waiting to wipe rare smiles off a farmer’s face before they settle.

The challenges facing farmers may be tangible and dramatic, but I suspect they are no more onerous than those suffered by many professions, and we do have many compensations. What greater privilege could there be than to be working amongst the rising birdsong, part of the annual renewal that is spring, ploughing and sowing as returning life erupts around you? Even my ageing bones feel a hint of youth returning.

As the years pass and experience gathers, the calamities seem less personal; as I remember collapsing exhausted to my knees and weeping by a broken-down tractor as potatoes died of blight around me, I am grateful for the serenity and perspective that comes with age. As in all businesses one must be mindful of the risks and prepared to react quickly to minimise their impacts. Experience helps, but, longer term, humility and feeling part of nature rather than personally embattled is key to contentment and effective management. Misery is a waste of emotional effort; it just gets in the way.

It has been a glorious spring; my dairy farming brother says he can’t remember an easier farming year than the one past. Could this contentment be the start of a complacency that will be our downfall, or could it be maturity arriving? A really good farmer should feel cradled by nature; its ally and friend rather than its adversary. This perfect spring, that aspiration feels within reach. Hence the contentment.

Guy’s news: Waste, empowerment & the wealthy

25 years ago, I lost it with Tilly, one of our best carrot pickers. She refused not to put the bent, twisted and forked carrots in the sack. Like Tilly, most of us hate waste but seem powerless to prevent it. Supermarkets have their campaigns for wonky veg, invariably abandoned as quickly as the headlines they generate. The explanation lies in simplicity and, arguably, laziness; trade works best when products can be well defined, and it is easier to define perfection (straightness etc.) than levels of deviation from it. The brutal truth is that farmers get so little for a carrot that the hassle of defining acceptable imperfection, grading to the definition, and finding a customer willing to accept that grade is just not worth it. So the wonky ones get left in the field, and the waste goes on.

It was with some reluctance that we recently got involved with Dan Barber and his team of chefs from New York, who ran a month-long pop-up restaurant (WastED London) in Selfridges, cooking almost entirely what would otherwise have been thrown away. The cynic in me got a whiff of more marketing hype. The best dish was one of our kale stalks, flash-fired in the oven, impaled on a spike and theatrically brought to the table with a pair of scissors and a delicious ash mayonnaise. It was showy and very New York, but I managed to suppress my dour Devon farmer’s cynicism. The lettuce butts and fish cheeks were also excellent, as was at least 70% of the meal; the gastronomy, style and service were fantastic. My consciousness was raised and I left determined to look again at what we can do to further reduce waste at Riverford. It is already very low – if we don’t think it is good enough for you, there is a hierarchy whereby it goes to our restaurants, staff, local charities, then the cows – but we can do better.

As I made my way out onto Oxford street, walking between the jewels of Cartier, YSL and Channel, I found myself musing that most food waste is ultimately the result of consumer empowerment: the ‘need’ for customers to have exactly what they want, when they want it. Those with the most money have the most choice, and almost invariably cause the most waste. There was an irony in eating a meal devoted to reducing waste in Selfridges; at £100/ head, it was not exactly skip diving. I wonder what Tilly would have made of it.

Guy’s News: Systemic pesticides & dubious progress

Systemic pesticides are absorbed through the leaves or roots and translocated to every part of the plant. Unlike contact pesticides, which need to touch pests to kill them, systemic pesticides don’t need direct contact; so long as the pest eats or sucks enough of the crop, death is assured. The downside is that the pesticide is in the edible parts of the plant too, giving you no chance of washing or peeling it off.

When I studied agriculture in the early ‘80s, I became an advocate of integrated pest management (IPM) whereby intelligent and minimal interventions are based on the ecological interactions (assumed to be well-studied and understood) of crop, pest, predator and the wider environment. An ‘intervention’ could be a pesticide (ideally well-targeted and short-lived), or (in theory at least) introducing a parasitic wasp, planting a hedge to encourage lacewings, or timing sowing to avoid peak pest egg-laying.

If things had progressed as my lecturer anticipated, we would now see non-organic farmers using minimal, highly targeted, low persistence sprays with a full understanding of their ecological impacts. But we were wrong. Farming didn’t get that smart, it just found more sophisticated, powerful ways of
being stupid. We failed to invest in ecology or to acknowledge the dangers of pesticides; the chemicals were too cheap, their use too simple and the sales patter too alluring. Threatening bees and other pollinators with systemic neonicotinoids is the latest example of the dangers of power without ecological understanding. Despite being systemic, 95% of neonicotinoid seed treatments end up in the soil, disrupting soil life or getting dispersed in dust to nearby crops. They are fairly persistent in the environment (half-lives typically between 200-1000 days), toxic to all insects, and harmful to most other animals. In trials bees didn’t die fast enough, so we didn’t anticipate neonicotinoids would reduce their ability to find their way back to the hive; that was just too subtle for the methodology. Intelligent regulation must accept there is no safe level for a nerve toxin or endocrine disrupter, only degrees of risk and levels of benefit. The job of legislation is to balance the two, not to fob us off with reassurance of long-lost safety.

Find out more about our campaign.

Guy’s news: Don’t blame the big man

Three weeks after a gale swept through the Vendée, the staff at our French farm have finally finished disentangling the disheartening remains of crop covers from the hedgerows. Although they were well weighted with bags of sand, the wind took the lot. Some can be re-used but most were shredded beyond repair. By the time we got new covers down, our chilled and buffeted crops had been set back a week. We have lost ten thousand of the more vulnerable cos lettuce and many hours of work. Such is farming; every year there will be a calamity, be it wind, rain, drought or pestilence. The important thing is not to take it as a personal slight from above. Without moving to a lab or a factory to produce our food, risk in farming can only be managed, never banished, however big your tractor or powerful your sprays.

The hedgerow oaks have yet to come into leaf. Not so different from home, yet lettuce harvesting will start here this week, just a few days after planting began in Devon. I still can’t really understand why they grow so well here in France. It is often much warmer by day, but there can be frosts at night into May. The answer lies in the quality of the Vendéen light; lettuces can take a lot of cold so long as they get the light.

After eight years, we are finding our feet here. Partly it is choosing the right crops for the land and the climate, partly investment in the right machinery. But mostly it is down to observation, questioning, and a restless determination to find a better way, leading to incremental improvement in skill, knowledge, and results. A little bit is also getting the arrogance kicked out of me and learning from neighbours. The beds are straighter, higher, and better drained; the crops more even; our staff have become multi-skilled and competent; and my accountant tells me that we made our first profit in 2016. The right plan gives you the chance of success, but it is attention to detail in the field that makes it a reality. That and undying hope. My father spent fifty years driving my mother nuts with his ‘Darling, I really think we are getting there.’ If you stop believing that, the gales have won.

Guy’s news: Pesticides; redressing the balance

As a young man spraying crops, I frequently suffered headaches and nausea, while my brother was hospitalised with Paraquat poisoning. My decision to farm organically was initially driven simply by a desire not to handle those chemicals. Despite assurances of safety by manufacturers and regulators, most of the pesticides we used in the ‘70s and ‘80s have since been banned as evidence of damage to the environment or human health accumulated; a total of 147 previously “safe” chemicals. Every time we were told the replacements were safer, but history suggests there is no safe pesticide; as their power comes from disrupting fundamental life processes, there are only degrees of risk.

Organic farming isn’t perfect; a reasonable criticism is that without herbicides to control weeds, we end up overcultivating the soil. 30 years ago, as I planted my first organic crops and struggled to control docks I longed for glyphosate, the systemic herbicide that kills every bit of the plant, including the roots. We were told it had very low mammalian and environmental toxicity but over 40 years, as we have used an estimated ten million tonnes globally, evidence accumulated until it was classed a ‘probable carcinogen’ by the WHO in 2015.

Alongside this and similar U-turns, I have been spurred to write by frustration at the outrageous distortion of evidence put forward by the unholy alliance of the NFU and pesticide manufacturers. Initially it was suggested that restricting the use of bee-threatening neonicotinoids was unnecessary and would lead to major yield declines in wheat and oilseed rape; average yields actually rose in the UK in the years following the 2013 ban. More recently their claims that banning glyphosate will lead to a reduction in lapwing and skylark nests, and that 49% more farm labour would be required per hectare, are just too much to take. I sometimes get frustrated with the organic/environmental lobby selecting evidence to support their beliefs, but the NFU have surpassed all with their ludicrous claims. My blood is up and over the year we will be doing our best to redress the balance (hopefully in a calm and well-referenced way), starting with glyphosate, systemic pesticides and the ‘cocktail effect’. I think it’s long overdue and Big Ag won’t like it, but they’ve been shouting too loud for too long.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Wild garlic, pigeon poo & aficionados

I had my first wild garlic omelette last week, and will be eating it tossed through pasta, in risottos, sandwiches and soups, and on pizzas until my family begs for relief. Every spring in old deciduous woods, the bulbs and seeds of ramsons (the local name for wild garlic) awake and push their shoots up through last year’s leaf litter with the vigour typical of those with a purpose and little time. They have about six weeks to develop leaves and photosynthesise enough energy to allow them to create a slightly larger bulb for next year, or to flower and set seed. As the leaves open in the canopy above, stealing their light, the ramsons
senesce, leaving only their seeds and bulbs to renew the cycle next year.

Foraging satisfies primeval urges, but is generally too slow to make a living. Wild garlic is an exception; due to its short season and incredible vigour, it often covers the forest floor in a thick uniform mat, making picking relatively fast. The only problems are that garlic shares its shady ecological niche with lords-and-ladies (Arum italicum and maculatum) and dog’s mercury (Murcurialis perennis), both poisonous, plus good areas are sometimes rendered unpickable by pigeon poo, and the best woods are often steep and inaccessible.

Ramsons are not only delicious, but highly sustainable; they can yield as much as a field of spinach without the energy-consuming and habitat-destroying plough, whilst the same area simultaneously produces wood, nuts, and valuable wildlife habitat. For many years my children, nephews and their friends have spent the Easter holidays foraging for wild garlic in our woods; rest assured, they are expert at spotting and avoiding those fellow but toxic woodland plants. Later in the season we will gather, dry and thresh the ripe seeds before spreading them in some of the young woodlands planted by my brother. It will probably take at least five years, but my hope is that the wild garlic will establish itself before its toxic competitors, so that one day you will all be eating wild garlic omelettes. In the meantime, there is occasionally enough to put in some of the veg boxes at the peak of the season in April, but mostly it will be available for aficionados to order as an extra on your order.

Guy Watson