Category Archives: Guy’s newsletter

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

Guy’s news: “So how does it feel?”

I’ve been asked that question more than a few times in the three weeks since we became employee owned. The answer? I am starting to feel the soil under my feet again, my shoulders definitely feel lighter, and an unfamiliar smile keeps settling on my face. Maybe I’m imagining it, but I think my fellow co-owners are smiling more too, and everyone’s energy has gone up a gear.

I knew it was the right choice on the day: when we had the best party the farm has ever seen, full of spontaneity and joy; when my staff gave me a seat fashioned from the remains of last winter’s fallen oak; when we all signed a giant scroll as witnesses to the occasion; when several staff, old and new, spoke movingly of what Riverford means to them and their hopes for our future, to rapturous applause; when I found myself standing on the shoulders of two acrobats with a rose in my teeth… but most of all when I staggered off, inebriated and overwhelmed, to take a few minutes on my own and enjoy dusk falling into the valley. For years I have loved that view, across the fields that I have walked, planted, and hoed so many times – over the reservoir where my children learnt to swim, to the wood-shrouded Tor Hill. After a few moments, I saw that I was not alone: four equally inebriated, previously landless co-owners were also taking in the landscape. I shook myself when I realised it was no longer mine – to do with as I pleased, to share if I wanted, or not if I didn’t. Now it was ours, forever, with no going back. To my surprise and relief, in the last light of a perfect day, that felt perfect – and it still feels perfect three weeks later.

My smile stems from the conviction that together we have taken action and made a small change. I often return to this quote from Chomsky: “If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.” To have sown a seed of hope and made a step towards the world I want to live in seems a very good reason to smile. So… it feels good. Some rain would make it even better.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Not an easy start to the year

After less than an inch of rain in seven weeks, and nothing much forecast for the next three, crops beyond the reach of irrigation are starting to suffer. I wish we had ploughed and made our seeds beds earlier to save some moisture; but, after a waterlogged April, it was hard to switch mindsets so quickly from drying and aerating the soil to conserving the wetness we were recently lamenting.

Most years in spring, as soon as the soil is dry enough we plough and create a ‘stale seed bed’ – an ancient technique that creates beds with a loose, fine top layer. This prevents capillary action from drawing water to the surface of the soil, allowing any rainfall to accumulate and reducing water loss to near zero. Stale seed beds also encourage weeds to germinate, so we can kill them with ‘weed strikes’ (shallow cultivations) every ten days until the crop is sown. In a good year, when it is dry enough in March-April to make seed beds, but wet enough in May-June for weeds to germinate, this technique can reduce handweeding costs on crops like carrots from a crippling £2000/acre to almost nothing. Very wet then very dry has made this the worst of years for our carrot-growing co-op members; hand-weeding teams are moving at a painstaking 30m/hour up the rows, making organic farming, with its rejection of chemical solutions, seem close to the pedantic, luddite madness its detractors accuse it of being. Fortunately these are exceptional circumstances.

More positively, we are moving from an average winter-sown broad bean crop into an excellent spring-sown crop. Cabbages, chards and greens are doing well, and the courgettes have started – helped by our co-op’s purchase of a water wheel planter. This wonderfully simple but highly effective device gives each plant a drink as it is planted, helping it get off to a quick, stress-free start (more than we can say for ourselves this year).

Guy Singh-Watson

No longer freaks from the fringe? Guy on Desert Island Discs
Riverford founder Guy Singh-Watson will be on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs on Sunday 1st July at 11.15am. Host Kirsty Young will be talking to him about his life in food, organic farming, and his quest for a more ethical way of doing business.

Guy’s news: Soil, analysis & hope

“Low pH, low or very low Potassium and Phosphorous … lime and adequate fertiliser application essential”. According to the soil analysis on my desk, my pumpkins should be dead, or at least stunted. I am kicking myself for not sending off the samples earlier when we could have limed, spread some muck or even chosen another field. I shouldn’t be surprised; this is thin, grade three land where no conventional commercial grower would dream of planting veg.

Too late now; the crop is in the ground. Yet the five-week old pumpkins are romping away with good leaf colour despite only 1cm of rain since planting. I suspect they are having to work hard to find their nutrients; a scrape at the soil shows roots already stretching over 40cm with growth of 2cm a day and accelerating. A little hardship can make for a healthier, tastier and more nutritious crop which shrugs off pests and stores well, though it may not produce the highest yield. It is a long way to harvest but, walking the field, I have a good feeling despite the lab’s suggestions of doom.

One would be a fool to ignore measurement of soluble nutrients (available to roots now) and total nutrients (possibly available later), but they are just one indicator of how well a crop might do and offer only a snapshot of a dynamic situation. Further information can be gleaned from leaf colour, how previous crops have grown, which ‘indicator weeds’ dominate and their leaf size/colour (if docks and chickweed look strong you can be pretty sure most veg will do well); the feel, structure, colour and even the smell of the soil also help. How easy it is for the roots to extend and form intimate contact with the soil is just as important as concentration of soluble nutrients. much will depend on the microbial activity breaking down and releasing the nutrients from the previous crop and mycorrhizal fungi that form a bridge between the roots and the soil. A soil analysis is one small indicator along with others that come for free.

Despite my confidence we have applied a top dressing of sieved compost and cultivated it into the top, most active, 10cm of soil with our first inter-row hoeing. Next year, I will get the samples done earlier. But ultimately, like a growing number of crops, what these pumpkins need most of all is rain.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: The vegetable new year arrives

Geetie, my wife, says I stink of artichokes. My fingers are bitter with their sap, and my shoulders ache from lugging the tea picker-style baskets down the rows. Sitting in the office, I itch to get back to them, jealous if anyone else even suggests doing the picking. Fortunately Geetie likes the smell – as does our new dog, Artichoke (Arty for short). Globe artichokes are probably our least profitable crop, but this has done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm. 25 years on from smuggling my first plants back from Brittany and planting them from a pram shared with Alice, my first born, I love the crop more than ever. While they are in season I will cook them several times a week, until even I tire of their earthy bitterness. I appreciate that many find them a ridiculously timeconsuming, expensive and wasteful form of foodie one-upmanship, so they will seldom, if ever, be in the boxes. Instead they will be available to buy as ‘extras’; the large ones for boiling, and the baby ones for stews, frying, BBQs or roasting.

I might be mad about artichokes, but perhaps more significantly for everyone else, we have also started harvesting new potatoes, cucumbers, lettuces, spinach, salad onions, basil and various salad leaves, with cabbage and carrots just a few days away. After the spring deluge, we have now had less than an inch of rain in six weeks; beyond the reach of irrigation, it is getting dry. Early potatoes are struggling, and overly dry soil creates the danger of bruising at harvest – but most other crops are doing well, and catching up a little after a late, wet spring. Overall we’re happy, if a little anxious about those spuds.

Meanwhile, my youngest, Donald, and his mates are earning for their summer revelries by picking samphire from a local tidal salt marsh. After a few failed attempts to mechanise the painstaking task, they have returned to scissors and garden shears; on a good day, they manage just 15kg each in the six to eight hours between tides when the beds are accessible. Given the small quantities,
samphire will probably be an ‘extra’ only too. Wild marsh samphire (not to be confused with the cultivated stuff that is airfreighted in year round) is only around for about six weeks before the stems become woody. Grab it while you can – samphire’s tangy saltiness is delicious with scrambled eggs and fish.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: The day has come

After 12 years of thought, debate and prevarication, we become 74% employee owned on Friday 8th. There will be a huge party on the day; our customer services line will be closed from 1pm so everyone can celebrate. And on Monday, assuming they don’t sack me, I will come to work as one of 650 co-owners. Amongst all the signings, meetings and legal documentation, I am tearful, grumpy and awash with churning emotions – but doubt is not one of them.

I am convinced most people are kinder, less greedy, more creative, more thoughtful and can contribute more and be more productive than our institutions allow them to demonstrate. The best indication of business efficiency (and most valid prediction of future success) is getting the best out of people while giving the most back; return on capital is a poor, short-term proxy. I want to be part of an organisation that helps us be the best version of ourselves – that facilitates and grows people, rather than  undermining their humanity by appealing to ignoble sentiments, as capitalism too often does.

I could sell to the highest bidder and use the money to support good causes (the Bill & Melinda model), but I have nagging doubts about charity and would prefer to embed the changes I want to see in everyday life. To quote Ghandi: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change… We need not wait to see what others do.” The popular paraphrase, be the change you want to see in the world, leaves out the critical advice not to wait for others.

So, this Friday we will take Ghandi’s advice and get on with it. Time might prove me hopelessly idealistic, but I don’t think so; over the last year we have been working towards a more inclusive, human style of management, and the signs are so good that even our more militaristically minded managers are embracing the change. It feels as if an oppressive cloud is already lifting and a new dawn, full of exciting possibility, is revealing itself. In the end, the most critical factor is confidence: in each other and in our shared humanity; the confidence to be our whole selves, and not to wait for others to lead the way.

Those with the time and interest can now read Guy’s full ‘Founder’s Wishes’ statement at riverford.co.uk/founders-wishes

Guy’s news: An experiment in benign neglect

We have started cutting pak choi, basil, salad onions and salad leaves, with lettuce, spinach and chard still a week away. In most years we would now be emerging from the Hungry Gap, but with planting delayed by a wet spring, the pack house remains depressingly heavy on imports; some from our French farm, but more from our Spanish growers, and some from further afield.

25 years ago, the hardcore veg box pioneers stopped delivering from March to June – but that wasted the lovely end-of-season UK veg like purple sprouting broccoli, leeks, cauliflowers and rhubarb that were available. Frustration with having to top our boxes up with expensive, poor quality imports, combined with my overconfidence as a grower, drove me to buying a farm in France to grow the stuff myself. Climatic research and many visits suggested that we could steal four to six weeks’ harvesting by going 250 miles south, and staying close to the winter warmth of the Atlantic. That put us in the sunny Vendée region; about the same distance from Devon as the Fens. In the end, the project has worked out well – but not without some expensive, humbling failures in the early years.

Managing a business 250 miles away, with only a very limited grasp of a different language, law and culture, has led me to question what effective management is. In the early years I would dash around on the first day of a visit giving instructions: water this, plough that in, get those crop covers off. During my visit last week I looked, listened and contemplated my purpose. The less I visit, the better the team seems to do – perhaps because they have space to grow. I am astonished by their appetite for learning and innovation. I used to think that was my job, but now I find investments being evaluated, and new crops, varieties and growing techniques being tried; it’s me who is doing the learning. Relationships and roles are fluid, almost anarchic, but decision making is fast and efficient. There is one small office, which is usually empty; most decisions are made in the field, over a coffee or a beer at the end of the day.

Could it be that the most important part of management is knowing when to get out of the way – and its most common failing the underestimation of people’s capability to find fulfilment by managing themselves?

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Recipe boxes, carthorses & unicorns

It’s hard being a carthorse grazing with unicorns. 30 years of learning our trade and patiently reinvesting profits have served Riverford well, but are we out of step with the herd? Looking around our field, I find us surrounded by a new and impatient breed of business: hungry for growth, and backed by even hungrier private capital. The combination is explosive, and makes scary company for an old nag used to plodding along alone.

For the more grounded among you, a ‘unicorn’ is a privately owned startup company valued at more than $1 billion; think Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, Dropbox and Pinterest. They call them unicorns because they are so vanishingly rare – but that doesn’t stop a generation of techy wannabes dreaming of being the next Mark Zuckerberg. Home delivery of food ordered over the internet, and recipe boxes in particular, are seen as high-growth areas ripe for unicorn status; Farmdrop, Gousto, HelloFresh and the like vye with the more traditional mammoths like Amazon/Whole Foods and Ocado.

Having declared that Riverford will be sold not to venture capitalists, but to its hard-working, modestly paid staff, we have no access to the cash sloshing around the global economy looking to grow on the back of the next big thing. Instead we must make a profit before we can invest. That means we stick to what we know, don’t spend much on marketing, and look after our long-term customers rather than discounting to tease in new ones; in short, we plod. That might mean we get left behind, worrying about growing veg rather than share value. But it may also mean that those unicorns all chase themselves round the field faster and faster, running in ever smaller circles, until poof! All that is left is a cloud of smoke and some stardust… and we can all go back to our carrots.

Before they got me thinking about unicorns, I meant to write about our organic recipe boxes. We don’t advertise much, but they really are the best. You can now choose whichever recipes you fancy each week: 1, 2, 3 or more, including new vegan options. We’ll deliver everything bar the salt and pepper for your chosen recipes. All the joys of cooking with good ingredients, with none of the waste or the faff of planning.

Guy Singh-Watson