Category Archives: Uncategorised

Guy’s new book – Vegetables, Soil & Hope

Every week for over 25 years, Riverford founder and farmer, Guy Singh-Watson, has distilled his ruminations on ethical food, farming and business into a missive for our veg boxes.

We’ve pieced together a selection of them in a new book, Vegetables, Soil & Hope, alongside witty illustrations, to chronicle a quarter century of a life on the veg.

We have some of you to thank, for suggesting your most memorable newsletters for us to consider, and some of you who sent in ancient newsletters and helped us to fill gaps from the early years, when our file keeping wasn’t great.

Each piece promises to challenge the food on your plate, make you empathise with those who produce it, or celebrate Guy’s true vegetable loves, which include artichokes, bitter leaves and cardoons. And for some of you who have been customers for donkeys years, we hope the book might bring some veg box nostalgia.

The newsletters are brought to life with witty, colourful and inventive drawings, which we have Guardian Weekend artists, Berger and Wyse, to thank for.

“If any of its contents leads anyone to reconsider the nature of good farming or business, I will be happy. There are too many save-the-world books and most of them are too long. This one is short, and I hope, easy to ready.”
– Guy Singh-Watson

The book is available to add to your order now.

“Guy Singh-Watson has become well known for his “rants”… some may think his views extreme, but to me they make perfect sense. Anyone who thinks it matters where our food comes from, and what goes into it, will want to read this book. And anyone who doesn’t should be forced to read it!”
– Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall

Guy’s news: Our reluctant but noble organic Lord

Peter Melchett, the reluctant but eminently noble Lord, environmental campaigner, and woolly-jumpered organic farmer, died last week. He had been policy director at the Soil Association for 17 years, having previously headed Greenpeace UK and been a Labour minister in the 1970s. It is hard to imagine anyone, whatever their politics, not being won over by his humanity, good will and charm; these, combined with his patient persistence and attention to detail, made him a fantastic campaigner who will be greatly missed. We didn’t always agree, but he invariably had research on his side, and time normally proved him right. I will miss the unfailing humility which ensured that, for all his charm, the issue always came first. If only privilege more often came with his modesty, and his sense of responsibility to the planet and its current and future inhabitants. As a vegetarian livestock farmer, he was also one of our most appreciative veg box customers and a loyal patron of our London pub The Duke of Cambridge.

To what degree does the end justify the means? If your cause is just and well researched, does its pursuit justify dogma-based evidence selection and manipulative presentation? There is no right answer; in the shouty, impatient world we live in, purity counts for little and everyone must make their own judgement as to acceptable compromise. I think Peter Melchett consistently got it right; he didn’t always go for the headline, but was sufficiently canny to be effective while commanding lasting respect. It was his analysis of the GM industry that kept me campaigning on the issue, long after feeling compromised by the sometimes extreme views and actions of the antis. As I was mounting a legal challenge to a local GM maize trial, Peter, as head of Greenpeace UK, went one step further and spent a brief time in jail for destroying a GM crop. Long may his campaigning spirit remain with us.

This is being typed on a ferry back from my farm in the Vendée, led into Plymouth by a pod of dolphins. After a wet spring and a weed-ridden start to the season, we are now seeing some good late crops. Peppers, aubergine and physalis are all doing well, our best ever crop of borlotti beans will be on sale for another month; their flavour and texture is great in salads.

Guy Singh-Watson

Two new Lancashire cheeses

Over the years we’ve taken our time finding small-scale producers across the country who make exceptional organic food to complement our veg. Our cheese range is full of moreish hand-crafted cheeses from people who share our core values and who have honed their specialist skills and passion over the years.

New to join the range are two classically British cheeses from Leagram Dairy, run by the Kitching’s family. Their small organic dairy is set in the beautifully remote Trough of Bowland countryside, Lancashire. It’s a very traditional operation: their organic milk is all sourced from local cows, and the cheeses are lovingly made by hand with tools that are over 120 years old. Dipping the cheese in hot wax seals in the texture while the cheeses mature, before the team cut each wedge by hand.


The business was originally started and run by Bob Kitching, whose passion of the art form of making cheeses lead him to travel the country with his wife, reviving the wonders of British cheeses. He had a keen interest in the traditional methods of making cheese. Despite Bob’s passing in 2013 this small family business has continued to thrive, with his wife Christine and daughter Faye sharing their passion and knowledge and the family business being awarded gold medals at the British Cheese Awards and the International Cheese Awards.

We’ve selected our two of our favourites: the Crumbly Lancashire for its creamy taste and crumbly texture, with a subtly sharp taste. It’s is a beautiful melter and so easy to eat. Tumble over fresh summer salads, or bubble into a decadent cauliflower cheese.

Next up is the Wensleydale which is a mild, delicately honeyed cheese. Pack this handsome white wedge into your picnic basket with some oatcakes and sweet chutney for a portable ploughman’s, or pair with apples on a summery cheeseboard.

Both cheeses are available to add to your order now.

 

Our new raw, organic honey

Organic honey is very hard to come by. A bee’s foraging distance is up to 12km, and for honey to be certified as organic, the honey producer must be able to prove that its bees have only foraged in organic land. These distances are beyond most producers’ capabilities, especially on our small island, where organic land is typically surrounded by non-organic farmland sprayed with artificial chemicals.

But after years of searching, we have found a fantastic organic honey producer: Bona Mel, a family run Spanish business who have been beekeeping for three generations, and organic since 1990. They are based in the Spanish mountains, where their hives are scattered across the natural parks of Sierra Mariola and La Safor, Alicante, which are home to an astonishingly rich natural variety of plants. To the bees, that’s a botanical smorgasbord, where blossom is available all year round.

Their raw wildflower honey is red tinged, with a fragrant, sweetly floral taste – and because they live in a completely uncultivated area, we can be certain that it’s 100% organic. The honey is raw, and prepared by bees with the nectar from various Mediterranean wild flowers.

Because Bona Mel produce, prepare and jar their honey themselves, it is traceable right back to the hive.

You can add Bona Mel honey to your order now: https://www.riverford.co.uk/shop/new/honey-250g

 

Feeding food surplus to pigs safely: a win for farmers and the environment?

Pigs have the potential to turn a massive food waste problem into a tasty solution. However, feeding food waste to pigs is currently banned in the UK, after illegal practices by a farmer in the ‘90s lead to the disastrous effects of Foot and Mouth Disease.

Feedback’s The Pig Idea are campaigning to reintroduce food waste feed to pigs in the UK, to potentially make a use for 2.5 million tonnes of wasted food a year.

There are still some questions about how it would work, especially in organic farming, but it’s clear that The Pig Idea has the potential to make a huge difference to waste, pig welfare, and the environment. Karen Luyckx from The Pig Idea explains more in this guest blog. We’re interested to hear what you, our customers think; you can give your feedback in the short survey linked below.

Photo Credit – Chris King Photography / The Pig Idea

For thousands of years, humans have fed pigs on food waste. Pigs were domesticated to be the original recycling banks – or “piggy banks” – enthusiastically eating food that was inedible to humans and converting it into edible food in the form of pork. But omnivorous livestock like poultry and pigs are now primarily fed on crops like soy, rapeseed, wheat and barley using up valuable land and resources.

I’ve lived and worked for six years in Bolivia and seen with my own eyes the devastation done by large-scale soya farming in the Amazon. It’s heart-breaking to see such unparalleled biodiversity turned into a green desert of soy monoculture as far as the eye can see.

Photo credit – Adriano Gambarini / WWF Brazil.

The UK imports 2.5 million tonnes of soy a year mostly for use in livestock. Even though the industry is busily looking for more eco-friendly replacements, the total volume of soy imports keeps rising year on year, with the great majority still coming from South America and organic soy from as far as China.

Soy is needed in pig and chicken diets because of it offers high quality plant proteins necessary for omnivorous animals fed on plant-based feed only. Meat-containing leftovers were banned for all livestock, regardless of these being herbivores or omnivores, after a farmer illegally fed untreated food waste to pigs and caused the disastrous Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001.

But we now have the opportunity and the evidence to revisit safe, economically and environmentally attractive ways to reintroduce the use of food surplus as feed. In the same way that we should cook chicken properly to make sure it is safe and avoid raw chicken juice getting onto our plates, we will need to cook the surplus food to kill off disease and then make sure we store and transport it safely. Japan already does this in modern treatment plants. Please see the REFRESH expert report for more information on the safety measures.

Surplus food treatment plant in Japan

Feeding more food waste to pigs and chickens could yield substantial benefits. If the whole of Europe were to feed heat-treated surplus food to pigs at the same rate as is currently done in Japan, we could save global agricultural land equal to the size of Wales, including hundreds of thousands of acres of South America’s biodiverse forests and savannahs.

And the United Nations estimates that if farmers all around the world fed their livestock on the food we currently waste and on agricultural by-products, enough grain would be liberated to feed an extra three billion people, more than the additional number expected to be sharing our planet by 2050.

For the UK, Feedback has calculated that about 2.5 million tonnes of food that currently goes to waste could be used to feed pigs and chickens, that’s about 20% of the UK’s total food waste.

Current feed costs – representing over 60% of total production cost of pork – are a nightmare for farmers. At the same time, in Japan, surplus food to feed treatment plants produce feed at half the cost of conventional feed. Reducing feed costs may support farmers’ livelihoods and help increase investment in animal welfare.

This pig has just enjoyed an exciting whey and veggie leftover porridge (currently allowed). Photo by Feedback.

Looking at the science, we also know that deficiencies in certain types of protein may exacerbate tail and ear biting in pigs. While tail biting is caused by a combination of factors, replacing conventional feed with heat-treated leftovers that contain meat may contribute to a reduction in tail biting, allowing pigs to return to the type of diet they have evolved to eat as omnivores.

This is why Feedback calls on the UK to lift the current ban on using catering waste and food surplus, from retail and manufacturing, as feed for omnivorous non-ruminant livestock, such as pigs and chickens. We propose that this ban is replaced with robust legislation regulating the treatment of this surplus food in off-farm licensed processing facilities so that it is safe.

Read our report to find out more about why feeding leftovers to pigs and chickens is safe and why it is a win-win for farmers and the environment. We also hope it is a win for people who love a tasty sausage or pork chop but worry about the impact conventional livestock production has on the environment, but we would love to hear what you think.

What you can do to help?
Fill out our 10 minute survey to share your views with us.

Guy’s news: Unknown unknowns, freak weather and screw-ups

Before Donald Rumsfeld gave the world ‘unknown unknowns’, Riverford had the Screw-up Factor. My early budgetary computations included an estimate of crop risk arising from poor germination, pestilence, adverse weather, market forces and human error. The estimates were based on experience to date. But what about the previously unexperienced; freak weather, unknown diseases or mineral deficiencies? These were accounted for in the Screw-up Factor.

My 30 years of growing have been a long battle to reduce the Screw-up Factor. It started at 30% of the budget, but with accumulating experience we have brought it down to about 10%. That victory, our success, and the affordability of our veg are all dependent on refining our practices to make the best of the conditions we know. If those conditions change, we are back to square one.

I am typing this on the train home from our farm in the Vendée, where our well laid plans were trodden into the mud by a wet start to the year. The last two very dry summers in France suggested our investment priority there should be a new reservoir; this year, we have barely used our existing water store, and 10% of our budget will not come close to covering the losses. At home in Devon, even 30% may not cover the consequences of a ten-week drought.

I am reluctant to attribute it prematurely to changing climate, but this pattern of longer and more frequent periods of extreme weather does fit the predictions for climate change. In temperate Devon, with enough time and investment we can adjust to substantial changes in the norm. What’s harder to adapt to is unpredictability; the widening variation that ‘the norm’ may become.

Having abandoned the frosted beans, some weed-smothered sweetcorn, and split kohlrabi and turnips, the remainder of the Vendéen crops look good. The first corn will be in your boxes this week, possibly along with a few grubs of the corn borer moth; once rare in our region, but moving north in hot years. The obviously affected cobs are graded out, but some will inevitably get through – let us know if you get one and we will refund you. We did release predators that achieve a good level of control over these pests, but it seems we should have released them earlier. Another screw-up, but at least this one we can learn from.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy Singh-Watson on Desert Island Discs – what did he pick?

Guy Singh-Watson (photo – BBC & Amanda Benson)

This Sunday, our very own Guy Singh-Watson, Riverford founder, was the castaway on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. Guy spoke to host Kirsty Young about his life in food, organic farming, and his quest for a more ethical way of doing business. In case you missed it, it’s available to listen again here – or read about his choices below.

1) Kenny Rogers, Lucille
For all that Guy is prone to a good rant, he can also be rather ‘soppy’; a trait that the emotional directness of country music appeals to. This first track Guy recalled singing sadly to himself, alone in his tractor, while his first marriage was hitting the rocks. At the time, he really did have four children (although they weren’t hungry) and crops in the fields!

2) Tofu Love Frogs, Vegetable Attack
One of the major perks of working at Riverford is the parties; we have two big ones a year, and they’re always a night to remember! Back in the day, they used to be even wilder. This track took Guy back to one of the best: a Halloween knees-up featuring magic mushrooms (nowadays we stick to pints of Prosecco), and memorable live music from Tofu Love Frogs.

3) Harry Belafonté, Chickens
Guy’s mother Gillian played a huge role in shaping Riverford: she passed her irrepressible enthusiasm for food and cooking on to her five children, all of whom now work in food and farming. Gillian grew up in Trinidad, and always loved calypso music – especially the devilishly handsome Harry Belafonté.
Throughout Guy’s childhood, the farm was always on the brink of bankruptcy. John Watson was years ahead of his time, determined to do things his own way, such as giving his beloved pigs a remarkably high standard of welfare. His way was often right, but it wasn’t often profitable. Belafonté’s line ‘This isn’t funny, we’re losing money…’ rang true.

4) The Sex Pistols, Anarchy in the UK
A ‘proper little farm boy’, Guy spent his youth outside, clambering up trees, catching rabbits, rearing his own pig and selling manure from the farm gate. This left him a little out of step with his generation… something that was brought home to him with particular punch when he was taken by friends to see The Sex Pistols. With no idea what to expect, he found himself, ‘probably wearing a tweed jacket’, in a crowd of spitting, pogoing Plymothians.

5) Jimmy Somerville & Bronski Beat, Smalltown Boy
After studying Agriculture and Forestry Science at Oxford and a brief return to the farm, Guy left for London to try something new. He bought himself a snappy suit, got a job in management consultancy – and much to his surprise, was such a success that he was asked to open an office in Manhattan. Those heady days, in London and New York, were when he ‘started living life a bit’ – and the gay clubs were where the music was always best.

This track, by the brave and highly principled Jimmy Somerville, was Guy’s #1 pick of the show.

6) Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime
Management consultancy was ‘stimulating but morally bankrupt’. Eventually Guy gave up, chucked his office keys into the Hudson River, and moved up to a remote island in Maine to teach kids sailing. No drink, no drugs; just lots of sailing, swimming, running and rowing. He also spent a lot of time in the kitchen, listening to Talking Heads with the chef while they cooked up macrobiotic meals. Eventually Guy got his head screwed back on straight… and came to the conclusion that he needed to start his own business.

7) Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man
In 2014, Guy married fellow organic entrepreneur Geetie Singh. This song – the epitome of Cohen’s coolness, sexiness and humour – played at their wedding.

8) Grace Jones, Pull Up to the Bumper
Guy’s final choice was the one and only Grace Jones: her originality, sass and strength, streaks ahead of her time, take him right back to the wild streets of New York.

Book choice: Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd. Guy has always admired the character of Gabriel Oak as a role model.

Luxury: A surfboard – Kirsty says he’s allowed it as long as he doesn’t use it to paddle to another island!

Packaging update: recyclable meat trays

Here’s our packaging technologist, Robyn, with an update on some changes that are on the way to your box. Read Robyn’s first blog post to find out more about her role at Riverford.

Hello packaging enthusiasts!

Following our move to beech nets and ditching the plastic wrapping on some popular veg, another packaging improvement is on its way. If you buy our meat, you may already have spotted the change in the last few weeks; we’re working on phasing out the non-recyclable black trays, and replacing them with recycled and recyclable clear PET.

Why are black trays a problem?
Many recyclers can’t detect the black plastic due to optical sorting systems being unable to see it. While work has been done to change this with the introduction of new pigments, we’ve decided to move away from black plastic altogether and have found a clear alternative. Our new meat trays are made from clear food-safe recycled PET, which can be recycled with rigid plastic pots, tubs and trays.

Please bear with us while we use up the last of our stock of black trays. We hope to have moved to the clear recyclable trays for almost all meat products over the next few weeks. However, we still have a larger stock of black meatball trays (these are a specific shape designed to protect the product), which we will be using up until later in the year. At that point, they too will swap to a clear recyclable and recycled PET alternative.

But why plastic in the first place?
I often get asked why we use plastic rather than a wax paper wrapping for our meat. The short answer is to make sure the meat has a good shelf life once it gets to your kitchen.

How to recycle your new meat tray

  • Remove all the film on top of the tray and the pad from underneath the meat. Please dispose of these in your general waste bin; the film is not currently recyclable (there aren’t any top film solutions that are recyclable yet, but we are always searching for alternatives)
  • Recycle with you kerbside recycling or at your local recycling centre

To find out more about our existing packaging and research with the University of Exeter, visit our packaging manifesto.

Riverford’s UK-only veg box – one way to buy local veg

Our 100% UK veg box returns this week after its hiatus for the Hungry Gap. We’re celebrating its return with the story behind our most local, seasonal offering.

Birth of a box
Back in 1993, when we packed our first veg box, what little imported organic produce available was fit only for the compost heap by the time it got here, so our veg boxes were UK-only by default.

25 years and many, many veg boxes later, we’re happy to be part of a broader church. While the majority of our veg is still homegrown, it is supplemented with imports, mostly from Guy’s French farm and a group of organic growers in Spain, with some from further afield (transported by sea or road; never airfreighted). Together they provide things that have come to be regarded as year-round staples in most households – tomatoes, peppers, bananas, citrus, and so on – without the environmental disaster that is UK heated glass production, and without losing the closeness to our growers.

We reckon we strike a pretty good balance between principles and pragmatism in what we provide. Having said that, we do believe in a sustainable as well as a pleasurable diet wherever possible, and wanted to provide a truly local veg box for anyone who sought to minimise their food miles and embrace the UK seasons.

The first time we tried to launch the 100% UK veg box, it barely sold at all, and we had to withdraw it. But following lots of customer requests, we decided to give it another go a few years later – and this time, it has been a steady success! Sales of the UK-only box have now climbed to 6% of all veg box sales; that’s 50% up on last year, and treble the year before.

Easier said than done
It might seem like filling a box with local veg would be easier, because there’s no need to deal with importation – but actually, it presents a totally different set of complexities.

The Hungry Gap
The Hungry Gap is the hardest time of year for UK farmers: a few weeks, usually in April, May and early June, after the winter crops have ended but before the new season’s plantings are ready to harvest. In the early days of local veg boxes, all deliveries would stop during this time of bare fields.

25 years later, there is still no way around the Hungry Gap apart from the use of heated glasshouses. For every kilo of tomatoes grown in a glass hothouse in the UK, 2-3 kilos of C02 are released into the atmosphere… we’d far rather go without. So the 100% UK veg box must vanish from our shelves for a few weeks every year, and its buyers temporarily swap onto one of our other boxes.

Repetition
When we plan the contents of our veg boxes across the year, we work hard to avoid repetition. The team look carefully at how often each box has contained all different varieties of veg, so that no one ends up bored with the same items week after week, or overwhelmed by a mountain of cabbages.

That thinking has to totally go out of the window with the 100% UK veg box. In winter, you will get heavy root veg every week; just right for hearty cold-weather cooking. In summer, you will feast on sweet, fresh salads – but not see a tomato again for the rest of the year. We expected more complaints about this, but people have been very understanding of the limitations; they know that it represents a real seasonal diet. And because the vegetables are being eaten in their natural seasons, they are always at their best.

Unexpected perks
While there are obvious benefits to eating 100% local veg – most prominently the confidence you can have in the sustainability of your diet – there are further benefits to the box that we hadn’t anticipated.

Veg that grow together, go together
Another reason that the repetitive contents of the UK-only box might not bother customers is that the flavours of each season tend to complement each other very well.

Every week, our chef Bob looks at the planned contents of each veg box, and offers his culinary perspective: can these veg be easily combined into a week of flavoursome meals? Often, Bob will suggest changes to make the selection more harmonious. With the UK box, he barely ever has to make any tweaks; the veg, grown in the same local season, usually go perfectly together without any intervention.

Grown by us!
More so than any other box, the UK-only box is packed with veg from our own Riverford farms. It’s the box that is most representative of our fields – which gives us a little extra affection for it!

Summer bounty

The 100% UK veg box is now back from its hiatus for the Hungry Gap. Going into summer is a great time to give it a try: on the horizon, a bounty of homegrown delights, from new season bunched carrots, asparagus spears and tangy rhubarb, to juicy tomatoes, award-winning mini cucumbers and freshly picked salad leaves.

Order the 100% UK veg box online today. If every week is too much of a plunge, why not try a pragmatic weekly alteration with one of our other boxes?

Atlantic ales – a gingery summer ale and a hoppy pocketful of sunshine

Over the years, we’ve scoured Britain for the best organic beers and ciders from small independent breweries. Our bottle shop is now looking full, varied and flavoursome… we’re always keeping an eye out for exciting new offerings though. The latest to catch our attention: Atlantic Brewery, based in our Devon farm’s neighbouring county Cornwall. Here’s a short blog to introduce the very worthy new additions to our shelves.

Atlantic Brewery was set up by Stu Thomson in 2005, when, in a career-changing move, he started home-brewing in the garage on his farm near Newquay. Stu’s aim was to prove that unfined, vegan and organic ale could be delicious, refined and exciting. 13 years on and Atlantic Brewery is now also Atlantic Distillery, with a thriving orchard and hop field, organic certification, over ten different beers, six gins and soon, two vodkas.

Our first choice is Atlantic Gold, a year-round summer ale spiced with ginger. We love its light, refreshing flavour. It was the brewery’s first commercial brew, inspired by a ginger-spiced ale that Stu came across while travelling in New Zealand, made by a brewery called Monteith. Atlantic Gold is brewed using only pale and wheat malts, which gives it a subtle biscuit malt flavour, and goes excellently with BBQ and spicy food.

Our second new offering is Atlantic Azores, a pale ale with a blend of English and American hops, balancing light, grassy bitterness with grapefruit and orange notes. Stu was inspired to make this brew when he first heard the term ‘mid-Atlantic’ to describe a fusion of English- and American-style pale ales. He loved the idea of balancing the vibrancy of new world hops with the refinement of English pale ale. He chose the name Azores to emphasise the point, and describes it as “a hoppy pocketful of sunshine in a glass.”

Atlantic Azores drinks very well with dishes you might have a dry white wine with, like fresh Italian pasta, pizza, tapas, and full-flavoured fish such as monkfish.

When he’s not brewing, Stu is a very good DJ and an avid collector of rare funk and soul records. We hope you’ll enjoy his beer as much we do.

Shop organic beer here.