As the English asparagus season started in late April, I asked how you felt about us preceding it with Spanish asparagus from Pepe, a grower near Granada who we have worked with for many years. The results were two to one in favour.
Our mission is to enable and encourage you to eat well, affordably, with minimal environmental impact and hopefully some positive social outcomes, but without undue dogmatism that might drive you back to a supermarket. With diversity of opinion and eating habits this is a balancing act; it’ll be easier when we can offer a more personalised box (the ultimate aim of the ongoing website disruption).
So is local always best? If we’re just considering environmental impact, certainly not for out of season crops like tomatoes and peppers. Heating a single glazed glasshouse to 20˚C in January is as insane as airfreight and we don’t do either, ever. I’m also increasingly sceptical about growing crops outside their climatic comfort zone. It often involves enormous cost and effort to produce an unreliable harvest of dubious flavour. Interestingly, the first English asparagus grown in a cold spring, though fresher, was not as good as Pepe’s crop grown in the sun.
Don’t worry, we have not given up on local; these are the musings of a man who spent the day weeding a stunted crop of sweetcorn in the rain. If we are ever to eat truly sustainably we must learn from nature and make more of plants that thrive in our climate with minimal intervention. I am inspired by how happily samphire, ransoms (wild garlic), dandelions, wild strawberries, nettles, fat hen, chickweed, rose hips, elderflower, crab apples, summer purslane, damsons and sloes (all of which have largely unexploited culinary potential) grow in the wild. Agriculture sometimes feels like an absurd, futile and vain battle with nature; without access to depleting fossil fuels, we would always lose.
On a more positive note, we were delighted to be named Best Retailer at the Observer Ethical Awards 2013; many thanks indeed to all of you who voted for us.
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Tagged observer ethical award, airfreight, asparagus, award, farm, Guy Watson, import, organic, organic veg, Riverford, veg, vegetables
I have been brought to my knees by potato blight, hail storms, supermarket buyers and drought, but none of that prepared me for the last two months of website hell. As we have matured we have become calmer and more philosophical about coping with the uncontrollable, but the last few weeks have left me wanting to scream and shout, punch and stamp. I can’t remember feeling such frustration since I wept in a field of dying potatoes 25 years ago. If only a temper tantrum and a sledgehammer would help.
I can only assume that those of you who have encountered our website falling over or running at a snail’s pace, or have had the wrong stuff delivered, must be feeling the same way. Most of you are showing much more maturity than me. We are getting some understandably irate calls (and our favourite message “I’ll have to apologise to my laptop for all the terrible things I’ve said to it tonight” from a customer on Facebook), but for the most part I am amazed by, and incredibly thankful for, your patience and loyalty. Without it, the business I am so proud of would be in dire straits. I am also very grateful to and proud of our staff and your local veg teams. They are equally frustrated but are working unbelievably hard to keep some semblance of service going.
Apologies and explanations start to sound lame at this point. A tantrum might bring some brief relief, but I would quickly feel foolish wielding a sledgehammer surrounded by whirring debris. So we must feign maturity and sort out the mess. There is no doubt we have made mistakes, but we are slowly climbing up what is proving to be a very slippery pole, back to normality.
We do have the first English new potatoes in the boxes this week and there is lots going on in the fields, but right now all that seems to matter is a string of noughts and ones being shepherded around the ether. Once again thank you for your patience. We will get there. If not I am off to live in a cave.
Farmers don’t respond well to being told what to do; especially if those doing the telling are outsiders with no demonstrable understanding of their farm. What brings about change is seeing good crops grown by somebody like them. In my early days of veg growing, I was repeatedly told that organic farming “would never feed the world”. I wanted to see for myself, so I spent two months in East Africa, visiting farming friends and a few charities in Kenya. It was a pretty depressing trip, where few aid interventions had lasting effect and sometimes had the unintended consequence of perpetuating dependency.
My final visit was to Timothy Njakasi in Uganda. He had worked at Riverford as part of his training, before returning home to develop his own smallholding. It was extraordinarily productive and sustainable; relying on local materials and local skills. For several years we supported him, helping him turn his farm (flatteringly named Kasenge Riverford) into a training institute. Recently he has worked with the charity Send a Cow, which trains farmers, mostly women, in small scale sustainable farming using peer farmer training. They accept the importance of long term support and social change; helping people to help themselves, working through farmers they can relate to.
Riverford has committed to raising £75,000 to support a similar Send a Cow project in war-torn Northern Uganda. We have raised funds by selling used gardening fleece, a banana ‘tax’, running marathons etc and you can now add a £1 donation to your order on our website, with the chance to win a year’s worth of veg thrown in. Working on the assumption that cooks are like farmers (more easily influenced by friends and colleagues than by companies and institutions) we are hoping you will know someone who should be getting a vegbox. If you manage to persuade them, we will donate £20 to this project. You could call it chugging (charity mugging), but I promise that every penny will be spent on this fantastic project. It’s win win. Look out for the tear-off slips to give to your friend on your newsletter, or find the details here.
Please, please send us back those empty boxes. We are even keener to get them back right now, before we move onto our revamped box range in June, making it hard to reuse any old boxes lurking in the back of your garage. Please leave out any boxes for your vegman/lady to collect and we will do the rest.
You may have noticed some weird things happening on our website recently, while we changed the mechanics underneath. Sorry to those of you affected. I am pretty sure that by the time you read this we will have resolved the problems, but if you are having any trouble with logging in or with payments, call us on 01803 762059 and we will help you.
We had been swimming along for too long with an idiosyncratic system that had evolved over twenty years, and have now moved to a more conventional platform that will let us join the rest of the world and move forward. Even with much planning and many sleepless nights from our IT crew, it was never going to be easy. But the change will allow us to do lots of things better in the future.
The vegbox scheme is our way of matching grower supply and customer demand. It gives growers a secure market for their produce (instead of having to brave the brutal open market), and brings customers fresher, tastier fruit and veg with known provenance. It works wonderfully for us and for our farmers, but makes the dubious assumption that you are all pretty much the same; clearly a problem. The web, along with savvy IT, offers so many exciting possibilities to do things better: to reduce waste, to inform and inspire you in the kitchen and to tailor our deliveries to your cooking style.
I want to share with you the excitement I feel when I walk around the farm planning recipes for my supper, to make use of seasonal food at its peak and to keep the journey as short and swift as possible. I want to auction you a boat’s catch before it has landed, to sell wild garlic and nettles from our woods when they are at their very best, to stop sending Jerusalem artichokes to people who can’t take the wind… This is hugely exciting, but to make it happen we need those clever spods in IT just as much as we need the burly farmers.
Thanks to your efforts, we have been nominated for two Observer Ethical Awards this year. We’ve made the final shortlist for Retailer of the Year, and I’m proud to be nominated for Campaigner of the Year.
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Tagged seasonal veg, boxes, Campaigner of the Year, farm, Guy Watson, Observer Ethical Awards, organic, Retailer of the Year, Riverford, veg, website
After two years of living with an intermittently vegan, intermittently vegetarian, occasionally carnivorous and invariably combative teenage daughter, I feel well versed in the social, ethical and environmental arguments around eating animals, eggs and dairy. My boys remain committed, unquestioning, steak-loving carnivores but I find that, though it may take a little more thought, I am happy to eat much less meat than I used to. In fact, if I am away from home for a few days I positively crave vegetables.
For most of us, eating less meat, less often would be better for our health, better for the planet and, if we use some of the money saved to buy thoughtfully, better for the animals involved. You might think this is just a self interested vegetable grower speaking, in 2010 I bought the Riverford meatbox company from my brother Ben, so it is in my interests to promote a balanced diet, with at least some meat. Grazed grass and clover plus manure (the welcome by-product) are also vital to maintaining soil fertility and allowing us to grow vegetables successfully. Our message, which you will hear us preach occasionally through the year, will be to eat good meat less often, to eat all the animal and to be sure that you are happy with how it is produced. We know all the farmers who supply our meat (many of them also supply vegetables); the animals are slaughtered carefully in a local, small family run abattoir and hung and butchered by hand by our team of skilled butchers. Even my daughter is happy to eat it, sometimes.
How does meat fit into your diet, if at all?
Guy Watson from Riverford in Devon
Back in the 1990s, when I was still striving to appease supermarket buyers, I was appalled by the waste that inevitably resulted from pursuing their fickle favour.
Vegboxes are the antithesis of this. The contents of your boxes have been meticulously planned; cropping plans and prices agreed with our growers right up to May 2014; a few cabbage seedlings are already germinating under the grass. All that planning and commitment reduces waste, allows our farmers to invest with confidence, and helps us to keep prices down – and stable. Sticking to those commitments makes us a little less flexible and responsive to fashions and trends than we might be; the stuff has to grow first.
Having made our plans and done our sums, we will be putting up vegbox prices by an average of 4.1% on 1st January; sorry, but it’s only once a year. After the worst growing year we have experienced, we need to return a little more to growers, particularly those with the more risky green crops. Most are being incredibly stoical with an unshakeable faith that things can’t be as bad next year, but bank balances have been drained this year and they need the prospect of some profit to keep taking those risks.
A small piece of good news is that we are removing the charges for debit card payments. I have harboured a minor obsession with how these charges are concealed in transactions and as a point of principle wanted to make them visible. However, what started as a principle has become a niggling annoyance to customers and staff so I am bowing to convention on this one. Charges on credit cards will remain: transactions cost more, and most people can opt to avoid them by using a debit card.
Finally, I am officially the BBC Farmer of the Year; a fine honour and one that I cherish dearly. I won the title in 2004 but it means so much more to win when times are hard; I feel we have earned it this time and I can’t stop smiling. The title itself is good, but winning is made so much better by all the messages of support from staff, customers, suppliers and other farmers.
Thanks to you all.
For years we agonised over whether the benefits of tunnels (earliness, quality and cropping reliability) justified the eyesore. Last year we took the plunge and covered three acres of our best land with polytunnels, doubling our area of protected cropping. Despite the lack of sunshine, these three acres have been the most prosperous on the farm this year, providing good harvests of winter salads, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and peppers.
We are now harvesting the last of the sakura, sassari and cheramy cherry tomatoes and should be picking these for another week. Unfortunately we’ve had to abadon the larger dometica and mecano tomatoes which have now lost their sweetness and are showing ghost spotting due to low levels of botrytis.
There is always a lot of green fruit which will not ripen by the end of the season. This will be picked and made into chutney by my brother Ben (sold in our farm shop), or perhaps by you. From today, green tomato chutney kits are available to order, complete with a recipe and ingredients, www.riverford.co.uk/chutneykit. There is nothing like a well stocked preserve shelf; it makes me feel ready for winter and prepared for any forgotten presents.
As the cucumbers and tomatoes are cleared we are cultivating and replanting the tunnels with rocket, mizuna, claytonia, baby leaf lettuce and chard, for harvest through the winter. Outside, most of the autumn and winter crops have established well and in the dryer east are going into autumn as we would like. In the wetter west we continue to suffer from a combination of low light levels and leaching carrying soluble nutrients beyond the reach of our crops roots, but we stay optimistic.
pumpkin day – free family day out
Saturday 20th October Mole End Farm, Kent
Saturday 27th October Upper Norton Farm, Hampshire; Sacrewell Farm, Cambridgeshire; Wash Farm, Devon
Sunday 28th October Home Farm, Yorkshire
…. I’ve been waiting all summer to use that weak pun!
The lettuce season is drawing to a close and we are now picking the last of our Red Batavia, one variety of which is called ‘Mohican.’ A deep red colour, the Mohican has stood up surprisingly well in the grim weather. Red lettuce, having less chlorophyll in the leaves, is less vigorous than green varieties and hence more susceptible to pest and disease as it sits in the ground for longer. Next week it will all be gone along with the last of our Cos. Apart from some Radicchio in a few weeks time that will be pretty much it for the year.
Looking forward to next year’s crops, we are busy planting over-wintered onions as well as garlic cloves (to harvest as wet garlic in the spring). Along with the winter salad pack for the polytunnels, these will be the last plants to go into the ground for the year. After that it’s just a matter of crossing our fingers and hoping for more favourable growing conditions than we’ve had of late.
25 years ago, having given up my brief career as a management consultant, I returned to my father’s farm for Christmas to rethink my life. Milking cows in a family partnership hadn’t worked for me; nor had the urban hedonism of 1980s London and New York. I concluded that I was unemployable and so would start my own business.
By Easter, I had ploughed up the best field on the farm and sown my first leeks, lettuces, cabbages and sprouts. I had beginner’s luck; those first seeds emerged well and a demonic determination gripped me. I worked day and night, invested every penny back in the business and was considered mad by my neglected friends and family. I was going to make it in veg if it killed me. I took setbacks personally, but never seriously doubted I had found my path – even when faced with docks, couch grass, pestilence and supermarket buyers. 25 years on I have mellowed a bit, but remain as obsessed by veg as ever. Somehow in the intervening years I have gathered followers (co-op members, joint venture partners, 450 staff, franchisees who deliver your boxes) and spawned a giant. Every three seconds, on one of our four farms, we are packing a vegbox; 40,000 each week. Scale has brought opportunities to challenge the norms of farming and business and I’m fairly sure we have made things a little bit better for our staff, suppliers, the environment and for you, our customers. Without your support I’d still be moaning about supermarkets like a stuck record. Together, we have challenged and fought for a better way, and for that, I am both grateful and proud. From all our suppliers and everyone at Riverford… a big thank you. We’d love to see you at our Pumpkin Days at the end of October for a bit of a celebration – more details to follow.
25 golden carrots – have you found one?
To celebrate our birthday, we’ve hidden 25 golden carrots in our vegboxes this week, Willy Wonka-style. If you find a golden carrot in your box, we’ll bring you a bottle of fizz. Good luck!
As I sit here eating my lunch and reading my partner Guy’s newsletter from deepest Devon, it amazes me that for such a small country, the weather (the biggest influence on farming), can vary so much.
While up here in the North, conditions have been extremely challenging, we seem to have fared far better than our cousins in the South. Yield potential for the potatoes is a slight concern, but the sweetcorn and her various vegetable friends are looking tremendous. Even the pumpkins are looking good, which at one point I had completely written off in my mind.
Indeed, we’ll be celebrating this year’s harvest at Home Farm on Pumpkin Day, Sunday 28th October. Hundreds of pumpkins will be harvested for the event between 11am to 4pm and visitors will have the chance to take part in a pumpkin carving competition. There will also be tractor rides, games, cookery demonstrations and sampling and food stalls. Local folk band, Fiddlyn Man Doris, will also be on hand to provide the entertainment. Entry is free and we hope to see you there!
We were also delighted to hear that our local suppliers, Acorn Dairy and Pierce Bridge have recently won Soil Association awards for their quality food and commitment to organic.