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, but last year I bought the Riverford meat box 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
This summer, we asked children up and down the country to join our veg challenge, to discover whether kids really do know their carrots from their kohl rabi.
We’re very encouraged by the results, that suggest that not all children think that milk comes in cartons or tomatoes in tins.
The big news:
- On average, children aged 3-11 recognised over 80% of the fruit and veg we asked them to identify (everything from carrots and potatoes to kohl rabi and globe artichokes)
- Three quarters said they eat at least half of the fruit and veg; 4% said they eat them all; only 5% said they eat less than a quarter of them
- Carrots are the favourite and most commonly eaten veg, then sweetcorn and broccoli
- Brussels sprouts are the most disliked veg, then courgettes (try our chocolate courgette cake recipe!)
- Children of Riverford customers ate a wider range of ‘weird’ veg like kohl rabi and fennel than those of non-customers. We think this backs up our theory that the more engaged with your food, the more likely you are to eat it.
Thank you (and congratulations) to the kids who took the challenge.
If you need ideas for feeding the kids and getting back into a healthy routine after the holidays, swap tips and recipes on our Riverford Cooks site.
Longstanding customers normally tell us that flavour is the main reason they buy our boxes, so we have to deliver. Mostly we do (I am proud of about 80% of what we sell about 90% of the time), but flavour is very hard to manage and requires constant vigilance to avoid slipping into safe but bland mediocrity. Flavour comes from an interaction of variety, soil type and growing conditions. Peats and sands are normally the easiest soils to manage, but our experience is that loams, with a good mix of organic matter and minerals, produce the best flavour. As a general rule anything that speeds up growth (most notably excess water and nitrogen) detracts from flavour; a little hardship improves taste and longevity but too much produces bitterness, off flavours and premature ageing.
It is a frequently quoted rule of management that “if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it”; an irritating adage but, after 25 years in business, I have to admit, largely true. The problem with flavour is that it is subjective. Exceptions are pressure testing (quantifies squidginess of an apple) and brix testing (measures sugar content). Unsurprisingly, since the advent of these gadgets, apples have become sweeter and more juicy. We have satisfied these simple tastes but as is often the case with immediate gratification, the end result is ultimately boring; hence the rise in interest in heritage varieties with more subtle flavours.
Perhaps this is, in part, food snobbery. Sweet and juicy can be good, but so can a whole range of unquantifiable flavours and textures that are being lost as growers manage their crops to achieve the measurable at the minimum cost. Last week we ran a tomato tasting panel using staff (who we have tested and selected for their palates) and volunteers who were lunching in the Field Kitchen. A small minority liked the slow-grown, outdoor, more deeply flavoured (I thought) Marmande varieties from a loam soil but, to my horror, far more went for the sweet and juicy, indoor-grown cherry tomatoes. Maybe I’m a snob. Maybe I am just wrong. For now we will stick with the cherries, but like all frustrated pollsters, we will ask again next year.
We’re starting a new blog – questions to the cook.
Is there anything in your vegbox that is left in the fridge too long or would you like some more ideas?
Ask us any questions about cooking, preparing, or storing the fruit, veg, and anything else you get from us. Post them here on the blog and we’ll pass them to our cooks to answer in the next questions to the cook blog.
Thanks to the 50 or so of you who responded to my musings on whether it would be a good idea to grow at least some of our strawberries under tunnels to protect them from the weather and consequent losses (newsletter of 14th June.) The original post is here.
There was a (very) small majority who felt that the eyesore was justified by benefit but is was a close thing. My views have changed over the years from being very anti tunnels to thinking that they are justified for intensive crops like strawberries. We will do some costings to check that it makes economical sense and the final decision will lie with our suppliers; in Devon that, means John, the farm manager. If it works economically we will not discourage it as we have in the past.
Responding to a few specific points raised in the responses
- An acre (originally defined as the area that one man could plough with one horse in a day) is 4000 square metres; 15 time the paying area of a tennis court or just over half the area of a premier league football pitch. So to supply all our 60,000 customers with strawberries would require about 8 acres of tunnels or about 5 football pitches.
- Extending the season; there was an over whelming majority who felt that tunnels were not justified to extend the season. Most people were happy to have a relatively short “natural season”. Tunnels can extend the season but this would not be our motivation; we and you seem perfectly happy with it as it is.
- The plastic lasts 3 to five years and would be recycled after use
- The plastic is usually clear and would appear white but some people have successfully used green. I am not convinced this is an aesthetic benefit.
- On flavour: My views have changed from a prejudice against tunnels as promoting lush growth and reducing light levels and therefore flavour. In practice we find that the best flavour comes from the plants with the best growing conditions. We often get unpleasant off flavours when plants suffer stress. I suspect that on average the fruit would be better from under tunnels.
Hope that is interesting
Over the last twenty years the huge majority of the UK strawberry crop has moved from open fields to the protection and intensification afforded by hundreds of acres of polytunnels, largely in Kent and Herefordshire. Plastic can advance a crop by perhaps two weeks, but the great advantage is the protection it gives from the vagaries of a British summer. Fruit must be picked dry to avoid bruising and to give a reasonable shelf life. Even more importantly, persistent dampness leads to a build-up of fungal disease, particularly botrytis, which can reduce a good berry to a foul tasting pulp in a matter of hours.
Our strawberries are grown extensively on high ridges at wide spacing which, in a normal year, gives enough airflow to dry dews and rain before botrytis sets in. There can be no doubt that polytunnels are a blot on the landscape; the question is whether they are justified by the economic and environmental benefit they bring by reducing wastage, extending the UK season, excluding exports and thus reducing food miles. For twenty years I have stubbornly persisted with growing outdoors, with the result that we have a relatively short season and, over the last few years, have not been able to pick up to a third of the fruit. Initially I was convinced that growing outdoors gave better flavour, but now I am not so sure and wonder if I have been overly dogmatic in my resistance. Across the five regional farms we would need eight acres of tunnels to provide a good supply of strawberries for the 45,000 homes we deliver to each week. Your views would be welcome.
Thanks to everyone who replied to our question about charging a deposit for the plastic crates.
A lot of you who replied are against the idea of plastic crates and would prefer us to stick with cardboard. We would have to charge a deposit if we used plastic crates and a lot of you are against that. Unfortunately we would expect around 5% of the crates to go missing – which would be double the cost of the boxes as things stand.
Many of you would be happy to pay a £5 deposit, but no more than that. We now have a quote for fold down crates at £7.50 so the deposit would be more than a lot of people are willing to pay. This would be a massive and risky investment for us and after reading the replies, we have decided to shelve the project.
Once again, thanks for all your feedback.
A few weeks back we asked you what you would think if we moved to a returnable plastic box. Thanks to everyone who responded – we had over 200 comments. The original blog post is here and to remind you:
- We get about four trips out of a box.
- Around half of the boxes are used for other things and the other half get too damaged or dirty.
- Although they’re made from 98% recycled materials, being reused four times and being recycled at the end of their lives, the boxes still make up 10% of our carbon footprint.
- Our research suggests that a re-usable plastic box would result in a reduction in emissions of about 70%.
- 33% say it sounds like to right thing to do.
- 28% would leave it up to us to do what is best.
- 24% really don’t like the idea but would accept it.
- 13% were not convinced by the CO2 argument and are against the idea of plastic boxes.
A lot of you mentioned that the boxes need to fold down to save on space, which would be a bit more expensive but would be worth it. Some of you worried about what would happen to the plastic crates at the end of their lives. We could get them made from most if not all recycled material and if they were returned to us at the end of their lives they would be 100% recycled.
One more question
We would need to charge a deposit of between £5 and £10 which would be added to your account when we deliver and removed when you return a box. How would you feel about this?
Our boxes are reused on average four times, are made from 95% recycled materials and are recycled at the end of their lives but, surprisingly, still account for 10% of our carbon footprint (similar to the lorries delivering the boxes). In the long run we may move to plastic boxes as a more durable and lower impact solution. Preliminary calculations suggest this would give a 70% reduction in CO2 emissions, but it would be a huge capital investment and many of you have expressed a strong resistance to plastic in the past. I sense a rise in pragmatism over dogmatism in environmental issues generally and wonder how you would feel about your veg being delivered in a deposit-carrying plastic crate; email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org/blog.
In the meantime we really need as many boxes back as possible, even if they are damaged (there is a much better chance of them being effectively recycled through us than through most municipal recycling schemes). The boxes cost between 54p and 81p but just as importantly this is the biggest thing you can do to reduce the environmental impact of your veg delivery. Please fold your box flat by pushing the ends in so the bottom goes down (not up into the box) and leave it out for your vegman or lady to collect. We are also happy to take back plastic bags but would rather you added paper punnets to your compostable or paper waste.
help us make your box even better
We really like to know what you think about your vegbox and every week we give you the chance to tell us about your most recent delivery in our box quality survey. Your comments help us keep on top of anything that isn’t up to scratch, let us know about anything that is particularly good and give us new ideas to make the boxes even better. It only takes a minute each week; please follow the link from your weekly box contents email or scroll down to the beetroot on the ‘this week’s box’ page of the website.
Not only did we win Best Ethical Business at the Observer Ethical Awards, we also got to meet Colin Firth… But what is an ethical business? We’d love to know your thoughts.
Here’s a short film about Riverford shown at the award ceremony.
(photos by Alicia Canter)