Guy’s news: Good news for birds, bees – and organic farmers

Guy is on holiday this week, hopefully enjoying better weather than we are. In his absence, we are using his space to share the heartening results from the 2018 Soil Association Organic Market Report. In fields and shops alike, the organic sector is seeing its sixth year of strong growth. The amount of UK farmland going organic has increased by 22% since 2016, and organic food sales are at an all-time high, growing by 6% (against non-organic sales growth of just 2%).

This is good news for us at Riverford, of course, but also for the planet. Organic farming is about working with nature, not against it. This principle guides all sorts of choices: from never using artificial pesticides and fertilisers, to maintaining wide field margins, mature hedgerows, reservoirs and healthy soil. We leave our hedgerows uncut between March and August so the local wildlife
can breed in peace. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it: new Soil Association research shows that plant, insect and bird life is typically 50% more abundant on organic farms, which can be home to 30% more species.

Organic certification also demands the highest level of animal welfare – setting much higher standards than, for example, free range. Animals have real freedom to roam on open pasture, enjoy a rich natural diet, and are reared without the routine use of drugs, antibiotics or wormers. Riverford’s meat all comes from small-scale West Country farmers we know and trust. Our fresh milk for customers in the South comes from the Riverford Dairy (owned by Guy’s brother and sister), and from the Tweddle family’s Acorn Dairy for customers in the North and East. The cows do a good job of making sure nothing goes to waste here in Devon… they will cheerfully devour any grade-out veg that isn’t good enough for human plates. Broccoli is their favourite!

30 years ago, when Guy first started growing veg in one field of his family’s farm, there was little evidence to support organic methods. In Guy’s own words, he chose organic ‘largely because it just felt right’. Since then, we’ve stuck by organic through thick and thin, supported by you, our customers. It’s good to see this growth, and to know that organic is beginning to feel right to a new generation of farmers and shoppers. Long may it continue.

Want to avoid ultra processed foods?

Cook from scratch!

The media has been abuzz today with new research from France suggesting a link between ultra processed foods and an increased risk of cancer. For now, the study should be treated with a bit of caution; the researchers themselves said their results ‘need to be confirmed by other large-scale studies’. But is it really news to any of us that an ultra processed diet isn’t the healthiest choice?

Riverford has long promoted the joys of cooking from scratch with fresh organic veg, dairy and meat – nourishing food with a wonderful flavour, and no hidden nasties.

What are ultra processed foods?

Michael Pollan put it best: ‘Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.’

To write a full ultra processed foods list would take a very long time, as they make up so much of what lines supermarket shelves – and 50% of the average UK family’s diet! But broadly speaking, ultra processed foods are made with ingredients you wouldn’t find in your own kitchen: artificial additives, preservatives, flavourings and colourings. They also often contain high levels of sugar, fat and salt. Think crisps, chocolate bars, fizzy drinks, processed meats like chicken nuggets and meatballs, and instant foods such as soups, noodles, and frozen readymeals.

Avoiding ultra processed foods

The easiest and most satisfying way to avoid ultra processed foods is to cook from scratch. You know exactly what goes into your food, can pack every plate with fresh organic veg and other good-for-yous – and a meal always tastes better when it’s made by your own fair hand.

Cooking from scratch is a good start – and choosing organic ingredients is even better. The Soil Association’s organic standards (some of the highest in the world) protect consumers and farmers alike from a number of potentially harmful chemicals. Organic farmers like Riverford never use artificial pesticides or weedkillers on our crops. Certification also strictly prohibits GM crops, hydrogenated fats and controversial artificial colourings and preservatives.

Riverford makes cooking fresh organic meals from scratch easy. Our organic veg boxes are packed with different seasonal varieties every week, plus simple, inspiring recipes to help you make the most of all that good stuff. Don’t have time to plan? Try an organic recipe box, with easy step-by-step recipes and measured quantities of all the 100% organic ingredients you need.

Steering clear of ultra processed foods has never been easier – or tastier.


Live life on the veg this Pancake Day

We thought we’d offer a little inspiration for how to do Shrove Tuesday the Riverford way. Although the classic lemon and sugar combo takes a lot of beating, we think our savoury pancakes are pretty good contenders. They are, of course, all about the veg!

The key to a good pancake is to use an oil suitable for frying at high temperatures, and without a strong flavour, such as sunflower or groundnut oil. Plain flour can be substituted for buckwheat, which goes particularly well with savoury fillings; in France, crêpes are usually made with buckwheat. It’s also gluten-free.

Masala Dosa & Spiced Spuds with Beetroot & Coconut Relish

Masala dosas are the perfect Indian street snack. Traditionally the paper thin dosa pancakes are made with a fermented rice batter. As the process takes 3 days, we’ve cheated a little here and used a mix of rice and chickpea flour. An Indian snack is never complete without a chutney or relish, so a warm beetroot side adds some earthy flavour and bright colour.
Read the full masala dosa & spiced spuds with beetroot & coconut relish recipe

Ragú of Green Beans with Tomatoes, Olives & Farinata

Farinata (also known as socca) is a dense chickpea pancake, often baked in shallow trays in wood-fired ovens. It is perfect to drag through and mop up rich sauces. Enjoy them paired with a herby green bean ragú.
Read the full ragú of green beans with tomatoes, olives & farinata recipe

Sweet Potato Pancakes

These sweet potato pancakes can be adapted for both sweet and savoury tastes. Serve for dinner with a roasted vegetable topping e.g. ratatouille and quick pickled red onions or leftover curry or chilli, or as a hearty breakfast, laced with a pinch of cinnamon and served with sliced banana and maple syrup or honey.
Read the full sweet potato pancakes recipe

Spinach, potato & chickpea pancakes

This recipe ticks the box for both vegan and gluten-free. These chickpea pancakes are stuffed with a curried potato, spinach and chickpea filling. Serve with a good dollop of yogurt, some fruity chutney and wedges of lemon for squeezing.
Read the full spinach, potato & chickpea pancakes recipe

Guy’s news: Packaging; an apology for drifting

As we prepare for employee ownership I’m writing an ethos statement to be included in the documentation. “Only dead fish go with the flow” made it in there and seems to embody our independent spirit. However staff pointed out that going with the flow can conserve energy for more important battles, that it can be soothing to drift along with others, and sometimes everyone else is right.
On reflection the principle should be knowing when to drift, and when to swim.

In 2007 we did some swimming. A collaboration with Exeter University informed an environmental policy which challenged many popular, intuitive views of the time. We abandoned our tentative move towards biofuels, stopped using biodegradable plastic bags, stopped using UK heated glass houses and argued that plastic often has a lower carbon footprint than paper. Plastic marine pollution was not a widely recognised issue at the time; our assumption was that climate change was the main challenge facing our planet.

Through recessions, an IT crisis, and the collapse and recovery of the organic market, we’ve swum in other areas but drifted on packaging. In our defence, we encouraged you to return packaging for us to sort, reuse or recycle, but the problem is that we’ve drifted into using too much packaging in the first place. There’s always a reason: reducing wilting and waste, separating allergens,
maintaining temperature requirements, carrying vital labels, and occasionally, because it makes our lives and systems easier. But we’ve drifted too far and need to challenge those pressures. That should have come from me but I am ashamed to say it has come from feedback from you, our customers.

Please be assured that we have woken up; all packaging is being critically challenged. We have already moved from plastic to biodegradable nets made from wood and you will see other changes in coming weeks. We’re not going to jump into degradable plastics, or from plastic to paper, without investing in substantial research first. So this is an apology for not living up to the expectations we’ve courted and a promise that we’ve heard you and will change as quickly as we can. While we may be way ahead of most retailers in this area, we have drifted too long.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Planning & long-term relationships

Leafing through the glossy pages of seed catalogues can be a dangerous pastime during short, cold winter days. We know our carrots will be more wrinkled and there will be few onions with such flawless skin, but in a warm kitchen, disbelief can be suspended and dangerous dreams of vegetable perfection can take root. Thankfully, the days when a year’s cropping was based on my emotional state when ordering the seeds are long past; today planning is rational and meticulous. The ideal contents of every veg box from May ‘18 to April ‘19 were decided by September ‘17; by November we’d agreed which fellow farmers will grow what and agreed prices, leaving January to order seeds and plants and plan our own farm cropping. It can be two years before some crops end up in your boxes; last minute adjustments may be needed as crops fail or out-yield, or come early or late, but for the most part it works. Waste is minimal, and (correct me if I am wrong) the variety and balance in your boxes is infinitely better than in the dark ages of my whims.

My greatest pride in Riverford stems from breaking the industry norms of short-term, competitive relationships and almost ritualistic abuse of growers by supermarket and wholesaler buyers who have little knowledge (and even less interest) in flavour or the realities of farming. The waste, brutality and frustration I experienced on the wrong side of those negotiations made me determined to find a better way of working with our own growers. There is usually more to be gained by cooperation and long-term, mutually beneficial relationships than brutal competition for short-term contracts; it all depends on building and valuing mutual trust. We also have a preference for smaller family farms with a heartfelt commitment to organic farming, over large, commercially-motivated growers who keep a foot in both organic and conventional camps and move whichever way the wind blows. Maintaining relationships with growers, whether in Devon, Yorkshire, Spain or Togo, often over 10 or even 20 years, is not always the cheapest way of buying, but it does produce the best veg. Respect for humanity and the environment are included free.

Read about our recent trip to visit our Spanish growers here.

A road trip across Spain, meeting new and long-term growers

by Luke King, Riverford’s Commercial and Operations Director

Many of our growers have been supplying us for over a decade and have become good friends. Having close relationships with farmers is hugely important to us, so regular trips are crucial to reaffirm existing relationships and talk through future crop plans.

I recently visited the Spanish farmers we work with, alongside our Devon farm manager, James, Technical Manager, Dale, and Flemming Anderson, who co-ordinates our work with them.

During the trip we also visited a number of potential new suppliers with interesting new crops . Our journey lasted four days, visiting ten growers and covering 1,200km across southern Spain.

Here is my slightly rambling report about the growers we visited; we hope you may find it interesting too.

Day 1
Sweet potatoes

After setting off from Seville, our trip began in an area near Cadiz where around 60% of the sweet potato we sell is grown. We deliver around 240 tonnes across the year with sales rising each year.

The Spanish season runs from August to February/March and all comes from one grower, Jean Claude Mathalay, who we’ve worked with for over 10 years.

The area around Cadiz is wetter than usual for Andalucía, with rainfall near 800 ml/year; that’s more than our farm in Cambridgeshire. This predominantly falls in the winter but means there is plenty of water for a thirsty crop like sweet potato. The area has sandy but fertile soils, and is not as hot as other areas due to its proximity to the Atlantic, which the crop likes.

Jean Claude has been organic for 25 years. A Belgian national, he started out as an agronomist, before deciding to set up a wholesale business in France and then becoming a grower.

Sweet potato has become a major product for us so it is important we have a good relationship with our core supplier and we are certain about his integrity and practices. The sweet potatoes were all harvested at the end of last year so there was nothing to see in the field, but here is the 2 hectare nursery where the cuttings will be taken and planted outdoors in the soil.

Avocado and mango

We worked our way past Gibraltar and back to the Mediterranean coast to see a company called Jalhuca who we’ve worked with for two years. They specialise in mango and avocadoes and although they are a commercial business, they are progressive, do an excellent job and are very principled.

The coastal strip from Gibraltar to Motril, locally called The Tropical Coast, has a unique climate where the average temperature during the autumn/winter is high enough to support commercial avocado and mango production.

Jalhuca have planted a new 50 hectare plantation with avocado trees in an isolated valley which should provide a good supply in the future. Steeper land is more favourable for avocado trees as it is less prone to frost and has better drainage (avocadoes don’t like wet feet!). The team will start cropping in two years’ time and will be in full production in five.

From left to right: Hugo from Jalhuca, Luke, James, Dale, Flemming and Enrique from Jalhuca.

Day 2
Lemongrass, lime fingers, kumquats and hand of Buddha

Next we travelled North to an area just outside Malaga to visit Enrique Vallejo and his son, Juan, who we met about five years ago when looking for growers to plant a winter broad bean crop. Unfortunately the beans didn’t work on their citrus focused farm abundant with grapefruit, oranges, clementines and lemons. We already have a good supply of these products so I didn’t think we would be back, but since then the farm has been trying some interesting niche products which we are very interested in:

Enrique agreed to trial lemongrass for us after our previous grower stopped trading and it’s been very successful so far. The long grasses are harvested and then cut to a bulb with 30cm of leaf.

Lime fingers
Lime fingers, or lime caviar, are a crop we’d not seen before. They come from a small citrus bush of which there are only a few per plant. The flavour is beautiful; a real delicacy. At this stage we’re not sure whether we’ll be able to source it in the numbers required or at a workable price, but it’s one of the most interesting products I’ve tried in long while.

Limequats are a hybrid of a lime and kumquat. The fruit is small, oval, greenish-yellow and contains seeds or pips. It has a sweet tasting skin and a bitter sweet pulp that tastes similar to limes. The fruit can be eaten whole or the juice and rind can be used to flavour drinks and dishes. We were impressed and would like to offer them to Riverford customers in the future.

For those who don’t know, kumquats are a group of small fruit-bearing trees. The edible fruit (which is also called kumquat) is similar to other citrus but is smaller and you can eat the whole fruit, including the skin. They have an interesting flavour profile which is slightly bitter at first, but then sweet. We hope to sell these too.

Hand of Buddha
The hand of Buddha is an unusually shaped citrus variety whose fruit is segmented into finger-like sections, resembling those seen on representations of Buddha apparently.
You peel off the yellow skin and reveal the hard pith underneath which has a subtle, sweet and lemony flavour without the sourness. These may a bit too much of a challenge to sell, but Dale and I were surprised about how nice they were.

One of the asparagus fields with protected land behind; a lovely and a unique landscape.

We then headed towards Seville to Horticola Sierra at the Finca La Turquesa. We have been dealing with Jose-Miguel for 10 years and he exclusively does our Spanish asparagus. The 19 hectare production is located in a national park which has a large water hole with abundant bird life, including flamingos. The asparagus was not out of the ground yet so after a brief look we went down to the water hole to have a look at the wildlife.

Spinach and romanesco
After the national park we then travelled east towards Granada to Loja to meet our friend Pepe who grows our fantastic winter spinach. This year we’ll also have winter romanesco from him to bring a bit of variety alongside cauliflower and broccoli through the winter months.

It has been a difficult season so far with the spinach badly affected by hot and then cold weather extremes and also pests. The crop is finally growing well and Pepe expects to harvest in the coming weeks. The romanesco look very good and are about 3 weeks away.

Pepe is a licensed paragliding pilot and flies in the mountains around Loja. He’s recently bought a dual paragliding kite so he can take friends out, so we’re hoping next time we visit we may get a flight!

Day 3
Specialty tomatoes and custard apples

Our next stop was further south at Motril on the coast to visit Frulupe.

An area of weakness within our cropping program is our over-reliance on Paco and his business Eco-Sur for peppers and tomatoes. We have two main problems: one, if Paco has an issue with the crop we don’t have a suitable back-up, and two, he understandably prefers to stick with the crop varieties he knows will grow really well on his farm.

Some months ago we had a conversation with Flemming about finding a grower in Spain to extend the season of mixed tomato varieties we grow in our tunnels. Dale sent through varieties preferences and Flemming contacted a small business called Frulupe run by Jose Manuel about a trial. The tomatoes are now ready for us to start delivering in the coming weeks. They are a little larger than the ones we grow and would ideally want, but taste great and are a good starting point for a new crop.

Frulupe also supply our custard apples, a unique heart-shaped fruit with a sweet taste related to the magnolia. The fruit has two short seasons, one in February and one in October. The fruit is looking fantastic and almost ready for the February season.

Next we met Paco, our tomato and pepper grower, for lunch and a catch-up before heading to meet two companies that can potentially fill gaps where we need to. There are times when our core growers may have problems with their supply so we need have credible alternatives. Finding suppliers who match up to our standards is difficult but Flemming has found two, called Balcon de Níjar and Murgierverdi, who can cover bell pepper and tomato volume shortfalls from Eco-sur.

We had tours of both businesses, which were clearly well-run with good leadership, investment and systems. We prefer to work with exclusive suppliers of a smaller size but need alternatives we can trust if there are problems.

From there we travelled north to Murcia where we had dinner with Sebastian, our calabrese broccoli supplier.

Day 4
Calabrese broccoli and watermelon

It’s taken a long time to find a reliable, trustworthy supplier of calabrese in Spain. Over the past 10 years we’ve dealt with a succession of cooperatives with little interest in forming a meaningful, long-term relationships and are also market focused and will sell to the highest bidder. This made life very difficult so when Flemming found Sebastian 2 years ago we were finally able to get to a reliable supply at a confirmed price.

Sebastian was an engineer before he became a farmer and he approaches his farming with technical precision. He uses the best infrastructure and expertise in growing and packing his product which means reliability and quality for what is a very important vegetable for us.

His latest investment is a new packhouse because his present one is too small. It’s in the early stages of construction so our farm manager James, who has extensive experience in managing projects of this magnitude, offered some helpful tips for a successful build.

We then head for our final destination near Alicante to visit Ecollevent. We’ve bought fennel and celery on and off from them over the years but this year we started a winter spinach program to compliment what we already get from other growers. Ecollevent is owned by Jaime who grows a small number of crops.
We have a good supply of Italian fennel at the moment so don’t take his, but we’re especially interested in sourcing the tops, or fronds, to sell separately.

Jaime with his Spinach, will be ready in about two weeks’ time

We returned to Devon feeling very positive from reinforcing relationships and excited by the interesting developments and potential future fruit and vegetables.

Guy’s news: Ode to a fallen oak

January’s first gale finally toppled one of our oldest field oaks. It has stood alone for all my 57 years, increasingly skeletal, surrounded by successive crops of grass, rhubarb, chard, cabbages and grass again. Unlike the more aggressively colonising ash tree, which stunts the growth of any crop within 20 metres, oaks allow grass and vegetables to grow right up to their branches; they seem happy to share, knowing that they will outlive their competitors. In my early years, resentful of the cropping area lost to this old oak, we probably took advantage of its good nature and ploughed too close. It pains me now to think my greed may have accelerated the tree’s end by damaging its roots.

It is said to have taken an incredible 1000 oaks to build Nelson’s HMS Victory, and 2000 plus for the larger ships of the line, leading to a severe national timber shortage by the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Riverford is rich in mature 200- to 300-year-old oak trees, probably planted in response to this shortage. Most stand alone in hedges or fields, where the absence of nearby trees gives them a stately grandeur. Their forms, though instantly recognisable for the sturdiness of their trunks and lacelike finery of their branches, are incredibly varied, shaped (like all of us) by a combination of genetics and growing conditions. Each tree is an ecosystem, home to a myriad of fungal and insect parasites, to little deleterious effect; time and evolution have resulted in tolerant, if not quite symbiotic, co-existence. They have provided grace, shade, shelter and food for centuries… and this one, now fallen, will heat my home for a year or more. My veneration of the ancient trees grows with every year I age myself. In my animist moments, I wonder how the survivors will judge our brief custodial tenure of the landscape they grace.

We have finally phased out the paper receipts in all areas (saving 2.6m bits of paper a year). Most of you have responded that this was long overdue. You will get an e-receipt the morning of your delivery – as long as you have an email registered with us. If we don’t have an email for you, or if you have any other questions, please call your local veg team or the team at the farm.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: The proof is in the Rt Honourable’s pudding

It is hard to understand the inhumanity or moral blindness that made 19th century slavery acceptable, but it makes the courage and mental fortitude of those who spoke out all the more admirable. Future generations will surely place our abuse of the environment they will inherit top of their own list of retrospective shame. The generous might cite our inability to find the mechanisms to act collectively in the face of pervasive global capitalism; the angry might say we were just too selfish and busy feeding our appetites to consider those who share our planet now and in years to come.

After an inexplicable two-year delay, our government published its 25 Year Environment Plan last week. I read most of its 150 pages expecting, perhaps even trying, to be cynical, but I reckon it covers most of what it should and reaches most of the right conclusions. It is surprisingly broad thinking in appreciating the hard-to-measure contributions of the environment (eg. to mental health and community) and includes as many firm commitments and as few crowd pleasers as one could hope. Of course, the challenge will be financing all that tree planting, actually getting the packaging industry to rationalise its use of plastic, and standing up to lobbying from wealthy landowners and the agro-chemical industry. The plan falls down in that it includes little meaningful commitment to reducing pesticide use and no mention of the environmental contributions of organic farming (though it advocates much of what we do). And will we support our farmers with their higher standards when faced with US trade negotiations? I do worry about the ability of liberal, market-orientated democracy to turn these aspirations into long-term legislation, rather than short-term vote-winning publicity stunts. However, it feels like an honest appreciation of the magnitude and importance of the problems we face, and is a significant step towards addressing them.

Closer to home, you can add a free sunflower birdfeeder (grown on our French farm) to your order this week. As the Defra report says, farming is about more than just feeding ourselves; I enjoy growing them, a few more birds may make it through winter, and watching their colourful acrobatics may even contribute to our mental health.

Guy Singh-Watson

Feed the Birds with a Free Riverford Sunflower

If you’ve been part of Riverford for a while, you might have had one of our organic sunflower birdfeeders before. They’re back, and we’d like you to enjoy one as a little gift from us. There isn’t enough for everyone, so it’s first come, first served. Don’t miss out – add yours now!

Guy first grew glowing yellow fields of sunflowers on his French farm in the Vendée in 2015, hoping to make his own organic sunflower oil. While watching the local wildlife thrive off the crop, he had an idea. Instead of making oil, he would dry the flowerheads and offer them to British birds.

The sunflowers went down a treat – and not just with birds. People sent us snaps of everything from wild birds to chickens, pet hamsters, and the odd cheeky squirrel munching their way through this organic snack. Keepers at the Monkey Sanctuary in Looe even said they made a great enrichment activity for the monkeys! It was so wonderful to see creatures great and small feasting on a natural organic treat, Guy has grown them again every year since.

Thinking of joining in with the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch from Saturday 27th – Monday 29th January? A Riverford sunflower is just the thing to lure out a few more feathered friends.

We would love to see photos of any birds and beasts enjoying the flower. Please share at and using #riverfordsunflower.

For inspiration, have a look at some of our favourite pictures from last year below…

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5 quick, midweek Riverford dinners

Stuck in a recipe rut and want to try something new? Live life on the veg with these quick, veg-packed recipes that can be on the table in around 30 minutes. Ideal to mix up your midweek meals!

Broccoli & Sweet Potato Curry with Cashews & Quinoa

This is a light, aromatic vegan curry. The sweet potatoes could easily be replaced with squash or pumpkin if you choose to make it again. Celeriac or parsnip would work well, too. Quinoa is a great source of protein and dietary fibre and stands in well for rice with a curry. It has a different texture, with a light bite and pop to it, but it soaks up all the liquid from the curry well. See recipe.

Chicken, Spinach & Chickpea Tagine with Harissa & Preserved Lemon

Harissa is a spicy blend of chilli, herbs and garlic. We’ve advised using half to start, tasting and adding more towards the end, depending on your preference for heat. We’re using baby spinach here, which can be wilted down in the pan in handfuls. If you make it again with larger leaved spinach, it’s best to blanch, refresh and chop it first. See recipe.

Leek, Mascarpone & Lemon Gnocchi with Walnut & Parsley Pesto

Gnocchi is quick, versatile and up there in the list of top comfort foods. Here gnocchi balls are served in a leek and watercress sauce with creamy mascarpone, then finished with a simple walnut pesto. See recipe.

Teriyaki Tofu Bowl with Shiitake, Crispy Kale & Shredded Sprouts

This is a big mixed bowl of contrasting textures. Sticky dark mushrooms, crisp roasted tofu with a soft melting centre, crunchy seaweed-like kale and a fresh sweet/sharp salad of raw sprouts, all tethered by a comforting base of unctuous rice. With good organisation, all 5 elements should mesh nicely in their preparation. See recipe.

Smoked Mackerel, Celeriac & Watercress Salad

Rich smoked mackerel with clean, crunchy celeriac and apple, peppy watercress and fresh herbs. If you don’t have watercress, use peppery winter salad leaves instead. You could also add in wedges of cooked beetroot, toasted walnuts or slices or waxy salad potato. See recipe.