Tag Archives: crops

Guy’s Newsletter: bumper crops, caterpillars & gleaners

We are picking the first of a fine crop of sweetcorn on our farm in France; six weeks ahead of the main UK crop and in time for your BBQs. Annoyingly you are in competition with the European corn borer, a moth which particularly favours maize and sweetcorn for nursing its young; the eggs hatch into a voracious caterpillar which feeds on the ripening cobs. The agri-tech solution would be to regularly spray insecticides, or to grow a GM variety where every cell of every plant continuously generates its own insecticide. Instead we use a minute wasp called Trichogramma which lays an egg inside the eggs of the corn borer, devouring the pest from within once it hatches. This is a well-proven system of biological control used for over 100 years, but it does rely on breeding and releasing enough wasps at just the right time; I suspect we were a little late. Where damage is not severe we will trim in the field; however the occasional cob is bound to slip through so please accept our apologies. One could say it is the price of insecticide-free food, but we’re happy to replace if you feel hard done by.

Nearby we have good crops of padron peppers and tomatillos, which will appear in most boxes over the summer. The padrons make a great snack when quickly pan-fried and salted; about one in five are mildly hot but it varies according to the plant, weather, maturity and where they are grown. Meanwhile tomatillos form the basis of many Mexican dishes, most particularly salsa verde; great with just about anything grilled or fried. There are some good recipes here.

At home we are coming to the end of a record breaking crop of broad beans; lots of spring sunshine helped the bees thoroughly pollinate the flowers which, coupled with just enough rain, has resulted in well-filled pods. We have upped the portions in your boxes (on us), and our veg men and ladies will carry some complimentary bags to give to those of you who are not beaned out, but even this will not shift the colossal harvest. According to the Old Testament’s Deuteronomic Code, we should leave part of the crop for widows, orphans and strangers; even after six years of austerity we don’t find many of them wandering the parish, so we have called in Gleaning Network UK to come and pick the remains for distribution to food banks and other charities.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter:economy=ecology

Last week I explained, I hope in a reasoned way, why I am still opposed to GM crops in their current form. It’s not about the technology itself, but rather that it represents another step on a path forged by the needs of agrichemical and biotech companies rather than farmers, people and the environment. There is no doubt that those companies are winning, but when it comes to solving how we feed the world, there is an alternative direction we could put our energy into.

This morning I cut some artichokes from a bed I planted eight years ago; there has been no weeding, pest control or manuring for six years but they are still producing a good crop as part of a maturing ecosystem. It would take a lifetime of study to understand that ecosystem and why those artichokes have thrived while others crops are overcome by weeds. The best farming uses skill instead of diesel and chemicals to do less to get more; nearby is one of the very few remaining traditional cider orchards where we collected apples for pocket money as children. Instead of the mowing and spraying seen in most modern orchards, sheep control the weeds and provide some fertility with their manure. It remains as prolific as it was 45 years ago, and is also a beautiful wildlife haven.

The best farmer I ever have seen worked two acres in Uganda; his system involved crops grown in multiple canopies alongside many types of livestock. He saved his own seed, made his own compost and, on the rare occasions when he resorted to sprays, made them himself from local plants. The subtle interactions seen in nature were reflected in the synergy between the different crops and animals; economy=ecology. His inputs each year could have been carried in a wheelbarrow and paid for with a day’s wages yet I calculated his output to be 10-20 times that of the neighbouring monocultures. He was highly skilled, self-reliant and smiled more than any farmer I’ve met since. Such agricultural systems are based on complexity, knowledge and skill. Yet perhaps their greatest vulnerability in a capitalist world is that they need little that is not generated on the farm; no one is making money by selling diesel, agrichemicals or big tractors so no-one has an interest in developing or protecting the vital skill base. I reckon that might be why we hear so much about GM.

Fifteen years on: GM revisited & golden rice

15 years ago I took the government to the High Court in London to challenge the legality of some GM maize trials bordering our farm in Devon. Encouraged by my father and a group of Totnes radicals, I read a stack of scientific papers and felt sufficiently concerned to accept support from Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association and hire a lawyer. We lost in court but won in the papers, which turned out to be more important. Monsanto struck back with intensive lobbying and adverts featuring images of starving children, claiming their technology would feed the world (despite little evidence of increased yields and unaffordability to small scale farmers).

Did this justify the selective and emotive use of evidence on our side? A friend recently sent photos of a group of us posing for the press outside the High Court, holding banners and some wearing Frankenstein masks. I regret the masks; we were debasing what should have been a sober debate. To this day, it is very hard to access quality information that is not tainted by dogma, promise of commercial gain or naive fascination with the technology. As each side has become more entrenched, impartial information is harder than ever to find.

No one will convince me that GM crops are completely safe for us or the environment, but that is not sufficient for me to completely condemn them. The debate should be about whether the benefits outweigh the risks. My reading suggests that the only significant beneficiaries have been shareholders from a few global corporations, with some marginal, short-term gains to large scale monoculture farmers growing for the world market. Health risks might be smaller than I thought 15 years ago, but there appears to have been an overall increase in pesticide use and no consistent evidence of yield benefits. The risk/benefits equation does not add up. With two million people dying a year from vitamin A deficiency (advocates’ figure), could ‘golden’, vitamin-enhanced rice change the equation? I wish I could fight my way through the spin to information I trust; but then I helped to start it.

Guy Watson

Getting floral in the mud

Monday 26th November 2012

On and on it goes; the river is spilling out of its banks, springs are rising from unexpected places and once again the ground is sodden. We enjoyed a brief respite in the middle of November and managed to harvest some carrots. Conditions were borderline and they came out of the ground well caked – it will take a lot of work to get them clean enough to sell or store. A certain amount of soil helps the carrots to store, too much wet soil can deprive the roots of the oxygen they need to stay alive. Even a dormant root needs to breathe while sleeping the winter away.

As for the spuds, we must wait. We still have 80 acres in the ground but have decided to wait and pray. Aside from the diesel burned and mess made lifting all that earth, harvesting in wet conditions causes huge damage to the soil structure with its delicate flora and fauna. If it doesn’t dry up we may end up waiting to dig them in the spring, not necessarily a bad thing, provided they are well ridged and do not freeze.

Leeks, cabbage, sprouts, kale and cauliflower are running late but are arriving at our barns in increasing volumes. Harvesting is mostly done by hand. Wellies don’t get stuck like tractors, so our hardy field workers soldier on regardless. For the most part they remain cheery; some people just hate being indoors and seem able to shrug off conditions that would be considered intolerable by 99% of us. The view and their contact with nature must help. I used to be one of them but doubt that I could hack it now.

On another note; the pies, preserves, hams, bacon and tarts we sell are made by my food-crazed brother Ben, in the barn where my father once kept his pigs. Two years ago he started winning prizes for his mince pies and has been besieged by gourmet outlets wanting to sell them ever since. The answer is always no because they are handmade in small batches and we can’t make enough. There will be a few night shifts to get there but we are guessing you will buy 150,000 of them this year.

They are very good, but they will run out.

Guy Watson


Organic September

When I converted the first of my father’s fields to organic in 1986, my motivations were primarily to avoid the agrochemicals that put my brother in hospital and made me ill as a teenager, and also a sense that it offered me a better chance of making some money. Over 25 years my commitment has grown; organic farming is much more than simply rejecting synthetic chemicals; it’s about balance, harmony and humility, and an acceptance that we share our planet with six billion others, and are part of an ongoing ecosystem rather than its short-term master.

With such a broad philosophy, it’s not surprising that marketing experts repeatedly tell the organic industry to condense its benefits into clear soundbites. So, as we enter ‘Organic September’, I’ll keep the hippy dippy stuff to myself and instead extol the virtues of veg boxes from my perspective:

Better for you: We don’t spray our crops with a barrage of nerve toxins, fungicides and herbicides. There’s also good evidence organic food has higher levels of important nutrients. Better flavour too.

For the environment: Organic farms have more biodiversity and soil life, less polluted watercourses, use less fossil fuels, and have a lower carbon footprint.

For animals: Organic farms have the highest legally-enforced animal welfare standards; much higher than free range and with no routine use of antibiotics.

So there you go; bigger than bite-sized and largely unverified. I’d go on, but giving more than three reasons for anything generally makes people glaze over. If you want more, visit www.soilassociation.org. I’m so convinced of both the tangible benefits and the philosophy of organic farming that we only sell organic produce. Some organic companies have recently started selling ‘free range’, ‘additive-free’, and ‘home produced’ non-organic goods. In as much as these words mean anything, I’d argue that we are all of them, and organic, and have been for 25 years.
Guy Watson

Returning to devon

After a month of picking sweetcorn and tomatillos on our farm in France, I am back in Devon and wondering why. It’s still raining but everyone seems remarkably cheery and no-one seems to have missed me; slightly disturbing to the ego but I’ll put it down to my management skills. You all seem to be buying a lot of veg though, which is great. Could it be down to failing gardens and allotments? We know over half of you grow some of your own and this normally contributes to a sales slump around the same time that our courgettes and runner beans are ready.

A lot of the sun loving summer crops have failed (most of the sweetcorn, pumpkins and squash), or drastically underperformed (spinach, chard and salad leaves). On a more positive note, the carrots and often fickle parsnips have germinated and established well in the wet. However, potatoes continue to be a disaster. Potato blight, caused by the aggressive fungal pathogen Phytophthora infestans and brought on by persistent damp, has wiped out all but the most resistant variety, Valor. To avoid spores infecting tubers by being washed down diseased leaves, we have been forced to mow off the foliage early. Potatoes are an expensive crop to grow and in order to give our blighted growers some return, we have decided to grade and wash the small potatoes (as long as they cook and eat well) and include them in the boxes over the winter. I am hoping that provided you don’t have to wash and peel marble-like spuds, you will be happy to roast, boil and mash them with their skins on. Let us know. For the next few weeks we will continue to have the wonderful salad potato Charlotte in the boxes, so no need to fret just yet.

Overall, we have planted our autumn and winter veg almost to schedule and most crops are coming on well. So, with the exception of potatoes and squash, the outlook for the winter boxes is looking good. The summer of 2012 will go down as the worst in any grower’s memory, certainly in the West. It has cost us and many of our growers dear, but we will survive and no-one will starve.

Guy Watson