Tag Archives: farming

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.

E-receipts
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: Anger, hope & Oprah

Every January, two sides of agriculture gather in Oxford; the 82-year-old, mostly male and suit-clad ‘conventional’ Oxford Farming Conference, and the nine-year-old challenger, the Oxford Real Farming Conference, with no suits, fewer landowners, and a broader spread of age, gender and ethnicity. The former is sponsored by banks, chemical manufacturers and accountants and is bashful about anything not justified by profit, while the latter is sponsored by charities, a not-for-profit bank, individuals and, this year, Riverford. It also challenges the dominance of capital over labour, specialisation over diversity, and champions labourers and the landless. The former, with its defence of the privilege of the most privileged, makes me ashamed of my profession. The latter fills me with hope and inspiration that a more equitable way of farming is within grasp; that, to echo Oprah Winfrey, “a new day is on the horizon”.

Despite driving a Land Rover and liking tweed, I have never identified with my more landed farming peers. Too often they are united by a sense of entitlement without acknowledgement of their (often inherited) privilege or the taxpayer’s money that perpetuates it, or the responsibilities that should come with those advantages. I thought I had mellowed in my middle years but the baying
bigotry of this sector of farming makes my blood boil at times. Secretary of State for Defra Michael Gove addressed both conferences and, to my surprise, stated unequivocally that the current £2.5bn payments that are essentially government subsidies for owning land are “unjust” and will stop by 2024. Perhaps more importantly the sold-out ‘real’ conference had twice as many delegates and a long waiting list, with doers outnumbering talkers. There were impassioned, deeply practical talks on everything from soil structure to weeding by laser-armed robot swarms. Inevitably a lot of time was devoted to Brexit, but the prevailing feeling was that this is the chance for a food and farming policy that represents the many over the few, the wildlife we share our countryside with, and future generations. Mercifully my anger seemed to be an anomaly drowned in a sea of hope.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Stunted growth, spotty sprouts & Sevilles

It’s wild, wet and windy out there. The sun, when we see it, barely reaches the north-facing fields even at midday. If I were a bear, I would find a warm cave and take a nap. Nothing grows in the first two weeks of January, but the stunt doesn’t last long. By the end of the month, kales, leeks and cabbages will begin to grow again as the days start to draw out and the noon sun starts to climb. On our French farm, just 200 miles south, we’ll be planting lettuces before the end of the month. I can’t explain it, but even growers in areas like southern California, where their winter is similar to our summer, avoid sowing in early January. A druid might put it down the need for solar rebirth; a bear might take it as a chance for a nap.

I once got berated as a heartless bully by a number of you for being unforgiving about the repeated failures, and consequent lack of quality, of one of our cauliflower growers (Mr M for those who remember). I ate humble pie, apologised, and we went on buying his caulis, but it made no difference in the end; he continued to hope for the best rather than weed his crop, and went bust soon after. It might have been kinder to be harder sooner; it is a hard judgement to know when to stop working with a grower. Riverford is extraordinary within our industry for the long-term relationships we have with suppliers. It’s something I feel very proud of and hope survives me, but sometimes the farm or the farmer is wrong for the crop and no amount of ethics or support will change the inevitable outcome; it just prolongs the agony and undermines other growers. If you were one of the 20% of customers who had to trim small, spotty Brussels sprouts this year, I am sorry; it was the third year of poor sprouts from this grower, but we won’t give up on him quite yet.

On a lighter note, to mark two more successful long-term relationships, the first blood oranges from Sicily and Sevilles from Ave Maria Farm in Mairena del Alcor have arrived and are as excellent as in previous years. Now is the time to make marmalade. You can even cook alongside me on our YouTube channel if you need a little guidance.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news – Family, fuzz & metamorphosis

30 years ago, I returned to my parents’ farm for Christmas as a disillusioned management consultant. I never planned to stay but, from the cocoon of family, the fuzz of Christmas and metamorphosis of New Year I emerged as a suit-free vegetable grower. I don’t recall how or why; it was a decision born in the heart, the gut, or maybe even the stars.

The following three decades of pursuing my passion with only minor compromise feels like a life of indulgence. Farming, and vegetables in particular, can be a soul-crushing master on a bad day but the rewards of doing something so tangible, so close to nature and with such daily autonomy have easily compensated. On a good day an extraordinary peace can descend, something I suspect is unknown to management consultants. It was the best decision I ever made.

A second good decision came with starting the box scheme 25 years ago. Things could, and almost certainly would, have gone so wrong if we’d stuck with selling to the supermarkets. There is not much autonomy to be found in being at the metaphorical end of a buyer’s boots, or indulging their tantrums. Without you, our loyal and sometimes forgiving customers, Riverford would have slipped below the sod long ago.

We planned to give you all some popcorn grown on our farm in France for Christmas, but a damp autumn and a plague of corn borers have determined otherwise, so I hope mere words are an acceptable substitution.

Wishing you merry feasting and a good metamorphosis, should you be seeking one.

Guy Singh-Watson

Growing your Christmas veg

blog-bannerDecember has arrived, bringing with it a burst of Christmas spirit. It’s finally time to put up the tree and crack open the advent calendar. There are fairy lights to be untangled, presents to be picked, and all sorts of treats to eat and drink.

Here on the farm, December doesn’t mark the beginning of the festivities, but the culmination of many months of work. We have been planning, planting, and tending our Christmas crops for the best part of the year, making sure everything is ready for the big day.

Here’s a little insight into what it takes to put some of the most iconic veg of the season on your plate, and how they are coming along.

Brussels sprouts

growing sprouts for Christmas

Up in Lancashire, Dan Gielty (otherwise known as Organic Dan) planted our Brussels sprouts all the way back in March and April. That might seem like a long time to produce such a tiny vegetable, but the slow growth allows their flavour to develop, and they really do taste better for it.

They aren’t the sprout-cutterprettiest to look at – organic sprouts never are, as the dense canopy of leaves provides a cosy environment for bugs and blight – but they are plump, healthy, and plentiful. In the past, we’ve had some issues with empty spaces on the stalks, but this lot are chock-a-block.

When the sprouts are mature, experienced pickers climb aboard Dan’s ‘beast’ of a cutter (pictured), and harvest them by hand. It’s exhausting work, but worth it: having put so much time into our sprouts, each one is precious. It would be a shame for them to be bumped and bruised, or picked before they were ready by an undiscriminating machine.

Red cabbage

red-cabbage1

Christmas cabbages were put in the soil back in June and July, by our neighbour here in South Devon, Andy Hayllor. While they grow, the plants look surprisingly plain: a sea of dusky silver, rather than the vibrant red you might expect. Come harvest time, the dull, tatty outer leaves – nature’s own packaging – are trimmed away, revealing the bright, glossy heads inside.

red-cabbageAndy is growing the same variety we always use. As well as being heavy and well-packed with leaves, and possessing that deep, earthy flavour so distinctive to red cabbage, they also store particularly well. The heads that were cut, trimmed, and stored in late November will still be fresh and tasty for the boxes in Christmas week.

 

 

King Edward potatoes

pickers-on-potato-tumber-141

There is no better potato for a Christmas roastie than the King Edward. They’re so good, they might just upstage the turkey. However, they are also notoriously difficult to grow; prone to blight, and to producing too many tubers at too small a size.

The tastiest, fluffiest roastie is worth the extra effort – and the risk. All it takes is a farmer who understands the plant. Enter the Farley brothers, from Cullompton; they have been growing our King Edwards for the past 5 years, so they really know their stuff. Their farm also has the optimum soil: fine and sandy, so that it is still diggable in winter. Rather than hurrying the potatoes out of the ground before it hardens up, we can leave them to grow until the last possible moment, getting more flavoursome all the while.

Parsnips

It’s nigh-on impossible to get a uniform crop of organic parsnips. They are very variable in their germination, with seeds taking anywhere between 10 and 30 days to emerge; this inevitably means that the roots will end up a range of shapes and sizes. We don’t mind a bit of wonkiness – it’s led to some amusement here on the farm. You may have seen a few of our favourites on Facebook.

gary-and-neil-farley

Our parsnips are also being grown by the Farleys and this year’s quality is exceptional. Their wonderfully sweet, which is always intensified after the first frost which converts some of their starch to sugar.

Enjoy the feast
A lot of love goes into our Christmas veg boxes. There is so much planning to be done before anything even goes into the ground – then come the long months of care while they slowly grow, and the back-breaking work of harvesting by hand in bleak winter weather. But sitting down to an organic Christmas table laden with all our festive favourites, we know that it was worth every moment.

Guy’s news: A perfect descent & a modest rise

It has been a near perfect descent into winter, with steadily dropping temperatures allowing cabbages, kales, leeks, cauliflowers and salads in the tunnels to adapt and harden themselves for the trials ahead. We’re now left with only the hardcore pickers for the dark months; it takes a very particular mental and physical fitness to see through a winter out in the fields. With plenty of dry
weather, there has been a welcome absence of mud so far; it is the heavy, sticky, all-pervading accumulations on hands and boots which drag down the mood and the pace in the field more than the cold or even the rain.

November, normally the first dull, grey and muddy month of winter, was uncharacteristically kind; bright, dry and even warm for the most part, in Devon at least. The last potatoes are safely in the barn, along with most carrots and beets, and the broad beans and garlic have been planted in good conditions. On the last dry day we even managed to finish lining our irrigation reservoir with clay; it is now filling ready for next summer.

Sadly, such favourable weather and a good growing year overall has not been enough to make up for less favourable changes beyond our fields and outside our control. The pound has plunged 20% against the euro since the summer of 2016, when we planned your current box contents and agreed the prices with our Spanish, French and Italian suppliers. We have weathered the storm and held our prices for over a year but the sums are no longer adding up and, with great reluctance, we must put up our prices. Boxes will rise in the new year by an average of 66p or 4%, with small rises on most of our non-box range in the new year. The UK- only box will remain the same price at £13.95.

Food inflation is currently running at 4.1%; this rise will be 14 months since our last, making our annual inflation rate 3.4%. I hope this will be deemed fair by most of you. Our boxes are still substantially cheaper than supermarkets and our box competition, and you get more in your box: the veg tastes better and, where we don’t grow it ourselves, we look after the farmers who do in a way which is unprecedented in our industry.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: hasty veg & a bitter imposition

We are finally enjoying some very welcome cold, dry and bright weather. It will take another week before our most free-draining land dries enough to allow any soil preparation for planting though; spring still feels a long way off. Most winter crops are running four to six weeks ahead of schedule due to the mild winter so far, while our other fields look worryingly bare; it will be three or four months before the spring crops are ready. We still have plenty of roots, kale and leeks, but there will be gaps left by the hasty cauliflowers and cabbages, so we will have to juggle our box contents planning a little.

In contrast to this, over on our farm in France a break in the weather allowed us to plant the first batavia lettuce this week, as the sandy soils there are more forgiving. The first cos lettuce will go into the ground tomorrow; the seed bed was prepared and covered back in October, avoiding the need for any cultivation now when it is difficult to get machinery on the wet land. We plant by hand this early in the year, but still need a tractor to bend hoops and lay the low-level polytunnels that will protect and advance the crop, allowing us to start cutting in late March. Overall our farm in the Vendée has come a long way to filling the UK’s Hungry Gap, but it looks as if that gap might be wider than usual this year. Thankfully, after five years on our own, an organic neighbour will be growing spinach for your boxes in late April and May.

Most of the crop planning for the coming season is done, and seeds and plants ordered with just a few details to refine; I would be grateful if some of you could pass comment on the pale green, solid-ish, bitter and crunchy heads of pain de sucre (salad chicory) that have been in some boxes over the last month. I love growing and eating them and they provide some winter variety without the need to go 1000 miles south, but is this a bitter imposition or do you like them too? There is a very, very brief questionnaire at www.riverford.co.uk/paindesucre; I am just as keen to hear from the haters as the lovers.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: average – the new good?

In much of the UK we are blessed with a moist, temperate climate and good soils, making farming relatively easy compared to the more extreme climates of the world. Farming evolves with decades of experimentation and observation, based on assumptions about the weather and its implications for crops, varieties, soil types and topographies. Some scientists have suggested that higher average temperatures and atmospheric CO2 levels (a key limit to plant growth) could benefit farmers in temperate climates. This may be true under average conditions, but experience suggests that extremes may be more critical in determining the fate of a particular crop, and ultimately our food security. And all climatologists seem to agree that we should expect more extremes.

In Devon, November brought temperatures 3˚C above average, half the average sunshine and about 50% extra rain. December saw temperatures a staggering 4˚C up, with sunshine about 30% down. Warm, dull wet weather is what we expect in a Devon winter but this is extreme; plants need the sun, if not to grow, to maintain themselves and to give the strength to fight off pathogens. Until recently most crops held up well, including cabbages, kale and swede and a fair crop of slightly weather-beaten leeks. Harvesting is slower in the mud, especially with the extra trimming of damaged leaves, but generally morale in the teams has held up well. Into the New Year the inevitable problems started to surface: fungal disease in the spring greens outside and salad greens in our tunnels, head rot hitting early purple sprouting broccoli and aphids and an (as yet) unidentified stem rot in tunnel-grown lettuce. All problems that would disappear with some bright, cold, or even average, weather.

What better way to while away a grim January day than making Seville orange marmalade? According to Paddington Bear, every family needs a marmalade day. If you can’t be bothered with our marmalade kits, just try this year’s excellent blood oranges. Both are at their best over the next few weeks.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: when I grow up

Taken as a whole, 2015 has treated us well. A bright and dry, if cool, spring allowed us to plant in good conditions, and though crops were slow to get away in the cold, all was well as we entered summer. The persistent dampness of late summer brought a spate of fungal disease, but the wonderfully bright and dry September and October were a gift to all farmers, allowing perfect ripening and harvesting conditions and a late rally in many crops. Since then it has been relentlessly grim in the fields with barely a few hours of brightness and no chance of harvesting the last carrots, but that is pretty much what we expect.

Good farmers make the most of their chances; bad farmers make the most of their excuses. To be in the former group you must grow the right crops on the right soils in the right climate and be ready to make the most of the opportunities the weather presents. After years of pig-headedly fighting with our heavier Devon soils and damp climate, we now focus on the crops that do well here; brassicas like cabbage, broccoli, swede and kale, plus salads, potatoes and leeks. The onions, Brussels sprouts and parsnips have moved to lighter soils in the drier east; it flies in the face of ‘local food’ but reduces risk and the wasted work and energy expended on failed or half crops. I strongly suspect it makes better environmental sense as well.

I reckon the attendance and mood of work Christmas parties is as good an indication of an organisation’s health as the accounts. We’ve had our ups and downs; the low was in the late ‘90s, when I spent a week cooking, rented a river boat and band, only for 10% of staff to show up. I tried in vain to console myself by drinking the booze; the hangover was bad, but not as bad as the year that followed. By contrast, I reckon last weekend’s raucous affair, themed ‘what I want to be when I grow up’, was our best yet; we seem to have come of age without getting boring so I feel confident we will rise to the inevitable challenges ahead. When I was growing up I could hardly have wished for more.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: farming, not buying

In 1999, after 12 years as an organic grower in the UK, I was starting to get the knack of it; my soils and crops were improving, sales were up and I had founded a local growers’ co-op. None of that prevented me being repeatedly told, “organic is all very well for the rich, but will never feed the world”. It has always struck me that industrialised, chemical agriculture wasn’t doing that well either, but I wanted to see for myself. Sub-Saharan Africa, where food couldn’t be described as a lifestyle choice, seemed a good place to start.

After a month in Kenya, visiting both subsistence farmers and large scale veg growers, I crossed the border into Uganda with a heavy heart; I had yet to see anything likely to inspire imitation, organic or not. My guide Timothy Njakasi and I spent a week visiting growers, many trained by him through the charity Send a Cow. There was plenty of bush burning and bad farming, but my spirits rose as I saw more integrated agriculture involving water conservation, composting and the use of trees and perennial crops in multi-canopy systems.

Established by a group of Devon farmers, Send a Cow teaches sustainable farming techniques across Africa using local skills and materials. I have been hugely impressed by their patient, ground-up approach, relying on demonstration and peer farmers to change lives permanently. According to the UN, small scale farms produce up to 80% of food in non-industrialised countries, and the agro-ecological techniques they generally employ have been shown to double yields in 3-5 years. This is far from the picture of futureless ‘peasant farming’ painted by the agri-chemical industry’s clever marketing. Yet as there is little opportunity to profit from such self-sufficient agriculture by selling chemicals or machinery, no-one with marketing money talks about it. Simply put, it’s hard to get support for farming that doesn’t involve buying stuff.

I have supported Send a Cow ever since that visit, and our staff and customers raise £25,000 every year to support their work. Until the end of December every £1 donated to Send a Cow will be matched by our government. For something that could change a family’s life forever, that has to be good value. Visit www.riverford.co.uk/sendacow for details.

Guy Watson