Tag Archives: farming

guy’s newsletter: worms, organics & eccentrics

As we enter Organic September, it is rewarding and a little reassuring to find that Charles Darwin and I are not alone in our obsession with earthworms. There is Emma Sherlock from the Natural History Museum (endearingly bonkers) who travels the globe looking for new species, Rachel Lovell (mildly eccentric on a good day) who with Emma’s expertise has organised Riverford’s Big Worm Dig citizen science project, and the many of you who have rummaged in your gardens for our survey. It has been great to see children swiftly overcome their squirmishness and to witness their enthusiasm for finding and identifying worms while getting a bit muddy in the process. Indeed, worms are much easier to search for in damp soil, so autumn is a good time.

So why are we making so much fuss about these dumb, arguably dull (sorry Emma) workhorses of the underworld? Without their burying of organic matter, and constant mixing, aeration and drainage of the soil beneath us, life on this planet would be very hard for other species. This is especially so for farmers and even more so for organic farmers. In the absence of chemical fertilisers we need an active soil which recycles nutrients efficiently; worms are the first stage of this process and a great indicator of the general health of the soil.

Yet, as with bees, we are slaughtering our allies with toxic agrochemicals and brutish farming techniques. Organic farming, with its absence of pesticides and scorching fertilisers, alongside better management of organic matter (worm food) is probably better, but it pains me to think of the carnage caused by a plough or rotavator when we prepare a seedbed. Sadly, as with so many aspects of ecology, worms would be better off if we just went away. Maybe one day we will be smart enough to grow our food without such brutal interventions, but should I somehow find myself living the life of a worm, I’d chose an organic field any day.

Guy Watson

The last of the mohicans


…. 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.


Ed’s farm blog – duff plums and unseasonal veg

We have just about finished picking our plums and, like so many crops this year, the news is pretty disastrous. The trees were planted as saplings in March 2008 and have yet to reach their full potential; back in the spring things looked good but the rain knocked most of the blossom off and later in the season the trees dropped most of their fruit as they got overstressed. We picked over four tonnes last year and were expecting more (perhaps 6 tonnes) this year, but the final tally has come in at a mighty 427kg! Hearty portions of plum duff look to be thin on the ground in the Field Kitchen…


View across the fields

On a lighter note the remains of the Broad Beans that we harvested in June were rotovated in and the last of this years lettuce planted in their place. The few remaining bean pods have apparently decided it is now spring and we have miniature self-seeded plants poking their heads up amongst the Cos. I picked a few sprouting tips for Rob, our resident genius in the Field Kitchen, so if anyone is heading in that direction this week they may get some of the most unseasonal veg I have seen in a long time!


Broad beans mixed in with batavia and radicchio

A visit from uganda

Charles Mulwana, a farmer from Uganda, is staying with us at our Riverford Farm in Devon for the next two months. In 2005, aided by charity Send a Cow, Charles received his first cow, Helen. Send a Cow helped him learn about sustainable organic agriculture, looking after livestock and how to grow a variety of crops to feed himself and his family.


Charles has come to the farm at Riverford to learn how we grow organic crops on a larger scale. He is passionate about passing on the knowledge he has gained, particularly on the importance of organic farming and having a balanced diet. To do this Charles is hoping to raise enough money to build a community centre in his village in the  Nakifuma Mukono district of Uganda, to educate young people in his area on agriculture and running a business. He has become a Peer farmer trainer for Send A Cow, helping to train other farmers, and has passed on a gift of a calf to other farmers in his community from his first cow.


This is Charles’ second visit to Riverford. During this stay he will be spending time with our picking and farm management team learning how we plan and produce our seasonal veg. So far our farm team have kept him busy learning a variety of larger-scale farming techniques. It’s also been very hands on and Charles has been helping us with our everyday farm work – from picking and bunching spring onions to go in our Riverford boxes, to harvesting our lettuces and spinach. A useful agricultural tip he said has learned while working in the fields here is how we harvest our spinach. When harvesting spinach in Uganda they traditionally leave part of the plant remaining, in order for it to grow back. Here Charles has found that if you cut off all the leaves, the plant will grow back quicker (within 2-3 weeks). Charles is also interested in the different varieties of fruit and veg that he doesn’t currently grow at home. In particular, he is hoping to grow more varieties of tomato on his return to Uganda, including beef and cherry tomatoes, which he feels will be popular. He’s also keen to grow cherries and green peppers.


At home in Uganda, Charles grows a range of crops to feed his family, with a little extra to sell. These include onions, spinach, kale and sweetcorn which are prepared daily by his wife Barbara for their four children. Sadly his first cow passed away, however his new calf (also called Helen) produces approximately 12 litres of milk each day and he grows bananas and coffee which he sells.

It’s been great to welcome Charles to the farm to spend time with the team at Riverford.

If you have any questions for Charles on farming in Uganda and the UK, please send us a message at help@www.riverford.co.uk/blog and we’ll be happy to answer your questions.

Ed’s Farm Blog – Springing into inaction

wet garlicOur early season crops are usually planted in fields across the valley from us, as they are broadly southfacing and warm up quicker with well-drained soil to allow early planting. As these can’t be irrigated we rely on the usual April showers to water them for us. Last year the long dry spell actually meant that some of the lettuce got stressed, bolted, and we lost a fair amount of the crop. Not this year! Below average temperatures mean that the crops are growing more slowly than hoped, but there is certainly no lack of water.

Continual rainfall such as we are experiencing at present brings its own set of problems, however. At this time of year we would be frantically planting, fleeceing, brushweeding and hoeing our lettuce, spinach, summer greens and so on; but not now. The fields are simply too wet to cultivate and a short break in the weather is little help as they need a minimum of 2-3 days (sometimes more depending on the soil) to dry out enough to work.

Fortunately for our staff there has been plenty to do in the polytunnels: Manuring, putting up supports for tomatoes, and plenty of hand planting. But as this begins to draw to a close we can forsee a few quiet weeks ahead whilst we wait for the crops we have to come on and pray for a break in the weather.

On the up side our wet garlic is looking good; this was planted as individual cloves that we broke up from whole bulbs in late October and early November. The two varieties we grow are Germidor and Messidrome as they produce large cloves: and usually the larger the clove you plant, the larger the wet garlic you produce.

So a mixed spring so far. To quote the philosopher from Morecombe, “bring me sunshine…”

Cornish new potatoes

Paul Babcock

Meet Paul Babcock. Paul grows our organic new potatoes on his farm in Cornwall, just one mile from the sea, within view of St Michael’s Mount.

Organic potatoes

Paul’s family have been there since 1958 and he has been growing organically for seven years. He also owns a pub locally, where  he sells his vegetables and meat.

Paul's potato harvester

This is Paul’s tractor, which he uses to harvest his organic new potatoes.

organic cornish potatoes

The high light levels and mild temperatures make Paul’s land ideal for growing new potatoes. The farm is above slate, which means it is free draining and has warmer soil. This rainy season has been particularly good for the potatoes, which you can order from Riverford.


News from the farms

Our regional farms around the UK (and one in France) are our way of growing fruit and veg as close to your home as practical.

Guy Watson, Wash Farm, Devon

Three acres of broad beans were sown in January and, hungry crows allowing, they should be ready in mid-June. We’ve covered the crop with mesh to help protect the emerging seedlings and warm the soil a little, so fingers crossed we get a decent harvest. Spring greens and purple sprouting broccoli have done well despite a little early flushing due to the mild weather. Meanwhile, our new polytunnel has earned its keep so far by easily meeting the planned yields for our winter salad leaves. The gentle start to the winter certainly helped. The final salad crops have been sown inside, after which they’ll move outside to clear the way for spring onions, tomatoes, mini cucumbers and French beans.

Nigel Venni, Sacrewell Farm, Cambridgeshire

After a good season of winter crops including leeks, cabbages, kale and spring greens, it’s turnaround time for Nigel. Two acres of garlic were planted before Christmas, which will be harvested in May as the Mediterranean-inspired wet garlic. Broad beans, Batavia and Little Gem lettuces will follow, as well as spinach. The farm has nearly four acres of wild bird seed plots too, and this winter brought visitors including corn buntings, grey partridge, lapwings, fieldfares, red kites and barn owls.

Peter + Jo-ann Richardson, Home Farm, North Yorkshire

After the mildest winter for several years, it’s been an almost seamless transition into the spring planting season for Peter. Broad beans went in back in February, to be followed by new plantings every few weeks to keep the supply coming. Novella, the first of his potatoes (easily the biggest crop on the farm) will go in during March, as will the early carrots for harvesting as bunches in June or July. This year Peter also hopes to try out Pink Fir Apple potatoes; fantastic to eat, but a devil to grow organically.

Chris Wakefield, Upper Norton Farm, Hampshire

The spring onions that Chris and his team planted in the polytunnels during November got off to a great start, thanks to the mild conditions. The crop should yield a very healthy 25,000 bunches around two weeks ahead of outdoor-grown plantings in March. Butterhead lettuce also went in during early January, and once those crops are cleared, the herb season recommences. Coriander, parsley and basil will be nurtured in the warmth of the polytunnels, while sage, thyme, rosemary and oregano will grow outside. There will also be a new crop of mint, after some culinary testing!

Guy Watson, Le Boutinard, France

Our autumn-sown carrots are doing well, putting us on track to have them ready in April to plug the supply gap before the UK crop is ready. Meanwhile our spinach is struggling; poor germination followed by some fairly extensive frost damage have taken their toll. Thankfully the Batavia lettuces are looking good under their mini-tunnels, and we are busy planning in chilli peppers, squash and 25 acres of sweetcorn, possibly to include a multicoloured variety. After experimenting with Cape gooseberries and tomatillos back in Devon last year we’re giving both crops a go here in France this summer, as well as the locally popular Mogette beans, for drying and relishing in winter stews.

News from the farms

Guy Watson, Wash Farm, Devon
Our new polytunnel is up and running, producing organic salad leaves for the winter. Come April the crop will be replaced with basil, mini cucumbers and tomatoes. We never heat our polytunnels and as the new crops will reduce our reliance on imported veg, they’ll be some of the most environmentally-friendly salads around. Meanwhile the mild autumn brought many of our crops forward; our Brussels sprouts were ready a good three weeks early and we were picking very good spinach through to mid November. Many of our leeks were also at harvesting size before Christmas, when normally they are not ready until March. All in all, it’s been a refreshing change from the difficulties of last winter.

Riverford Organic CambridgeshireNigel Venni, Sacrewell Farm, Cambridgeshire
The battle with the pigeons is continuing for Nigel and the team, so much so that we have had to cover the brassicas with fleece to stop the birds eating the lot. The cabbages have taken a bit of a hit from whitefly too, but things are back under control now and the first crop of cauliflower is set for harvesting in March. The organic spring greens and purple sprouting broccoli are looking really strong, while the wild bird seed plots on the farm are keeping the wildlife happy as the weather gets colder.

Peter + Jo-ann Richardson, Home Farm, North Yorkshire
The mild, dry autumn has made the weekly harvesting of Peter’s organic carrots and organic parsnips much easier this season, but with no cold snap to slow their growth, around 20% of the early cabbages have got ahead of themselves. They are so big they would almost fill the vegboxes if they went in. Thinking back to this time last year it seems daft that we are now hoping for a chilly spell. Back then the veg was frozen into the ground under a layer of snow and temperatures were as low as -15˚C. At least there are fewer frozen toes this year!

Chris Wakefield, Upper Norton Farm, Hampshire
The summer may be long gone, but Chris and his team still have the polytunnels working hard. Half are nurturing overwintering spring onions that should yield around 20,000 bunches at the end of March. They can be grown outdoors, but by bringing them under cover they’ll be ready a few weeks earlier. Meanwhile the rest of the polytunnels have been cleared and composted in preparation for 15,000 Batavia and Butterhead lettuces for planting in January. The perennial herbs are overwintering well after pruning last autumn and we are planning an outdoor mint crop to go with your new potatoes this year.

Guy Watson, Le Boutinard, France
Last year we sowed carrots here in the spring and subsequently were able to harvest some in late May, two weeks ahead of the UK crop. This still left a two week gap after our stored carrots finished. This year, after sowing in the autumn instead, we should be able to have our own carrots for 52 weeks of the year and banish Spanish carrots from the veg boxes. The crop has emerged well and we aim to get it covered with mini polytunnels before the first major rain of the season arrives; if they survive the winter storms we’ll be pulling tasty bunched carrots at the end of April.

What’s growing where?

Making the best use of soil type, climate and growers’ skills at our regional farms around the UK is our way of growing fruit and vegetables as close to your home as practical.

Guy Watson, Riverford on Wash Farm, Devon
Though we grow around 80 different varieties of veg in Devon, the biggest volume by far is potatoes. Along with our co-op of growers we’ve had 250 acres of spuds on the go this year, in an array of varieties selected above all else for flavour. Overall it’s been a good growing season with very little blight. Meanwhile our winter brassicas are looking very healthy too. The damp August got them off to a good start, with plenty of moisture to get them established. The dry September meant there was less fungal disease about, so our leeks are looking in fine fettle too. However all this good work can be undone if we have another harsh winter like last year, when 30% of our purple sprouting broccoli was lost to frost. Fingers crossed for an easier ride from Mother Nature this time.

Nigel Venni, Riverford on Sacrewell Farm, Cambridgeshire
After losing much of our six acre swede crop to a suspected attack of cutworm, and our chard to blackfly, things seem to have turned a corner for Nigel and his team. The beetroot and spinach crops were saved from devastation by an army of ladybirds, which arrived just in time to see off the blackfly and give the plants enough time to recover their growth. The eight acres of leeks planted between April and June this year are looking very strong, and the team expect to be harvesting them through to the end of January. They planted a mixture of varieties that mature at different rates. Meanwhile the last of the 30 acres of red and brown onions grown at Sacrewell (they love the free-draining soil here) have been harvested and are now snug in wooden crates in the drying barn, ready to see you through the winter and beyond. Half the purple sprouting broccoli crop was lost last year, but we’ve planted another four and a half acres for January.

Peter + Jo-ann Richardson, Riverford on Home Farm, North Yorkshire
It’s been a good year for Peter; after terrible crop losses last winter (all his cauliflower and purple sprouting broccoli crops were wiped out), the warm spring set the young seedling veg up well for the growing season. For the autumn crops it’s been a ‘forward year’, as Peter describes it, with much of the veg being ready weeks earlier than normal, especially the cauliflower. The ten acres of organic parsnips are looking particularly good, as are the leeks. All we need now is a good frost to set the sweetness in their flavour, but not so much of a freeze that we can’t get them out of the ground.

Chris Wakefield, Riverford onUpper Norton Farm, Hampshire
After a busy year harvesting herbs, chillies and banana peppers (yellow ramiro peppers) from our polytunnels, Chris and his team have cleared them out and now have the winter crops in place. We are growing Butterhead lettuce, which will be harvested for your vegboxes until a little before Christmas, and are overwintering a crop of spring onions, ready for harvesting in March and April next year. The perennial herbs growing outside have struggled over the last couple of winters, especially the rosemary, but Chris is hoping to dry the final cut from the sage bushes, so you can still enjoy it in the colder months. It’s early days yet, though!

Ed Walters, Bower Farm, Hampshire
Many of our organic turkeys are reared by Ed Walters, whose family has been farming turkeys for over 35 years. They are Kelly Bronze birds, a slow-growing breed that reaches full maturity naturally, spending the first five to six weeks snug in a barn under heat lamps, before going out to grass from around eight weeks of age. They are bedded down with fresh straw every day and tucked up in the sheds at night to protect them from foxes. They spend their days trotting and gobbling their way around the organic pasture and popping in and out of their sheds whenever it takes their fancy.

Ross Gardner, Spurtham Farm, Devon
For the first time we have organic geese available for your Christmas table and Ross is the chap charged with rearing them. The Gardner family has been farming poultry for over 40 years, so they certainly know how to keep their birds happy. The geese arrived at the farm as day-old goslings in May and were reared under gas brooders to keep them warm for the first 12 days. They now pad about the fields in a small flock of 250 birds and graze the organic pasture, along with a little supplementary organic feed. They are determined foragers and have plenty of outdoor space to express their natural behaviour, though they prefer to head inside their straw-filled barn at night.

What’s growing where?

Our regional farms around the UK (and one in France) are our way of growing fruit and veg as close to your home as practical.

Guy Watson, Wash Farm, Devon
Three years ago we decided to phase out our use of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers from heated glasshouses, however local. Maintaining 20˚C in single-glazed glasshouses in frosty January is completely insane, making these easily the most environmentally damaging crops we sold. After a year of haggling with local planners, we’re now building sophisticated plastic-skinned greenhouses, which will grow tomatoes and cucumbers in the summer and salad leaves in the winter without heat. When they are in production we will have the best tasting, lowest impact salads money can buy.

Nigel Venni, Sacrewell Farm, Cambridgeshire
Nigel and his team have been hit by a bit of a mystery – almost six acres of our swedes have vanished. In mid-July the young plants were looking good, but soon almost the whole lot had gone, over 400,000 plants. We now think the culprit is ‘cutworm’ – caterpillars of the turnip moth and garden dart moth. They feast upon roots and stems, felling tender seedlings at the base, which then shrivel and leave nothing but bare soil. Fortunately, to balance things out, we’ve had a really successful broad bean season and our 8 acres of leeks and 30 acres of red and brown onions are looking very strong.

Peter + Jo-ann Richardson, Home Farm, North Yorkshire
Peter’s summer has gone well, with parsnips, leeks and Savoy cabbages looking very healthy for the boxes later in the year. Squash and pumpkins are also coming along nicely, just in time for Pumpkin Day. This year, Peter has avoided planting cauliflower or purple sprouting broccoli however. The last two harsh winters have lost him these crops, so he’s had to make a pragmatic decision. Fingers crossed for next time.

Chris Wakefield, Upper Norton Farm, Hampshire
Recently Chris and his team have been harvesting yellow ramiro peppers, also known as banana peppers, from the polytunnels. They don’t taste of banana, but if you have any fussy kids, they may help you in convincing them to try something new! Meanwhile, for the first time we have Hampshire dried garlic from our grower Mike Fisher. Normally our climate makes drying garlic problematic, but Mike is particularly pleased with the results, and we’d love to have any feedback.

Le Boutinard, France
The year started well with good crops of lettuce, spinach, fennel, chard and French beans filling the boxes through our ‘hungry gap’ at home, plus early sweetcorn and green peppers. However the normally sunny July delivered 80mm rain and with the high humidity, mildew swept through the melons. The heavily laden pepper plants look fantastic, but as the fruits start to turn red they are also developing rots. It is not all bad though; we have a small field of chillies which are coming along wonderfully, ready to add fire to all sorts of dishes.