Tag Archives: farming

Guy’s Newsletter: whacky veg that works

A couple of years ago I asked for suggestions of less familiar vegetables you would like us to grow for your veg boxes. Among the more frequent suggestions were oca, purslane, turmeric, lemon grass, yukon, puntarelle, ratte potatoes, cardoons, some whacky tomatoes and cime di rapa. I’m a sucker for a challenge, so we have run growing and cooking trials on these vegetables and more. Inevitably most were flops; they didn’t grow, were too slow to harvest, they yellowed or wilted as soon as were picked or, if they grew, lacked culinary merit. I refuse to grow things on the basis of novelty alone; they have to taste good too.

Cime di rapa is looking promising and after a couple of false starts we think we might now have got the agronomy right (sowing date, spacing, soil, variety etc.); our first field-scale trial will be harvested this week. It is a staple winter green in southern Italy; sold in bunches in the markets, normally as it starts to flower. It is very succulent with a slightly lemony bitterness and is classically sautéed with garlic and chilli, and tossed through pasta or served as a side green. Meanwhile in our third year of trials we are still struggling with the Peruvian tuber oca (Oxalis tuberosa). It is closer to a yam than a potato, tastes pretty good, is said to be easy to grow in our climate but seems to miss home; despite having seen it growing happily halfway up a Welsh mountain we have twice failed to get an economic yield ourselves. Thinking it needs more heat and less rain we are now growing it in France with more success. Don’t hold your breath though; the yield will be tiny this year with just a few hundred kilos available on the extras list in November, but we are hoping to go large next year.

Cardoons have proved easy to grow and I am slowly winning our restaurant teams over to cooking them; they need just the right combination of growing expertise to minimise bitterness and toughness, paired with the right techniques in the kitchen. I love them but acknowledge they are too out there to risk putting in the boxes, but they will occasionally be on the extras list. We send the flowers as a freebie in the boxes now and then, and have started drying the flower stamens to grind into a vegetarian rennet substitute. We ate the first cardoon cheese last week; who knows, we may even get a herd of milking sheep.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: summer rain & sleepy potatoes

The August rains which ruined many a holiday have got our winter cabbages, leeks, kales, romanesco and calabrese broccoli off to a good start. The prospects for the later winter crops look even better as the slow drop in temperature prepares them for the first frost that typically arrives in early October. Meanwhile, when weather conditions allow, our farming co-op are busy harvesting main crop potatoes and getting them into store. The plants have been defoliated, either naturally through blight attacking the leaves, or through mowing the tops off followed by burning to prevent blight hitting; now we wait three weeks for the tubers to set a firm skin and for any blight spores on the surface to die before harvesting into one ton wooden bins. Few things smell worse than a potato store melting to slime with blight, so it is worth being patient. Initially the store is ventilated with ambient air to dry the tubers and allow any skin damage caused by the harvesting machinery to heal. After two or three weeks the fridges are switched on to bring the temperature down to 3.5°C over a month or so, and thus put the tubers to sleep. Valor, the sleepiest variety, will happily slumber on until next May or even June.

Those August rains were a mixed blessing; good for recently planted hardy winter crops needing to get established, less good for tender salads. Our spinach succumbed first to mildew brought on by the damp and evolution (new mildew strains have overcome the resistance bred into existing varieties), and then to nitrogen deficiency resulting from soluble nutrients being carried down through the soil profile by the rain; spinach is too shallow rooted and quick maturing to reach them. Later sowings are now recovering to some extent but you may have noticed your box greens tending more towards kale and cabbage as we look for substitutes for failing spinach. We are also struggling with a flush of the small leaved, succulent chickweed; it is often a problem in the autumn, establishing an interwoven mat which smothers out all but the most vigorous competition. Sorting the weeds from the crop is slowing the picking of salad leaves and spinach, yet chickweed is much prized in some parts of the world so I hope you will not be too indignant if a few harmless leaves make it through to your bags.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: FE & food: an employer’s plea

Finding chefs, butchers and growers is the bane of most food businesses. Despite years of celebrity TV cooks and gardeners and all the blogs and newspaper columns devoted to food, there is a dearth of good practitioners in the nation’s fields and commercial kitchens. It’s true that many of the skills needed can be acquired on the job, but there’s always a place for classroom study to give perspective and depth, and add status and thus pride in work. How can we expect a teenager entering a profession (farming and cooking are professions, just as much as law, medicine and media) to value what they do if we won’t invest even modest sums in their training? Employers could certainly do more, (Riverford is no exception), but there is a crisis of funding unfolding in our Further Education (FE) colleges which threatens to undermine many professions.

FE colleges educate more 16 to 19 year olds taking A-levels than school sixth forms, yet, bizarrely, are excluded from the funding ‘ring fence’ protecting education; it could only happen in the class-ridden UK. Nowhere else in Europe is there such a blinkered view of what constitutes education, or are such teaching institutions so marginalised. One senior civil servant is reputed to have suggested FE could be cut “without anyone noticing”, while Boris Johnson confused FE colleges with secondary moderns in one of his speeches; such is the Westminster bubble that it appears to barely register the existence of FE. As a result, FE colleges have been an easy target, suffering funding cuts of around 35% since 2009, with a further 24% cut due in 2015/16. Imagine the outcry if schools were cut like that. Meanwhile the resulting skills shortage holds back economic growth, and it’s only going to get worse.

We are all born with different talents, which is just as well because the paths through life are as broad, varied and constantly changing as the needs of our economy and society. To restrict education funding and therefore career options in this way is as shortsighted as it is inefficient; ask almost any employer. It’s not just what’s on your plate that might suffer.

Guy Watson

PS. In another misguided narrowing of opportunities, all A-level food topics are to be axed. Visit www.savefood.tech to sign the petition.

References and further reading:
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/26/adult-education-funding-cuts

“The Association of Colleges warns that 190,000 adult education places will be lost next year as funding is slashed by 24%. Since 2010, the adult skills budget, which funds non-academic (university-based) education and training for those 19 or over, has been cut by a staggering 40%.”

http://feweek.co.uk/2015/03/25/government-cuts-could-decimate-adult-education-by-2020-aoc-warns/

“Continued cuts to the adult skills budget risk wiping out adult education and training in England within five years, the Association of Colleges (AoC) has warned after research showed 190,000 course places could be lost in 2015/16 alone.

The AoC has published research based on data from its 336 member colleges which points to a bleak future for the FE sector, which has faced adult skills budget cuts of around 35 per cent since 2009 and is now gearing up to deal with the consequences of a further 24 per cent cut in 2015/16.
According to the AoC, adult education and training provision could disappear completely by 2020 if cuts continue at the same rate as they have in recent years…..”

Skills shortage articles
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/jobs/11724149/Shortage-of-skilled-workers-drags-down-UK-jobs-market-driving-up-pay-inflation.html

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2948908/Britain-hit-worst-skills-shortage-30-years-means-earn-100-000-year-plumber-aged-just-19-prepared-graft.html

Guy’s Newsletter: trust & honour among farmers

I love September; for both its abundance in the fields and the resultant possibilities in the kitchen. More selfishly, I relish the calm that returns to south Devon and, along with many of my surfing staff, look forward to the first of the autumn swells arriving on uncrowded beaches while the water is still warm. With the planting finished, we now settle into the regular rhythm of harvesting both fresh veg for the boxes and filling the stores with roots for the winter.

Any fine days feel like a bonus stolen in the face of autumn and it has started well; a few bright and sunny (if cool) days have allowed us to get on top of the weeding, make a start on the main crop potato harvest and to ensile the lupins, triticale, chicory and clover that will keep the family cows fed through winter.

To add to the abundance from our own fields, we are taking the plunge and adding a range of 100% organic store cupboard staples (pasta, rice, lentils, tinned tomatoes, beans etc.) to our fresh vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy offerings. Many of you have suggested this repeatedly over the years; it makes logistical, environmental and economic sense to be delivering as much as we sensibly can and reducing the need for other shopping trips, but I have dragged my feet. To date, if we or our farming co-op didn’t grow it we almost always knew the person who did; our trading relationships have been built up over years of walking their fields (normally followed by food and a few drinks), and most importantly the trust that comes from repeatedly honouring verbal deals and helping each other out when things go wrong. This becomes much more difficult with chickpeas and couscous which tend to come from further afield and are traded in a way that is hard to circumvent. Our solution is to work with Bristol based Essential Trading whom we know, like and trust. They are a well-run workers’ co-operative, trading for 44 years and committed to similar environmental and social goals to Riverford. Their pasta for one comes from a farming co-op in Italy (La Terra e il Cielo) that a few of our staff are visiting later this month, so keep an eye out for a video on our Facebook page. My initial reluctance has now been out voted by good logic, so here’s to more good food.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: freaks; where would we be without them?

Three weeks of gloom and relentless rain have caused a few problems with weeding and harvesting, but have done little to dampen our spirits here on the farm; with most of the planting finished, 2015 still looks like being a very good year. A bright September would allow us to get on top of the weeds, harvest in good conditions and ripen the tomatoes and squash, but sunny or not it will be the Soil Association’s Organic September. With organic sales rising again, my wife Geetie and I have been asked to give a talk in London as ‘organic pioneers’. Musing on this, I realise that there were plenty who came before us.

When I converted three acres of my parent’s farm 30 years ago and planted my first organic vegetables, I was clueless; I spent every spare moment visiting the real organic pioneers, some of whom had been quietly growing, experimenting and philosophising, largely in isolation, since the sixties. One used only horsepower and had taken the engine out of his only tractor to pull it more easily with a team of horses; one produced organic grain and beef very successfully for 20 years without ever charging a premium or even saying it was organic, explaining to me that, “there are no pockets in a shroud, Guy”; another devoted much of his life to developing a revolutionary cultivator and seed drill called the sod seeder; “It will make herbicides and the plough redundant,” he confidently predicted, but sadly it never really worked; another kept very happy pigs in the woods and would have moved in with them if his wife had allowed it. I was always welcomed, taken in, shown around, advised, fed and given a bed; there was never fear of shared knowledge leading to competition as no-one was in it for the money anyway; they just wanted to change the world. Most were pretty nuts but amid the madness were gems of creativity, genius and profound sanity.

Those pioneers shared an uncompromising, obsessive, anarchic view of the world and a deep commitment to finding a better way of farming; they were the freaks on the fringe whose difficult questions start movements. Some have refined their skills to become successful commercial farmers, some are consultants, counsellors or tai-chi teachers, a few have inevitably made use of the shroud; I doubt they had much to put in the pockets, but without their questions and generosity of spirit, Riverford would not exist to celebrate Organic September.

Guy Watson

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: feeling good about ourselves

Our veg boxes have just been voted Ethical Product of the Decade at the Observer Ethical Awards; wow, quite an accolade. I am still smiling. Thanks to those of you who voted and to all of you who have supported us over the decade, and in many cases, longer. I like to think that we offer a positive alternative to mainstream food production, but without your trust and occasional forgiveness it would have been hard to resist the calls for compromise, especially during the recession. Turning ethical intentions into ethical business is often simply down to taking the long view and having faith that you (or someone else) will be around long enough to see the benefit. Investing in our collective long-term future, whether in staff conditions and development, supplier relationships, energy efficiency or building soil fertility normally makes sense commercially (as well as ethically and environmentally), but you also need patience and the comfort of not having shareholders and bankers clamouring for short-term returns.

We’ve had a great start to the summer with some very good quality bumper crops. Some of that is down to good fortune (mainly good weather), but there’s a large element of making your own luck in farming, by making the right decisions through experience, good planning, being on top of the work and therefore being able to do things at the right time. In the next three weeks we will plant most of the winter crops; timing is critical and we are bang on schedule and no-one (with the possible exception of the irrigation team) even seems to be stressed; a long way from the chaos of old. How did we learn so much, collect so much skill and organise it so well, so seemingly effortlessly? I reckon doing things ethically has a lot to do with it; our staff like it and are proud to work here.

In 30 years we’ve grown into a big-ish company and at times I’ve worried that this would make us less human, less caring and a bit boring. Last Saturday, witnessing our summer staff party (possibly the best yet) being enjoyed by so many convinced me that big often is, but doesn’t have to be, bad. Scale can help you do things better; whether organising a party, logistics, or managing pest/predator balance in tomatoes. Yes, I’m feeling a little pleased with myself but enough of that. I’m a farmer and better go find something to be miserable about.

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.

Guy’s Newsletter: GM, PR & the BBC

In 1998 some GM maize trials were planned on a neighbour’s farm across the river from Riverford, which threatened to cross-pollinate with my organic sweetcorn. I wasn’t overly bothered but my father, recently retired and reinvented as an eco-warrior, was getting agitated. He dumped a pile of papers on my desk and, reluctantly at first, I got reading.

At university, ten years earlier, I had been intrigued by the neatly simple, powerful genetic coding that controlled the synthesis of proteins and hence heredity and all life. Wow; who wouldn’t be excited? The discovery won Watson, Crick and Wilkins a well-deserved Nobel Prize in 1962 and, as the tools developed to apply and exploit the discovery, a science, an industry and then a political lobby was born.

After a month of reading I was alarmed by the potential food safety and environmental implications of the emerging technology, and with encouragement from the Soil Association and Friends of the Earth, I challenged the legality of the maize trials and the case went all the way to the High Court; but the real battle turned out to be in the media.

Despite being a vocal campaigner I was never fundamentally opposed to the technology, rather the rush to commercialise it at any cost. With cries of ‘Frankenstein food’ from the anti-GM movement and spurious claims of solving world hunger from the pro lobby, the smokescreen of misleading, emotive information from both sides has made it almost impossible to form a non-partisan, informed opinion. I got fed up, declined invitations to speak and backed out of the fight. Money talks in PR, if only because it can buy the persistence that few causes can maintain, and over the last 15 years the GM industry has won the battle, in England and Wales at least. Is this down to the strength of their arguments or the depth of their pockets? Either way, the culmination was seen last week with the BBC’s blatantly pro-GM edition of Panorama, entitled ‘Cultivating Fear’.

What most took me aback was how the programme justified the use of GM aubergine in Bangladesh as a means of preventing pesticide poisoning among farming families. The scale of the poisoning was truly horrific and is repeated across the developing world where many farmers are illiterate and use pesticides with no protective clothing. One of the most disturbing things I have ever seen is a Ugandan farmer smoking a soggy cigarette while spraying tomatoes; it was soggy with the toxic liquid leaking from his back pack sprayer. In the Punjab, according to doctors quoted in the excellent film The True Cost, it is common for villages to have 70 or more children suffering from birth defects, cancers and mental illness resulting from pesticide exposure. As such I found it almost surreal to hear these horrific consequences of the last round of agritech progress being used as a justification for the next, especially when the products in question are supplied by the same western companies. This was PR spin at its worst, yet I wondered if I had become a hopelessly romantic Luddite, part of former Secretary of State Owen Paterson’s “green blob” resisting progress from a position of privilege. I needed the facts, so 15 years on from that courtroom battle I sat down again to read. This is what I found out:

  • GM crops have not reduced pesticide use; according to the US Department of Agriculture (normally pro GM), over 15 years GM crops have resulted in a 7% increase in pesticide use due to weeds and insects developing resistance.
  • It turns out that even the Bangladesh GM aubergine is far from an unbridled success, and that Panorama painted a very flattering picture of it. According to a local scientist, many of the farmers who took part in the experiment are demanding compensation.
  • The USDA states there is no evidence of GM increasing yield potential. It turns out conventional breeding has been much better at boosting yields at a fraction of the cost.
  • None of the claims for nutritionally enhanced food, drought-tolerant or more nitrogen-efficient crops have been successful to date. Owen Paterson labelled the anti-GM lobby “wicked” for resisting vitamin A enhanced GM ‘golden rice’. The reality is that it has proved difficult to make the technology work and the developers at the International Rice Research Institute say they are years from being ready to grow a successful commercial crop. How and why could a politician with research assistants make such a provocative and poorly informed statement?
  • After 18 years of Americans eating GM food it is claimed that there are no obvious health impacts, but the same was said after much longer periods for smoking, trans fats, asbestos, excessive salt etc. There have been peer reviewed animal studies which have raised concern but I find it worrying that in the case of any questioning of GM the response is always a near hysterical hounding of the scientists from their post.

These are just some of the issues that should concern all of us. For all but the most ardent laissez faire capitalist I would suggest there are two more worth considering:

  • In the last 20 years the biotech companies have been buying up the global seed trade; the top three (Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta) own a staggering 47%. With the loss of smaller companies go local varieties suited to local conditions and requirements. As a grower myself, I have seen a very noticeable decline in choice.
  • Even more extreme: 87% of the global surface of GM crops is controlled by Monsanto, either directly through the sale of seeds or indirectly through the licence of traits for which they own the patents.

I am reluctant to be branded a communist (again) but I was taught that the efficiency of capitalism required free markets and that a key part of a free market was the avoidance of monopolies. Monsanto and the other so called ‘big ag’ multinationals clearly have a vision for our future and are rapidly getting in a position to impose it; Owen Paterson and the Panorama presenter Tom Heap may be comfortable with that, but I am uneasy with a global food supply being controlled by the same people who brought us DDT, Agent Orange and PCBs.

I think it is highly likely that GM will have a role in shaping sustainable agriculture at some point; no one can predict where science can take us. But in debating how to feed the world, bombarding us with emotive and misleading messages driven more by a PR agenda than by fact is unforgivable. We need, rather, a cool headed evaluation of the scientific evidence, tempered by transparency around the commercial interests at play.

Guy Watson

SOURCES:

Main scientific content: http://earthopensource.org/earth-open-source-reports/gmo-myths-and-truths-2nd-edition/, itself fully referenced with many scientific citations.

A different view of Bt. Brinjal in Bangladesh – not scientific (but neither was Panorama): http://ubinig.org/index.php/home/showAerticle/76/english”

The status of the Golden Rice project: International Rice Research Institute

Guy’s Newsletter: farming to order

Back in 2007 we took on the tenancy of Sacrewell Farm near Peterborough, just off the famously fertile Fens, to grow veg and pack our veg boxes for customers in the east of England. After a lifetime in Devon’s restrictively small, hilly fields I was seduced by the prospect of farming 500 acres of level, freely draining, relatively uniform soil; surely this would be easy. It turned out that the land was exhausted, flogged by 20 years of continual conventional cropping with potatoes and cereals. We set about sowing grass clover leys to restore natural fertility, planting an orchard and hedgerows and converting to organic methods; early crops were disappointing but eight years on our farm team are getting better crops each year as the life comes back into the soil and we learn which crops suit the silty loam. The harder climate and lower humidity means we get much less fungal disease so we now grow most of our onions here to avoid the mildew that inevitably hits us in damp Devon, and this year’s crop is looking very good.

Watching the transformation of Sacrewell has made me appreciate how much farms on our relatively small island can vary as a result of their natural geology and how the soil has been treated. In Devon the mixed farming my father employed for 50 years has protected the loamy, balanced (if shallow) soils, and the thick hedgerows are a blessing; it turns out that they help keep insect pests under control by providing habitats for insect predators to overwinter. In the east, while we have created a rich, biodiverse farm at Sacrewell, monocultures and huge fields are the norm where a ‘hedge’ is a sparse, stunted row of thorns. While their influence means we still have rapid outbreaks of aphids here that we never see in Devon, the change in the past eight years has been incredible; an RSPB survey last year counted 70 species on the farm including lapwings, corn buntings, grey partridges and red kites.

Organic farming means treating each farm as an individual and finding its virtues; it has taken us a few years to appreciate them, but now we are undoubtedly bringing out their best.

Guy Watson