Tag Archives: Guy Watson

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: 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

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: Don’t want to be like Donald

Happy new year; I hope you return to your kitchen well fed, rested and ready to embrace the challenges of the year ahead. For us, 2018 will mark 31 years of growing organic veg, 25 years of delivering them in veg boxes and, in May, the year Riverford becomes employee owned. As the clock ticks down to the big day, the challenge is not so much the legalities, the money or the governance but developing the culture, communication and maturity needed to transition from maverick-led to getting the best out of everyone.

I have met a lot of fellow founders and entrepreneurs. Like me they are typically impetuous, restless misfits who charge through life leaving havoc behind, driven on by a powerful mixture of arrogance and an insatiable need to prove themselves. Donald Trump’s election is a mark of the esteem reserved for entrepreneurs; they can achieve the extraordinary, but often at high cost to
themselves and those around them. The benefits they bring can outweigh the costs in a young, rapidly evolving organisation, but as the need for systems and consistency grows, such leaders can do more harm than good and it’s time for a more consultative approach. If I needed any added motivation to change how Riverford is led, watching the world’s most famous entrepreneur-turned-president floundering around like an overgrown baby, making his own rules while insulting or sacking anyone who challenges him, has provided it.

Maintaining Riverford’s inherent dynamism and youthful excitement while developing the skills to agree and share values and behaviours, and then work collectively towards achieving them, is not easy. Nurturing people and culture in this way makes growing organic vegetables seem easy, as at least you can be fairly sure they will be where you left them; a working culture can shift and slip
through your hands just as you are getting the measure of it. It is a journey which will last as long as Riverford does, but after taking the first tentative steps, all doubt is gone. Trump may dream of wealth and the power to crush anyone in the way; I dream of giving hope that there is another way, where we welcome diversity and help each other to be the best possible version of ourselves.

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

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: ruminating on protein

“Dad, how can you call yourself an environmentalist, and still sell meat?”. First one daughter, then the other, then even my previously carnivorous sons joined in. Their epiphany was brought on by the documentary Cowspiracy; it is smug, irritating and outrageously one-sided in its selection of evidence and ends with an unjustified and ill-considered swipe at Greenpeace. However, despite my irritation, I would agree (uncomfortably for someone selling meat) that no thinking person can reasonably claim to be an environmentalist, or even a humanist, while continuing to eat more than very small amounts of animal protein; most forms of animal agriculture are simply wrecking our planet.

Climate change-wise the arguments are complex, involving ruminant methane emissions, deforestation for grazing and soya production, methane and nitrous oxide emitting manure heaps and soil, intensive versus extensive farming methods and more. As our planet is so diverse in soils, topography, ecology, diet and agricultural methods, it’s unwise to be dogmatic anyway. However, after weeks scouring scientific papers, we have reached the following initial conclusions:

  • Livestock agriculture contributes 10-12% of manmade climate change; arguably as much as every car, plane, truck and ship on the planet.
  • Livestock agriculture is grossly inefficient and requires 5-10 times more land to feed ourselves than a vegan diet; there just isn’t enough land to go round. OK it’s not that simple; there may well be a credible argument for animals grazing permanent pastures on land unsuited for growing crops for humans, to produce high quality, high welfare meat and dairy, as with most organic farming, but we will have to eat much less of it.

Alongside this are all the health, animal welfare, pollution and antibiotic resistance arguments against eating meat; hard to quantify, but very real. There will be exceptions, but the general conclusion is inescapable; for the good of us and our planet, we must collectively eat much less animal protein. Over the coming weeks we’ll be exploring the issue and suggesting ways to nudge any committed carnivores away from some of their meat. I hope you’ll feel compelled to join us.

Guy Watson

Visit www.riverford.co.uk/how-much-meat to join the debate, take our ‘drop a day’ pledge, browse meat-minimising recipes and do our survey.

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: poo, pandas & cystitis

Never mind the conservational emphasis placed on pandas and orangutans; we and they are all mere ephemeral surface dwellers whose biological significance is in providing a home for the bugs in our guts. The global biomass of bacteria is, after all, larger and more diverse than all plants and animals put together; we would never have emerged from the swamp without them and will be extinct in a blink if we ever manage to kill them all. Across the world, when the poo falls, that’s when the real action starts. Each gram of soil contains about 40 million bacteria of between 2000 and 1 million species, but no-one really knows what goes on down there. My point: incredible biological processes are happening under our feet and we’re almost completely ignorant of them. As with most forms of ignorance, the result tends at best to be fear and neglect of the potential benefits, and at worst often wanton destruction of the unknown (in this case, through modern farming’s chemicals and soil compaction), until someone figures out how to make money out of enlightenment.

Despite our best efforts to destroy our soils, we might be saved from a self induced post antibiotic world where TB, cystitis and gonorrhoea are untreatable by one of those millions of unidentified soil bacteria. Like the panda, no-one has worked out how to breed them in full public view; the standard agar dish doesn’t work for 99% of soil bacteria. However if grown in a kind of bacterial hotel submerged in the soil, one such bacteria, Teixobactin, produces a new type of antibiotic which, if it proves as effective and free of side effects as it seems to be in mice, could save us from some forms antibiotic resistance.

Alternatively you could follow a 9th century medical text and take equal quantities of ox gall, wine vinegar and garlic, pound it and stew at room temperature for nine days before straining; according to two women on Radio 4, the liquid kills 99.999% of Staphylococcus aureus, though they did counsel against trying it at home. Perhaps we had better hope for our soil to saves us from the brink…if we can save the soil first.

Guy Watson