Tag Archives: 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: miffing vets & demonising foes

Happy New Year. With the festivities over, we hope you return to routine life well fed, well rested and full of good intentions to eat more vegetables. Meat and five veg is so last century; we are on a mission to make it ten or even 20; good for our health, and good for the planet. We reckon that ‘meat as a celebration or seasoning’ is a good approach – one we’ve been peddling for a good long time and that seems increasingly on trend. I really do believe in the joy of veg, so I am resolved to do a bit more encouraging and celebrating and a bit less lecturing and preaching. Resolution number one.

Over the break I caught up on my mail, including a number of messages from vets irritated by my December newsletter titled ‘Dying for Cheap Meat’, where I focused on how over-prescription of antibiotics in agriculture contributes to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. On reflection I regret the unjustified swipe at vets in general; many are actively fighting over-prescription and I shouldn’t have tarred all of them with the brush prompted by the irresponsible minority. If you’re a vet, but not one of those vets, I am sorry. It wasn’t my first such blunder and I hope I’ve learned my lesson. Resolution number two.

One particularly thoughtful vet reminded me of a wise aunt, who, after hearing me on the radio bad-mouthing Monsanto, advised me not to “Demonise my foe”. Overstating an argument by selectively gathering only the evidence that suits your position and then getting angry and indignant can make for a good read, but too often alienates potential allies and undermines your point; you are liable to win the battle but lose the war. This is what puts me off most blogs and social media. So I go into the New Year resolved to be more considered in my missives and to help turn our collective hopes of positive change into reality – a better approach than wielding the crude tool of angry jabs – even when I’m especially incensed about an issue. The challenge is to manage it without being boring, but I will do my best. Resolution number three.

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

Guy’s Newsletter: more recipes & less mud

Our veg box scheme was founded on my blinkered assumption that most of our customers were like me, and grew up in a farm kitchen with a stock pot on the Rayburn, where mud was a way of life and dead animals hung in the larder. Over the years it has dawned on me that I was being a bit narrow-minded; even clean living urbanites with small kitchens like to eat veg and it is our job to help them, ideally without them losing the connection with where their food came from or those who grew it.

Long-standing customers will have noticed that there is now less mud in their boxes; one of our more obsessive recipients once weighed the earth over a few months and reported that we delivered an average of 112g of soil per week, and that he would rather we didn’t. Well we don’t any more, and even go as far as to wash the roots when excessive amounts of field hang on. We also trim the vegetables a bit more on the basis that fewer people make stock, and the organic matter is more of an asset in our fields than in your bins.

When I delivered the first boxes in the early ‘90s it quickly became apparent that many customers need a little help with more whacky veg, but also inspiration for the more familiar. The Riverford quarterly, then monthly, then weekly newsletter was born with recipes cribbed from Jane and Sophie Grigson, Elizabeth David and my mother, adapted and tested on my growing family and photocopied late at night. I even did the illustrations. Our first recipe book, The Riverford Farm Cook Book, followed in 2008 and was written with Jane Baxter, our first chef at the Field Kitchen. She is as opinionated about food as I am about farming; it won lots of awards and I am still very proud of it. Our second book, Everyday & Sunday, had some good recipes but too much cream and too many esoteric ingredients, so did little to make life easier for less experienced cooks. After many revisions and delays we now have two new books called Riverford Companions, designed to redress that balance: Spring & Summer Veg and Autumn & Winter Veg are very practical, focusing on quick and easy home cooking with a minimum of ingredients, implements and stages. If you have found yourself asking, “What is it? What can I make with it?” then they should provide the answer. Visit the website for more details.

Guy Watson

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: harvest nostalgia? perhaps not

It has been a near-perfect autumn for us. All our potatoes are now in store; the dry conditions allowing the harvesting machinery to work its magic, gently sifting tubers from the soil before delivering the nuggets to one ton wooden bins on a trailer running alongside. Long gone are the back breaking days of hand filling half hundredweight bags, dragged slowly up a hill between your legs. 30 years ago a team of five might have harvested ten tons a day; we now do that comfortably in half an hour without even bending over. Meanwhile we have moved onto harvesting our maincrop carrots; so late in the season we can’t rely on enough dry weather to allow lifting and sifting the whole growing bed as we could with potatoes. The carrot harvester instead relies on gripping the leaves between two rubber belts as a small undercutting shear loosens the soil’s grip; the carrots are gently lifted and agitated to remove excess soil then dropped into bins for transport to store. It is kinder to the earthworms and soil but slower than the potato harvester; still, at 20 times faster than hand harvesting we are not complaining.

There are many agricultural developments I have lamented in my 50 years of stomping around in muddy boots, but intelligent mechanisation is not one of them. It is, perhaps, a shame that the machines relentlessly keep getting bigger; our single row carrot harvester would be a joke beside modern four row harvesters that stand larger than many houses. With the inevitable increase in weight, the soil is the loser. There was also a camaraderie that came with working in a team without the noise of machinery; the flasks of tea, sandwiches and muddy roll-ups, but nostalgia can’t shut out the back breaking misery of days spent bent over in the rain, edging up a Devon hillside dragging that sack. I have the arthritis in two fingers to remember it by. Neither will I forget the tea brought to the field by my mother and eaten beside the silent, stationary combine harvester, but I doubt it actually happened very often.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: bitter leaves & talking veg

As light levels drop, our last lettuces (planted in early August) are losing the lust for life; with that departing vitality goes flavour, and almost certainly nutritional value. For salad lovers it is time to move on to more robust leaves like mizuna, land cress, claytonia and mustards from our polytunnels and, for those with a bitter palate, the cold-tolerant dandelion relatives from our fields in Devon and the Vendée. This might include radicchio, pain de sucre (solid conical heads of smooth, pale leaves), curly endive and even a few dandelion leaves; I have even been foraging chicory (believed to help in controlling parasites in dairy herds) ahead of the cows from my brother’s pastures.

I love the whole family and will be feasting on bitter salads until the last finally succumb to winter, normally in January. Reluctantly I have to acknowledge that not everyone shares my enthusiasm, which has been curbed by our crop planner Luke who loves all things sweet. His influence means their appearance in the boxes will be rare and we will always offer bitter-free boxes each week for those with sweeter palates to retreat to. I hope however you will at least take consolation from the benefits to the kidneys, liver and bladder attributed to these leaves. You will find they get sweeter as the weather gets colder; the fainthearted can also dilute their flavour with milder leaves or offset it with a sweet dressing. You will find they keep remarkably well in your fridge, allowing you to eat them over a week or two, or even a month for radicchio and pain de sucre. They are also good cooked; typically by braising or in a risotto. See overleaf for more recipe ideas.

I’m pleased to say that my enthusiasm for bitter leaves is shared by the vegetarian cook and food writer Anna Jones; I met her at our pub in London recently and we could have talked veg for hours. I’m very glad that she will be a guest chef on our recipe boxes for the next four weeks; she’s almost as much of a veg nerd as I am.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: the economics of ecological mimicry

Last week I spent a contemplative afternoon picking crab apples. The trees, along with medlars, damsons, apples, blackberries and hazelnuts, were planted ten years ago as part of a hedge. Some would call it permaculture, but neglect would be more accurate. I sometimes wish I could disengage the calculator in my head, but, failing to reach Zen oneness with my picking, my mind whirred. Weighing my haul I calculated that the combined yield of appropriately designed mature hedge could hit 50 tonnes per hectare, with not a drop of diesel burnt or pesticide used; all while providing a rich, undisturbed habitat for wildlife, shelter for livestock and enhancing the landscape with genuinely sustainable farming.

So why does the huge majority of such fruit get left to the birds or to rot, while most of our country is condemned to a hedge-less monoculture? The problem is that it can’t be harvested profitably to meet the demands of our current food system. About 25% of the hazelnuts have been devoured by a grub, making them unmarketable; the blackberries carry too many bugs for most people’s (and certainly supermarket) taste; yields, size and ripeness are all too varied for conventional retailers, and too few people eat crab apple jelly, let alone make it. Most significantly, it’s hard to mechanise the harvesting of mixed crops, though given the ingenuity of agricultural engineers, it’s not impossible to envisage.

Across the valley, Andy, our farming co-op member is harvesting potatoes; his biggest crops might yield 50t/ha but with the best will in the world he is killing earthworms, damaging soil structure and burning diesel in the process. Almost all modern farming constitutes a brutish, unsustainable treatment of the land to mollycoddle weak annual crops; organic farming, while less flawed, is far from perfect. Truly sustainable agriculture is possible but will not happen while food is valued so little; just 2-3% of GDP goes to produce it. It will never be achieved through market forces; the changes needed are too radical. Ultimately we need to eat more plants that are happy in the UK (rather than those on the edges of their climatic tolerance, like tomatoes and wheat), and fewer animal products. We need to mimic ecology and use modern technology to make it economically feasible. An ambitious plan, but not impossible. We’re willing to experiment should any agricultural engineers be reading this.

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