Tag Archives: harvest

guy’s newsletter: learning with leeks

Leeks were the first crop I grew on a substantial scale and they remain an important staple for us, keeping the vegboxes full and our staff busy throughout the winter. They tested my back and my organic resolve during my early days as a grower and, what with the escapee that always seemed to be decaying under the car seat, plus the pervasive odour on my clothes, they kept me celibate through my first winter. Only pig farmers smell worse. After I had been planting and weeding all summer, the early winter of 1987–8 was horrendously wet; the field descended into a quagmire and the crop succumbed to the fungal disease rust. As I watched the previously vigorous foliage melt into a slime of decay, the advisers and chemical salesmen were whispering, serpent-like, in my uncertain ears that all my woes could be solved with a few potent kilos of fungicide.

Somehow I maintained my resolve and a sudden drop in temperature proved more powerful than any fungicide, halting the disease while the leeks carried on growing. By February the plants had replaced the infected leaves with new ones and I had learnt that rust is a disease of warm, damp Devon autumns and that I should not listen to chemical salesmen. By April, with an aching back and incipient rheumatism in my fingers, there was £6,000 in the bank and Riverford Organic Vegetables was on its way.

We normally start picking in September and harvest increasing volumes through the winter as the supply of other vegetables declines. By March, with the first hint of spring, the leeks are getting lusty; if you dissect one lengthways you may find, thrusting up through the leaves, the start of the ‘bolt’ that would eventually carry the starburst flower characteristic of the allium family (onions, garlic, chives). Initially this bolt is tender and perfectly edible but as it lengthens and pushes up through the leaves it rapidly becomes tough and unpleasant to eat. By early May the UK season is over and you should be wary of buying leeks without closely examining the centres for hard yellow stalks (bolts), until the new crop is ready.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: talking pumpkins & putting people in boxes

A break in the weather this week should let us harvest the last of the carrots and potatoes, and make a start on the parsnips and swedes. In such a warm autumn it seems too early to acknowledge winter by sending you hardy veg, but I remind myself that it is November, and the shortest day is only six weeks away.

Many of you will have pink fir apple potatoes in your boxes this week and I apologise to those who miss out; their late maturity, combined with a susceptibility to blight means they are very hard to grow organically (some say impossible). After too many failures in mild, blight-ridden Devon, we grew them in cooler, drier Yorkshire with our partner Peter Richardson this year. He had a pretty good crop and we will definitely bully him into sowing more in 2015. Shaped more like ginger than a potato, pink fir apples are hard to beat for flavour; they are known mainly as a salad potato though I find them a little dry and prefer them roast. Whatever you do, don’t bother peeling them.

One night, stumbling home under a full moon and other influences in my first year as a grower, I had an out-of-body experience in my pumpkin patch; they glowed like lazy Belisha beacons and spoke to me. I have sown pumpkins ever since but sadly, in my sobriety, have never found them remotely communicative. I soon got fed up with packaging and transport often costing more than I was paid for the crop, so I decided I would rather give them away. Our first Pumpkin Day, designed to raise money for Oxfam, was almost 20 years ago. Last weekend we opened up our farms for the annual event and had an astonishing, terrifying, 6500 visitors; far more than expected. We raised lots of money for the charity Send a Cow but my greatest pride was in seeing the genuinely happy visitors and how amiably a leek puller could transform into a smiling director of parking, how a website manager could carve pumpkins with children or how willingly my slouching skater teenage son would clear tables. We must try harder not to consign people to boxes; most people have so much more potential than their jobs allow them to express. We are not an events company but I reckon we hold pretty good ones; it’s good to break out of our own specialist box now and then.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: keats never sold cabbages

Much as I appreciate the autumn mists and mellow fruitfulness, I doubt that Keats ever had to sell a cabbage. The autumn makes me think more of a Bristol market trader who, before quoting me a price told me, “Bean time is lean time, boy,” meaning that when runner beans are cropping heavily in late summer, the market will be flooded and he was about to take my legs off with his offer. It’s been a wonderful growing year and right now we are in a similar position; to quote the notorious 1970s drug dealer Mr Nice, “I never meant to sell the stuff; but, try as I might, I just couldn’t smoke it all myself”. I love my veg and do my best to eat whatever will not fit in your boxes, but it is proving a struggle right now and we could do with some help.

Fortunately we are more organised these days; it is a long time since we sent veg on a wing and a prayer to the wholesale markets, only to be told no-one gave a damn if it was organic, so the price barely covered the transport and boxes. Instead where crops have massively out-yielded expectations, the danger is we simply won’t get through them in time. A cold snap to slow things down would very welcome, but better still, introduce a friend to Riverford.

The only area of the farm not looking good is the spring greens. Despite our efforts, all the weeds came up with the crop after the first rains in July. Everyone is a bit depressed about it, but I think that once we have some hard frosts to take out the softer weeds we may still get a fair crop. Looking on the bright side, the field is a favourite for skylarks and there will be plenty of cover and weed seed to see them through the winter.

Guy Watson

share the Riverford love!

Introduce a friend to Riverford and you will get a £10 credit on your account when they place a regular order. Your friend doesn’t miss out either; they’ll get a free cook book and vegbox. Visit www.riverford.co.uk/recommend-riverford to find out more.

guy’s newsletter: mixed farming & muddled thinking: battling with a dead man

Between the showers, our neighbours are busy with harvest; watching the grain flowing from the combine harvester, I feel envy and deep nostalgia for the smell, dust, sweat, cider and teas in the field that were the harvests of my youth. When my parents took on the tenancy of Riverford back in 1951, they (like most of their neighbours) kept cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and grew corn, and a lot of grass. Every farm also had its own orchards and cider press. The work was varied, complex, highly seasonal and demanded a wide range of skills and machinery. Managing such complexity was simply the tradition and, some might argue, most farmers weren’t much good at any of it. With rationing still in place and 35% of household income spent on food, perhaps they didn’t have to be.

As the decades passed and food expenditure declined to 10%, one enterprise went after another: first the chickens (“Never did like them much,” says Pa), and then the sheep (“Always looking for a new way to die”). The orchards that once paid the rent were grubbed out, the hedges bulldozed, corn left to those with better land and even Pa’s beloved pigs went; “A conflict of love and money,” he finally admitted. The political economist Adam Smith’s vision was fulfilled as we reluctantly became a specialist dairy farm, expert at turning grass into milk.

I never did much like the irrefutable, soulless logic of Smith and over the last 30 years the next generation of Watsons have somehow reversed the trend, and managed to make Riverford even more complex than Old MacDonald’s farmyard. As well as the cows, between the five of us we have farm shops, a butchery and commercial kitchen, a processing dairy and vast barns packing veg and meat boxes. Meanwhile with 100 different vegetables growing in the fields and polytunnels, my parent’s farm of the ‘50s looks simple in comparison. It feels crazy at times but I love it and reckon we have done an incredible job of managing the complexity with a fair degree of efficiency. It’s all about motivating and managing people; on reflection I’m not sure Adam Smith understood the difference between man and machine.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: smut & wacky veg from the vendée

550-What-is-smut-

I am on our farm in France, where we are picking the best crop of sweetcorn I have ever grown; 30,000 cobs to the hectare which are so plump and sweet you can eat them raw. Walking through the crop, my spirits rose to giddy heights until I reached the field next door, where 70% of the cobs are grotesquely deformed with galls of the soil-borne fungal pathogen, smut.

guy corn smut landscape

Guy with sweetcorn affected by ‘corn smut’ or huitlacoche as it is known in Mexico (where they consider it a delicacy).

With the majority of crops from this farm designed to plug the spring ‘hungry gap’ back home, our busiest time here is past and we have sown green manures to replenish the soil, ready for next year. The fertility building mixture of clover, oats and phacelia has germinated well but ironically so has a flush of exceedingly healthy summer purslane; a succulent weed I have previously cultivated as a salad crop in the UK, with mixed success. Meanwhile we will start hand picking our beautiful red-flecked borlotti beans next week. Harvested immature in the pods as ‘demi-sec’, they require much less cooking and retain more flavour than a dried bean and can be used in stews, but are best appreciated in a salad. Don’t be put off if the pods look tatty, the beans are beautiful inside, as many an Italian will tell you.

Since buying the farm here I have developed a passion for growing, eating, bottling and drying chillies; like our sweetcorn they love the dry heat of a Vendéen summer. We have grown different varieties for tapas, stuffing, drying and pickling which include padrons, pablanos, Joe’s long, jalapenos, plus a few devastatingly hot scotch bonnets and habaneros for the deranged chilli nuts among you. Most will be available (along with instructions for preserving) to add to your order over the next two months. We are also busy picking tomatillos for you to make salsa verde, and starting on the cape gooseberries. A few of you might think this sounds all too esoteric and are wondering where the potatoes and carrots are; just count yourself lucky there is no smutty corn in your box.

corn smut close up

In Mexico it is considered a delicacy and they charge more for it. Maybe we need to develop a recipe for smut galls with summer purslane.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: the virtues of questionable cabbages

The warm weather means we have bumper crops everywhere; we just hope you can eat it all. The bounty is such that rather than see it go to waste, we have upped some portion sizes and are sometimes struggling to get them in the boxes. Take a moment to savour the carrots you may have this week, as the dry weather has created some distorted shapes and slowed growth, but this has only served to intensify their sensational flavour. A little bit of adversity is good for them. Meanwhile our summer greens have struggled too much; first from a lack of nitrogen thanks to the winter deluge, and then from a lack of water. For them, slow growth has resulted in a strong flavour which I like, but which some might describe as bitter. They are on the chewy side too, so I would recommend boiling rather than steaming.

So why am I drawing attention to questionable cabbages? My vegetably, farmer’s point here is that only a narrow minded moron could doubt that the way vegetables are grown has the potential to impact their shape, texture and flavour. Our organic vegetables are so tangibly different from conventional vegetables pushed on with nitrogen fertiliser and plenty of water that it would seem inevitable for them to be chemically different as well. This was broadly the conclusion of an international peer-reviewed study published in the British Journal of Nutrition two weeks ago, in particular that organic food contains substantially higher levels of some anti-oxidants.

To assert that the farming methods used to grow food do not affect nutritional quality, as has been our government’s line, has always seemed incredible. Perhaps in opening up the debate about organic food again, the new research findings will form the beginning of a change in direction. Those cabbages and carrots are enough proof for me though. What is more, without regular dousing with nerve toxins, chemical fungicides and herbicides, our fields, hedges and woods are alive with bees, butterflies and birds. I reckon that makes buying organic more than a lifestyle choice, and the occasional questionable cabbage representative of something much more significant.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: the vegetable new year

Early summer is the vegetable new year: out with the old crops and in with the new. The ‘hungry gap’, when very little UK veg is ready for harvesting, is finally over and the new season is a wonderful time for vegboxes. Even after more than 25 years of growing vegetables, I am still excited by the first broad beans, courgettes, salads and homegrown fruit, including the very welcome arrival of gooseberries this week.

I was driven to planting an acre of these traditional British berries by memories of my mother’s gooseberry fool and by frustration at the lack of organic fruit grown in this country. A few people warned me of sawfly (a pest that attacks gooseberries in three waves of voracious larvae), predicting disaster without an arsenal of chemicals. There are always prophets of doom – they keep the chemical companies in business – so I carried on regardless. For the first three years the bushes were indeed stripped bare, but since then, nature has established a balance and we have a mystery predator keeping the larvae in check. There is much joy to be had from these tart-flavoured berries; fruit doesn’t have to be flown around the world to be interesting.

I could happily eat broad beans all month. The season started slowly, but now the spring-sown crops are going strong to see us through the next few weeks. Look out also for sweet, tender sugarsnap peas, which are just starting to arrive in the vegboxes. There’s no need to shell these; snap off the tops, pull the stringy bits off the sides and eat them pod and all. As well as simply steaming or stir frying, they are very good raw in salads, perhaps with a vinaigrette dressing.

As summer moves on, there are even more homegrown ingredients to inspire you in the kitchen, from a range of beans and spinach to British cherries, raspberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants. This is the time to keep cooking simple and light; these new season vegetables need very little cooking and no sauces. I even find myself getting irritable when people add butter to them; it seems almost disrespectful to their perfection. A man obsessed? At this time of year, perhaps.

Getting floral in the mud

Monday 26th November 2012

On and on it goes; the river is spilling out of its banks, springs are rising from unexpected places and once again the ground is sodden. We enjoyed a brief respite in the middle of November and managed to harvest some carrots. Conditions were borderline and they came out of the ground well caked – it will take a lot of work to get them clean enough to sell or store. A certain amount of soil helps the carrots to store, too much wet soil can deprive the roots of the oxygen they need to stay alive. Even a dormant root needs to breathe while sleeping the winter away.

As for the spuds, we must wait. We still have 80 acres in the ground but have decided to wait and pray. Aside from the diesel burned and mess made lifting all that earth, harvesting in wet conditions causes huge damage to the soil structure with its delicate flora and fauna. If it doesn’t dry up we may end up waiting to dig them in the spring, not necessarily a bad thing, provided they are well ridged and do not freeze.

Leeks, cabbage, sprouts, kale and cauliflower are running late but are arriving at our barns in increasing volumes. Harvesting is mostly done by hand. Wellies don’t get stuck like tractors, so our hardy field workers soldier on regardless. For the most part they remain cheery; some people just hate being indoors and seem able to shrug off conditions that would be considered intolerable by 99% of us. The view and their contact with nature must help. I used to be one of them but doubt that I could hack it now.

On another note; the pies, preserves, hams, bacon and tarts we sell are made by my food-crazed brother Ben, in the barn where my father once kept his pigs. Two years ago he started winning prizes for his mince pies and has been besieged by gourmet outlets wanting to sell them ever since. The answer is always no because they are handmade in small batches and we can’t make enough. There will be a few night shifts to get there but we are guessing you will buy 150,000 of them this year.

They are very good, but they will run out.

Guy Watson

 

Stuck in the ground but full of hope

Seventy acres of potatoes are still in the ground, patiently waiting for dry weather a month after harvest is usually finished. Although this year’s harvest has been woefully slow, we are making better progress. The onions are in store and dry. Swedes and parsnips are looking good. If we can get them out of the ground, we are reasonably well covered for roots.
With yields down and leeks, cabbage and cauliflower running late, the boxes are hungry for greenery. Kale has never tasted so good. I hate seeing Spanish broccoli in the barns so early in the winter but scouring our own fields for greens would mean chasing our tails all winter.

When we started the box scheme, with no tunnels, co-op or realistic access to imports, it was a fairly basic and repetitive offering with lots of roots and cabbages. It quickly became obvious that, for all but a tiny minority, we were going to have to offer more variety, especially in the winter. Tunnels helped, but just as important was a determination to make the most of anything that would grow in our climate. First it was celeriac, fennel, romanesco, squash, artichokes and landcress. More recently, wild garlic, radicchio, chioggia beetroot and dandelion greens. There have been a few failures along the way and I still can’t find anyone who shares my enthusiasm for cardoons.

About this time last year, I asked you for suggestions of anything new we should be growing for the boxes. There was a fantastic response and we tried some: tomatillos (big hit for salsa verde), horseradish, oca and cape gooseberries (all casualties to the weather but we haven’t given up), padron tapas chillies (big hit – more next year), flageolet and coco beans in France (a bad year but we’ve harvested a few – to be on the extras list soon). Plans for next year include borlotti beans, multi-coloured sweetcorn and cima di rapa.

Most of our growers are being incredibly stoical; they just want to forget this year, put it behind them and move on. There is sensible caution and a desire to reduce risk but hope springs eternal and an appetite for innovation remains.

Guy Watson

The joy of tunnels

For years we agonised over whether the benefits of tunnels (earliness, quality and cropping reliability) justified the eyesore. Last year we took the plunge and covered three acres of our best land with polytunnels, doubling our area of protected cropping. Despite the lack of sunshine, these three acres have been the most prosperous on the farm this year, providing good harvests of winter salads, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and peppers.

We are now harvesting the last of the sakura, sassari and cheramy cherry tomatoes and should be picking these for another week. Unfortunately we’ve had to abadon the larger dometica and mecano tomatoes which have now lost their sweetness and are showing ghost spotting due to low levels of botrytis.

There is always a lot of green fruit which will not ripen by the end of the season. This will be picked and made into chutney by my brother Ben (sold in our farm shop), or perhaps by you. From today, green tomato chutney kits are available to order, complete with a recipe and ingredients, www.riverford.co.uk/chutneykit. There is nothing like a well stocked preserve shelf; it makes me feel ready for winter and prepared for any forgotten presents.

As the cucumbers and tomatoes are cleared we are cultivating and replanting the tunnels with rocket, mizuna, claytonia, baby leaf lettuce and chard, for harvest through the winter. Outside, most of the autumn and winter crops have established well and in the dryer east are going into autumn as we would like. In the wetter west we continue to suffer from a combination of low light levels and leaching carrying soluble nutrients beyond the reach of our crops roots, but we stay optimistic.

Guy Watson

pumpkin day – free family day out
Saturday 20th October Mole End Farm, Kent
Saturday 27th October Upper Norton Farm, Hampshire; Sacrewell Farm, Cambridgeshire; Wash Farm, Devon
Sunday 28th October Home Farm, Yorkshire