Tag Archives: harvesting

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: 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: hot & busy in the Vendée

A dry and sunny Easter gave ideal conditions to get ahead with planting at home; we are already irrigating in earnest to help the seedlings out and get the first lettuce, cabbage and spinach away to a good start. This meanwhile is being typed 250 miles south, under a tree on the banks of the reservoir of our farm in the French Vendée. As we come to the end of leeks, cabbage, purple sprouting and cauliflower at home I am here to check on the start of our hungry-gap-plugging French harvest. This morning we cut the first of a fine crop of outdoor lettuce and chard which are already chilling in the cold room ready for the trip north tonight; just as well, because it is already 25°C and climbing. The irrigation pump is purring away, sending water to germinate the first sweetcorn. Two weeks ago, many of our fields were too wet to travel on and our crops were being chilled by bitter easterlies; this week we are irrigating gasping plants and our peppers are keeling over from heat stress. The crop covers and low-level tunnels we use in early spring advance crops and keep off the wind, but the big question is always when to remove them. Ideally you pick a damp, warm overcast day to minimise the shock to the plants; if none are forecast, we take them off in the evening, water immediately, and hope.

In a bid to keep up we have brought in contractors for the heavy work of muck spreading and ploughing, allowing our team to pick in the mornings before moving on to sow and plant sweetcorn, peppers, chillies, sunflower, cape gooseberries, tomatillos, butternut squash and fennel in the afternoon. Every rusty wreck of a tractor is dragged from the back of the barn and every able body pressed into action in an attempt to keep up with the work; the next six weeks are critical here. Planting will soon be done but there is a scary amount of vegetables to be picked by a largely inexperienced team. The aim is to plug the hungry gap at home while we wait for those new season UK crops. To go from a plod to a sprint in just a few weeks and then back to a plod again is a management challenge, but we are getting better at it; my accountant even tells me that, for the first time, we made a very modest profit here last year.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: patience is a virtue…

“…and virtue is a good thing,” is what my partner Geetie tells her 5 year old daughter at least three times a week. That never worked on a Sainsbury buyer I once worked with, but I will try it on you and throw in a plea to accept a little compromise (that never worked either). Summer is taking its time to arrive and most crop covers are staying on while we wait for the temperature to rise, but with no late frosts and enough windows of dry weather to get the planting done, we are not complaining. Keeping the boxes both full and varied over the next few weeks is a struggle, even after using more imported produce than we would like, but I think we are just about managing it.

Meanwhile down on our farm in France we are manically busy harvesting greens, turnips, chard, kohl rabi and lettuce as fast as our team can get them in the crates. Elsewhere, the first Charlotte new potatoes will be dug in Jersey this week though they will only be on the extras list until we start digging in Cornwall and have enough to go in the boxes. By now we could easily be digging quick-growing new potato varieties like Swift and Rocket; they look the part but are at best watery and tasteless. We will wait for the slower growing, tasty varieties like Charlotte that give some cause to celebrate a new season, and hope that you will be patient with us. In the meantime our stored Valor spuds are still tasting good, though do keep them in a paper bag in the fridge as they are now waking up and will quickly sprout at room temperature. So long as you keep them in the dark and there is no greening, a few sprouts (chits) can be knocked off without loss of eating quality.

After a lifetime in marketing, my sister Rachel always insists on a positive end so here goes; the new season is tantalisingly close and your boxes will soon be brimming with homegrown broad beans, salads, flavoursome potatoes, bunched carrots, beets, basil and much more. Best of all I soon won’t have to be patient or apologise for any compromise.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: out with the old & return of the tree frog

As days lengthen and temperatures rise, our purple sprouting broccoli, leeks and cauliflower are rushing to seed and bringing the old season to an end. Our crop of spring greens, planted on a north facing hill, will hang on for a week or so before they too divert their energy from leaf growth to reproduction. The newly planted cabbage, lettuce, pak choi and beans are doing well under their fleeces, but it will be at least two weeks before we have anything fit to pick and more like two months before we have a good range of veg from our own fields once more. In contrast to these annual plants, perennials have the benefit of a large existing root system to give them a head start. This always makes them the earliest crops to reach maturity and we will pick the first UK asparagus and outdoor rhubarb this week. Pepe, our family farmer from Granada, has produced some wonderful asparagus as always, but it will be good to have our own. In the meantime we will try to keep your boxes full, varied and interesting with some weird stuff of our own; dandelions, wild garlic and cardoons have played their part so far this year but I would love to crack growing sorrel and harvesting it before the snails. I have even found myself eying up the nettles and wondering if we could harvest the spinach-like tips economically, but perhaps that would be going too far, and risk scaring off the faint-hearted among you at one end and those who like to pick their own at the other. While we wait for more conventional crops at home we are now picking lettuce and spinach in earnest from our farm in the French Vendée. We often find leverets (baby hares) sleeping among the lettuce but they have not yet made it onto the lorry. Last week, we had a surprise visitor arrive with the French lettuce for the second year running, in the shape of a European tree frog. He has been named Ribbitford by our Facebook page fans and is now hopping around the office being fed on worms while a more appropriate home is sought, possibly with our local zoo.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: harvesters, social injustice & surf

People often ask me where the inspiration for these newsletters comes from. Generally my weekly musings reflect my ambles around the farm and current preoccupations, but when these are deemed too dull or libellous, I ask my staff to tell me something interesting. A groan goes up, but I normally get something.

This Wednesday, with my deadline looming, they have all let me down. The latest gale has washed away the rail link that once took my father’s milk to London, but the river is still within its banks and our polytunnels still standing. A team is out pulling leeks and another cutting swedes. They have tracked vehicles designed to get the crop to the gate with minimal soil compaction (one of my better inventions) but there is no escaping the mud and rain driving into the best waterproofs. I really don’t think I could do it anymore. It’s a travesty that when they hose off their boots and shed their oilskins they have earned a small fraction of the pay of the most mediocre lawyer or city banker. We do our best to close the gap with a staff profit share, but the social injustice remains. 

 In France our early lettuces are suffering from fungal disease brought on by persistent warmth, high humidity and very low light levels. The sun-loving lettuces simply have no vigour to fight back. As a last resort we will introduce a harmless (to us and the lettuce) antagonistic fungus designed to out-compete the pathogens on the leaf and root surface. I am not optimistic and suspect the only real hope is some bright, cold weather. In my career I have tried all sorts of organic, hocus-pocus products purporting to ‘bolster the vigour’ of ailing crops but mostly they just appeal to our need to feel we have done something. I might as well go and kneel in front of the Buddha that one of my more broad-thinking staff installed outside the office.

Doom, social injustice and lack of faith; not my finest work. Let’s hope for inspiration next week. A 28 foot swell is rolling up the channel and it’s too wet to do any farming so I’m heading for a protected cove with my surfboard. There’s nothing like taking a beating from the Atlantic for making me forget about veg.

Guy Watson

Guy’s blog – the worst is behind us

The rain has abated, the ground has dried up well and it’s time to gather in and make the most of what has survived the deluge. No one will starve, indeed the carrots and parsnips are doing pretty well, but we will have only half the projected yields of potatoes.

Modern root harvesting machinery relies on planting crops in a pre-sieved, clod and stone-free bed. Six months later at harvest, the ridges rise onto the sieving web, the soil falls away and coils grab any weeds and haulm (dried residues of potato stems etc.), leaving just the tubers to be delivered untouched into a trailer running alongside. Only the greens, defects and the occasional pebble need to picked off by hand. There is a Luddite tendency to romanticise physical labour, especially by those less familiar with it. After spending the autumns of my youth bent at the waist filling sacks dragged between my legs to gather two tonnes in a day, the sight of 150 tonnes of potatoes being harvested by two people is pure poetry. This year’s rain however, has defeated even the most sophisticated harvester, leaving no choice but to sort the potatoes and onions, by hand, slowing the harvest and adding to the cost.

Encouraged by a small trial last year, we have grown a few Kings Edward potatoes; probably the finest main crop for roasting but unfortunately also the most difficult to grow. They have just been lifted, yielding remarkably well in this hellish year and have been earmarked for all the boxes for Christmas week. To cope with the shortfall of potatoes, we have managed to buy in from outside the co-op; our reputation for paying our bills came to our rescue in diverting several hundred tonnes otherwise destined for a supermarket. Onions will be more difficult – there will undoubtedly be a national shortage and we will probably end up buying from a friend in Holland who used to work for the co-op.

With winter crops are looking good and the lettuce and spinach rallying well, there is a feeling that we are over the worst. Bank balances have suffered but sales have been remarkably good (thank you all) so at least we will not have any problems selling what we have managed to grow. Last weekend we had our (twice rain delayed) 25th summer party which turned out to be a very jolly affair; the high point being a water slide lined with straw and old crop fleece, fed by the irrigation pump which fired willing revellers out into the reservoir. On one of my less elegant entries I hit the bottom only to find it too had been padded and lined. As a business we have got a lot more sensible but we still know how to have a good time.

Guy Watson


Home farm blog – a northern perspective

As I sit here eating my lunch and reading my partner Guy’s newsletter from deepest Devon, it amazes me that for such a small country, the weather (the biggest influence on farming), can vary so much.

While up here in the North, conditions have been extremely challenging, we seem to have fared far better than our cousins in the South. Yield potential for the potatoes is a slight concern, but the sweetcorn and her various vegetable friends are looking tremendous. Even the pumpkins are looking good, which at one point I had completely written off in my mind.

Indeed, we’ll be celebrating this year’s harvest at Home Farm on Pumpkin Day, Sunday 28th October. Hundreds of pumpkins will be harvested for the event between 11am to 4pm and visitors will have the chance to take part in a pumpkin carving competition. There will also be tractor rides, games, cookery demonstrations and sampling and food stalls. Local folk band, Fiddlyn Man Doris, will also be on hand to provide the entertainment. Entry is free and we hope to see you there!

We were also delighted to hear that our local suppliers, Acorn Dairy and Pierce Bridge have recently won Soil Association awards for their quality food and commitment to organic.

Peter Richardson

Harvest woes

As I write, a ridge of high pressure is edging in from the Atlantic and threatening to build into the high pressure system we have been waiting for all summer; too late for most schoolchildren’s holidays, too late for many a fair, festival and fête; too late for our stunted pumpkins and sweetcorn, blighted potatoes, mildew-stricken onions and rotten strawberries.

Any day now I will be asked to fill our local church with bounty for the harvest festival, as we have for twenty years, but the Big Man is pushing his luck. We could decorate the font with parsnips, which although notoriously fickle germinators, have taken well to the rain this year. Our carrots, swede and beetroot are also looking good, as are most of the winter crops of brassicas and leeks. Perhaps our mistake was ever assuming the sun would come out to nourish those semi-tropical plants that only begrudgingly tolerate even a decent British summer. If we had left the solanacae and concurbits in the Americas and stuck to our turnips & swedes, things would have been so much easier.

With a few exceptions, fruit has been equally disastrous. The farm team has sworn never to plant another strawberry unless in tunnels. Plums have been disappointing in yield and flavour. The apple season has started with the first Discovery; eat them quickly to enjoy them at their most flavourful. We should now have a good supply of English apples through to the end of March, with pears until the end of January. We are also pleased to have finally managed to grow a decent crop of juicy melons down in the Vendée. It took three years and though I am not completely satisfied with the flavour, they are almost there and definitely good enough to make me try again next year.

What will next year bring? How will that jet stream and its trail of depressions meander? Should we blame our gas guzzling and carbon burning rather than the Big Man for its deviations southwards? Another bad year would sink many of our growers. As we start to plan our cropping for next year the prevailing concern is how to cope with risk and uncertainty.

Guy Watson

Organic September

When I converted the first of my father’s fields to organic in 1986, my motivations were primarily to avoid the agrochemicals that put my brother in hospital and made me ill as a teenager, and also a sense that it offered me a better chance of making some money. Over 25 years my commitment has grown; organic farming is much more than simply rejecting synthetic chemicals; it’s about balance, harmony and humility, and an acceptance that we share our planet with six billion others, and are part of an ongoing ecosystem rather than its short-term master.

With such a broad philosophy, it’s not surprising that marketing experts repeatedly tell the organic industry to condense its benefits into clear soundbites. So, as we enter ‘Organic September’, I’ll keep the hippy dippy stuff to myself and instead extol the virtues of veg boxes from my perspective:

Better for you: We don’t spray our crops with a barrage of nerve toxins, fungicides and herbicides. There’s also good evidence organic food has higher levels of important nutrients. Better flavour too.

For the environment: Organic farms have more biodiversity and soil life, less polluted watercourses, use less fossil fuels, and have a lower carbon footprint.

For animals: Organic farms have the highest legally-enforced animal welfare standards; much higher than free range and with no routine use of antibiotics.

So there you go; bigger than bite-sized and largely unverified. I’d go on, but giving more than three reasons for anything generally makes people glaze over. If you want more, visit www.soilassociation.org. I’m so convinced of both the tangible benefits and the philosophy of organic farming that we only sell organic produce. Some organic companies have recently started selling ‘free range’, ‘additive-free’, and ‘home produced’ non-organic goods. In as much as these words mean anything, I’d argue that we are all of them, and organic, and have been for 25 years.
Guy Watson