Tag Archives: organic farming

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: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: 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: plants, pests & the search for balance

The first basil and cucumbers were harvested from our polytunnels last week, and very fine they were too. We grow mainly mini cucumbers as they taste better, are easier to grow and avoid you having that soggy-ended cucumber half lurking in the back of the fridge, so I can’t really understand why anyone grows anything else.

Outside we are in the hands of the Gods with a difficult start to the season, but the protection of our flimsy tunnels can give dangerous delusions of omnipotence. We can manipulate the temperature, humidity and ventilation to promote growth and avoid fungal disease and our team of pickers, pruners and tomato trainers are experts at identifying and monitoring aphids and spider mites. Rather than turning to chemicals as a means of pest control, a dynamic balance of pests and predators is our aim, but when an aphid gets its proboscis plugged into a good stream of plant sap they can squeeze out babies at an alarming rate. If life is good they give up on sex and egg production altogether; why bother with the complications, wasted energy and variable offspring when you can just replicate more like mamma via parthenogenesis. The trick is to introduce enough of the right predators and parasites before the explosion happens and to get the balance at an acceptable level where crops do not suffer significantly.

We are struggling to find that balance out in the fields too. Aphids in the lettuce and flea beetle on rocket, mustard and spinach have forced us to abandon a number of crops, just when we need them most for your boxes. It could be that low temperatures are disproportionately slowing predator activity, but I feel more inclined to attribute our problems to stressed crops emerging from a miserable winter. Just as with humans, stress leads to vulnerability. Later crops are looking happier however, and past experience would suggest that predator appetites rise with temperature faster than pest fecundity does. So, as we enter summer proper, we expect the balance to come outside in our fields as it has in the tunnels, and all will be well on the farm (for the time being at least).

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: accounting & organic disorder

It has been a great year for dandelions; first our dairy pastures turned yellow with their blooms, followed by two weeks when the air was thick with their feathery seeds that settled in felt-like drifts around the farm. It reminded me of the first year Riverford became organic, when it seemed we would be growing only dandelions. Since then they come and go in our pastures without causing any concern and, like our cows, I have come to enjoy eating them.

Last week I was invited by the Sustainable Food Trust to visit HRH’s Highgrove Farm and found myself walking across a pasture with an international accountant from the oil industry. Following a stroke he had bought a neighbouring farm, which just happened to be organic, as a retirement project. Accountants like order; pasture should be grass, preferably in rows. He was bemused by this group of organic farmers’ lackadaisical approach to weeds in our pastures. I hope we convinced him that it was possible to coexist with a few weeds, that farm management was about manipulating an ecological balance rather than imposing absolute control, but he was clearly struggling with the concept; as he himself said, “It isn’t in my training”.

An organic farm is a giant, ongoing experiment. With so many factors varying at once, and a long and indeterminate time frame it is not very scientific but, through observation, the best organic farmers are constantly honing their skills. They develop hypotheses and test them against their experiences in the field, along with the reports of others and a little peer-reviewed science. David Wilson, Prince Charles’s farm manager and our guide to Highgrove is among the best; greatly experienced but extraordinarily humble and, after 25 years at Highgrove, still cherishing every opportunity to learn. My guess is that some of David’s approach will rub off on his dandelion-phobic neighbour, who might even acquire the deeper confidence to be comfortable with a little disorder and, as he walks his fields, accept that he is not in complete control. Shame he will not be using his new skills in the boardrooms of the global corporations that impose their order on our world.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: worm love

It’s always good to start a new season and while we have respectable crops that will taste good, the plants are generally late, smaller and lack the vigour we expect at this time of year. As I walk the fields I’m not despondent but the grower in me is constantly asking, “why?”. The slow growth could be caused by low temperatures but I’m attributing the general lack of vigour to an ailing soil.

Organic farmers depend on the health of their soil, especially the communities of bacteria and fungi living around crop roots. Coupled with the activity of earthworms, these microbes are the stomach of the plant, breaking down organic matter to release the soluble nutrients our crops need to grow. There is also evidence that these symbiotic relationships help protect our crops from disease. Think about probiotics and the effect of antibiotics, a curry or too much beer on your gut and you’re getting the picture; no creature lives in isolation.

A healthy soil needs to breathe so its cavities (created largely by earthworm activity) must be open to allow the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen. During last winter, the wettest in living memory, even our better drained soils were waterlogged for months. Suffocated like a patient struggling with pneumonia, many of the beneficial fungi and bacteria were replaced by species that thrive in anaerobic conditions. The soil takes on a foul sourness with the wrong microbes producing the wrong metabolites resulting in unhealthy plants.

It’s not a disaster; with drier conditions the good bugs will prevail, and I expect the later crops to be fine. However it has emphasised the importance of a living soil in time for the launch of our national earthworm survey, Riverford’s Big Worm Dig, designed with earthworm experts at the University of Central Lancashire. Children especially enjoy it so visit our website below for your free survey booklet.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: complexity, humanity & nature

According to Adam Smith and most classic economic theory, trade harnesses and drives specialisation and generates wealth. When combined with scale and global trade, specialisation also produces fantastic mobile phones and cars. I’m less convinced that it produces good food in an environmentally and socially acceptable way, but the same trends towards scale and specialisation can be seen in agriculture. Here at Riverford we grow almost 100 different crops and run an incredibly complex business doing everything from farming, to running a restaurant, a commercial kitchen, farm shops, a website and making home deliveries. There is no doubt that things would be easier if we just bought in stuff, put our name on it and contracted out the rest of what we do. However this would make us simply a brand and a marketing machine making nothing, just clogging our consciousness with self-serving nonsense.

I sometimes wonder why I so stubbornly resist the pressure towards specialisation and my best answer is that it does not sit comfortably with human nature, at least not mine anyway. We are chaotic, emotional beings with needs that cannot be satisfied without the variety, autonomy and opportunity to grow in our work often found in small generalist businesses. Nature is also chaotic and gains its resilience from diversity. Modern agriculture with its push toward vast monocultures is as likely to produce environmental harmony as a call centre is to produce social harmony. My observation is that the biggest push to specialisation is lazy management, but what we lose through having to manage complexity we can gain by unleashing the potential of our staff through good management.

One of the things that I am proudest of about Riverford is that we are the real thing; a real farm with real people. My brother does wield a meat cleaver and make those tarts, my other brother and sister do chase cows and I do (occasionally at least) grow vegetables when I am not writing this. And yes, I do write it myself.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: waiting for a break

Looking west at the weather charts, there is no sign of an abatement to the deluge. The Atlantic continues to be a churning morass of weather fronts, depressions and synoptic activity. In Devon we would be looking to spread some muck, plough and perhaps risk some early plantings of potatoes and cabbage this month, but fortunately there is no panic; the later plantings in March often produce better, and sometimes earlier crops anyway.

Further south, on our farm in the French Vendée, the situation is more critical. Even on our sandy, free draining soils it is too wet to do anything with a machine. The lettuce has been planted by hand into seedbeds made in the autumn, but the cabbage plants are stacking up in the yard, waiting for that elusive break in the weather. They will hold for two or three weeks in their tiny cells of compost and peat; indeed a short spell of acclimatisation is no bad thing, softening the shock of moving from a warm glasshouse to standing alone in a windswept field.

When I bought the farm, the prevailing wisdom was that the weather changed south of the Loire but, so far, our fields seem to be catching most of what we get in Devon. The light is better, giving faster and healthier growth, but only if you can get the plants in the ground. Our problem is that the sand lies over heavy, impervious clay and the topography is relatively flat, with the result that the water sits on the clay in a subterranean lake, before draining over it down the slope. We have laid a herringbone network of perforated drains at 10m intervals in a few fields, which greatly helps reactivity but it costs more per hectare than I paid for the farm. Many of our neighbours have used laser-guided earth moving machines to create gentle artificial slopes, which is surprisingly cheap, but my experience of disturbing the soil in this way in Devon is that it can take a decade or more for the soil life to readjust and natural fertility to return. Not so bad if you rely on fertility from a bag, but a disaster for an organic farmer relying on the activity of the soil’s fauna and flora to recycle nutrients.

Guy Watson

nutrition & flavour: a little hardship helps

There have been suggestions in the media that the very wet, dull weather in 2012 has reduced the nutritional value, flavour and yields of vegetables. Some have postulated that organic crops, un-bolstered by agrochemicals, might be more severely affected.

When rainfall exceeds the sum of moisture lost through evaporation (from the surface), transpiration (from plants) and the sponge-like ability of the top soil to absorb water, the excess will percolate through the soil, taking anything soluble with it. Highly soluble nitrogen is lost to the subsoil (out of the rooting zone of most vegetable crops) and eventually pollutes watercourses. Conventional farmers can replace it by adding relatively cheap (hugely carbon intensive), synthetic ammonium nitrate. Organic farmers have to wait for the soil fungi and bacteria to break down complex organic matter to the smaller, soluble nutrients available to plants. Part of the skill of organic farming is balancing the natural release of nutrients with the needs of the crop; we base our plans on an average year, not 2012. Hence it’s fair to say that organic farmers have suffered more in terms of yield this year. Pouring on nitrogen may mitigate yield loss but does not compensate for lack of sunshine and other nutrients and tends to dilute nutrition and flavour.

A little hardship is generally no bad thing. Slower growth can help plants develop their full flavour and improve nutrient content. Some disease fighting chemicals are actually produced as a response to stress or threat. There is often a negative correlation between yield, flavour and nutrient content: the ‘dilution effect’ (the nutritional value of vegetables has fallen by about a third since the adoption of chemical farming in the 1960s). Sunshine is essential, as plants use it to produce sugars. We found flavour a bit dull in the sun-loving lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries and some apples, all of which would prefer to be further south. Cabbage, sprouts, spinach and leeks are happier at our latitude and have been fine. Surprisingly our radicchio was the sweetest I have known.

Guy Watson

La terre est engorgée

This is coming from France where the soil is ‘full to the throat’ and has been since June – it has almost been as wet as in Devon. In response we have our brand new, two acre, large football pitch sized tunnel which is already planted with 40,000 lettuces plus chard, spinach and pak choi. All should be in your boxes in March, two months ahead of the UK season, helping to fill our ‘hungry gap’ and to give you relief from parsnips and swedes. After less than a week the roots are reaching out into the soil and the leaves are putting on new growth. The Vendée is only marginally warmer than Devon at this time of year, but there is much better light, allowing the plants to race away, while in Devon they would just sit waiting to be eaten by slugs. As soon as the lettuce is cleared we will be planting ramiro peppers which will be in your boxes from July to October before replanting another two crops of salad for the winter.

Outside, the skeletal remains of last summer’s disastrous pepper crop is still hanging around to depress me. It has been too wet to plough in the memory of botrytis-ridden fruit, so there it is, everyday, reminding me of my folly and pig-headed stubbornness in trying to grow crops outside when everyone else has moved them under glass or plastic. In the best years outside, crops might have better flavour and possibly less environmental and aesthetic impact. Given the reality of climatic change and resulting risks, it is economically unsustainable, environmentally dubious and emotionally disastrous to continue outside. How many more of my dogmas will I be forced to swallow?

I love my new tunnels. Outside, the soil may be full to throat, but in here it can be controlled at the push of a few buttons. The interlocking cathedral-like arches encourage feelings of omnipotence. Have we conquered the elements? Computer-controlled irrigation and ventilation encourages dangerous feelings of power and influence and
I must remind myself that a hurricane, attack of mildew or plague of aphids could still lay waste to my plans.

Guy Watson