Tag Archives: potatoes

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: 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

Guy’s newsletter: wild garlic & potato patience

I am in the midst of my annual wild garlic fest; whether mixed raw in a salad or sandwich, wilted into an omelette or over pasta, ground into pesto with roasted hazelnuts or melted into a risotto, the possibilities are endless. To add to that, unlike so much foraged food, wild garlic is quick and easy to use too.

Such is my enthusiasm that about eight years ago we started harvesting wild garlic from the woods and including it in the veg boxes; a few people said they would rather forage for their own, but the huge majority of you welcomed it, so we have continued. We did pause briefly after accidentally including a Lords and Ladies leaf in a bag; unfortunately wild garlic, known as ‘ransoms’ locally, shares its habitat with a number of mildly poisonous plants, most notably Lords and Ladies and Dog’s Mercury. Today our pickers are very careful and a second team sort through the leaves again in the barn before packing it into bags; even so, please keep an eye out for any odd leaves and if in doubt, discard them. Having said that, last year I nibbled the tiniest corner of a Lords and Ladies leaf as an experiment; it felt like a fox had sprayed in my mouth and I’d washed it down with sulphuric acid. Indeed a search of the web suggests the sensation in the mouth (caused by needle-like oxalate crystals) is so rapidly unpleasant that it would be hard to eat enough to cause lasting harm.

Meanwhile we have planted most of our early potatoes but it will be May before lifting starts even in the most favoured parts of west Cornwall and the Channel Islands; faster varieties like Rocket and Swift can be ready in April but they are invariably a disappointment when it comes to flavour. The remaining potatoes from last autumn’s harvest are being stored in the dark at 3°C and the most dormant varieties (mostly Desiree and Valor) will slumber on until May, as if they were lying dormant underground believing it is still winter above. We bring them up to 10°C before grading and bagging and you will find that from now on they will have a growing propensity to sprout; keeping them in the fridge helps if you have the space, but don’t worry about sprouting; they will still eat well provided there is no greening of the skins. They may even be sweeter.

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: closing the open-backed autumn

Finally, the last leaves on our oaks have turned. With persistent high pressure to the west bringing dry and cold wind from the north and east, temperatures have tumbled, closing that ‘open-backed’ (mild and growy) autumn. About time too; some of our winter crops are looking incredibly lush and forward. They need to slow down and prepare themselves for harder times. Ideally, temperatures drop slowly, allowing plants to toughen up gradually. So far the frosts have been mild; close to ideal in fact. How often does a farmer say that?

By the time you read this the last of our carrots and potatoes should be in store, which always brings on a warm and contented feeling. They are stored in wooden one-tonne boxes, stacked six high in a huge temperature controlled barn. The carrots will be good to the end of April and some of the more sleepy spud varieties, with careful management, can be kept until June. Most carrots are grown on very sandy land, left under a protective layer of straw between two layers of plastic. This makes them easier to wash, but they lose much of their flavour. Our carrots, grown slowly on loamy soils, might not be as pretty but they definitely taste better.

In France, having finished harvest for the year, we are busy planting garlic. For years we have grown this in Devon, with mixed success. After trying it on a small area in the Vendée last year we have been seduced by the larger bulbs and reduced fungal disease; the first fresh garlic will be in your boxes in May. The environmental impact of the transport of such a high value, labour intensive crop is tiny, so this seems justifiable to me. How about you?

Sowing winter broad beans is always a gamble. Too early and they become winter-proud (too big and susceptible to gales and hard frost); too late and they germinate slowly, making them susceptible to the weak pathogens endemic in the soil, as well as to the local crow population. This week feels about right, so we will make use of the dry weather to sow the over wintered crop for the boxes in June, to be followed by a spring sowing for July.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: blight, potatoes & padrons

A hot July ended with a warm, damp and humid spell that stretched into August; ideal for the establishment of recently planted cauliflowers, leeks and cabbages. It also provided ideal conditions for blight to rampage through many of our potato crops. The disease is caused by the aggressive fungal pathogen phytophthora infestans, which can reduce a healthy crop to a field of blackened stumps in less than a week. Worse still, heavy downpours can leach infective spores down through the ridges to attack the tubers. The pathogen’s arrival in Ireland in 1845 wiped out their staple crop and, combined with woeful neglect from England, caused a famine that killed one million people and led another million to emigrate.

Non-organic growers spray with a systemic fungicide through summer until autumn; 8-10 sprays would not be uncommon. In organic crops, limited amounts of Bordeaux mixture (copper sulphate) can be used in some situations and can slow the spread of the disease. It is relatively innocuous, but only gives very temporary protection and some growers are concerned about its effect on soil life. There are more disease resistant varieties available now, but in most years, well before the crop has reached its potential yield, we still end up mowing off the tops and scorching the stumps to protect the crop below.

Fortunately, such aggressive pathogens are rare and are normally the result of relatively young relationships with their host. Over time the relationship typically evolves towards a slow, lingering death, then mere mild stunting of growth; why kill your host and move on if you can farm them and continue to reproduce indefinitely? It is likely that many symbiotic relationships were initially parasitic and slowly co-evolved towards mutual benefit.

On a more cheerful note, I hope you are enjoying our padron peppers. For me, most evenings start with a tapas of these delicious, if unpredictable, peppers quickly fried and salted. They take no more than five minutes to prepare. They are out-yielding expectations and it seems criminal to waste them, so, for the aficionados amongst you, we are now selling a 400g bag at £4.95.

Guy Watson

planting our way through the hungry gap

It feels good to see some crops in the ground. A spell of dry, cold weather at the beginning of the month allowed us to create perfect seed beds for planting cabbage, lettuce, spinach, beetroot, kohl rabi, carrots and potatoes. The soil was perfect, but the air frigid, so the plants were covered with fleece to keep off the east wind (it will still have been a cruel shock after being mollycoddled in a 20°C greenhouse). Most plants are looking OK and, after a little shivering, are starting to grow well. It is a bog out there at the moment, but looking at the weather charts, I think we might be planting again by the time you read this.

The new season normally starts in mid-May, with lettuce closely followed by spinach, chard, summer greens and broad beans. Crops are a week to a fortnight behind our plans, but with old season crops also running late and with the help of produce from our farm in the French Vendée, we will scrape through with the greens. Roots will be more problematic; it was always going to be tight because last year’s harvest was so poor. The situation has now been compounded by snow in Jersey and Cornwall; their mild maritime climate normally allows first lifting in early May. The snow killed the tops and new growth is only just breaking through, meaning there will be no UK new potatoes until mid-June. The Valor potatoes in the boxes this week will clear our barns out.

Supermarkets typically move to Nicola potatoes from Egypt to plug this gap, but they are invariably nasty so we are trying very hard to find something better. We are still haggling so it could be an old crop from a very nice man in Fife, or new potatoes from Italy.

We are weeding the first carrots in France which should be ready in early June. In the UK, the first sowings are breaking through and will follow on two weeks later. Early planting is always a gamble. This has not been a year to favour the bold or impetuous; early sowing into cold seed beds, which subsequently became waterlogged, left the seeds vulnerable to ‘damping off’ (attack by various weakly pathogenic fungi and bacteria which are endemic in the soil), but you have to make use of the dry windows when they come.

Guy Watson

Digging & sowing

It’s bright, dry and frosty and we are busy digging parsnips for Christmas, lifting carrots, sowing broad beans and picking sprouts. The weather is due to break again at the weekend but I am hoping that by the time you read this, the last of the carrots will be in store; hurrah.

It is still too wet to lift the last of the potatoes; they are stuck in heavier ground and will probably be there until spring. Conventional (non-organic) growers often lose their crop to slugs but one of the benefits of organic growing is that in our more active soils, there are plenty of natural predators and parasites which keep slugs under control. In soils which have been organic for five years or more it is relatively rare to see slug holes in potatoes. We have enough spuds in store to see us through to spring. We are grading through some King Edwards ready for your Christmas boxes. They are the very best potatoes for roasting but are generally viewed as almost impossible to grow organically, so a big well done to Andy Hayllor for managing it in such a difficult year.

We ploughed for the broad beans yesterday, worked a very rough seedbed and sowed while the surface was frosted in the morning, allowing the seed drill to work without getting clogged. Not an ideal start, but broad beans are tough and we have managed before. The field is covered with a net to keep hungry rooks at bay and all being well these will be the first beans in your boxes in June. We are also gearing ourselves up for the big sprout pick. A few are grown by our co-op in Devon, but they are easier in manage in the colder, drier East where they suffer less from the fungal diseases that make them such a hard crop to grow organically. Most are handpicked; a back breaking and finger numbing job. Some will be in the boxes on stalks if the quality is good enough.

Finally, Merry Christmas from us all at Riverford and a big thank you, particularly from our growers, for supporting us through the deluge. May your feasting be sumptuous, your company agreeable and your resting restorative. Here’s to a drier 2013.

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