Tag Archives: send a cow

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: 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: floods, sacrificed soil & scapegoats

I’m writing this in the Budongo Forest Reserve, central Uganda. Until now we’ve been travelling through a parched landscape, scarred by fires and deforestation. It’s been three months of drought, yet last night I fell asleep to the sound of rain on the tin roof, as it is green and lush here even at this driest time of year. The forest canopy and leaf litter protect the soil and provide the organic matter that enables it to absorb even the most intense rain, providing water to the trees above. The microclimate this creates seeds the rain that fell on my roof, while the drought continues in the surrounding land where farmers and hunters have, to a considerable extent, created the drought by their bush burning and bad farming.

Checking the news back home I see the debate starting on how we live with the weather we’ve created. Our farmers have not made the rain but we’ve caused some of the run-off and erosion that has contributed to the floods, mainly through poor agricultural practice. While many British farmers respect and indeed treasure their soil, the recent trend towards autumn sown cereals leaves it exposed to run-off at the wettest time of the year. Meanwhile the general degradation of soil structure that accompanies intensive cultivation of maize (up 24% in 2013, boosted by a relaxation in government regulations) and the widespread abandonment of traditional rotations also reduce percolation of rain.

So how do we improve agricultural practice? In war-torn Uganda I have more sympathy with the farmers, especially those working with the charity Send a Cow, who, armed only with a mattock and machete, are turning their back on burning to plant trees, mulch, control run-off and improve soils through composting and livestock management. The areas are small but the techniques are so evidently successful that neighbours are copying them, no thanks to their government.

Back in the UK one could blame the farmers but the real culprit is our government and their ideology of scrapping environmental regulations in the absurd belief that a free market will hold back the waters. Whether through corruption, ideological dogma or an obsession with self-serving headlines rather than finding lasting solutions, both governments fail their people.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: hand-ups, hunters & arses

I’m typing this in the shade of an acacia tree in Guru-Guru, northern Uganda. It’s midday and nothing will tempt the chickens and goats from the shade; all activity has stopped bar the crickets, yet five years ago this was a war zone. With the village destroyed and the ravages of HIV, former farmers were left dependent on handouts until the arrival of farming charity Send a Cow who have been rebuilding communities through sustainable agriculture here for three years. I’m visiting with one of our harvesters Jon, and Dale who works in quality control at Riverford, to learn how money raised by our staff and customers has been spent.


The backdrop is a depressing one, with widespread and senseless bush burning. Seeing hundreds of mature trees killed and organic matter lost to help hunters catch giant rats for supper has, at times, reduced me to tears. There is also the added threat of Indian and Chinese land grabs lurking in the background. Yet there is also hope, energy and immense determination to rebuild lives through social change and improved agricultural practice. Send a Cow is at the heart of it.

Most farmers, whether in Devon or Uganda, don’t pay much heed to experts. The best way to influence them is to show a farmer like them, on land like theirs, doing better than them, and this is Send a Cow’s approach. There are no hand-outs, only hand-ups; farmers have to demonstrate commitment over at least six months before they receive seeds, livestock and training. I have seen lives transformed by the patient application of composting, water conservation, mulching, integration of livestock management with soil improvement alongside mixed, multi-canopy cropping.


Send a Cow techniques of mulching and careful preservation of organic matter can make a farm from little more than bare soil. Here the beds are prepared, mulched and waiting for the rains. Last year these beds earned £1200; enough to buy a pig, goats and for the farmer Lallam send her children to school.

The results are permanent and being copied by neighbouring farmers. Far from being the net food importer it currently is, with these techniques I have no doubt Uganda could export large quantities of food without a grain of fertiliser, drop of pesticide or single GM seed. The spirit of the people is certainly helping the recovery process too. My favourite story is of a bunch of Indian ‘investors’ who were promised land by central government. They were seen off by the elder women of the village who blocked the road by stripping and baring their arses, and have not been heard of since.

 Guy Watson

If you’d like to help us support the work Send a Cow are doing in Africa, you can add £1 to your next order (or set it up as a regular donation) here.

you’ve been chugged

Farmers don’t respond well to being told what to do; especially if those doing the telling are outsiders with no demonstrable understanding of their farm. What brings about change is seeing good crops grown by somebody like them. In my early days of veg growing, I was repeatedly told that organic farming “would never feed the world”. I wanted to see for myself, so I spent two months in East Africa, visiting farming friends and a few charities in Kenya. It was a pretty depressing trip, where few aid interventions had lasting effect and sometimes had the unintended consequence of perpetuating dependency.

My final visit was to Timothy Njakasi in Uganda. He had worked at Riverford as part of his training, before returning home to develop his own smallholding. It was extraordinarily productive and sustainable; relying on local materials and local skills. For several years we supported him, helping him turn his farm (flatteringly named Kasenge Riverford) into a training institute. Recently he has worked with the charity Send a Cow, which trains farmers, mostly women, in small scale sustainable farming using peer farmer training. They accept the importance of long term support and social change; helping people to help themselves, working through farmers they can relate to.

Riverford has committed to raising £75,000 to support a similar Send a Cow project in war-torn Northern Uganda. We have raised funds by selling used gardening fleece, a banana ‘tax’, running marathons etc and you can now add a £1 donation to your order on our website, with the chance to win a year’s worth of veg thrown in. Working on the assumption that cooks are like farmers (more easily influenced by friends and colleagues than by companies and institutions) we are hoping you will know someone who should be getting a vegbox. If you manage to persuade them, we will donate £20 to this project. You could call it chugging (charity mugging), but I promise that every penny will be spent on this fantastic project. It’s win win. Look out for the tear-off slips to give to your friend on your newsletter, or find the details here.

Guy Watson

Conditioned to forget

As I write, our root harvesters are edging across some of our better drained ground, lifting parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes. High pressure has brought a week of sunshine and drying easterlies. By the time this arrives with you, I am hopeful heavier fields will have drained enough to allow us to lift the potatoes and beetroot that have been trapped in sodden ground since October. Our beloved purple sprouting broccoli has been gathering pace, with the later, higher yielding varieties starting to head. Hopefully it will be in most boxes most weeks for the next two months – enjoy it while it is here; summer varieties don’t taste as good. The moles are busy excavating; how did they survive the six foot of racing water last month? We are sowing the first spring-sown broad beans this week followed by the first potatoes, cabbage in two weeks and little gem. It is a joy to be starting anew as reminders of last year’s poor crops go under the plough and we feel the first teasing warmth from a sun climbing higher each day; hope springs eternal in the human breast. As mothers say of childbirth, farmers might say of 2012: ‘we are conditioned to forget’.

If Horsegate has shown us anything, it is that certification and form filling are poor substitutes for direct relationships in ensuring honesty in our food chain. Trust and credibility established over years of trading brings out the best in us; impersonal bureaucracy, the worst. Of course, this is easier if your trading partner is close.

We visit our banana growers in the Dominican Republic, but with 4000 miles of ocean, plus cultural and language barriers, we think we are better relying on the Fairtrade Foundation to ensure workers and growers are treated fairly. Hence, our bananas are Fairtrade certified. Working with Fyffes (who transport and ripen the bananas) to promote Fairtrade Fortnight, we will donate 20p from every bunch of bananas sold to the Send a Cow project we support in Uganda. That all sounds horribly convoluted, but getting morality and global trade in the same sentence will always be challenging.

To find out more about Send A Cow and the work they do to help African families learn how to grow enough food and look after livestock to eat, visit: www.riverford.co.uk

Guy Watson

A visit from uganda

Charles Mulwana, a farmer from Uganda, is staying with us at our Riverford Farm in Devon for the next two months. In 2005, aided by charity Send a Cow, Charles received his first cow, Helen. Send a Cow helped him learn about sustainable organic agriculture, looking after livestock and how to grow a variety of crops to feed himself and his family.


Charles has come to the farm at Riverford to learn how we grow organic crops on a larger scale. He is passionate about passing on the knowledge he has gained, particularly on the importance of organic farming and having a balanced diet. To do this Charles is hoping to raise enough money to build a community centre in his village in the  Nakifuma Mukono district of Uganda, to educate young people in his area on agriculture and running a business. He has become a Peer farmer trainer for Send A Cow, helping to train other farmers, and has passed on a gift of a calf to other farmers in his community from his first cow.


This is Charles’ second visit to Riverford. During this stay he will be spending time with our picking and farm management team learning how we plan and produce our seasonal veg. So far our farm team have kept him busy learning a variety of larger-scale farming techniques. It’s also been very hands on and Charles has been helping us with our everyday farm work – from picking and bunching spring onions to go in our Riverford boxes, to harvesting our lettuces and spinach. A useful agricultural tip he said has learned while working in the fields here is how we harvest our spinach. When harvesting spinach in Uganda they traditionally leave part of the plant remaining, in order for it to grow back. Here Charles has found that if you cut off all the leaves, the plant will grow back quicker (within 2-3 weeks). Charles is also interested in the different varieties of fruit and veg that he doesn’t currently grow at home. In particular, he is hoping to grow more varieties of tomato on his return to Uganda, including beef and cherry tomatoes, which he feels will be popular. He’s also keen to grow cherries and green peppers.


At home in Uganda, Charles grows a range of crops to feed his family, with a little extra to sell. These include onions, spinach, kale and sweetcorn which are prepared daily by his wife Barbara for their four children. Sadly his first cow passed away, however his new calf (also called Helen) produces approximately 12 litres of milk each day and he grows bananas and coffee which he sells.

It’s been great to welcome Charles to the farm to spend time with the team at Riverford.

If you have any questions for Charles on farming in Uganda and the UK, please send us a message at help@www.riverford.co.uk/blog and we’ll be happy to answer your questions.

Penny’s Gardening Blog – Part 2

gardening in small spaces - Penny's Gardening BlogIn my gardening blog today

I am looking at the different ways we can grow plants in our outdoor spaces. Not all of us have a garden with open ground, some have only a patio covered in paving slabs, some maybe only a few window sills or a passage or back yard.

gardening containers - Penny's Gardening BlogI grow a lot on my patio in a mixture of wooden boxes, ceramic pots, old galvanized tanks and dustbins I have picked up at the recycling centre or down the dump. They look really great with plants trailing over the edges and climbers growing skyward up trellises I have set up behind them.  I have got the local farm shop to save me some olive cans that come in bright green and red. I make holes on the bottom using a hammer and screw driver to allow for drainage, add some broken crocks or some small stones before adding a growing medium and a plant.  I am gardening blog - Penny's Gardening Blogalways on the look out for containers with a difference. Recently I bought some old ammunition boxes for next to nothing, £3 each which I have planted up with tulips for a show in spring. These are fairly shallow but great for lettuces in the summer. The main thing to consider is the depth of the container and whether it is possible to make drainage holes in the bottom. Plants grown in pots and containers get full of roots pretty quickly so the deeper the better.

Watering and feeding

Anything grown in a container is a commitment you have to feel able to take on as the ongoing maintenance is essential to your growing success. They will need watering everyday in hot weather and every other day once they have taken a hold.  Your containers will also need feeding after a month or so of planting out and every two or three weeks after that.

keyhole garden - Penny's Gardening Blog Keyhole gardening and grow bags

For a long time now Riverford have been supporting a charity called Send a cow who ‘provide livestock, seeds, training and on going support to help families in Africa to leave poverty behind for good’  Guy is a huge fan of this charity and has been out to Uganda several times…… to see what’s happening first hand.  Some of their growing techniques are ingenious such as the keyhole garden and grow bag - Penny's Gardening Blogthe grow sacks. We have built our own keyhole garden using posts and chicken wire rather than stones. The idea is you have a central shoot into which you chuck all composting materials and water. This in turn feeds the surrounding beds that are planted up with veg seedlings.  It really does work and also is a boon for anyone with back problems as there’s little or no bending down. The grow sacks are great to and can be planted with up to 50 seedlings in each. These are great for that redundant corner somewhere in your outdoor space.

In my next gardening blog

I will cover preparing the ground and tools and kit you will need as unfortunately run out of space here. So look out for people selling sacks of well rotted manure and take a look at your compost heaps too.

Riverford farm-off – uk vs uganda

We’ve been hosting Charles, a Ugandan farmer at our farm in Devon for the past two weeks. Join Guy as he takes a look at his creative farming methods (3 min 50 sec).

Sustainable farming

At the beginning of last week, a Ugandan farmer appeared on our doorstep. Charles Mulwana was trained by Send a Cow (the charity whose excellent work Riverford supports) in 2004, and is now so involved with the charity’s work that he has come to Riverford to teach schoolchildren (and us) about sustainable agriculture.

Back in 2001 I took a two month sabbatical to visit farming friends in Africa; I wanted to see for myself whether organic agriculture could feed mouths where it really counted. I was truly inspired by what I saw in Uganda; here the Kulika Trust (who we have worked with for several years) was training farmers at a very local level. Central to their teaching was a highly intricate method of mixed cropping, involving livestock and crops grown in multiple canopies, in a system as sympathetic to nature as we can get without reverting to being hunter-gatherers. I estimated the best examples to be 20 times more productive than the environmentally destructive monocultures next door.

Since then we have tried to support these projects through staff exchanges, sponsoring a training centre (the Kasengi Riverford Farm), importing their vanilla and through our involvement with Send a Cow. Unfortunately our ‘no airfreight’ policy makes it hard to trade with a landlocked country, but the hope is that by opening up the channels of communication through activities like Charles’ visit, we can show that the farming toolkit is not limited to GM and sprays.

Guy Watson