Tag Archives: veg box

Guy’s Newsletter: more recipes & less mud

Our veg box scheme was founded on my blinkered assumption that most of our customers were like me, and grew up in a farm kitchen with a stock pot on the Rayburn, where mud was a way of life and dead animals hung in the larder. Over the years it has dawned on me that I was being a bit narrow-minded; even clean living urbanites with small kitchens like to eat veg and it is our job to help them, ideally without them losing the connection with where their food came from or those who grew it.

Long-standing customers will have noticed that there is now less mud in their boxes; one of our more obsessive recipients once weighed the earth over a few months and reported that we delivered an average of 112g of soil per week, and that he would rather we didn’t. Well we don’t any more, and even go as far as to wash the roots when excessive amounts of field hang on. We also trim the vegetables a bit more on the basis that fewer people make stock, and the organic matter is more of an asset in our fields than in your bins.

When I delivered the first boxes in the early ‘90s it quickly became apparent that many customers need a little help with more whacky veg, but also inspiration for the more familiar. The Riverford quarterly, then monthly, then weekly newsletter was born with recipes cribbed from Jane and Sophie Grigson, Elizabeth David and my mother, adapted and tested on my growing family and photocopied late at night. I even did the illustrations. Our first recipe book, The Riverford Farm Cook Book, followed in 2008 and was written with Jane Baxter, our first chef at the Field Kitchen. She is as opinionated about food as I am about farming; it won lots of awards and I am still very proud of it. Our second book, Everyday & Sunday, had some good recipes but too much cream and too many esoteric ingredients, so did little to make life easier for less experienced cooks. After many revisions and delays we now have two new books called Riverford Companions, designed to redress that balance: Spring & Summer Veg and Autumn & Winter Veg are very practical, focusing on quick and easy home cooking with a minimum of ingredients, implements and stages. If you have found yourself asking, “What is it? What can I make with it?” then they should provide the answer. Visit the website for more details.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: has cooking become a spectator activity?

The best conversations I can remember having with my mother were while shelling peas and beans. Keeping the hands busy, and having a reason not to make eye contact, is a great way of taking conversation into areas that you would normally skirt around. If you need to have a potentially difficult chat with adolescent children, a pile of beans is a great way to bridge the silences.

When Riverford delivered its first veg box in 1993, before the current media frenzy around local and seasonal, our typical customer ordered a weekly box of seasonal vegetables and cooked them with little fuss, probably much as their parents had, perhaps with the addition of the occasional curry or stir-fry. For generations, we learned from our parents how to make the best use of local ingredients, and cooking from scratch continues to be the norm for most veg box customers. They appear to be in the minority however; changes in home cooking have been historically slow, but in the last 40 years it has rapidly moved in the wrong direction, aided by the advertising budgets of food manufacturers and supermarkets. We’re now raising a generation many of whom will rarely see their parents cooking and even more rarely with local, unprocessed ingredients.

I am convinced that a lack of skills, time and confidence in the kitchen is the main issue. Cookery programmes are a poor substitute for assimilating skills over years of growing up in an active kitchen, and in some circumstances have made cooking seem unattainably distant. I know what a struggle it can be to cook a stress-free meal among the chaos that is real family life, especially when both parents are working. Though there are signs of change that should be credited to those food writers, bloggers and celebrity chefs who champion accessible home cooking, there is a real danger that, as the gap widens between what is on television and the reality in our kitchens, cooking will become a spectator activity. The nation will slump back with a takeaway and watch it on TV instead.

Guy Watson

Riverford veg boxes – Ethical Product of the Decade

We are all beyond thrilled to have been given this title by the Observer Ethical Awards 2015. We were up against some truly deserving competition such as the Fairtrade banana, whom we support and respect and who would have been a very worthy winner, along with Divine chocolate which I have long admired for their unerring commitment to their producers. But we can’t help being delighted that it was us.

For almost 30 years, I have aimed to use the business to make the world a slightly better place, one veg box at a time. Put simply we want to give people good, fresh, flavoursome, ethically-produced food that they can trust, produced and delivered in a way that gives a fair deal to farmers, animals, customers, staff and the environment. This means not going for easy answers (which are nearly always the ones that would be better from a marketing point of view), but looking for an informed and balanced solution to the many dilemmas we face in farming, business and food production. This often challenges our customers’ intuitive judgements and our success as a business would have been impossible without the trust and commitment of our many longstanding customers; they enable us to farm and trade with others for the long-term, as we would really like.

Vegetables are at the heart of what we do, and we are happy to be called veg nerds. As well as our four organic UK farms and one in France, we work with South Devon Organic Producers, the cooperative of local family farms I set up, sharing machinery and expertise to show that it is absolutely possible to grow good food at scale, without using environmentally harmful chemical pesticides and herbicides. Everything that we grow is selected for flavour; our carrots taste so good because they are selected and grown to be so, rather than to grow fast or to withstand bulk handling or to be cosmetically perfect. Our meat also comes from small-scale organic farmers with some of the highest animal welfare standards around. We aim for the shortest possible journey from the farm to the abattoir, with all meat handled in a totally transparent operation, with minimum processing and zero abusive practice at any stages. We encourage a ‘meat and ten veg’ attitude to meat consumption: let’s eat less of it, less often, and of better quality.

I really believe that you don’t have to be a bastard to be successful in business. Good business practice is almost as important to me as good farming. People management is not a skill that comes naturally to many farmers (and possibly not many entrepreneurs), me included, but I am very proud of having created a business that staff believe in and increasingly say is a very special place to work.

In summary, I want Riverford to be all about good food, good farming and good business; and about family farms, not factory farms. We hope to encourage people to ask questions about where their food comes from (without being preachy), and to treat food not as something anonymous, but as something to respect, enjoy with friends and family but in the clear and transparent knowledge of the journey it has made to the plate.

As far as we are concerned, the best things in life are shared, and food, good food, is the greatest example of this, and we want it to be available to everyone. It is very rewarding to have had this accolade from the Observer.

Guy Watson

Riverford Sourcing Policy

  • All produce/goods must be organically certified, where possible with the Soil Association, which we see as the gold standard in the UK.
  • We source as locally as is sensible, observing the principle of ‘right plant, right place’, so not growing veg where it does not belong. Each of the four regional Riverford farms grows locally as much of what they sell themselves as possible, using veg grown on our farm in France to fill the ‘hungry gap’.
  • We do not use produce from heated glasshouses, as the carbon footprint of such veg is greater by a factor of between 3 and 10, compared with growing, for example tomatoes and peppers, in the closest place (Spain) with the right climate and transporting them. More details on this at www.riverfordenvironment.co.uk.
  • Each farm has a cooperative or grower group of local farmers who we work with in the long term. Prices and volumes are set in advance, and we stick with our growers, providing a level of income security that is far from how many of the supermarkets operate. We work in exactly the same way with our small group of Spanish growers.
  • We never, ever air-freight anything, due to the enormous carbon footprint of this method of transportation. Anything we import comes by container ship or truck only.
  • We buy direct from the growers. This makes the produce more affordable by cutting out layers of middle men, helps family farms remain profitable, and helps make our farm to plate chain as transparent for our customers as possible.

Guy’s Newsletter: farming to order

Back in 2007 we took on the tenancy of Sacrewell Farm near Peterborough, just off the famously fertile Fens, to grow veg and pack our veg boxes for customers in the east of England. After a lifetime in Devon’s restrictively small, hilly fields I was seduced by the prospect of farming 500 acres of level, freely draining, relatively uniform soil; surely this would be easy. It turned out that the land was exhausted, flogged by 20 years of continual conventional cropping with potatoes and cereals. We set about sowing grass clover leys to restore natural fertility, planting an orchard and hedgerows and converting to organic methods; early crops were disappointing but eight years on our farm team are getting better crops each year as the life comes back into the soil and we learn which crops suit the silty loam. The harder climate and lower humidity means we get much less fungal disease so we now grow most of our onions here to avoid the mildew that inevitably hits us in damp Devon, and this year’s crop is looking very good.

Watching the transformation of Sacrewell has made me appreciate how much farms on our relatively small island can vary as a result of their natural geology and how the soil has been treated. In Devon the mixed farming my father employed for 50 years has protected the loamy, balanced (if shallow) soils, and the thick hedgerows are a blessing; it turns out that they help keep insect pests under control by providing habitats for insect predators to overwinter. In the east, while we have created a rich, biodiverse farm at Sacrewell, monocultures and huge fields are the norm where a ‘hedge’ is a sparse, stunted row of thorns. While their influence means we still have rapid outbreaks of aphids here that we never see in Devon, the change in the past eight years has been incredible; an RSPB survey last year counted 70 species on the farm including lapwings, corn buntings, grey partridges and red kites.

Organic farming means treating each farm as an individual and finding its virtues; it has taken us a few years to appreciate them, but now we are undoubtedly bringing out their best.

Guy Watson

A credit munch worthy diet: £11 a week!

See the letter to the Daily Mail by Celia Gunn a credit munch worthy diet. Two energetic people, one week on organic food (including their Riverford vegbox): total expenditure on food £22.66.