Tag Archives: weeds

guy’s newsletter: steam sterilisation – an ethical dilemma

I am reluctantly concluding in France, as we have done in Devon, that it would be wiser to get our neighbours to grow the crops we are less competent at. There are local organic farmers so skilled in growing baby leaf salad that they can charge a little over half our production costs, but we face an ethical dilemma. In order to control weeds to facilitate mechanical harvesting, their standard practice is to steam-sterilise the top 6cm of soil once a year; better than the now banned methyl bromide once used by conventional growers for the same purpose, but many would argue that, since caring for the soil is an integral part of organic farming, to indiscriminately kill the good micro-organisms as well as the pathogenic is an anathema. Yet what I find far more worrying is the 5000l/hectare of oil burned in the process, meaning that each kilo of salad produced has involved the burning of an astounding 1l of oil. This happens to be about the same amount as it takes to fly produce from Kenya.

As we have undertaken not to sell airfreighted produce on environmental grounds, should we sell salads produced using steam sterilisation, even if they carry the organic stamp? I am inclined to say no but it is a hard and commercially punitive decision when our competitors do. Of course humans did survive pre-the baby leaf salad bag, so perhaps we should only grow them when and where we can do a reasonable job without sterilisation, as we do in Devon. It is reassuring that the Soil Association standards go beyond those in Europe and do not allow steam sterilisation for weed control in the open field; an impressive bit of sanity. While we ponder all of this, we are experimenting with using mustard, grown as a green manure, as a weed suppressant.

Guy Watson

a chilli Christmas?
We’ve a huge crop of chillies this year and have just finished drying several tonnes of habanero, cayenne and scotch bonnet for you to hang from your tree (they look great). Come Twelfth Night follow our recipe to make chilli oil to enliven your cooking in the coming winter months, all for £3.80 for 20 chillies.

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: websites, seeds & petition fatigue!

As we continue to struggle with our new website, I have run off to France to bury my head in chilli plants and pretend it is not happening. It’s getting pretty tedious for all concerned: you, our customers, our local vegmen and ladies who deliver your boxes, our customer service team, and our IT department who are working 24/7 to keep the show afloat while trying to fix it. I have never felt so inadequate in the face of a challenge. I did offer my help, but the last thing they need is the ineffectual flapping of the technically illiterate. We know how frustrating it is for you all and we are working on getting it fixed as quickly as humanly possible. Sorry, sorry and sorry again.

Here in the French Vendée, we are cutting the last of the lettuce, prior to the Devon crop next week. The courgettes are flowering and the sweetcorn and beans are emerging. We are trying to save the carrots before they are submerged by weeds, but with other jobs stacking up I suspect some will be lost. The worst weeds are the tomatillos that self-seeded last year and have emerged with impressive vigour; note to self, never to follow them with a weed-sensitive crop again.

Do you suffer from petition fatigue? How many things can you muster outrage about each month? In a bout of bureaucratic excess that almost beggars belief, the EU commission are contemplating forbidding us from growing anything that is not registered, approved and licence paid for. Effectively it would be illegal to save, exchange or sell seed that is not on their list. It’s enough to make you join UKIP; almost. It is particularly bad news for organic farmers, small independent gardeners, seed banks and general diversity. It is good news for global seed companies and industrial farming. After much campaigning, some of the worst absurdities have been modified, but it still seems like a bad and unnecessary piece of legislation. If, like me, this makes you mad, please sign the petition at www.seed-sovereignty.org.

And lastly, today (Friday 10th May), is the last chance to vote for us in the esteemed Observer Ethical Awards.

Guy Watson

Untamed nature

We have had a week enveloped in a haze of dandelion fluff. Finely-haired, parachuted seed borne aloft on summer updrafts, they swirl in the gentle breeze almost indefinitely, before settling in drifts. Irritating if that is in your tea or up a nostril and perhaps irritating for neighbouring conventional famers with their orderly, weed-free fields. Perhaps we should be concerned about the farming adage “one year’s seeding brings seven years’ weeding”. I suspect there might be some local tut-tutting about the unruly chaos of organic farming. Twenty years ago I might have worried. In my middle years I find myself almost celebrating it as Devon’s version of herds of migrating wildebeest; long may there be some semblance of untamed nature in our lives.

Meanwhile, back on the ground, the season is getting underway. The weeds are under control, we are up to date with the planting and are already harvesting leafy crops like spinach, cabbage, lettuce and rocket. With only an inch of rain in two months, the busiest man on the farm is Watery Tim, our irrigation man.

We finished our carrots two weeks ago and, due to the partial failure of our French crop, expected to have a break for a few weeks until the new crop starts as bunches on 7th June. In the meantime we were approached by a grower near Inverness who leaves his carrots in the ground all winter covered by a thick blanket of straw. Not only does this keep the frost out, it also delays the warming of the soil in spring and delays regrowth. Added to the cooling effect of being further north, once washed this is producing remarkably good carrots.

Guy Watson

Carrots old and new

turnips in France

turnips from the French farm

This is coming to you from our farm in the French Vendée, where the sky is always blue, the cows fat and the vegetables plump. Most of the crops planned to fill our hungry gap; lettuce, spinach, cabbage, beans, navets (baby bunched turnips) and courgettes have recovered from the March gales and are lapping up the sunshine.

Fennel has suffered from a minor plague of ragondin; giant, beaver-sized rodents with six inch whiskers and a particularly French appetite for anis,

carrots with ragondon at Riverford in France

the carrots have been overtaken by the ragondin

but the carrots are this year’s disaster. Just before the seedlings emerge we like to pass over the rows with a gas-powered flame weeder, to kill any weeds unlucky enough to germinate first. But the flame weeder broke and before we could replace it the carrots were up, accompanied by a rash of a weed known locally as ravenelle. I have never encountered such an aggressive plant; like docks on steroids it clambers on top of the crop then pushes its rasping, thistle-like leaves down, crushing any competition back into the ground. It made me think of Vinnie Jones defending a corner in a Wimbledon penalty area; a real bruiser of a weed. Even after mechanically removing all the weeds between the rows, progress on hands and knees up a row is down to 30 metres an hour. First loss is best loss, so this morning, despite the valiant efforts of the work force, we abandoned and ploughed in the first half the crop, rather than watch the ravenelle triumph and potentially set seed to plague us in years to come.

batavia lettuces at Riverford in France

batavia lettuces the size of dinner plates

Back at home the dormancy of our old-season carrots can only be enforced for so long and we will run out before the end of this month. In previous years we have imported carrots from Spain or Italy to bridge the gap between seasons but the flavour is invariably poor and we had hoped to avoid them this year by growing some in France. With this plan foiled, we are planning a few weeks of carrot-free boxes in late May or early June. I have detected a little carrot fatigue recently so perhaps that will be a relief. Are carrots a ‘must have’ staple? Should we indulge you with some well-travelled bland imports from Southern Europe? Answers to carrots@riverford.co.uk.

Guy Watson