Guy’s news – The end of the season

We are approaching the end of our best season yet in the Vendée, thanks to our huge lake; the envy of our parched neighbours. Even so, the heavier clay soils had baked so hard that the plough would skid over the surface and a rotavator shake itself to pieces, so we have had to wait to sow the green manures needed to restore soil nitrogen. After less than an inch of rain in three months, the skies finally opened to soften our parched fields; we can at last sow, but it is now too close to winter for vetches and clovers to establish and fix nitrogen before the spring, so we are sowing quick growing, cold-tolerant rye. This will at least protect the soil from nutrient loss during heavy rains and add organic matter, but next year’s crops may be impacted by the reduced nitrogen in the soil.

Meanwhile, having invested in GPS guidance for our tractors (accurate to within an inch) we are experimenting with crops grown in raised beds so we can create permanent wheel tracks for the tractors. This should reduce the need to plough land after each crop is harvested, so veg roots are never challenged by tractor-compacted soil. The theory is that raised beds will also be better drained through winter and will warm swiftly in spring. Better crops, less diesel, healthier soil and happy earthworms; it all sounds too good to be true and probably is; or just maybe intelligent use of technology will mean real progress.

I arrived back in Devon ahead of the lettuces that had been cut in France only to find the whole lorry rejected by our quality control team. I am, for now, ultimately the boss and could have over-ruled them but after much agonising I had to concede they were right; our pickers had done their best to trim off the mildew so that fewer than 10% had any of the tell-tale white spores on their outer leaves, but in the brief road transit this had risen to 25%. We know from bitter experience that by the time they got to you it would be 50% and by the time you reached into your fridge to make a salad the outer two or three leaves would be turning brown. If only I could persuade you all to love the bitter flavours of the more hardy radicchio and chicory; they love the autumn, whereas lettuces love the spring and summer only.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Frost & Dogma

Last week saw our first two light frosts; it is remarkable how consistently they arrive in the second week of October, normally followed by a mild spell that, in Devon, can last until Christmas. Our late courgettes, planted on a gentle southerly slope, survived as the frost drained and settled in the valley below. It has been a perfect autumn so far with plenty of dry, bright weather for harvesting roots, sowing green manures and preparing the farm for winter. Meanwhile, the polytunnels have been replanted with rocket, mustards, salanova lettuce, land cress, dandelion greens, claytonia, chards and beets which will be harvested as young leaves for your winter salad bags. They are mostly cut by hand which allows us to take up to four harvests from the most vigorous.

The high capital investment of polytunnels normally dictates that they are cropped intensively with no break for green manures; a recipe for trouble according to most organic theorists. Instead we maintain soil fertility and structure with composts and well-rotted manures, plus an occasional top up with chicken muck for more nitrogen, while we control most pests with introduced natural predators. This could be regarded as a compromise in organic principles but I’m pretty sure that our tunnels produce food with very low environmental impact, because they crop so heavily and reliably, because we never use heat, and because they are growing crops which would otherwise be imported. After 25 years I can say with some confidence that the system works; in organic farming, as in most things, observation, learning and evidence is normally a better guide than dogma. The tunnels also let us offer continuity of employment through the winter and give our staff a break from the hardship of the fields. We love them. Were it not for the visual impact and concern for our neighbours, we would unquestionably put up more.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: His ideas live on

Bill Mollison, the Australian father of permaculture, died last week. For those not familiar with permaculture, I would define it as a form of sustainable agriculture that incorporates lessons learnt through observing nature’s complex interactions; not every organism other than the primary crop is regarded as the enemy to be decimated. Examples include inter-planting flowering plants to attract adult lacewings and hoverflies, whose larvae predate aphids; grazing sheep under apple trees to avoid the need for mowing or spraying while recycling nutrients and producing a secondary crop of lamb and wool; coffee benefiting from the shade of bananas or papaya. Even valuing a hedgerow for shade, shelter and biodiversity could be described as permacultural thinking.

Permaculture, along with related schools like agroecology, has attracted many devoted followers but, as yet, little commercial application. Despite my irritation with some starry eyed and impractical theorists, the concepts of permaculture run through my life and represent my highest aspirations for Riverford as a farm and a business. Understanding and harnessing the complexities of the world rather than steamrolling it with one-size-fits-all solutions is the aim, though I would be first to acknowledge we have a long way to go.

So why is there so little commercial application of Mollison’s principles? Firstly because it isn’t easy; understanding all those ecological interactions requires knowledge which is beyond many farmers, for whom the primary source of information since the 1960s has been an agro-supply industry with its own agenda. It’s also because a knowledge-intensive rather than chemical-, energy- or machinery-intensive system has to do its own R&D and PR because no-one is making money from supplying them. These are all surmountable issues, but it’s no surprise that, to date, the best examples of permaculture I’ve seen have been in low wage, largely subsistence economies like rural Uganda.

The most powerful concepts are the ones that become so deeply embedded that you cannot remember life before them; they become part of you. I reckon Mollison’s ideas live on in millions, many of whom have never heard of him.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Too early for a lettuce from Provence?

When ferreting around in our barns for my supper, the only lettuce I could find was from a grower in Provence; it looked and tasted lovely but a mere week after the equinox with the sun shining seems too early for imports. Not so many years ago, when box contents were more haphazard, we would grow lettuce until November; they didn’t taste great as light levels dropped, were often hit by aphids or wiped out by an early frost, but it seemed worth the punt. I do wonder if we are getting too risk-averse in our quest for quality and reliability, but then I am a chancer by nature; not always the best type to organise things.

The “shoulders” of a season, when you push into sub-optimal conditions for a crop, are always risky and there is a strong environmental argument for only growing a crop where risk of failure is low, even if that does mean you need a truck journey once it’s ready. From our study with Exeter University there is no doubt that a Spanish tomato or pepper grown without heat has a far lower
carbon footprint than one grown in the UK under heated glass. Could the same be true of an October lettuce? I doubt it, but we haven’t done the sums and probably should. Meanwhile we will have cos and batavia lettuce from the Vendée soon; about a third of the road miles distant compared to Provence.

Even with the lettuce, the veg in your boxes right now will be about 90% UK grown (by weight). Were we to include our French farm, which is actually fewer road miles than from the Fens to Devon, it would be 95%. That will fall through the winter as crops finish to 50% in April, before quickly climbing back to 90% in early June as our new season crops start. Balancing the demands of avoiding waste, maintaining quality and minimising the carbon footprint of all our produce remains at the heart of what we do, so on reflection that tasty Provence lettuce represents the right priorities. If that’s not enough for the committed localists among you, we now have the 100% UK box too.

Guy Watson

New delicious. magazine recipe boxes Roast Squash & Butterbean Mash anyone? Food editor Rebecca Woollard has put together a glorious set of veggie recipes for our latest collaboration. Visit

Archaeology and history in the fields

By John Richards, Senior Farm Manager at Wash Farm, Devon.

Walking in the countryside, for most people, involves taking in the scenery; the sky, trees, birds and other wildlife. People that work the land, however, like farmers, growers and tractor drivers, tend to spend the day mostly looking down at the ground; inspecting soil, cultivating seedbeds and growing crops (and generally fretting about yields, pests, disease etc.).

Your eye gets used to seeing the soil colour and the array of stones laid out on the soil surface but without really trying you tend to notice anything that stands out or looks a bit different. Angus, who drives our Dutch self-propelled vegetable weeding machine at Wash Farm is constantly watching the metal tines glide through the soil. He started to notice whenever flints showed up on the surface and after closer inspection and some research realised they were often flint tools worked by Stone Age man thousands of years ago. For example, tools from the Neolithic period would be 4000 to 6000 years old. These initial finds sparked an interest in history and Angus now has an impressive collection of various arrow heads and blades. Some flint fragments are not tools and have simply been chipped or split by cultivation equipment. You can always tell the ones that are tools because if you look closely you can see the tiny even marks that show where man painstakingly worked the flint shard into a usable and sharp arrow head or blade.

Moving on in location and time, to our 500-acre farm at Sacrewell near Peterborough, we have 2 historic features. In the field called ‘Toll Bar’ near the A47 are a set of enclosures, ring ditches and barrows from the Bronze Age and Iron Age period. Further in, toward the centre of the farm in a field called ‘Pit Close’ is a Roman ironworking site and the sites of two extensive Roman buildings –likely to be villas or a farmstead.

For these two fields we entered into a stewardship agreement with Natural England where we receive a payment for establishing grassland of high biodiversity value (native grasses and wild flowers) and not ploughing for at least 10 years. This helps to avoid the archaeology being further degraded by cultivation and creates a rich and diverse habitat for wildlife. I took the photo above in May looking across Pit Close with a stunning show of oxeye daisies.

new-york-pennyI had always hoped to find a Roman coin at Sacrewell and last year I was lucky enough to spot one lying on the surface in one of the vegetable fields. Old coins are often so worn away that it is hard to identify them but this coin still had markings. I believe it is from around 160 AD and shows an image of Faustina the wife of Marcus Aurelius.

Another coin I found was in circulation between 1726 and 1794 known as a ‘Duit’ or New York Penny. These copper coins were issued by the Dutch East India Company and were used when New York was a young Dutch colony. Quite why this particular coin ended up in a field near Peterborough is a bit of a mystery.

pottery-fragment-from-a-bellarmine-jug I found an intriguing piece of pot in a field where we were growing parsnips near Dawlish in Devon. You can see in the picture the unusual face, which is from a late 16th Century Bellarmine jug, used to hold wine and beer and made in the Netherlands. The face is an image of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542 –1621) who was a bitter opponent of the Dutch Reformed Church. It was common for Protestants to express their dislike for him by smashing the jugs.

Pumpkin Day 2016. Saturday 29th October, 11am – 4pm.


Pull on your wellies and join us on our farms this autumn for our annual Pumpkin Day. A tradition on our Devon farm for almost 20 years, our legendary Pumpkin Day is a fun, family day out and a chance to see where we grow our organic veg. Children’s activities include pumpkin carving, face painting, seed potting and vegetable games.

There’s plenty for the adults too. Listen to live music, take a stroll around our beautiful farm and perhaps do a bit of wildlife spotting, or string some chillies to make an original Christmas present. Everyone will get a sneaky first taste of our Christmas food, and we’ll be serving up plenty of glorious organic food and drink for you to buy too.

Due to growing popularity, this year we are making it a ticketed event; just a nominal price of £3, which includes a pumpkin or free drink. Limiting numbers mean we can ensure a personal, family-friendly day out.

1Following on from last year’s success, we will once again have a Pumpkin Day event in London, this year it will be at Spitalfields City Farm. You’ll also be able to meet the animals who live on the farm, including rabbits, goats and chickens.

Find out more about your local Pumpkin Day and book tickets here:
Wash Farm, Devon
Sacrewell Farm, Peterborough
Home Farm, Yorkshire
Norton Farm, Hampshire
Spitalfields City Farm, London. Sold out, but perhaps take a look at Sacrewell Farm or Upper Norton Farm instead – they’re not too far away.


Guy’s news: Green manures & regenerative farming

As the equinox passes and we slip into autumn our kales, cauliflower, cabbages and leeks are already maturing in growing numbers and we have even started getting the first carrots into store. After a cold, wet start it has been a pretty good summer for us and most of our growers but a warm and sunny August with just enough rain is bringing autumn and winter crops forward at a slightly alarming rate; so far we are managing to clear crops without waste, but would welcome some cold nights to slow growth. Meanwhile we are busy ripping out the last of the cucumber plants which succumbed to the mildew that took hold in our polytunnels during June and July’s duller days. If we shut the tunnels to boost temperatures our tomatoes would continue ripening through October, but the flavour deteriorates rapidly with falling light, plus we would be late planting the salads that will provide balance in your boxes from December to March, so it is best to be brutal.

As indoor crops are cleared, outside our thoughts turn to protecting our soils from the looming ravages of autumn and winter. The soil is now at its warmest and most active with crop residues being quickly broken down by invertebrates, fungi and bacteria to release soluble nutrients which can be leached away by rain. To prevent this, we are planting mixtures of vetch, clover and grazing rye as green manures; the deep-rooting rye will grow vigorously through the winter, soaking up soluble nutrients and bringing them to the surface, while the leguminous species will fix nitrogen from the air. Such short term green manures will never be as good as not disturbing the soil at all, as in a forest or permanent pasture, but it is the best we can do while virtually all our vegetable crops are annuals, requiring us to create weed-free seedbeds every year.

For those with time, The Guardian published a great article on the potential of better soil management in sequestering carbon and combating climate change; Our best shot at cooling the planet might be right under our feet by Jason Hickel. He talks about how ‘regenerative farming’, where damaged soils are rebuilt with organic matter, might come to our carbon rescue. Let’s hope it’s the start of more respect for our soil.

Guy Watson

A rather delicious. recipe box collaboration

delicious-sept-16We’ve teamed up with the nation’s foodie magazine, delicious. for our next set of limited edition recipe boxes. Featuring vegetarian recipes selected by delicious. food editor, Rebecca Woollard, we’re really pleased to be working with the magazine’s whole editorial team, because their philosophy around cooking is very much in line with our own, as Rebecca explains: “Cooking for me is the simplest way of telling someone they’re cared for. The food you eat should be exciting for every sense – the colours on the plate invite you in, the flavours, aromas and textures keep you coming back for another bite. And above all, eating should be a way of taking care of your body and mind. The delicious. ethos isn’t about deprivation or fads, it’s about enjoying every stage of the process from chopping board to plate, and knowing that the meal you’ve cooked is doing everyone good – both physically, and mentally.”

rebeccaRebecca started cooking properly as a chalet girl in the French Alps. Returning to England from a second winter season she worked as a chef for six months, before completing the professional diploma at Leiths School of Food and Wine. Here, she won the BBC Good Food Award. Today, as food editor for delicious., she now oversees all the recipe content in the magazine. Her favourite dishes are wide-ranging, from the herb and spice laden recipes of the Levantine, to the cheese heavy indulgence of the Alps… and she credits her mum with instilling an adventurous foodie side in her from a young age.

Recipes featured in Riverford’s delicious. recipe boxes are: Gnocchi with Pesto & Caramelised Leeks; Baked Butternut Squash with Ricotta & Spinach; Roast Tomato Salad with Feta, Pearl Barley & Herbs; Fennel, Tomato & Cheese Bake; Roast Squash & Butterbean Mash with Rosemary Breadcrumbs and Baked Eggs with Mushrooms, Potatoes, Spinach & Cheese. All the warming, comforting and seasonal; perfect as autumn sets in.

Each box contains three recipes for two, and the contents will alternate each week, so you can try them all.

The boxes will be available for delivery from October 3rd to 29th, and will include a copy of the October edition of delicious. You can order online at or by calling the farm on 01803 227 227. The magazine team have also put together a special Riverford subscription offer; Riverford customers can get their first 3 issues of delicious for just £3 (saving 76%), using the code RIVDM16. Order today at

Visit delicious. magazine’s website here:

Guy’s news: Waiting for rain in the Vendée

Irrigation is over for the year in Devon but with no significant rain since July, our farm in the French Vendée is a dust bowl; we have had to stop irrigating the lower value sunflowers, popcorn, butternut squash and maize in order to conserve water for the peppers, padrons, lettuce and broccoli. The water supply source is an old, winter filled, gravel pit shared with a neighbour. With no legal documentation to define which water molecules belong to whom, it is a question of who has the lowest extraction point. As the bottom uncovers, it is pretty obvious that he is winning.

The light sandy soils hold very little moisture and need 20mm every three days to keep the more demanding crops like broccoli growing without the pre-harvest stress that can lead to yellowing in your fridge. The farm is most important to us in the spring when early lettuce, cabbage, spinach etc sees us through the hungry gap before the first UK crops are ready. It is hard to run a farm and be a good employer with a two month harvest period, hence we also grow peppers, melons, padrons, sunflowers etc. This year we have decided to grow late lettuce (October) and broccoli (November) to continue for a month after the quality and flavour of the UK crop declines. Most of the rest of the farm should be growing green manures (vetch, phacelia and rye grass) which build up the organic matter and structure so vital on sandy soils. Normally they establish with the help of a few late August thunderstorms, but so far it has been much too dry for anything to germinate.

I reckon our padrons have a lot more flavour than anything I have had from a supermarket, tapas bar, or even from Spain; I put it down to most being grown outside with a little hardship rather than being mollycoddled in a tunnel or glass house. They had a particularly hard start this year, after a cold, wet spring followed by a severe aphid attack. But by August there was barely an aphid to be seen and they love the heat; the plants have doubled in size, flowered again and have set a huge late crop; depending on light and temperature I reckon we will be picking right into November.

Guy Watson


Guy’s news: Still dying for cheap meat

It is predicted that by 2050, every three seconds a person will die as a result of antibiotic resistant bacteria that have evolved under the over-use of antibiotics. There is no doubt that many of these deaths will be due to the wildly irresponsible use of antibiotics in agriculture commonplace today. The practice started in the 1950s, when American scientists discovered that routinely feeding livestock the drugs could double productivity by boosting animal growth and minimising disease; especially useful in intensive farming. Today, 40% of all antibiotics used in the UK are given to farm animals; in the USA it’s 80%.

There is nothing new here. Antibiotic resistance as a result of prophylactic agricultural use (ie. before animals fall ill) was raised as a concern by scientists almost as soon as the practice began, yet, staggeringly, no effective action has been taken. This is a failure of national and international governments who are allowing the interests of a few intensive industrial farmers and pharmaceutical companies, supported by a tiny minority of vets, to condemn millions to death. It is laissez-faire, neo liberal economics taken to an absurd extreme; what hope is there of addressing the many problems we face when governments fail to stand up to such commercial lobbying or to take the obvious action needed?

Instead of frittering away precious antibiotics as sticking plasters for unethical animal husbandry, we should be ring-fencing them and researching other ways to keep our animals healthy, even when we don’t understand how these work and cannot sell them for profit. For years the Riverford Dairy herd have been fed apple pomace in the autumn, the by-product of cider making, from our
neighbours at Luscombe. No one understands why, but their milk ‘cell count’ (an indication of subclinical mastitis) drops substantially at the same time. It is far from a complete solution and won’t pay for any lobbyists, but could be a small step towards keeping our animals healthy with fewer antibiotics.

Obviously I will end this newsletter with an urge for you to buy organic meat, eggs and dairy, where the prophylactic use of antibiotics is forbidden. Yet we need to act more broadly; you can sign a petition at, before we hit a truly frightening dead-end.

Guy Watson