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.

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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.

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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

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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 www.riverford.co.uk/recipeboxes 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 http://delicious.subscribeonline.co.uk.

Visit delicious. magazine’s website here: http://www.deliciousmagazine.co.uk

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 saveourantibiotics.org, before we hit a truly frightening dead-end.

Guy Watson

Riverford meat – making it fit a little better

large butchers boxThere’s no doubt about it, people are changing how they eat meat. Whether it’s a movement away from processed meat like sausages, a switch to chicken or a shift in how much red meat they buy, there’s a clear change going on. In an independent survey we commissioned last year, 27% of people said they were eating less meat than a year previously.

We’ve always worked to be a forward-looking business, so after talking to our customers, we’ve made some changes to our meat range to make it suit you better. If you don’t buy meat from us regularly then you may not know about what’s different, so here’s a quick summary of what we’ve done:

  • Reduced the minimum meat spend to £17.50 (was £25). As you are eating less meat, this makes sense. Fewer people want to buy a big batch of meat, so we’ve made it easier for you to get a little bit at a time.
  • Introduced new ‘everyday’ meat boxes in two sizes, packed with easy cooking cuts like mince, diced meat, prime steaks and chicken breasts.
  • Introduced a new ‘butchers’ meat box in two sizes, designed for meat fans and keen cooks. It contains a mixture of interesting cuts including a roasting joint (often slow roasts like pork belly and brisket), stewing cuts, prime steaks and chicken breasts, plus seasonal specials such as venison.
  • Chicken will appear more often in all our meat boxes, as requested in customer feedback.
  • The new meat range was planned in collaboration with our Riverford chefs, to ensure that what you get meets recipe needs, such as the typical weight of meat needed. They are constantly helping us to refine the range too, just as they do with our veg boxes.

What hasn’t changed:

  • All of our meat is still 100% British and 100% organic, produced by farmers who we work with in the long term, agreeing prices in advance and sticking with them.
  • We still always buy the whole carcass from our farmers, and we designed the new meat box contents very carefully to ensure we use up every last cut while still giving you what you say you would like. No waste here!
  • All of the meat is expertly prepared in the Riverford butchery, near our farm in south Devon.
  • You can still build your own bespoke order of meat as before; you just have to hit that £17.50 minimum spend.
  • All your meat will still be delivered in insulated, recyclable, reusable packaging, that will keep cool on your doorstep if you are not home for delivery.

Want to see what’s in our meat boxes this week? Take a look at our new meat boxes range here.

large everyday meatbox

Guy’s news: Keeping eels off the lettuce

It has been a glorious August, for both farmers and beachgoers. As we finish planting our winter crops and with so many of you on holiday (deliveries typically drop by about 25% during the summer), August brings a brief and welcome lull in the work, and we can get to the beach ourselves.

There has, however, been no let-up for Tim and the irrigation team; with so many newly planted winter crops in addition to the normal demands of our shallow rooting lettuce, salad leaf and spinach crops, their job is critical. Early in the month, as temperatures soared, the challenge was to keep the pumps and sprinklers running 24/7. With days shortening, the sun lower, and heavier dews
taking longer to evaporate, demand from crops is easing. We have about two weeks’ of reservoir water left, which should see us through; the carp are already burrowing into the mud at the bottom but I’m told they can survive for months after we have pumped out all but the last puddles.

My father started irrigating in the 1960s (following the legendry summer of ‘59) from a small tributary of the Dart, in an attempt to maintain the quality and quantity of grass for his Ayrshire dairy cows in a dry summer. It quickly proved to be an expensive and time-consuming task that could not be supported by the milk price. The pump and pipes were abandoned for 20 years until I pulled
them out of the brambles when I planted my first veg in the ‘80s. I built a small dam to increase the water depth and set up a camp bed where I slept while the pump ran, until a change of tone would alert me to the intake running dry. It was bad for me, my marriage and the aquatic wildlife, so over the years we have built six reservoirs on the farm to hold winter run-off for use in the summer.

We do still have a licence to pump from that original stream but have managed to avoid it for many years, and I am sure the fish are grateful. Quite rightly, today we would be required to fit an eel filter to the extraction equipment; it would be a shame to swim all the way from the Sargasso Sea only to be squeezed through a 3mm jet at 6 bar pressure and fired out over our lettuce.

Guy Watson

Guy’s News: Food tastes better when it’s shared

I love feeding people, especially if they are hungry. Cooking and eating patterns are deeply ingrained in us from an early age; I reckon the bountiful lunches my mother cooked for family and farm staff, largely from what grew on the farm, set me on the path. Fifty years on, I am still inspired by our fields and barns; nothing makes me happier than picking and gathering, developing a meal in my head as I go, and then going home and making it for family or friends.

I always wanted shared food to be at the heart of Riverford. From the early days we invited local customers for open days and BBQs. Over the years this developed into cooking for the local school, a great staff canteen and eventually the Riverford Field Kitchen, followed by the Duke of Cambridge in London (still the world’s only organic pub). Along the way we have also published a few cook books, launched our recipe boxes, and, most recently, started a veg-centric recipe channel on YouTube. The weekly recipe sheets are now honed to match the box contents. All this means we now have a good number of chefs working for us, so–unlike in the early days of the box scheme, when many calls to my mother were needed to help me piece together my own seasonal recipe sheets – my recipes seldom get a look in. None of our chefs are vegetarian but all are united in their enthusiasm for veg. James Dodd, the talented head chef of the Field Kitchen, is tattooed in veg from wrist to shoulder.

I reckon our collective knowledge of vegetables is unsurpassed; what it takes to grow the best and how to make the most of them with minimal amounts of sauce, cream, salt and meat, to make a fantastic meal. I can honestly say that the food we are serving has never been better. I wish we could serve you all in the Field Kitchen, and I am always thrilled when a far-flung customer makes the pilgrimage. If you can’t, you will be able to dip into some of James’ creations via the recipe boxes where he is ‘guest chef ’ from time to time.

I may be a tad narrow in my view of the world, but nothing will shake my belief that we can improve the world through how we grow, cook and share our food, and the choices we make along the way. Long live life on the veg.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Trust, partnership & choice

We are enjoying a bumper crop of excellent quality runner and French beans, sweetcorn and some of the best carrots I’ve tasted in 30 years; 2016 is turning out to be a good summer for most crops. About 90% of your box contents are meticulously planned a year or more ahead but yields and maturity dates vary, creating gluts and shortages. Inevitably we deviate from our ‘ideal’ contents to accommodate these variations up to a point (which we argue about a lot); it’s a compromise between keeping you happy in the kitchen and at the table on one hand, and avoiding waste and supporting committed growers on the other.

One of the things that I am most proud of about Riverford is that while we are not perfect, we are good to our word; if we agree to buy a crop from a grower and it meets our quality criteria (where the emphasis is on flavour, not appearance), we take 100% of the agreed tonnage and pay 100% of the agreed price. This is a remarkable achievement in our industry where a third of farmers’ crops are regularly left in the field, and growers are expected to sell their souls along with their crops to keep petulant buyers happy and shelves full.

How do we manage it? In part because as farmers ourselves, we understand the realities of growing; partly because we invest heavily in long term relationships with growers and don’t have a buyer’s tantrum at the first sign of trouble and in part because of meticulous planning. But a lot is down to how your trust allows us to tweak the veg box contents to keep both growers and cooks happy, avoid waste and so create the value that means our veg is usually 20% cheaper than supermarket organic veg. It’s a partnership, and mostly it works incredibly well.

Choice, flexibility and convenience (arguably not our strong points) come at a price which the consumer seldom sees; it is paid by the fulfilment centre worker and Hermes delivery driver earning less than the living wage, by the farmer whose crop is left unsold, by the environment as vans chase delivery slots, crop surpluses rot in fields and airplanes fly clothes to achieve quick turnarounds and keep up with fashions. All of that sacrifice to give us endless choice. Frustrating when much of the time, I for one, don’t really know what I want anyway.

Guy Watson