Guy’s newsletter: bean counting & leek pulling

Like life, walking a crop is a subjective experience where you can always find something to worry about; something that could have been done better. Whether I focus on the pigeon-pecked, aphid ridden stunted plants or the vigorous healthy ones, how the veg appears can be as much to do with my mood as their relative numbers in the field; but I’ve learned that it’s always a good idea to take a second look before getting too excited or depressed. Having said that, seeing the new crops being harvested for your boxes this week, it looks like we have made a good start to the new season. I might even risk a smile.

But will those smiles be turned to beans in the bank? Our Finance Director Steve, who has been so good at giving me the answer to this for the last seven years, is leaving us this summer to progress his bean counting with a career among cheesemakers. He is proving hard to replace, in part because I am having trouble resigning myself to the outrageous salaries earned by those at the top of his profession. While a leek puller’s remuneration has risen by a measly 10% or so since the recession, market rates for executive pay appears to have risen by 50% (especially for anyone in IT or accounts), making it hard to accommodate our self-imposed discipline on how much those at the top earn relative to those at the bottom. My hope is that this message might reach someone with the qualifications and experience we need, and who is prepared to trade a bit of salary and a suit for mud on their shoes, a fine view, and the pleasures of a relaxed and beautiful place of work in a determined and dynamic team on a mission to change the way business is done. Lunch is pretty good too.

Talking of lunch; we are also looking for a head chef for our pub in Islington. Relative to the norms of this profession the pay is more generous but in contrast to its other norms we would love to find someone who can communicate without shouting, even when slammed (busy, in kitchen speak). They must also, of course, love cooking from scratch using seasonal vegetables.

Visit www.riverford.co.uk/jobs to find out more about both of these posts.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: now you’ve won, please have a little faith

I believe that given half a chance, most people, most of the time, are smarter, fairer, more generous and capable of more empathy than our institutions give us credit for. I found both the election campaigns and the result hugely depressing without really understanding why; with the exception of the Greens I feel no more aligned with the policies of the losers than the winners. On reflection I realise the reason for my gloom is a conviction that the institution with the most cynical view of our behavioural motivations is the modern Conservative party.

I’m guessing that, as someone already personally rich, I will be richer under an unfettered Conservative government; but I don’t expect to be happier. What I find so depressing about modern post-Thatcherite Conservatism (and only marginally less so about post-Blairite Labour) is the apparent ubiquitous cynical belief that appealling to personal greed is the only way to get anything done. Considering the almost complete lack of evidence to back up this assumption, it has gained extraordinary traction in Westminster and the City over the last 30 years. In the real world, where businesses have to compete by getting the best out of people, it has largely been abandoned as a piece of failed, ideologically driven dogma.

For the most part, we are emotional beings responding to much deeper, less tangible but more powerful emotional motivators; ask anyone in advertising. Ultimately we all want to feel good about ourselves and at work this falls broadly into three areas: feeling we are learning and getting better at stuff, feeling some control over our lives and feeling a sense of purpose. To believe that ‘carrot and stick’ management is why a nurse will care for a patient, a parole officer will struggle to support a young offender or why a programmer would write exceptional code is crass to the point of incredulity. I suspect it is even more threatening to public services and wellbeing than cuts and austerity.

Both hope and cynicism, given enough voice, can be self-fulfilling prophecies. My plea to Cameron and his team is to have a little faith in the people they lead; we’re not as shallow, selfish or as dumb as you seem to think. Show some trust, give us some hope and we might even surprise you.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: french flings & devon dalliances

The boxes are still looking fresh, varied and full; not a bad achievement in the depths of the hungry gap, and largely down to a good harvest on our farm in the French Vendée. After a parched and sunny six weeks, April ended with a 100mm deluge making me very glad of the money invested in drainage here last autumn. We have lost some squash (wrenched out by the wind) and spinach (dying in a bog) and I fear for sweetcorn and sunflower seeds germinating in waterlogged seedbeds, but with luck the water will subside before the drowning soil becomes anaerobic and toxic to our crops.

Despite gales, mud, striking dockers and four French bank holidays in May (all staunchly observed with Gallic militancy), the veg boxes must be filled and harvest must go on. With 35 largely novice recruits picking lettuce, chard, turnips, garlic and cabbage to fill a truck a day we are stretched to breaking point. Thankfully the first lettuce will be harvested in Devon this week, allowing us to catch up on weeding before the sweetcorn and peppers disappear under fat hen, red shank and nightshade. By mid-June, as harvest in the UK gets in full swing, our French farm will be cast off like a jilted lover until next April when the hungry gap leaves holes to be filled in your boxes once more.

Back in Devon we are running a four day, hands on, growing, harvesting and cooking course in partnership with neighbouring Schumacher College this June. Teaching will be by their chefs and growers and ours in their kitchens, gardens and our fields. Geetie (my ethical pioneer wife and founder of our pub, the Duke of Cambridge) and I will also be contributing. The college might be a step or two beyond us on the spectrum towards the cosmos (pre-breakfast meditation is optional) but we have had our hands in the soil for 30 years so you can be assured the course will be well rooted on planet earth and there should be some healthy debate as well. Visit www.schumachercollege.org.uk for more details.

If you would rather cook in your own kitchen with a little celebrity help then for the next two weeks Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has created some guest recipe boxes with us, and very good they are too; visit www.riverford.co.uk/recipeboxes to order.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: getting edgy with veg

As we plough in the last of our bolting leeks, kales, cauliflower and cabbage and see the back of the potato, beetroot and carrot stores, another farming year is consigned to memory and the accountants’ spreadsheets. I think they’ll show it to be a little better than average, mostly because of the weather but also boosted by a welcome renaissance in the eating of these more traditional veg. Kale has been riding that wave for a while now and after years of drifting in the sulphurous doldrums of neglected brassicas, even cauliflower seems to have made something of a comeback; I have seen it on fashionable menus roasted (good), baked brain like and whole (hideous to look at and worse to eat in my opinion), bashed with farfalle (dreadful), grated into cous cous (surprisingly successful) and served tempura style (excellent). I still think it is hard to beat the comfort of a reassuring cauliflower cheese on a January evening though.

Cauliflower does well in our mild Devon climate and, as we prepare to sow next year’s crop, I am tempted to up the acreage. But let’s not get carried away; a visiting journalist warned me last week that our white curds are already considered “a bit last year” in the metropolis. It’s hard to keep up with foodie fashion as tweeting journalists and hipster chefs compete to be edgy with veg. Of course we are grateful that what we grow is the subject of their twitter storm, however fleetingly its epicentre hovers over us, especially if it allows a humble cabbage grown on a Devon hillside to get a leg up over a jumped up bell pepper trucked from Spain (or worse still, molly-coddled in a fossil fuel heated greenhouse at home). It’s just a bit frustrating that the timeframes of fashion and nature are so disparate; by the time we have planted and nurtured our chioggia beetroot or purple carrots to harvest, it will be foraged nettles and broccoli sprouts that the twitterati are raving about. I might sow a few more caulis anyway; I reckon we will still be eating cauliflower cheese after the bloggers have moved on. There is so much to celebrate and be proud of in the rising interest in cooking, particularly with seasonal veg, and particularly among the youth, but no part of our farming is perfected without the repetition and tinkering that continues long after the catwalk has left.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: veg boxes; the vision & the reality

April and May are traditionally challenging months of self-denial for those living with a veg box. 20 years ago it was so hard to make a good box through the ‘hungry gap’ that many pioneering box schemes would close from March to July; some would limp through with repetitions of sprouting potatoes, woody swedes and blown cauliflowers, but either way it took a very committed customer to stick with them. However, this week’s boxes are fantastic. These improvements have come from a mixture of increased grower expertise, better storage, investment in polytunnels, our farm in France giving us a six week jump on the season, plus good, long term trading relationships with small scale growers in Spain and Italy. All in all it’s a long way from the first 30 boxes we packed on the barn floor 22 years ago.

Yet is this a compromise from the vision of those first tiny box schemes? Undeniably, but I would argue it’s a pragmatic, justifiable and sensible one; vision can be inspiring but seldom lasts without a fair degree of compromise. Most of those early box schemes have packed up; more have opened in their place but there seems to be a cycle driven by what a visiting academic writing her PhD on box schemes described as “mutual disappointment”. However ideological sounding and emotionally appealing, the veg box vision asked too much of growers and customers; the customers didn’t get the quality or variety of vegetables they wanted, and the farmers didn’t make the living they needed. It is very hard for one farmer to grow 100 crops well and even harder to do it on a small scale and produce food at an acceptable price without being ground into the dirt by the challenge. Even farmers like to take holidays now and then.

The relentless march to scale and specialisation in farming, like in everything else, is as depressing as it seems inevitable. At Riverford we have put the brakes on this trend with our farming co-op sharing machinery and expertise and thereby helping to sustain the viability of smaller farms. I do occasionally romanticise about our early days harvesting carrots and potatoes by hand or picking spinach with scissors, but there is no way back; the only people wanting to live like peasants are those who haven’t tried it.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: hot & busy in the Vendée

A dry and sunny Easter gave ideal conditions to get ahead with planting at home; we are already irrigating in earnest to help the seedlings out and get the first lettuce, cabbage and spinach away to a good start. This meanwhile is being typed 250 miles south, under a tree on the banks of the reservoir of our farm in the French Vendée. As we come to the end of leeks, cabbage, purple sprouting and cauliflower at home I am here to check on the start of our hungry-gap-plugging French harvest. This morning we cut the first of a fine crop of outdoor lettuce and chard which are already chilling in the cold room ready for the trip north tonight; just as well, because it is already 25°C and climbing. The irrigation pump is purring away, sending water to germinate the first sweetcorn. Two weeks ago, many of our fields were too wet to travel on and our crops were being chilled by bitter easterlies; this week we are irrigating gasping plants and our peppers are keeling over from heat stress. The crop covers and low-level tunnels we use in early spring advance crops and keep off the wind, but the big question is always when to remove them. Ideally you pick a damp, warm overcast day to minimise the shock to the plants; if none are forecast, we take them off in the evening, water immediately, and hope.

In a bid to keep up we have brought in contractors for the heavy work of muck spreading and ploughing, allowing our team to pick in the mornings before moving on to sow and plant sweetcorn, peppers, chillies, sunflower, cape gooseberries, tomatillos, butternut squash and fennel in the afternoon. Every rusty wreck of a tractor is dragged from the back of the barn and every able body pressed into action in an attempt to keep up with the work; the next six weeks are critical here. Planting will soon be done but there is a scary amount of vegetables to be picked by a largely inexperienced team. The aim is to plug the hungry gap at home while we wait for those new season UK crops. To go from a plod to a sprint in just a few weeks and then back to a plod again is a management challenge, but we are getting better at it; my accountant even tells me that, for the first time, we made a very modest profit here last year.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: where are the guardians of our soil?

April is a hectic month of change as planting gets underway in earnest all over the farm. Where last year’s crops are finished and the fields need a rest, we are sowing ‘leys’ to build fertility, and restore soil structure. After years of experimentation, my brother Oliver uses a mixture of triticale (a cross between rye and wheat), lupins, clovers (all nitrogen-fixing legumes), grasses and, more unusually, chicory. This bitter herb does well on our soils and seems to be favoured by the grazing dairy herd, but more importantly Oliver reckons it opens the soil structure and brings up nutrients from deeper in the soil profile. By July, as the lupins and triticale fill their seed heads, he takes a cut of silage to feed the cows in winter; the understory of clover and grass are then free of competition to form a dense sward for the cows to graze. After three or four years of such restorative activity, the soil is ready for vegetables again.

The complexity of our farm with its mixture of annual and perennial crops and livestock is unquestionably good for the soil and wildlife, but it’s rapidly becoming an anomaly in modern agriculture. The norm is for soil to be subjected to repetitive monocropping on large farms which specialise in one enterprise, generally propped up by chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers. After 30 years, with plenty of mistakes along the way, I feel confident that with each turn of the rotation our fields are improving and, while the commercial pressure is always towards simplicity and specialisation, we are getting better at managing the complexity. This is in stark contrast to most agriculture where the UN predicts that on average the world has just 60 years of crop growing capacity left, due to soil degradation.

Our system is far from perfect; the abiding weakness is the need to create a weed free seedbed for new crops to establish. The two poles of thinking are that you either spray or you plough; both are environmental catastrophes for soil flora and fauna, but ploughing is just a bit less flawed than the chemical alternative. As farmers we must learn to produce food while being better guardians of the fragile, much neglected soil that supports us all.

Guy Watson