Guy’s news: An ideal descent into autumn

The soil is still a little drier than ideal for some crops, but as the dews get heavier, the sun lower and the days shorter, most crops are growing well. The dry weather and good light make for healthy plants, good weed control and easy harvesting. Perhaps the one exception to the latter point is potatoes; very dry, fine soil runs away so quickly through the harvesting webs (picture vibrating sieves) that the emerging tubers can be vulnerable to bruising. If we are too impatient, this will show up in your kitchen as blackening under the skins.

Soil temperatures at the surface are already declining, but at depth they remain at their annual maximum. The warmth accelerates the activity of invertebrates, fungi and bacteria: feeding on residues of previous crops, manures and each other, breaking down large, complex carbohydrates, and releasing soluble nutrients that can be absorbed by roots. With so little rain to carry those nutrients away into the subsoil (and ultimately rivers), this is the time when organic crops look at their best; in some cases they can become almost too lush, making them susceptible to the fungal diseases that typically arrive with the dampness of autumn. For this reason we seldom apply manure later than June.

Soluble nutrients means vulnerable nutrients, especially with the approach of winter rains. As crops are cleared, it is critical to get the ground covered as soon as possible. In early September we sow rye mixed with quick-growing legumes like vetch or crimson clover; the rye grows rapidly and roots deeply, even at low temperatures, and will mop up any soluble nutrients near the surface and even bring some up from the deep where weak-rooting vegetables seldom reach. If left into the spring, the legumes will secure some valuable nitrogen as well. As we get into early October we will sow just rye, and by late October it is best to leave the weeds (we generally have plenty) to do the job. Have I written this before? Perhaps something similar last September, or the September before…

Vegetables, Soil & Hope, ruminations of a lifelong veg nerd

For those of you who enjoy Guy’s weekly rants, ruminations and reflections, we have put together a choice selection of newsletters from the last quarter century, in a beautiful volume illustrated by Guardian cartoonists Berger & Wyse. Yours for £9.99 at riverford.co.uk/book.

Guy’s news: Our reluctant but noble organic Lord

Peter Melchett, the reluctant but eminently noble Lord, environmental campaigner, and woolly-jumpered organic farmer, died last week. He had been policy director at the Soil Association for 17 years, having previously headed Greenpeace UK and been a Labour minister in the 1970s. It is hard to imagine anyone, whatever their politics, not being won over by his humanity, good will and charm; these, combined with his patient persistence and attention to detail, made him a fantastic campaigner who will be greatly missed. We didn’t always agree, but he invariably had research on his side, and time normally proved him right. I will miss the unfailing humility which ensured that, for all his charm, the issue always came first. If only privilege more often came with his modesty, and his sense of responsibility to the planet and its current and future inhabitants. As a vegetarian livestock farmer, he was also one of our most appreciative veg box customers and a loyal patron of our London pub The Duke of Cambridge.

To what degree does the end justify the means? If your cause is just and well researched, does its pursuit justify dogma-based evidence selection and manipulative presentation? There is no right answer; in the shouty, impatient world we live in, purity counts for little and everyone must make their own judgement as to acceptable compromise. I think Peter Melchett consistently got it right; he didn’t always go for the headline, but was sufficiently canny to be effective while commanding lasting respect. It was his analysis of the GM industry that kept me campaigning on the issue, long after feeling compromised by the sometimes extreme views and actions of the antis. As I was mounting a legal challenge to a local GM maize trial, Peter, as head of Greenpeace UK, went one step further and spent a brief time in jail for destroying a GM crop. Long may his campaigning spirit remain with us.

This is being typed on a ferry back from my farm in the Vendée, led into Plymouth by a pod of dolphins. After a wet spring and a weed-ridden start to the season, we are now seeing some good late crops. Peppers, aubergine and physalis are all doing well, our best ever crop of borlotti beans will be on sale for another month; their flavour and texture is great in salads.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Glyphosate part 2 (following on from last week)

Gunpowder, nuclear bombs, PCBs, DDT, burning fossil fuels, antibiotics fed to animals as growth promoters, factory farming and overconsumption of meat, overfishing, deforestation… If we can, and someone can benefit from it, we will. Can we ever learn to balance public benefit against as-yet-unquantified public and environmental risk, and then implement the necessary global restraints?
Will we ever put wisdom ahead of cleverness and greed? I heard a philosopher asking why, given our infinite universe, we have not found any sign of intelligent life on other planets. He argued that intelligent life would inevitably destroy itself, and would therefore be gone in a blink of geological time. Is it inevitable that our incredible powers of innovation combined with our voracious appetites will destroy humanity, taking most other life on this planet with us?

Coming back down to earth, I spent the morning wrestling with the perennial weeds that threaten to engulf some trees we planted last spring. The only effective organic way to control them is exhaustive cultivation: tilling the area three or four times, at two weekly intervals. It takes time, fuel, and beats the life out of the soil, depleting organic matter and releasing CO2. Is that better for me and for the environment than applying 0.5g/m2 of glyphosate? Actually I doubt it, especially as it would only take two applications, just around the trees (10% of the area), in a two-hundred-year cycle. But this would be a tiny fraction of the glyphosate used globally. Most is used to make large-scale arable farming a bit easier, particularly as a pre-harvest desiccant of grain crops that will be harvested just two or three weeks later and are often destined for human consumption (the reason why most of us have glyphosate in our urine). Given the small benefit to a small number of people, and the risk to so many and to our planet, this seems an example of failure to balance risk and benefit.

How can such a balance be achieved? For now, I have more faith in fear than in wisdom. Last week I mentioned the legal challenge being put up by Client Earth. A customer has brought to my attention the attempts of an international group of lawyers to designate ecocide as an international crime arbitered by international courts, as with war crimes. Learn more at eradicatingecocide.com.

Guy Singh-Watson

Two new Lancashire cheeses

Over the years we’ve taken our time finding small-scale producers across the country who make exceptional organic food to complement our veg. Our cheese range is full of moreish hand-crafted cheeses from people who share our core values and who have honed their specialist skills and passion over the years.

New to join the range are two classically British cheeses from Leagram Dairy, run by the Kitching’s family. Their small organic dairy is set in the beautifully remote Trough of Bowland countryside, Lancashire. It’s a very traditional operation: their organic milk is all sourced from local cows, and the cheeses are lovingly made by hand with tools that are over 120 years old. Dipping the cheese in hot wax seals in the texture while the cheeses mature, before the team cut each wedge by hand.


The business was originally started and run by Bob Kitching, whose passion of the art form of making cheeses lead him to travel the country with his wife, reviving the wonders of British cheeses. He had a keen interest in the traditional methods of making cheese. Despite Bob’s passing in 2013 this small family business has continued to thrive, with his wife Christine and daughter Faye sharing their passion and knowledge and the family business being awarded gold medals at the British Cheese Awards and the International Cheese Awards.

We’ve selected our two of our favourites: the Crumbly Lancashire for its creamy taste and crumbly texture, with a subtly sharp taste. It’s is a beautiful melter and so easy to eat. Tumble over fresh summer salads, or bubble into a decadent cauliflower cheese.

Next up is the Wensleydale which is a mild, delicately honeyed cheese. Pack this handsome white wedge into your picnic basket with some oatcakes and sweet chutney for a portable ploughman’s, or pair with apples on a summery cheeseboard.

Both cheeses are available to add to your order now.

 

Guy’s news: If polar bears could sue

Dewayne Johnson, a 46-year-old former groundskeeper suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, was awarded $289m in damages from agrochemical giant Monsanto this month. A San Francisco court found Johnson’s terminal cancer was attributable to his use of glyphosate, the world’s ‘favourite herbicide’.

Monsanto has a long history of suppressing evidence of risk to extend the life of profitable products, and then ducking the consequences. From the 1920s, they led in the manufacture of electrical coolants called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are hormone disrupters that cause reduced fertility. As early as 1937, Monsanto were presented with evidence of PCBs’ danger, but continued to sell them until they were finally banned in the 1980s. By then 150m tonnes had been manufactured: highly persistant, leaking into the environment, and accumulating in animals at the top of the food chain – most significantly marine mammals and polar bears. Monsanto’s other products include Agent Orange, DDT, bovine growth hormone, and a dominant role in GM technology (alongside others that have been safe and of genuine benefit).

Monsanto has now merged with Bayer who, if possible, have an even more questionable history: stretching from the use of forced labour and human guinea pigs in trials in Nazi Germany to, more recently, knowingly causing thousands of haemophiliacs to be infected with HIV, through a plasma product known to be contaminated but deemed too costly not to sell.

We will never banish risk if we are to progress, but government, legislation and the law have repeatedly failed to balance the risks and the benefits of progress, and to hold accountable those responsible for diffuse and long-term pollution. Corporate interests have too loud a voice, placing shareholder value above a broad and balanced assessment. Should glyphosate be banned outright? Actually, I am not sure (more next week perhaps), but its use certainly needs tighter regulation. Monsanto will appeal and Johnson will probably be dead before he gets a penny. Encouragingly, there is a movement led by clientearth.org to use the law to challenge corporate and government environmental performance; I reckon they are worth supporting if you have some spare cash.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: The return of green

The drought is over. I wish I had followed my wife Geetie’s advice and spent more time on the beach instead of wandering around getting miserably stressed about my crops. Then again, you don’t get to be good at growing vegetables without sharing their pain. I’ve never met a self-satisfied organic veg farmer who was any good; we are mostly a contradictory mix of optimism and mild depression, focusing on the sick plants rather than the strong ones, without losing faith in the Eden our fields will one day become.

We had over two inches of rain last weekend, with leaden skies and occasional showers since. The warm ground is still gratefully sucking in anything that falls and is far from saturated, but with shortening days, heavier dews and the sun lower every day, we will not be worrying about water again this year. We have lost a good part of our carrots, swedes, chard, spinach, and early crops of lettuce, but what is left looks good. The drought and heatwave seem like distant memories; pastures have already regained their green, and once-parched vegetables are bursting out of themselves in a hurry to make up for lost time.

Planting of winter crops is largely finished for the year and, with so many customers on holiday, there’s less for us to pick and pack. We are enjoying a lull which will last to mid-September. We are even largely on top of the weeds; most of them struggled as much as our crops, making them easy to hoe out.
The cows will be short of good quality grass for another week or two while growth catches up with their hungry mouths. Like most livestock farmers, my siblings at Riverford Dairy have been feeding the herd their winter silage ration for many weeks. In the longer run, this risks shortage in the winter; in the short run, silage is nothing like grass in its fresh form. The cows eat less, and what they do eat is less nutritious. Milk yields are down as a result; so much so that, for the first time, they anticipate not being able to meet orders next week. Some of you who are used to Riverford milk may receive Acorn Dairy milk instead; based in Yorkshire, Acorn supply our customers in the North and East with organic milk year round. With many cows due to calve and re-join the Riverford herd this month, Acorn should not need to lend a hand for long.

Guy Singh-Watson

Our new raw, organic honey

Organic honey is very hard to come by. A bee’s foraging distance is up to 12km, and for honey to be certified as organic, the honey producer must be able to prove that its bees have only foraged in organic land. These distances are beyond most producers’ capabilities, especially on our small island, where organic land is typically surrounded by non-organic farmland sprayed with artificial chemicals.

But after years of searching, we have found a fantastic organic honey producer: Bona Mel, a family run Spanish business who have been beekeeping for three generations, and organic since 1990. They are based in the Spanish mountains, where their hives are scattered across the natural parks of Sierra Mariola and La Safor, Alicante, which are home to an astonishingly rich natural variety of plants. To the bees, that’s a botanical smorgasbord, where blossom is available all year round.

Their raw wildflower honey is red tinged, with a fragrant, sweetly floral taste – and because they live in a completely uncultivated area, we can be certain that it’s 100% organic. The honey is raw, and prepared by bees with the nectar from various Mediterranean wild flowers.

Because Bona Mel produce, prepare and jar their honey themselves, it is traceable right back to the hive.

You can add Bona Mel honey to your order now: https://www.riverford.co.uk/shop/new/honey-250g

 

5 Riverford recipes for August

As the heat of the summer lingers, we’re making the most of our seasonal veg and enjoying some Mediterranean inspired meals. Our basil crop is starting to slowly wind down now after growing so well this year. We are still using it in lots of dishes, such as bright, basil scented Tuscan panzanella – a beautiful salad in which the taste of ripe tomatoes really shines through.

The courgettes on the farm have rallied through the drought and grown away nicely, producing some fantastic plants that are yielding good quality courgettes – they seem to really like the sunshine. Pea shoot, courgette & whipped feta toasts are an interesting way to combine them with other stronger notes such as caramelised lemon.

Farinata (also known as socca) is wonderful discovery and a great gluten free option. A dense chickpea pancake, often baked in shallow trays in wood-fired ovens, it is perfect to drag through and mop up sauces. We have paired it with a rich but simple Ragú of green beans with tomatoes and olives.

Tomato & White Bean Panzanella

Traditional Italian panzanella is a way of turning stale bread into a salad that manages to be fresh and filling. Tomatoes, vinegar and oil soak into the bread and revive it, but if you don’t have stale bread, you can simply dry it in the oven for a while. We’ve added everything that’s good towards the end of summer – any extra ingredients are open for debate!

See the full tomato & white bean panzanella recipe here.

Pea Shoot, Courgette & Whipped Feta Toasts

You can treat this recipe as a posh open sandwich or a starter. The pea shoots are the first delicate stalks of a pea plant. More than just a garnish, they are sweet and succulent with a definite pea flavour. Charring the lemon really intensifies the flavour and gives it depth and warmth that cuts through the saltiness of the cheese as well.

See the full pea shoot, courgette & whipped feta toasts recipe here.

Ragú of Green Beans with Farinata

If steaming your green beans is the ‘go-to’, here’s a different destination for them. Green beans don’t always have to be bright and squeaky, they are more than happy to be given a little extra time and heat. What you lose in colour and bite, you make up for with a melt-in the-mouth tenderness. Served with Farinata (also known as socca) a dense and protein rich chickpea pancake, it makes a great vegetarian main or simply omit the Parmesan for a vegan option.

See the full ragu of green beans with farinata recipe here.

Spinach, Olive & Feta Tart

This is a really adaptable recipe and a great crowd-pleaser. Using the pastry case as your base, you can vary the fillings as much as you like. Use a good ready-made shortcrust to save time if you prefer.

See the full spinach, olive & feta tart recipe here.

Spinach Linguine with Roasted Tomatoes & Breadcrumbs

In Italy, ‘pangrattato’ or ‘poor man’s Parmesan’ (breadcrumbs with garlic and chilli) is traditionally sprinkled over pasta to give flavour and texture. This is another recipe that makes use of any leftover bread: here it is dried and blitzed into crunchy crumbs. Any extra can be kept in a bag or tub in the freezer where you can use directly, sprinkled onto gratins and other dishes for a little crunch.

See the full spinach linguine with roasted tomatoes & breadcrumbs recipe here.

Guy’s news: Packaging: Doing our best in the world as we find it

As promised in February, we have spent the last 6 months reconsidering our packaging, with particular emphasis on plastics. Our conclusions and actions are as follows (and in more depth at riverford.co.uk/future-packaging):

1. We will continue to reduce the amount of plastic we use. Our research suggests that our veg boxes already use less than a quarter of the packaging of a major supermarket. We think we can reduce this further to nearer a tenth in the winter, when produce is typically less perishable.

2. By 2020, 95%+ of the single-use plastic we do use will be home compostable (fully degradable in 12 weeks under the temperatures typical of home composting). After polling our customers, it turns out that a staggering 83% of you home compost. We will ask those who can home compost to do so, and those who can’t to return all packaging for us to compost at the farm and use to grow our next crops.

Although not a perfect solution, it is a huge improvement; we are doing our best in the world as we find it. With that in mind, I have two comments:

1. Anthropogenic climate change is unquestionably the biggest environmental threat our planet faces. We must not allow the plastic debate to detract from this. Reducing plastic use does nothing to address climate change; in some instances, it can make it worse. We need pragmatic policies that balance all environmental impacts.

2. It is impossible for citizens or companies to instigate good packaging practices while every local authority has a different approach to kerbside collection. Of all the ‘recyclable’ plastic used in the UK, only a third is actually recycled. We desperately need an intelligent, long-term, national policy on what materials will be recycled, composted and incinerated or landfilled. In the current vacuum, effort is being wasted on ill-informed company policies and headline-grabbing claims that will deliver little of value. To abandon policy to individual choices and market forces is an abdication of responsibility and a failure of government… Time for action, Michael Gove.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: A temporary reprieve

Three months of dry easterlies ended last weekend with a westerly gale sweeping in off the Atlantic, accompanied by persistent, anxiety-quenching rain. Even our drenched pickers were relieved. Should we thank our cosmically attuned farm worker Raph and a few other rain dancers? Did a butterfly flap its wings somewhere? Whatever the cause, it feels like balance and benevolence have temporarily been restored; even the cooing of our pigeons sounds pleased.

The rain was patchy and localised, but we got lucky, with 44mm showing in the rain gauge. The water disappeared without trace, sucked down into the thirsty ground with no run-off. Within two days the surface looked almost as parched as before – but, critically, digging shows that the moisture from the surface soaked in to meet the moisture at depth. The effect on our plants’ turgidity, leaf colour and growth was almost instant. Most fields could suck up another 3-4 inches of rain before any soaked away to the subsoil or ran off to water courses.

The rain has saved many crops, giving them time to develop the root systems that will find moisture at depth. We have now finished planting the leeks, cabbage, kale, cauliflower and broccoli that will provide most of the greens in your boxes through autumn and winter. The more demanding summer crops will be okay for a fortnight, but once they have a full canopy of leaves, potatoes will draw an inch or more of water from the soil each week… We are not yet out of trouble. For now, it is a pleasure to walk the fields and see crops growing without stress, in ideal conditions. The gale accompanying the rain damaged delicate crops like courgettes and pumpkins, and lodged (bent over) some sweetcorn, but this was a small price to pay for the water.

It is too soon to count the cost of the drought. The bolted lettuces, yellowing spinach, stunted cabbage, failed peas and so on have put us £200,000 behind budget. More rain within a fortnight and a favourable autumn could see us catch up on the veg, but many dairy farmers have already had to feed a good part of their winter forage rations to their cows. With luck we will have a long back end (autumn stretching into early winter), allowing cows to stay out grazing fresh grass for longer, and forage to be preserved.

Guy Singh-Watson