guy’s newsletter: onions, yorkshiremen & a good year

I spend most of my time in Devon on the farm where I grew up, which has become Riverford HQ. My newsletters are inspired by daily encounters here and, as a result, tend to be Devon-centric. This is perhaps annoying for those of you in the east and north, so I thought I would mend my ways.

At Sacrewell farm (near Peterborough, serving those of you in the Midlands and the east) Nigel and his team are having the best year since we started packing boxes here in 2006. Conditions have been ideal, allowing well-planned planting and weeding. Timeliness is everything; we have lots of clever tractor mounted hoes to weed between crop rows and even between the plants but, for best effect, they need to be used at just the right time. This is generally in dry conditions within a week of the weeds emerging. If we get delayed by rain the result can be hours of expensive tedium on hands and knees, or even a lost crop.

Onions are one of the hardest crops to grow organically due to their susceptibility to weeds and fungal disease; as I write Nigel is harvesting our best crop ever, which we have managed to grow with almost no manual weeding. We will use some straight off the field, but most will go into the barn to be dried. Much as we try to grow things as locally as possible, some of the 30 acres of onions grown here will be used in damper Devon where our onions too often get buried in weeds and never keep as well.

Further north at Riverford on Home Farm in Yorkshire, Peter Richardson and his family are also having a good year. It started with him deservedly being named Green Farmer of the Year thanks to his use of solar panels, an anaerobic digester and heat exchangers that have massively reduced energy consumption on the farm and in the box packhouse. Peter grows a huge range of crops, mostly for box customers in the east and north, though he is so good at growing parsnips that some of them make their way to Devon at the end of the winter. Peter works with his son Jake in the fields, while his daughter Victoria is Production Manager in the packing barn and wife Jo-ann makes the staff lunches and helps out with the crops; as with much here at Riverford, it’s a real family affair.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: mixed farming & muddled thinking: battling with a dead man

Between the showers, our neighbours are busy with harvest; watching the grain flowing from the combine harvester, I feel envy and deep nostalgia for the smell, dust, sweat, cider and teas in the field that were the harvests of my youth. When my parents took on the tenancy of Riverford back in 1951, they (like most of their neighbours) kept cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and grew corn, and a lot of grass. Every farm also had its own orchards and cider press. The work was varied, complex, highly seasonal and demanded a wide range of skills and machinery. Managing such complexity was simply the tradition and, some might argue, most farmers weren’t much good at any of it. With rationing still in place and 35% of household income spent on food, perhaps they didn’t have to be.

As the decades passed and food expenditure declined to 10%, one enterprise went after another: first the chickens (“Never did like them much,” says Pa), and then the sheep (“Always looking for a new way to die”). The orchards that once paid the rent were grubbed out, the hedges bulldozed, corn left to those with better land and even Pa’s beloved pigs went; “A conflict of love and money,” he finally admitted. The political economist Adam Smith’s vision was fulfilled as we reluctantly became a specialist dairy farm, expert at turning grass into milk.

I never did much like the irrefutable, soulless logic of Smith and over the last 30 years the next generation of Watsons have somehow reversed the trend, and managed to make Riverford even more complex than Old MacDonald’s farmyard. As well as the cows, between the five of us we have farm shops, a butchery and commercial kitchen, a processing dairy and vast barns packing veg and meat boxes. Meanwhile with 100 different vegetables growing in the fields and polytunnels, my parent’s farm of the ‘50s looks simple in comparison. It feels crazy at times but I love it and reckon we have done an incredible job of managing the complexity with a fair degree of efficiency. It’s all about motivating and managing people; on reflection I’m not sure Adam Smith understood the difference between man and machine.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: awash with vegetables & smutty corn

We are awash with vegetables; I can hardly remember being surrounded by such bounty and quality in the fields, barns and boxes. We’ve wonderful cos lettuce that Mr McGregor could only have dreamed of, great tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers from the tunnels, the sweetest carrots, sound onions and tasty charlotte potatoes. It has been a near perfect season so far and confidence is returning in the fields, almost enough to make me want to plant more soft fruit; but the memories of the 2012 deluge have not quite faded.

There was a growing drought worry with levels dropping in our irrigation reservoirs and soil moisture near exhausted, but over the last few days we have had over an inch of rain with more forecast this week; just what all those young cauliflowers, leeks, cabbages and broccoli need to help get their roots to the moisture deeper in the soil. With days already drawing in and dews getting heavier, I reckon we are safe. The rain has even drowned most of the flea beetles that have been plaguing us all summer. Without wishing to court disaster, it has been a near perfect year to be a veg grower. All we need now is for you to eat more.

Further south, on our French farm, up to half the early sweetcorn has developed the fungal galls of corn smut, as described last week. It is also known as ‘corn truffle’ or ‘huitlacoche’ in Mexico, where it is considered a delicacy and is sought-after to fill quesadillas. After much research and experimentation including an evening cooking with a chef from Wahaca, I reckon the more adventurous among you might like to give it a go. It is hard to describe the flavour of the spore-filled galls as they are unique; they cook down to a black paste reminiscent of squid ink, and have an earthy bitterness which I love. Great with refried beans, guacamole, tomatillo salsa and corn tortillas. As I write, we are working out a huitlacoche meal kit and recipes which should also be on the website over the next two or three weeks. All being well, you might be able to eat Riverford huitlacoche at Wahaca restaurants this autumn too.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: smut & wacky veg from the vendée

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I am on our farm in France, where we are picking the best crop of sweetcorn I have ever grown; 30,000 cobs to the hectare which are so plump and sweet you can eat them raw. Walking through the crop, my spirits rose to giddy heights until I reached the field next door, where 70% of the cobs are grotesquely deformed with galls of the soil-borne fungal pathogen, smut.

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Guy with sweetcorn affected by ‘corn smut’ or huitlacoche as it is known in Mexico (where they consider it a delicacy).

With the majority of crops from this farm designed to plug the spring ‘hungry gap’ back home, our busiest time here is past and we have sown green manures to replenish the soil, ready for next year. The fertility building mixture of clover, oats and phacelia has germinated well but ironically so has a flush of exceedingly healthy summer purslane; a succulent weed I have previously cultivated as a salad crop in the UK, with mixed success. Meanwhile we will start hand picking our beautiful red-flecked borlotti beans next week. Harvested immature in the pods as ‘demi-sec’, they require much less cooking and retain more flavour than a dried bean and can be used in stews, but are best appreciated in a salad. Don’t be put off if the pods look tatty, the beans are beautiful inside, as many an Italian will tell you.

Since buying the farm here I have developed a passion for growing, eating, bottling and drying chillies; like our sweetcorn they love the dry heat of a Vendéen summer. We have grown different varieties for tapas, stuffing, drying and pickling which include padrons, pablanos, Joe’s long, jalapenos, plus a few devastatingly hot scotch bonnets and habaneros for the deranged chilli nuts among you. Most will be available (along with instructions for preserving) to add to your order over the next two months. We are also busy picking tomatillos for you to make salsa verde, and starting on the cape gooseberries. A few of you might think this sounds all too esoteric and are wondering where the potatoes and carrots are; just count yourself lucky there is no smutty corn in your box.

corn smut close up

In Mexico it is considered a delicacy and they charge more for it. Maybe we need to develop a recipe for smut galls with summer purslane.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: the virtues of questionable cabbages

The warm weather means we have bumper crops everywhere; we just hope you can eat it all. The bounty is such that rather than see it go to waste, we have upped some portion sizes and are sometimes struggling to get them in the boxes. Take a moment to savour the carrots you may have this week, as the dry weather has created some distorted shapes and slowed growth, but this has only served to intensify their sensational flavour. A little bit of adversity is good for them. Meanwhile our summer greens have struggled too much; first from a lack of nitrogen thanks to the winter deluge, and then from a lack of water. For them, slow growth has resulted in a strong flavour which I like, but which some might describe as bitter. They are on the chewy side too, so I would recommend boiling rather than steaming.

So why am I drawing attention to questionable cabbages? My vegetably, farmer’s point here is that only a narrow minded moron could doubt that the way vegetables are grown has the potential to impact their shape, texture and flavour. Our organic vegetables are so tangibly different from conventional vegetables pushed on with nitrogen fertiliser and plenty of water that it would seem inevitable for them to be chemically different as well. This was broadly the conclusion of an international peer-reviewed study published in the British Journal of Nutrition two weeks ago, in particular that organic food contains substantially higher levels of some anti-oxidants.

To assert that the farming methods used to grow food do not affect nutritional quality, as has been our government’s line, has always seemed incredible. Perhaps in opening up the debate about organic food again, the new research findings will form the beginning of a change in direction. Those cabbages and carrots are enough proof for me though. What is more, without regular dousing with nerve toxins, chemical fungicides and herbicides, our fields, hedges and woods are alive with bees, butterflies and birds. I reckon that makes buying organic more than a lifestyle choice, and the occasional questionable cabbage representative of something much more significant.

Guy Watson

Great Godminster! How they make their mouth-watering cheese

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We visited Godminster to find out more about what goes into making their award-winning brie and cheddar for our Riverford boxes.

Richard Hollingbery, owner of Godminster Farm in Bruton, Somerset, has a simple mantra – nature repays those who treat her kindly. They are one of a dwindling number of dairy farms that are also cheesemakers, and we think this direct connection makes their cheeses all the better.

Farm manager Pete Cheek and Richard have crossed their 230 head herd of British Friesians with Swedish Red, Norwegian Red and Hereford breeds, to produce animals that are well-suited to the largely pasture based organic system of dairy farming. This also means that male calves can be brought on as beef animals. Wildlife is encouraged all over the farm with wide field margins and carefully managed ponds and hedgerows, while homeopathy is used as part of the herd management.

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On the cheesemaking side of the business, Richard has perfected the recipe for Godminster cheddar over the last 10 years, creating an unusually creamy cheese. Brothers Steve and Malcolm Dyer, along with Ashley Reynold, are Godminster’s treasured brie.

They work closely with Pete, the farm manager, so that they can tweak their cheese making process as the cows’ diet changes through the year; a wet summer for example will produce different milk to a hot one. All of this impacts how the cheese is made, as everything from temperature to pH and fat levels can influence how it turns out, and it takes an expert eye to know how to manage it. The brie is made in small batches and the curds cut by hand, with the team using a traditional liquid brine along with herbs, garlic and black pepper to infuse different flavours into the cheese. The result is a fantastic, authentic brie range that is full of character. Definitely one of our favourites!

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Separating curds & whey, ready to pack into cheese mould.

The cheese is made a stone’s throw from where the cows roam, grazing on organic grass and clover.  Their milk is pasteurised before having rennet added to it and kept at 23C for a day and a night. When ready, the curd is cut by hand using a ‘harp,’ tipped into plastic moulds and flattened by hand.

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Packing curd into mould by hand

The whey is drained away.

The brie goes into a brining room for 24 hours, then a ripening room for 5 days – this is where the bloom (or what we’d call the skin) starts to form.

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The team at Godminster make 80 cheeses at a time, which are cut and turned before being hand-wrapped and ready for our boxes.

 

guy’s newsletter: summer parties, morale & gove

Our summer staff parties used to be wild affairs with anarchic games of gladiatorial football. Teams rotated chaotically amid drinking and swimming, with a few bodies usually lying around a smoking fire the next morning. 25 years on, with some sadness, we have grown up; our staff mostly drink in moderation and our fun is risk-assessed and less edgy than in our corporate youth. However we still had a wonderfully badly designed water slide sending bodies hurtling scattergun into the reservoir this year; as I emerged dripping blood I was surprised to find Health & Safety Julie sanguinely standing by. “My day off,” she said. I noticed she wasn’t queuing up for a go though.

Attendance and mood at staff parties is a (sometimes) brutal reflection of staff morale, and a good indication of what lies ahead for an organisation. In the late ‘90s, when accountants suggested all was well, I spent days cooking for our summer party and rented a river boat and band to serenade us down the Dart. No more than 10% of staff showed up; I was gutted. It was a low point and the only answer was to drink most of the booze myself. Sure enough it turned out to be a difficult year; in the whirlygig of growth, communication and relationships had got left behind. Lasting and progressive organisations are about people enjoying a shared purpose and respecting the diversity of contributions that it takes to get there. I’m not sure Gove got that, and I don’t think many teachers would have gone to his party. KPIs and cash are a poor substitute for respect.

This year, as the shadows lengthened and the sun finally slipped behind Caddaford Hill, I stepped over a vomiting youth and sloped off, leaving the hardcore revellers to drain the bar and argue over the microphone. Looking back over the revelry and ebullient happiness made me both proud and confident that we are well placed to face the challenges ahead, be they troubled websites, flea-beetle bitten rocket or persuading you to eat more kale. Better still, after 25 years of mostly great parties, no-one has died on that water slide.

Guy Watson