guy’s newsletter: succession and ownership; still thinking

So far, none of my children share my enthusiasm for farming and vegetables. I think I put them off with an excess of weary grumpiness in the early years when I brought too much vegetable woe into the house. So if they don’t get the business, who does? The sale of Abel & Cole to venture capitalists in 2007 precipitated a plague of oily suits from the city, snaking their way to my door and promising to lubricate my passage into well-heeled retirement. The prospect felt like selling one of my children to a brothel, plus, all the entrepreneurs that I have met who sold up are depressed; not surprising considering how some say an excessive drive to succeed is a good sign of an unhinged mind. What does surprise me, given all the evidence to the contrary, is that anyone would think £30m would make you happier than £3m.

My beef with raw capitalism is the demeaning absurdity of its founding assumption that greed is the only reason anyone would want to do something well. I like the John Lewis model so our plan is to move towards employee/stakeholder ownership if we can avoid trussing managers up in workers’ committees. The appalling situation at the Co-op bank shows that ideology and values can never be a substitute for competence and good management.

Meanwhile we will continue to strive for competence (excellence even, on a good day) under enlightened but fairly conventional management where those at the top (including me) earn no more than nine times those at the bottom, and profits not needed for reinvestment are divided evenly between our staff. And I promise the business will never be owned or controlled by people who don’t work in it, sell to it or buy from it. More on how we plan to get there next week.

Guy Watson

Riverford pumpkin day – free family day out!
Join us at the farm on Saturday 25th October 11am-4pm. Expect children’s activities, worm digging, pumpkin carving, chilli stringing and seasonal food.

Call us or visit here for details.

Ben’s wine blog: Davenport Vineyards, Sussex 2013 Horsmonden dry white

This week Ben discovers a new favourite at brother Guy’s wedding, and finds out a bit more about British wine making.

Discovering a fantastic fizz

It’s been around for a while but in recent years, it’s come on leaps and bounds and the 2013 vintage is the best yet.  I hadn’t tasted it for ages until Davenport’s 2013 Horsmonden dry white slipped up the blind side (and that’s not part of a best man’s speech) at Geetie and brother Guy’s wedding. Several glasses of their fantastic fizz had got the party off to a flying start and it wasn’t until midway through the first course that I noticed that the contents of the glass in my hand were really pretty good. Crisp, dry and aromatic – like a combination of the bride and groom (I confess to still not having given them a wedding present and I wasn’t the best man).

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Will the wine-maker

Winemaker and owner, Will Davenport, knows his stuff – he’s been doing it for twenty years and the awards page on his website testifies to his skills.  We’ve all heard that global warming will make southern England the next Burgundy, but so far, in the case of organic it’s been an emperor’s new clothes scale bluff.  Yes, England is making some fantastic, champagne-esque fizz and white wines, but thanks to a succession of wet summers, until last year, delivery was woefully slow and low.  2013 was a great year and 2014 promises to be even better.  Here’s what Hamish Anderson, writing for The Daily Telegraph, thought of Will’s wine:

Will Davenport’s small organic estate makes some of England’s finest still wine. The 2013 is a blinder – its pungent nose of lemon and nettles is not only quintessentially English, but also makes you want to dive in for a sip. A glass of glorious, spirit-lifting refreshment.

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Getting hold of the vintage

It takes Will three years to make the fizz, but the more still wine we buy, the more chance there is of getting a decent allocation of the 2013 vintage when it’s released. That’s the way the wine trade works.  Or if we’re really good, fingers crossed, they might just find a few cases of the previous vintage.

guy’s newsletter: getting there in the vendée

As our team picks the last chillies, squash and peppers, and the first autumn gale shakes a fine crop of cape gooseberries to the ground, I retreat to the office to try to make some sense of our accounts. After five years of growing lovely cabbages, spinach, sweetcorn, tomatillos, courgettes and peppers here on our farm in France (mainly to fill the ‘hungry gap’ in spring), the best I can say is that we are losing money more slowly than we were. Perhaps I should draw some consolation from the amount I have contributed to the French tax system.

After a dreadful start it was a pretty good growing year; we just never made back what we lost from the sodden and aphid-plagued lettuce in the spring. We are definitely making fewer mistakes and have grown some fine crops, and our team seems happy, harmonious and well organised, but the margin for error is very small. As a young man, when stuff went wrong I just bent over and worked harder and shouted at those around me to do the same; demonic determination and energy compensated for the mistakes. Twenty years later, trying to do the same thing in France isn’t working for all sorts of reasons; I don’t have the energy, I am not here enough, I’m not sure shouting works and the market has become a lot less forgiving, with tighter margins giving little room for failure, whether caused by inexperience or the weather. My accountant thinks I should pull the plug but I am a chip off the old block; as the farm lurched from crisis to crisis my father spent 50 years infuriating my mother by saying, “Do you know darling, I really think we are getting there”. I’ll give it another year.

Guy Watson

Riverford pumpkin day – free family day out!
Join us at the farm on Saturday 25th October 11am-4pm. Expect children’s activities, worm digging, pumpkin carving, chilli stringing and seasonal food.

Call us or visit here for details.

guy’s newsletter: bringing in the roots

We have been busy irrigating our drier land where thirsty crops have sucked out all the August rains, but you won’t find many farmers complaining; September was gloriously dry and sunny. By the time you read this, almost all our potatoes will be in store. It’s been a year that rewarded patience; early-planted crops never fully recovered from going into cold, wet seedbeds in March but those who waited for drier conditions have had much better crops. We’ve yet to do the final tally but it looks as if our spuds will see us through to May 2015; even the notoriously difficult pink fir apples and King Edwards have done well.

The main crop carrots also look like being a bumper harvest, but we are reluctant to start lifting while the ground is so dry; a little damp soil clinging to the roots eases their journey over the harvester and into the storage bins, thus reducing breakages. Once in store, carrots also keep better when surrounded by some of the soil they grew in, and should be in the boxes through to April. Most of the beets and parsnips have also done well, almost too well as it’s a touch early to tart lifting; instead we’ve cut the tops to stop them growing too large.

For those who like an edgier veg, we have just started harvesting radicchio, one of my all-time favourite vegetables; partly for its beauty and partly for its bitter flavour. Heads will be in the boxes over the next two months. Small amounts bring another dimension of colour and flavour to salads but if you find it too much I recommend making radicchio risotto or pasta; recipes can be found on our website.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: feeding the beast

This is coming to you from Home Farm in Yorkshire, our Riverford farm in the north. Peter Richardson, our partner and the grower of most of the veg up here is as daft as me; the line between visionary innovation and restless madness is fine and precarious. Knowing Peter’s weakness for a challenge, I’ve been trying to persuade him to grow horseradish, rhubarb and a tuber from New Zealand called oca but, as I pulled up in his yard, his head was buried in the guts of his latest project; a 200kW anaerobic digester.

The Beast, as his wife Jo-ann has named it, needs to be fed a balanced diet of cow muck, silage and any rejected vegetables. After 60 days of fermentation without oxygen in an 18m diameter insulated tank, the methane produced fuels a generator that supplies 200kW of carbon-neutral electricity into the grid. The spent fuel is then strained and used as a fertiliser for Peter’s vegetables and the clover leys that produce the silage. Meanwhile waste heat is used to warm the tank to the desired 40°C in addition to heating our box barn, with more initiatives in the pipeline. I suggested a heated greenhouse, but Peter said he was too old for that. After extracting him from the troublesome bowels of the Beast, I got him to explain the workings of the digester and the teething problems that had given him, “the worst six weeks of my life,” as he put it. The last AD plant I saw was in India and fashioned largely out of mud; this one had more digital displays, wires and controls than NASA Ground Control yet in true farmer style Peter seems to have worked out how to override most of them.

In the surrounding fields, crops of spinach, courgettes, cauliflower, kales and sweetcorn all looked good but given his frustrated mood Peter took me straight to his asparagus that was buried in ‘wickens’. This invasive grass is dreaded by organic growers, being almost impossible to control in a standing crop. His mood only really lifted when we dug up some lovely pink fir apple potatoes for me to take home; Peter is certainly one of our best potato growers. It will take more than a temperamental piece of equipment to break him, but I decided not to suggest any new crops on this trip.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: keats never sold cabbages

Much as I appreciate the autumn mists and mellow fruitfulness, I doubt that Keats ever had to sell a cabbage. The autumn makes me think more of a Bristol market trader who, before quoting me a price told me, “Bean time is lean time, boy,” meaning that when runner beans are cropping heavily in late summer, the market will be flooded and he was about to take my legs off with his offer. It’s been a wonderful growing year and right now we are in a similar position; to quote the notorious 1970s drug dealer Mr Nice, “I never meant to sell the stuff; but, try as I might, I just couldn’t smoke it all myself”. I love my veg and do my best to eat whatever will not fit in your boxes, but it is proving a struggle right now and we could do with some help.

Fortunately we are more organised these days; it is a long time since we sent veg on a wing and a prayer to the wholesale markets, only to be told no-one gave a damn if it was organic, so the price barely covered the transport and boxes. Instead where crops have massively out-yielded expectations, the danger is we simply won’t get through them in time. A cold snap to slow things down would very welcome, but better still, introduce a friend to Riverford.

The only area of the farm not looking good is the spring greens. Despite our efforts, all the weeds came up with the crop after the first rains in July. Everyone is a bit depressed about it, but I think that once we have some hard frosts to take out the softer weeds we may still get a fair crop. Looking on the bright side, the field is a favourite for skylarks and there will be plenty of cover and weed seed to see them through the winter.

Guy Watson

share the Riverford love!

Introduce a friend to Riverford and you will get a £10 credit on your account when they place a regular order. Your friend doesn’t miss out either; they’ll get a free cook book and vegbox. Visit www.riverford.co.uk/recommend-riverford to find out more.

guy’s newsletter: TTIP my personal tipping point

Since retiring 25 years ago, my father has reinvented himself as a living example of low carbon existence with attempts at anaerobic digesters, solar panels, composting loos and a permaculture garden. In his spare time he audits the moral and ethical performance of his progeny and their businesses. It was he who dumped a mountain of genetic modification papers on my desk in 1998, and encouraged me to mount a challenge on the legality of a local GM trial that went all the way to the High Court.

Now he is hassling me about his latest bugbear; the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). After an evening of researching it myself my blood is up too so, at the risk of causing irritation by straying from vegetables into politics, here goes. The TTIP is being negotiated in secret between the EU and USA with the aim of removing barriers to trade, and thus promoting growth. Sounds positive in theory, but in reality any government action deemed restricting to trade in goods or services (and thus impacting on corporate profits) will be open to challenge. Disputes will be settled in secret by three ‘trade experts’ whose guiding rationale will be that anything interfering with free trade is illegal, whatever the views of a country’s electorate or government.

The TTIP would restrict our or any EU member government’s ability to set a minimum wage, legislate on human rights or even operate nationalised industries like the NHS. Under the TTIP we would be unable to fight the introduction of GM crops (or even insist on them being labelled), prevent hormone use in beef and milk production, or restrict the use of neonicotinoid insecticides to protect our bees, or indeed to enforce many laws protecting our health, the environment or animal welfare. To accept the TTIP would be to sacrifice democracy and any semblance of personal or national autonomy at the altar of growth and corporate profit. There must come a point where the human and environmental cost of marginal increases in GDP is too high; for me this is it. If you feel similarly concerned, please visit 38 Degrees to find out more and sign the petition, or write to your MP.

Guy Watson