Guy’s news: Farming post-Brexit; an industry at the crossroads

Two farming tribes gathered in Oxford last week: the mainstream Oxford Farming Conference, sponsored by pesticide and machinery suppliers and accountants, and, provocatively on the same two days, the Oxford Real Farming Conference; the radical challenger with no suits, more hair and jumpers, more women and no commercial sponsors – just a lot of people determined to change the direction UK farming has followed towards scale and intensification.

I spoke at both conferences, but felt more at home with the hair and jumpers. The suits were more open-minded than I expected; they invited and listened to environmental journalist George Monbiot who with cool, well-informed and devastating logic questioned the moral and political acceptability of paying £3bn to farmers in subsidies, with precious little in return. There seemed to be an acceptance that, post-Brexit, farmers will instead only be paid for what they deliver, whether it is food or “public goods” (flood prevention, public access, etc). Even more heartening was the acceptance that we cannot continue to abuse our soils, and better still that knowledge combined with ‘biological’ farming offered a genuine alternative to blindly following the agrochemical and GM industry.

Down the road at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, the feeling was of a movement that has found its time in agricultural history. There was talk of beliefs and justice with an acceptance that, while farming decisions must not be based only on profit, profit was still vital. These were not the starry-eyed idealists that have driven me to distraction over the last 30 years; they were human and imaginative but above all, intensely practical in their search for ways to grow nutritious food with social and environmental justice. Like the 14th century Peasants’ Revolt and the 17th century Diggers and Levellers, they lack the land, power and capital to match their determination and independence, but let’s hope they don’t get hanged this time. In an industry depressingly subservient to the needs of its suppliers, these people bring hope and deserve support. Surely now, as the UK shapes its new post-Brexit agricultural policy, it should look to serve farmer, consumer and the environment with equity and to support new entrants, rather than predominantly to perpetuate the privilege of the rich and powerful.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Hard frosts make for hard picking

It dipped to minus 5 last week and dawn to dusk sunshine could not shift the frost from our north facing slopes; nothing exceptional in January but it was our 20th frost this winter – about three times the average. It’s all down to weirdly persistent easterly winds which have brought us a gloriously bright and dry winter so far, in contrast to the dull, damp Devon mildness usually delivered by the prevalent moisture-laden westerlies.

A dry January is mostly good; it means less mud and fewer miserable days in damp oilskins, plus we need the cold to keep growth in check so our fields don’t empty of winter crops before new season crops are even planted. Some frost is OK but the cumulative effect wears a plant down, especially as it approaches maturity. Cauliflower and purple sprouting broccoli (PSB) can take a lot of frost
until the vulnerable flower heads start revealing themselves close to harvest, when even a light frost will cause damage. During the expected January and February frosts, we program PSB and cauliflower from our growers along the Devon and Cornwall coasts where the moderating effect of the gulf stream keeps the water above 8°C, normally enough to keep frosts a mile or two inland. Even so we have lost much of our early PSB and cauliflowers will now be short until the next mild spell.

Without flowers, cabbages, leeks, kale and spring greens can take a lot of cold but picking frozen greenery risks quality and is hard on the fingers. Harvesting this winter is all about making use of the few hours at the end of the day when the frost has melted; we pick like crazy and rush the crop into the barn before the frost returns. If your kale or cabbage has small translucent areas, this probably means we were a bit impatient; it’s a narrow line to tread.

The salads in our tunnels have so far survived unscathed. The harder frosts definitely get in there and the fine leaves can look very sad in the morning but the drier soil and dry leaves seem to save them so that by noon they stand up ready for harvest. With good light levels so far the winter salad bags have been good. We hope some mild weather will bring cauliflowers and PSB back into the boxes soon.

Guy Watson

Helping you live life on the veg

Many of you were generous enough with your time to fill in our recent customer survey and give us a fantastic amount of detailed feedback. This confirmed a huge desire to cook from scratch (95% of you doing so most days), a great appetite for veg (28% now vegetarian, more vegan and many more striving to eat less meat), and a great belief in the power of veg boxes to help you do this (extending your repertoire and eating healthily following organic, flavour and quality as reasons to buy Riverford). Less positively, only 31% of veg box buyers find the contents really easy to use up. So we know we still have a mission to make life on the veg a bit easier. Here are a few things we are doing to help you meet the challenge of the cardoon and kohlrabi.

Veg-centric recipes & the cooks who create them
We have a fantastic team of cooks here on the farm; what they don’t know about veg isn’t worth knowing, so visit the recipes hub on our website. We’ve worked hard this year to give you recipes and tips to match your box contents. They are in most veg boxes now will be in all as soon as we can house a new printer.

Social media stories
Think of our Facebook page as a mini Riverford community. If you’ve got a question, between us on the farm and other customers, someone will soon come to the rescue. You’ll also find new how-to videos for every vegetable, and new recipe videos both here and on our YouTube channel.

Cookery classes & supper clubs
We have started two-hour hands-on Master Veg classes and will be rolling out more of these next year. Classes are kept small, so there’s plenty of opportunity for individual guidance and questions. Meanwhile, our Supper Clubs are a great chance to meet other customers over a convivial veg-centric feast.

New ways with veg & new organic things
In 2017 we will be launching juicing boxes, new recipe boxes, as well as organic herbs, spices and more besides. And who knows what new crops Guy has up his sleeve!

Enjoy 2017 on the veg.

Guy’s News: Thanks to the weather, the ladybirds & you

As we approach the winter solstice and prepare to send out the last of this year’s 2.2 million veg and meat orders, I look back on the farming year with some satisfaction and gratitude. The winter has been exceptionally kind so far, with lots of dry weather for harvesting and enough cold to slow down crop growth. Despite a cold and wet early spring, it ended up being a good summer with just enough rain at the right times to grow some healthy (if not huge) crops with a marked absence of pests and disease, particularly in the west.

Farmers in the west tend to look to the drier and flatter east of the country with some envy, but this year the grass was greener under our feet in Devon. A lot of that was down to ecology; as the years go by it is increasingly obvious that our smaller fields and ‘unproductive’ land, whether that’s abundant thick hedges, small areas of copse and woodland or big areas of permanent pasture, all contribute to the biological diversity, harbouring the predators and parasites which keep crop pests in check. In contrast to this, our growers in the flat east (and in the French Vendée) with their big fields have suffered a succession of invaders including diamondback moth and aphids, which has made growing harder this year and means that many will struggle to break even.

I am also hugely grateful to you, our customers; the fact that I say the same thing every year doesn’t make it any less true. Without your loyalty we couldn’t farm the way we do, couldn’t honour the agreed crop programmes and prices with other farmers, couldn’t look after our staff as well, and would be forced to make short term decisions which would not be best for the environment; and we would waste veg that was too small or had minor blemishes. The hidden cost of choice and responsiveness to customer needs is almost always borne by the growers, workers and the environment. Our position on this means we walk a fine line between arrogance and principle, but I hope we stay the right side. Your tolerance of what I know may seem like intransigence allows us to farm and trade honestly and for the long term. For that, staff, growers and I offer our heartfelt thanks. With the help of our vastly improved IT team, we might get a little more flexible in 2017…

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Talking kettles & selling solutions

I have a kettle that talks to me. It lights up and is full of clever solutions to problems I never knew I had, but it is unreliable at boiling water. I should probably read the manual but instead I curse it for being an over-elaborate solution designed with little regard for the problem it’s there to solve.

The same could be said of agriculture. Since the ‘60s, farming has been shaped by the solutions peddled by agrochemical, pharmaceutical and machinery suppliers. So often both the underlying problem and its solution lie in the husbandry of the soil, livestock and the farm environment; something previous generations of farmers understood and had the confidence to manage through intimate knowledge of their farms; essentially they were welly-wearing ecologists. Perhaps it was the closing of so many agricultural colleges, the withdrawal of virtually all public funding for ‘near market’ agricultural research and advice, or the power of Big Ag’s advertising and lobbying, but somewhere along the line many farmers have lost confidence in the power of their own knowledge and experience to solve problems, and have ceded control to the agrochemical industry. However, many of the problems non-organic farmers face would not exist without the last round of agrochemical ‘solutions’; insecticides to control aphids thriving in over-fertilised monocrops for example, or antibiotics to keep stressed, overcrowded farm animals alive.

I don’t believe that agrochemicals, veterinary medicines, machinery and even (potentially) GM have nothing to offer agriculture, but the approach adopted by their proponents too often ignores the underlying problem and focuses on selling something. I made this point to camera in a leek field last week and it has gone viral on Facebook (1 million views and 20,000 shares so far, visit
facebook.com/riverford to watch it) so I am guessing many agree.

On a lighter note, most of you will find a cob of dried corn in your box this week. We grew them in France and the idea is you hang it on your Christmas tree then, come twelfth night, break off the kernels and make popcorn. Oh dear; perhaps that solves a problem you never knew you had, but I hope you get some pleasure from it at least.

Guy Watson

Popcorn on the cob

Guy loves growing something a little quirky, so for the second year running he’s experimented with growing popping corn on our French farm in the Vendée; it’s fun to play around with in the kitchen too.

The corn was planted back in May, across about 4 hectares of the farm. Like sweetcorn, which we grow during the summer, popping corn is a type of maize. It is important not to plant the two different crops in adjacent fields, as this could cause cross-pollination.

Sweetcorn can be harvested from as early as July in France, but the most important part of growing successful popping corn is leaving it for as long as possible and allowing enough time for the kernels to dry out; we left ours to soak up every last bit of the autumn sun and finally picked them in November.

We hope you’ll enjoy the magic of watching and hearing the kernels dance away in the pan. Here is our method, and a few ideas from chef Bob for how to pimp up your popcorn.

popcorn-2

Method:

Start by stripping the dried kernels from the cob. The best way is to hold the cob with both hands and perform a twisting, Chinese-burn-style motion. This should loosen the first few kernels; it is then just a case of thumbing the rest away from the cob and into a bowl.

You’ll need a heavy-based, roomy saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Warm 1 tbsp vegetable oil, add the corn and put the lid on tight. Shake occasionally until you hear the popping start, then shake continuously over a high heat until it ebbs. Remove the corn and discard any unpopped pieces.

A few ideas:

Salty
Throw a knob of butter into the warm corn, mix until coated and season with flaky sea salt. If you are feeling crushingly contemporary, add a few turns of pepper or a measured shake of cider vinegar.

Sweet
Whip up this simple butterscotch just before cooking your corn and slather it over a warm bowlful. Put 25g butter, 50g dark brown sugar, 60ml double cream and a few drops of vanilla essence in a pan and heat gently until simmering, whisking well. Cook for 4-5 mins until slightly thickened. Remove from the heat and add a pinch or two of sea salt to taste. Allow to cool a little before using.

Hipster
There is nothing to stop you going crazy with the spice cupboard. Add a little oil or melted butter as an adhesive and get shaking. Try dried chilli, smoked paprika and cumin, or how about some turmeric, curry powder and celery salt. Be so hip it hurts with truffle oil and grated parmesan.

Guy’s news: Kale: ubiquitous, underrated & tasty

I got gloomy about mud too soon; the sun is back, the ground is remarkably dry underfoot again and the picking is good, if slightly delayed in the mornings while the frost melts. It is always hard to know how crops will thaw if you pick them with frozen leaves; they can turn to mush, so it is better for the crop and the fingers to wait for the sun, even though it can be a struggle to get the picking done before the light goes. Given enough pairs of socks and good boots, cold and dry is great working weather once the heat builds up in your overalls.

Wherever people grow vegetables there is kale; everywhere from the Equator to Norway, growers have selected varieties to suit local growing conditions and culinary tastes. We grow Cavolo Nero (Italian and regally smug), Red Russian kale (sweet and tender though I’m not sure it is Russian at all; I first encountered it on a roundabout in Spain) Hungry Gap kale (tender, smooth and from Devon; planted too early this year so some has been in your boxes already), and Curly Green (frilly and reliable, if occasionally a bit tough) plus a few trial varieties. Of all the cultivated brassicas (swede, sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, bok choy, mustard, etc.) kale is the least altered from their wild ancestors, which can still be found growing above the high tide mark on gravelly beaches near us.

As with all leafy veg, the most nutritious parts of kale are the dark green outer leaves which with its loose, leafy formation, is all of it; perhaps the reason some herald it as a superfood. Apart from being extraordinarily good for us (off the scale for vitamin A, high in vitamin C as well as Omega 3, antioxidants and fibre), it is also pretty easy to grow. Its indeterminate growth habit makes it particularly well suited to cut-and-come-again harvesting; even on a square metre you can have a regular supply of greens from September to April. We generally pick the crop three times, removing the lower leaves while they are unblemished and tender, leaving the palm tree-like apical meristem to generate more leaves. By February, with lengthening days, most varieties are starting to run to seed so we take the head in a final pick and turn in the cattle to eat what’s left, so not one leaf is wasted.

Guy Watson

Growing your Christmas veg

blog-bannerDecember has arrived, bringing with it a burst of Christmas spirit. It’s finally time to put up the tree and crack open the advent calendar. There are fairy lights to be untangled, presents to be picked, and all sorts of treats to eat and drink.

Here on the farm, December doesn’t mark the beginning of the festivities, but the culmination of many months of work. We have been planning, planting, and tending our Christmas crops for the best part of the year, making sure everything is ready for the big day.

Here’s a little insight into what it takes to put some of the most iconic veg of the season on your plate, and how they are coming along.

Brussels sprouts

Up in Lancashire, Dan Gielty (otherwise known as Organic Dan) planted our Brussels sprouts all the way back in March and April. That might seem like a long time to produce such a tiny vegetable, but the slow growth allows their flavour to develop, and they really do taste better for it.

This year’s crop is flourishing. They aren’t the sprout-cutterprettiest to look at – organic sprouts never are, as the dense canopy of leaves provides a cosy environment for bugs and blight – but they are plump, healthy, and plentiful. In the past, we’ve had some issues with empty spaces on the stalks, but this lot are chock-a-block.

When the sprouts are mature, experienced pickers climb aboard Dan’s ‘beast’ of a cutter (pictured), and harvest them by hand. It’s exhausting work, but worth it: having put so much time into our sprouts, each one is precious. It would be a shame for them to be bumped and bruised, or picked before they were ready by an undiscriminating machine.

Red cabbage

red-cabbage1

Christmas cabbages were put in the soil back in June and July, by our neighbourhere in South Devon, Andy Hayllor. While they grow, the plants look surprisingly plain: a sea of dusky silver, rather than the vibrant red you might expect. Come harvest time, the dull, tatty outer leaves – nature’s own packaging – are trimmed away, revealing the bright, glossy heads inside.

red-cabbageIt must be a good year for Brassicas: like the sprouts, the cabbages have behaved perfectly in the field. Andy is growing the same variety we always use. As well as being heavy and well-packed with leaves, and possessing that deep, earthy flavour so distinctive to red cabbage, they also store particularly well. The heads that were cut, trimmed, and stored in late November will still be fresh and tasty for the boxes in Christmas week.

 

King Edward potatoes

pickers-on-potato-tumber-141

There is no better potato for a Christmas roastie than the King Edward. They’re so good, they might just upstage the turkey. However, they are also notoriously difficult to grow; prone to blight, and to producing too many tubers at too small a size.

The tastiest, fluffiest roastie is worth the extra effort – and the risk. All it takes is a farmer who understands the plant. Enter the Farley brothers, from Cullompton; they have been growing our King Edwards for the past 5 years, so they really know their stuff. Their farm also has the optimum soil: fine and sandy, so that it is still diggable in winter. Rather than hurrying the potatoes out of the ground before it hardens up, we can leave them to grow until the last possible moment, getting more flavoursome all the while.

This year, something happened that no amount of experience could have prevented. A cold, wet June meant that when the plants were supposed to be basking in sunshine and bulking up their roots, instead a bit of blight got in. The quality of the potatoes we have is very good, and there are plenty to fill the boxes – but it isn’t the quantity that we had hoped for. Last year, on the other hand, we ended up with double the amount that we needed. Farming can be a fickle game!

Parsnips
It’s nigh-on impossible to get a uniform crop of organic parsnips. They are very variable in their germination, with seeds taking anywhere between 10 and 30 days to emerge; this inevitably means that the roots will end up a range of shapes and sizes. We don’t mind a bit of wonkiness – it’s led to some amusement here on the farm. You may have seen a few of our favourites on Facebook.

gary-and-neil-farley

Our parsnips are also being grown by the Farleys – and it’s the best crop we’ve seen for 4 years. The quality is exceptional; they are already super sweet, and will be even better by Christmas, once the first frost has converted some of their starch to sugar. There’s also rather a lot of them. You can never have ‘too many’ of something so nice, but we do have more than we anticipated… 56 tonnes more, in fact! We’re sure we’ll find some willing takers.

Enjoy the feast
A lot of love goes into our Christmas veg boxes. There is so much planning to be done before anything even goes into the ground – then come the long months of care while they slowly grow, and the back-breaking work of harvesting by hand in bleak winter weather. But sitting down to an organic Christmas table laden with all our festive favourites, we know that it was worth every moment.

See all the organic fruit and veg you’ll need for a special Christmas feast here.

Guy’s news: In homage to a winter leek picker

After a gloriously dry and bright autumn, winter arrived with a vengeance last weekend, stripping the last leaves from the trees and saturating our soil. Such rainfall can be hugely damaging in terms of soil erosion, but we were well prepared, having loosened compacted tracks to aid rain penetration and mitigate flooding, plus adding hardcore to muddy gateways, sowing green manures on bare ground to prevent soil nutrient loss and creating some strategic dams. Tractors will now be banned from our lower lying fields until spring to avoid destroying the delicate soil structure so critical to good crops next year, so winter harvesting of leeks, cabbage, kales and cauliflower will be done on foot with the aid of tracked, low ground-pressure vehicles.

It takes a very special person to withstand a winter in the fields; the physical hardship is not so much about the penetrating damp, but more the clawing mud hanging to your boots, making every step take twice the effort. Less sticky, sandy soils would make work easier but as they can’t hold moisture in summer or prevent nutrient run-off during the winter rains, they don’t grow such good
veg in organic systems; our soils are mostly balanced intermediate clay loams with about 35% clay. We make sure our harvesting staff have good wet weather gear but a day in the driving rain pulling leeks must rank alongside fishing and coal mining as one of the toughest jobs on the planet. Many of our fields are too distant to get staff back to our canteen for lunch, so this winter we are experimenting with getting hot soup to them as a small gesture of appreciation. The individuals that stick at it year after year often acquire a Zen-like calm and say that even on the grimmest day they prefer being outside to working in the barns or office; I reckon it is genetic. Other than genes, decent rain gear and hot soup, what makes a winter veg picker happy is a good crop to get stuck into. Fiddling through undersized or diseased plants to trim and sort is frustrating in the summer but quickly becomes depressing in the winter; this year however, after a good summer’s growing, things are looking good for both our pickers and your boxes. Spare a thought for those hardy souls bent with their backs to the rain as you chop up your leeks; we would have no business and you no veg without them.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Discount marketing; our quiet revolution

How can a bank offer you £150 to open an account; a broadband company offer a rock bottom introductory tariff; a veg box supplier offer your fourth box free; a supermarket £20 off your first delivery? Answer: by making someone else pay for it, through inflated prices for existing customers, squeezing farmers or paying staff less. It is the model which almost all subscription businesses work to. If you can be bothered to be a ‘savvy shopper’ and spend your life forever switching suppliers you can do pretty well out of it, but as the service providers know full well, most of us are just too busy; or maybe we find a world where trust equates to “sucker” so dispiriting that we would rather just ignore it and get duped. There is even a new profession of data analysts, complete with predictive algorithms, working out what level of abuse of existing customers’ loyalty will yield the best growth and profit. It makes my blood boil; all the more because for a while we became part of it, for which I apologise.

I am convinced that most people, most of the time are happy to pay a fair price; what it costs to make something in a competent and efficient manner with due respect for people and the environment, plus a modest profit. This is the basis upon which Riverford was founded 30 years ago, but while we have always paid our fellow farmers fairly and worked with them for the long term, more recently we dipped our toes into the cesspool of discount marketing, being persuaded that this was the only way to compete. Two years ago I could bear it no longer. I declared I would rather go bust than follow this path of abusing the trust of our most loyal customers; it turned out most staff agreed. We have since stopped offering discounts, stopped paying dubious companies to knock on doors, stopped using voucher sites and significantly cut back on leafleting and advertising. Instead we are concentrating on growing good veg, looking after our existing customers, and have taken all sales back in-house through our own staff who know our veg and our values. The results would not satisfy a venture capitalist investor but we are sufficiently reassured to declare that we will never offer anything to a new customer that we don’t offer to existing ones. That may sound tame, but in an industry racing to the bottom, it is a quiet revolution.

Guy Watson