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

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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

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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.

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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

Guy’s news: If pesticide-free farming is possible, why don’t more do it?

Last week I argued that farming without pesticides, though not easy, was possible, and that we should look to ecology rather than the agrochemical industry for pest control, and even to guide agricultural policy. With 30 years of practice, 500 staff and thousands of acres of organic land supplying your boxes, I hope cynics will not dismiss me as a starry-eyed dreamer. When I started converting Riverford to organic, one of the staff who hoed swedes as a boy said, “Don’t expect me to hoe out the weeds”, reflecting the common assumption that farming organically means going back, that the only progress possible was the version promoted by the agrochemical industry. Yet without a drop of herbicide, no-one has hoed a swede here for 20 years; with modern weeding equipment and precision drills, we found a better version of progress.

So why is the myth that there is no alternative to pesticides so firmly held by farmers and policymakers? Largely as it is easier to make money selling chemicals globally than it is to sell knowledge locally; compare the marketing and lobbying might of the $207 billion agrochemical industry concentrated in the hands of four global corporations with that of small scale, isolated proponents of a chemical-free farming alternative. As a result, for 50 years agricultural policy has been shaped more by the needs of the agricultural supply industry than farmers, the environment or consumers. Food has got cheaper but I would argue we are paying the price with our health, soils, wildlife and the environment, none of which appear on anyone’s balance sheet.

This is compounded by the fact that over those 50 years, farms have become larger and more specialised to become more economically viable. The tradition of mixing cows, sheep, pigs and chickens with annual and perennial crops and hedges is challenging, and being rapidly replaced by specialised dairies or grain producers with a consequent loss of ecological diversity and stability, and, critically, broad husbandry skills. Market forces will not deliver a sane agricultural policy because they don’t value what so many of us hold dear; that is our countryside, our wildlife, and real food produced with respect. Could Brexit and its intrinsic agricultural policy reform be the opportunity for something saner?

Guy Watson

Find out more about our pesticides campaign here.

Guy’s news: Pesticide-free farming; not easy, but possible

When I planted my first leeks 30 years ago, my faith in organic farming was fragile; as the fungal disease ‘rust’ hit the crop I had tended all summer, I was tempted by promises of salvation whispered in my ear by agrochemical salesmen. I resisted, temperatures dropped, the disease was halted and my leeks recovered; I had passed my first organic test, and faith, experience and commitment grew. Since then, by planting disease-resistant varieties, more widely spaced, we have learned to manage rust without chemicals. It’s similar with slugs; pre organic certification, I used slug pellets on the field margins. They didn’t seem to work and within three years, without pesticides, our soils had become so alive with slug predators like nematodes and carabid beetles that we had far fewer slug holes in our potatoes than our pellet-wielding neighbours.

Eight years on in 1995 we planted peppers, aubergine and tomatoes in our new polytunnels, only to soon find them devastated by red spider mite and aphids. Conventional advice was to fumigate with some of the most toxic and persistent pesticides around; we didn’t, and learned how to manage pests by introducing predatory insects and striving for an ecological balance. 20 years later almost all those pesticides (assured safe at the time) are banned or have become useless as pests have developed resistance, to the extent that most non-organic greenhouse growers now manage their pests ecologically with predators and parasites.

Farming without pesticides is not easy and I don’t claim we have solutions to all pests but in 30 years, with scant resource, we are halfway there. Imagine what could be achieved if a fraction of the investment in agrochemicals and GM seeds had gone into developing and spreading the knowledge needed to farm without them. I dream of that world, of intelligent farming in balance with nature, and I know it is possible; this is why Riverford is campaigning for a pesticide free agriculture led by knowledge and sustainable practice rather than the commercial needs of the agrochemical giants.

Guy Watson

Pumpkin Day 2016

Every year we celebrate autumn with our legendary Pumpkin Day. It’s always a big event, and this time was no different. We struck lucky with the weather: it was a crisp, clear day, just right for getting in the seasonal spirit. Everyone was wellied up and ready to have some fun.

There was a great buzz on all four farms and at our London event on Spitalfields City Farm. Thousands of visitors got stuck into pumpkin carving, tractor rides, cooking demos, farm walks, worm digging and much more, alongside live music, and, of course, lots of tasty autumnal food.

Thank you to everyone who came along and made this Pumpkin Day a big success. It’s your enthusiasm that makes it special. There were some brilliant Halloween costumes around, and lots of you got really creative in the pumpkin carving tent! We all had a great time, and hope you did too.

Have a look through some pictures or check out this video from our Devon farm, below. You might just spot yourself in there!

Guy’s news: price rise & kale salad

We have managed not to increase the price of our veg boxes for three years, but the sums are no longer adding up. Those years have seen pressure on wages and other costs that to date we’ve largely countered by improving efficiency, but the killer blow has been the devaluation of the pound. As with the British farmers we work with, prices are agreed with our farmers in France, Spain and Italy a year or more ahead and we always honour them; treating farmers fairly is one of our founding principles. With the Pound remaining low against the Euro and winter approaching with its consequent increase in imported produce, the weekly cash drain has become too scary for us to wait in hope of a Sterling bounce-back.

As of 14th November most box prices will go up by around 5%, and some individual items will go up sooner by a similar amount. Our UK-only box will remain the same price. The alternative to increasing prices would be to move to larger suppliers, push for lower prices from farmers and pay our staff less; we are not inclined to take any of these paths. There are no investor dividends to be foregone (we are family owned and moving towards staff ownership), only our modest staff profit share, so I hope you understand we have little choice.

Longer term, I hope this will spur us to increase our homegrown produce. While over the year our veg is 72% British (mostly grown by us), I suspect we have become a little risk averse with our farming as the quality and reliability of produce from likeminded organic farmers in Europe has improved, resulting in us dropping the riskier early and late season crop sowings. We could also put up more polytunnels to shift a few of our acres climatically to the south of France.

Probably the biggest single thing we can do though is to get you excited about seasonal cooking and encourage a departure from the old favourites that most of us resort to, regardless of season. I ate the best dish I have had for a long time in our Field Kitchen restaurant this week; a curly kale Caesar salad created by James, our veg obsessed head chef. It sounds a ridiculous concept but really fantastic, 100% British and a pretty good place to start; you’ll find the recipe on our website.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news – The end of the season

We are approaching the end of our best season yet in the Vendée, thanks to our huge lake; the envy of our parched neighbours. Even so, the heavier clay soils had baked so hard that the plough would skid over the surface and a rotavator shake itself to pieces, so we have had to wait to sow the green manures needed to restore soil nitrogen. After less than an inch of rain in three months, the skies finally opened to soften our parched fields; we can at last sow, but it is now too close to winter for vetches and clovers to establish and fix nitrogen before the spring, so we are sowing quick growing, cold-tolerant rye. This will at least protect the soil from nutrient loss during heavy rains and add organic matter, but next year’s crops may be impacted by the reduced nitrogen in the soil.

Meanwhile, having invested in GPS guidance for our tractors (accurate to within an inch) we are experimenting with crops grown in raised beds so we can create permanent wheel tracks for the tractors. This should reduce the need to plough land after each crop is harvested, so veg roots are never challenged by tractor-compacted soil. The theory is that raised beds will also be better drained through winter and will warm swiftly in spring. Better crops, less diesel, healthier soil and happy earthworms; it all sounds too good to be true and probably is; or just maybe intelligent use of technology will mean real progress.

I arrived back in Devon ahead of the lettuces that had been cut in France only to find the whole lorry rejected by our quality control team. I am, for now, ultimately the boss and could have over-ruled them but after much agonising I had to concede they were right; our pickers had done their best to trim off the mildew so that fewer than 10% had any of the tell-tale white spores on their outer leaves, but in the brief road transit this had risen to 25%. We know from bitter experience that by the time they got to you it would be 50% and by the time you reached into your fridge to make a salad the outer two or three leaves would be turning brown. If only I could persuade you all to love the bitter flavours of the more hardy radicchio and chicory; they love the autumn, whereas lettuces love the spring and summer only.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Frost & Dogma

Last week saw our first two light frosts; it is remarkable how consistently they arrive in the second week of October, normally followed by a mild spell that, in Devon, can last until Christmas. Our late courgettes, planted on a gentle southerly slope, survived as the frost drained and settled in the valley below. It has been a perfect autumn so far with plenty of dry, bright weather for harvesting roots, sowing green manures and preparing the farm for winter. Meanwhile, the polytunnels have been replanted with rocket, mustards, salanova lettuce, land cress, dandelion greens, claytonia, chards and beets which will be harvested as young leaves for your winter salad bags. They are mostly cut by hand which allows us to take up to four harvests from the most vigorous.

The high capital investment of polytunnels normally dictates that they are cropped intensively with no break for green manures; a recipe for trouble according to most organic theorists. Instead we maintain soil fertility and structure with composts and well-rotted manures, plus an occasional top up with chicken muck for more nitrogen, while we control most pests with introduced natural predators. This could be regarded as a compromise in organic principles but I’m pretty sure that our tunnels produce food with very low environmental impact, because they crop so heavily and reliably, because we never use heat, and because they are growing crops which would otherwise be imported. After 25 years I can say with some confidence that the system works; in organic farming, as in most things, observation, learning and evidence is normally a better guide than dogma. The tunnels also let us offer continuity of employment through the winter and give our staff a break from the hardship of the fields. We love them. Were it not for the visual impact and concern for our neighbours, we would unquestionably put up more.

Guy Watson