Guy’s news – Family, fuzz & metamorphosis

30 years ago, I returned to my parents’ farm for Christmas as a disillusioned management consultant. I never planned to stay but, from the cocoon of family, the fuzz of Christmas and metamorphosis of New Year I emerged as a suit-free vegetable grower. I don’t recall how or why; it was a decision born in the heart, the gut, or maybe even the stars.

The following three decades of pursuing my passion with only minor compromise feels like a life of indulgence. Farming, and vegetables in particular, can be a soul-crushing master on a bad day but the rewards of doing something so tangible, so close to nature and with such daily autonomy have easily compensated. On a good day an extraordinary peace can descend,something I suspect is unknown to management consultants. It was the best decision I ever made.

A second good decision came with starting the box scheme 25 years ago. Things could, and almost certainly would, have gone so wrong if we’d stuck with selling to the supermarkets. There is not much autonomy to be found in being at the metaphorical end of a buyer’s boots, or indulging their tantrums. Without you, our loyal and sometimes forgiving customers, Riverford would have slipped below the sod long ago.

We planned to give you all some popcorn grown on our farm in France for Christmas, but a damp autumn and a plague of corn borers have determined otherwise, so I hope mere words are an acceptable substitution.

Wishing you merry feasting and a good metamorphosis, should you be seeking one.

Guy Singh-Watson

Palm-oil free mince pies – and everything else!


We’re very pleased to be able to say that from the start of 2017, Riverford has been 100% palm-oil free. For the most part, this was straightforward to achieve: we added ‘no palm oil’ to the criteria any new products must meet, and that was that. We also needed to replace palm oil in a couple of our existing products. Luckily, this was only our Christmas puddings and mince pies, so we had all year to experiment and get the new recipes absolutely right!

Palm oil is the most used vegetable oil in the world. As well as being cheap to produce in large quantities, it has a very long shelf-life, and a high melting point, remaining semi-solid at room temperature (much like butter). This means it can be used in lots of different ways: frying at high temperatures, adding to baked goods, creating margarine, and even in cosmetic products like lipstick and soap.

For all its advantages in the kitchen, there are serious environmental concerns about the production of palm oil and the vast deforestation that has often been perpetrated to make way for plantations. The palm oil industry has been making efforts to become more sustainable in recent years, most notably with the establishment of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and its certification scheme in 2004. However, we still don’t feel that using any palm oil sits comfortably with our values.

So, we began playing with our Christmas pudding and mince pie recipes. In the puds, we replaced palm oil with organic vegetable oil. The result was much the same, with no real noticeable difference in the light, fruity texture (except a weight off our minds).

In the mince pies, we’ve substituted the palm oil with organic British butter. We had to fiddle about with the recipe a bit to get the texture spot on. While we were at it, we also made the pastry cases deeper, so we could spoon in even more festive filling. We’re really pleased with the result: rich, buttery pies, with a generous filling of plump vine fruit, citrus peel, almonds and a slosh of brandy.

From now on, you can rest assured that every Riverford product is not just 100% organic, but also totally palm-oil free. It may be the easy option, but we know we’re better off without it – why not try our new recipe mince pies and see for yourself!

References
https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/ng-interactive/2014/nov/10/palm-oil-rainforest-cupboard-interactive
http://www.saynotopalmoil.com/Whats_the_issue
https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/dec/17/palm-oil-sustainability-developing-countries

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

growing sprouts for Christmas

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.

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 neighbour here 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-cabbageAndy 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.

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 this year’s quality is exceptional. Their wonderfully sweet, which is always intensified after the first frost which converts some of their starch to sugar.

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.

Guy’s news: A perfect descent & a modest rise

It has been a near perfect descent into winter, with steadily dropping temperatures allowing cabbages, kales, leeks, cauliflowers and salads in the tunnels to adapt and harden themselves for the trials ahead. We’re now left with only the hardcore pickers for the dark months; it takes a very particular mental and physical fitness to see through a winter out in the fields. With plenty of dry
weather, there has been a welcome absence of mud so far; it is the heavy, sticky, all-pervading accumulations on hands and boots which drag down the mood and the pace in the field more than the cold or even the rain.

November, normally the first dull, grey and muddy month of winter, was uncharacteristically kind; bright, dry and even warm for the most part, in Devon at least. The last potatoes are safely in the barn, along with most carrots and beets, and the broad beans and garlic have been planted in good conditions. On the last dry day we even managed to finish lining our irrigation reservoir with clay; it is now filling ready for next summer.

Sadly, such favourable weather and a good growing year overall has not been enough to make up for less favourable changes beyond our fields and outside our control. The pound has plunged 20% against the euro since the summer of 2016, when we planned your current box contents and agreed the prices with our Spanish, French and Italian suppliers. We have weathered the storm and held our prices for over a year but the sums are no longer adding up and, with great reluctance, we must put up our prices. Boxes will rise in the new year by an average of 66p or 4%, with small rises on most of our non-box range in the new year. The UK- only box will remain the same price at £13.95.

Food inflation is currently running at 4.1%; this rise will be 14 months since our last, making our annual inflation rate 3.4%. I hope this will be deemed fair by most of you. Our boxes are still substantially cheaper than supermarkets and our box competition, and you get more in your box: the veg tastes better and, where we don’t grow it ourselves, we look after the farmers who do in a way which is unprecedented in our industry.

Guy Singh-Watson

Cream for Christmas… with a little help from our friends

This Christmas, customers whose orders are delivered from Wash Farm in Devon might notice something a little different about their organic cream. The label will say Acorn Dairy instead of Riverford Dairy – and the tub will contain a little extra! Our usual cream will be back after Christmas. So why the temporary change?

You may have seen some slightly teasing articles in the media about France suffering a butter shortage and facing the terrible prospect of life without croissants (as the Guardian put it, ‘‘Sacré buerre’!). They’re not the only country whose dairy industry is going through a difficult time; cream (and so butter) is thin on the ground in the UK too. Supply has been just enough for this shortage not to be visible for most of the year… but as demand soars over the festive season, some dairies may hit the bottom of the churn.

In 2014/15, there was a dairy surplus. An excellent grass harvest all over the world meant that cows were flourishing, and the white stuff was flowing freely – driving prices down. At the same time, demand plummeted. This was thanks to an astonishingly complex web of international factors; everything from a dip in oil prices hitting Middle Eastern incomes, to Russia’s 2014 ban on European dairy imports and a downturn in the economies of Europe and China (the world’s biggest dairy importer), combined to leave dairy farmers with too much milk and no one to sell it to.

Naturally, dairy farmers put the brakes on. Production was cut down by 5-10%; many even quit the dairy industry during this very tough time. But now, just a short while later, the situation has reversed: demand for milk solids is heading sharply up again.

At home, possible health concerns about alternatives like margarine have brought once-demonised butter back into popularity, hailed as the more natural, less processed option. Globally, poor grass harvests in key dairy-producing countries like Australia and New Zealand, and the pound falling against the euro, have also made British cream more attractive to international buyers.

Unfortunately, the supply can’t just be turned back on overnight; it took a while to wind down, and will take a while to wind back up again. Many dairy farmers are now struggling to cope with excessive demand.

The Riverford Dairy has had enough to cover our customers’ needs throughout the year, but at Christmas, this demand rockets skywards. Splashed onto puddings and pies, swirled into bread sauce, whipped and spread thickly inside yule logs… We get through buckets more of the stuff than usual, and The Riverford Dairy won’t quite be able to cover it.

Luckily, our friends at Acorn Dairy have been able to step in and give us a hand! Acorn Dairy is an award-winning organic dairy in Darlington, owned and run by the Tweddle family since 1928. They supply delicious organic cream and more for our customers in the North and East of the country all year round. For Christmas week, they’ll kindly be supplying enough for everyone.

The cream is still 100% organic and of outstanding quality. The only differences are the Acorn Dairy packaging, and the size of the tub: you’ll enjoy 284ml instead of 250ml, for the same price!

We hope you enjoy your Acorn Dairy cream over Christmas. Our usual Riverford Dairy cream will be back in the new year.

To order your Acorn Dairy cream for Christmas week, just add Riverford Dairy cream to your basket as usual – Acorn Dairy cream will arrive on the day.

References

https://www.ft.com/content/1b93f92c-5ef8-11e6-bb77-a121aa8abd95
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jan/16/dairy-farmers-milk-prices-economy
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/07/butter-price-all-time-high-dairy-production-curdles

Guy’s news: Compost; evangelism from a new convert

Composting is a near religious experience for many organic growers; a matter of faith rather than reason. Liking plain muck and lacking the required faith, for years I was irritated by the smug assurance of those with an elevated relationship with their organic matter. In retrospect, I suspect my resistance was more irrational than their faith.

So why now, in my 57th year, have I seen the light? Firstly, given the environmental impact of livestock, we need a more sustainable source of fertility than muck. Secondly, I met a man who sent ten tonnes of cooked crab waste, packed with valuable nutrients, to landfill every week at huge cost to him and the environment, then another bloke in the pub looking for a home for thousands of tonnes of wood chip; the perfect high carbon material to mix with the nitrogen-rich crab. Thirdly, our agnostic and practical farm team attest to compost soil and its crop improving properties. Fourthly, I met Milan, a highly practical Bulgarian organic grower and compost expert who, with alchemist wizardry, seems to be able to make compost from almost anything given a thermometer and loader. Milan brewed up a little crab, wood chip and spent sheep wool insulation and tried some of the resulting compost on my cardoons and artichokes; they love it. So, I have seen the errors of my youth and come inside. Milan tells me we have only just started.

It is shocking how much compostable material is wasted at such cost to our environment: food waste, sewage sludge, whey, wood chip, hedge trimmings, seafood waste, abattoir waste. The reasons are: partly the unintended consequences of well-meaning environmental and health legislation; partly the chronic failing of businesses and our market economy to solve complex longterm problems involving bulky, perishable, highly variable and locally specific raw materials; and partly that the alternatives are just too cheap. Time is running out; we cannot afford 100% safety when environmental destruction is 95% certain if we continue on our current path. We just have to find the will and the way to create solutions, even if they cost businesses the flexible luxury of not planning full life cycles, and even if they carry some risk and are occasionally smelly.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Peering out from the cave at robots

Our young and techy IT team are excited about us starting to farm with drones and robots. The possibilities are exciting, but the intricate electrical stuff inside needs a pristine environment that’s free of damp and dust, so our galedriven, mud-encrusted leek pickers are safe for a while. Logistics and delivery are another matter; drones, driverless vehicles and predictive algorithms that know what you are going to order before you do are pushing the boundaries of possibility at an incredible rate. My guess is that there will be unforeseen problems and progress will not be as fast as the spods predict, but even a clod-hopping, cardoon-wielding dinosaur like me cannot deny that it is coming.

With online sales in western Europe alone growing at 15% a year, investors are in a spin, pouring money into tech enabled start-ups, especially food home delivery. The huge majority lose money at an eye-watering rate, often spending several times their sales on marketing and IT in a dash for growth. Most will fail, but the allure for investors is the possibility of finding the next Google, Facebook or Amazon. The underlying assumption is that the demand for choice and convenience is insatiable, and that the clicking customer is always right, however whimsical and fleeting their desires or planet-draining it is to fulfil them. As an online food retailer we have found ourselves at the centre of a hurricane; it can be hard to keep your feet on the ground and one might easily forget about the potatoes. All that technology, choice and eager investment cash working itself into a furious maelstrom in search of growth makes me want to retreat into a cave with a bone. After 30 years, I remain doggedly resistant to the mantra that the customer is always right; there are just too many things for them to be right about, and no-one can hold that much information.

I love our tech team’s tigerish enthusiasm – without them we would be getting hungry in a cave – but I particularly like that they walk. I find them all over the farm, talking earnestly about I have no idea what. I can’t help thinking their proximity to the potatoes gives us a better chance of using technology than being used by it. If they do end up building a robot to pull up leeks, they will just have to retrain our harvesters.

Guy Singh-Watson

A fine festive cheeseboard sorted

We’ve scoured the country for the absolute best handcrafted organic cheeses, sampling everything from classic Somerset cheddars to quirky sheep’s cheese with wild seaweed from the Outer Hebrides. Trialling, testing, tasting… it’s a hard job, but someone’s got to do it.

The result is a Christmas cheese range that we’re really proud of. Here are a few of our favourites, and some tips for enjoying them – although really, you can’t go wrong with buttery oatcakes and a good glass of red!

High Weald Dairy, Brighton Blue

High Weald Dairy is run by Guy, Mark and Sarah Hardy on their family dairy farm in Horsted Keynes, West Sussex. They craft all sorts of innovative creations in their dairy, which used to be the farm’s grain store – including the wonderfully mellow Brighton Blue. Spot on for anyone who likes blue but finds Stilton a little strong, this creamy-crumbly cheese has a soft, rich flavour and piquant aroma. Last week, it won a Super Gold at the World Cheese Awards 2017, placing it among the world’s 66 best cheeses!

For a cheerful winter salad, try using Brighton Blue in our recipe for grilled leek & blue cheese salad with apples, celery and hazelnuts. Or, for a veg-lovers’ twist on festive finger food, try our parsnip blinis with blue cheese, walnuts and honey.

Caws Cenarth, Caerffilli

The Adams family know all there is to know about cheese: they’ve been making it at Glyneithinog Farm, Cardigan for seven generations, and are the oldest established producer of traditional Welsh farmhouse Caerffili. The Adams at the helm today, Carwyn, still uses the same recipe his great-grandmother used more than 80 years ago. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – this fantastically fresh-tasting, light and lemony cheese won Champion Cheese at the Royal Welsh Show for 7 years in a row.

Caws Cenarth, Perl Las Blue

Perl Las, or ‘Blue Pearl’, is the result of a happy accident, when a handful of Cenarth’s mature Caerffili cheeses became naturally blue. Intrigued by the result, Carwyn set out to recapture the flavour, and this unique cheese was born. It’s unlike any other blue cheese: strong but delicate, and roundly creamy, with lovely lingering blue overtones.

Give it a go in our parsnip, apple & chickpea salad with walnuts and blue cheese: the perfect balance of sweet, earthy, salty and sharp.

Caws Cenarth, Golden Cenarth

Winner of the title ‘Supreme Champion’ at the British Cheese Award 2014, Golden Cenarth is one tasty cheese. Semi-soft, with a smooth, creamy texture, this pungent, full-flavoured cheese is washed in cider for a gorgeous amber-hued rind and a distinctive nutty note.

Slather onto Pimhill’s finest oatcakes, or bake until gooey and golden with crusty bread for dipping… heavenly.

Caws Cenarth brie

Not just offering weird and wonderful Welsh creations, Caws Cenarth are also a knockout on the classics. This traditional, creamy French-style brie has a lovely gooey centre and well-rounded mushroomy flavour and aroma that intensifies with age. For the ultimate indulgence, deep fry and serve with cranberry sauce and a crisp green salad.

Cropwell Bishop Stilton

Cropwell Bishop Creamery has been owned and run by the Skailes family in the beautiful Vale of Belvoir, near Nottingham, for three generations. They are a real institution in the British cheese industry; something that was brought home to cousins Ben and Robin Skailes in 2016, when they were crowned overall champion at the British Cheese Awards and realised the trophy had been donated by their own grandfather 70 years previously!

Their outstanding Stilton has no competition for us: the cheese is ripened and left to age to produce a smooth, mellow flavour that contrasts beautifully with the tanginess of the blue veins. For a hearty seasonal treat, try it in our recipes for sprouts, red onion and blue cheese gratin or squash, kale and stilton pies.

British cheese boxes
Can’t choose from all these artisanal organic cheeses? Then let us choose for you! Available in small (five cheeses) or large (seven cheeses), our British cheese boxes are carefully curated to give you the perfect balance of flavours, textures and tastes. An organic cheeseboard, sorted in one fell swoop – or a lovely gift for a foodie friend.

You can browse our full selection of Christmas cheeses and cheese boxes online now.

Guy’s news: Improving farmers’ lives where it counts

18 years ago, after 12 years as an organic grower, I could take no more taunts of, “It’s all very well for the wealthy west, but organic farming will never feed the world”. I had a lurking suspicion they might be right, so I took a sabbatical in sub-Saharan Africa, where good farming is a matter of life and death rather than affluent preference.

I spent my final two weeks staying with Timothy Njakasi in southern Uganda. Timothy had worked at Riverford as part of his training in sustainable agriculture. My heart lifted as he showed me the most inspiring farming I had ever seen; all small scale and always diverse with mixtures of livestock, bananas, coffee, cocoa, trees, vegetables, keyhole gardens and more, all in an intimate mixture that seemed chaotic but was anything but. On the face of it these farms bore more resemblance to the surrounding forest than to any agriculture I had seen; what seemed disordered was actually shaped by levels of ecological knowledge unknown to farmers in the developed world, and yet these smallholdings were many times more productive than neighbouring monocultures. Best of all, the most skilled farmers appeared to be happy, relaxed and prosperous. It was obvious I had more to learn than to teach, so we funded Timothy to turn his farm into the Kasenge Riverford Organic Centre, which has trained thousands in these techniques over the last 15 years.

The difference between the average and the best farming I saw was huge, as was the difference between the most and least effective interventions by charities. Timothy introduced us to Send a Cow, who embraced the same techniques on a larger scale but who remain grounded, patiently persistent and community based in their approach, which is always a hand up rather than a hand out. Most impressively they’re unbelievably effective at addressing the social (largely gender) issues which too often block constructive change; 85% of Send a Cow farmers are women. To date, you’ve helped us raise over £208k for the charity. This winter every £1 donated until 31st December for their Mother and Child appeal will be matched by UK Government. Donate by adding a £1 donation to your order.

Guy Singh-Watson

Watch our organic turkeys pecking in the pasture

It might seem a little early to start thinking about Christmas, but here on the farm, preparations started months ago. All the classic winter veg are growing, our shelves are filling up with festive treats, and the stars of the show, our beautiful organic turkeys, are coming along nicely.

We choose the much-celebrated Bronze breed: a slow-growing traditional breed with an outstanding natural flavour. They are all reared on three small organic farms: Bower Farm near Reading, and Otter Valley and Frenchbeer Farm, both near us in Devon.

Not everyone realises that organic offers the highest standard of animal welfare of any farming system – including free range! We popped by to see Ross Gardener at Otter Valley this week. Watch our video to see his beautiful birds pecking happily in the pasture for yourself…

Because our turkeys come from just three small family farms, there is a very limited supply, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. Make sure to pre-order your organic turkey early for the big day!