Guy’s Newsletter: the economics of ecological mimicry

Last week I spent a contemplative afternoon picking crab apples. The trees, along with medlars, damsons, apples, blackberries and hazelnuts, were planted ten years ago as part of a hedge. Some would call it permaculture, but neglect would be more accurate. I sometimes wish I could disengage the calculator in my head, but, failing to reach Zen oneness with my picking, my mind whirred. Weighing my haul I calculated that the combined yield of appropriately designed mature hedge could hit 50 tonnes per hectare, with not a drop of diesel burnt or pesticide used; all while providing a rich, undisturbed habitat for wildlife, shelter for livestock and enhancing the landscape with genuinely sustainable farming.

So why does the huge majority of such fruit get left to the birds or to rot, while most of our country is condemned to a hedge-less monoculture? The problem is that it can’t be harvested profitably to meet the demands of our current food system. About 25% of the hazelnuts have been devoured by a grub, making them unmarketable; the blackberries carry too many bugs for most people’s (and certainly supermarket) taste; yields, size and ripeness are all too varied for conventional retailers, and too few people eat crab apple jelly, let alone make it. Most significantly, it’s hard to mechanise the harvesting of mixed crops, though given the ingenuity of agricultural engineers, it’s not impossible to envisage.

Across the valley, Andy, our farming co-op member is harvesting potatoes; his biggest crops might yield 50t/ha but with the best will in the world he is killing earthworms, damaging soil structure and burning diesel in the process. Almost all modern farming constitutes a brutish, unsustainable treatment of the land to mollycoddle weak annual crops; organic farming, while less flawed, is far from perfect. Truly sustainable agriculture is possible but will not happen while food is valued so little; just 2-3% of GDP goes to produce it. It will never be achieved through market forces; the changes needed are too radical. Ultimately we need to eat more plants that are happy in the UK (rather than those on the edges of their climatic tolerance, like tomatoes and wheat), and fewer animal products. We need to mimic ecology and use modern technology to make it economically feasible. An ambitious plan, but not impossible. We’re willing to experiment should any agricultural engineers be reading this.

Guy Watson

sunflower love

Earlier this year Guy decided to plant thousands of sunflower seeds on his Vendéen French farm, in the hope of making his own organic sunflower oil. A few months later and the farm became a spectacle with 2 hectares of glowing yellow fields. Whilst watching the wildlife thrive off the sunflowers, Guy decided he wanted to give them away in the boxes, to feed British birds!

Here you can see a selection of the fantastic photos we’ve had sent in. We’re thrilled with the response and although it seems some people have struggled with pesky squirrels and seagulls, we are delighted that so many animals (including hamsters and chickens!) have enjoyed Guy’s gift.

We also donated sunflowers to Paignton Zoo, Shaldon Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and the Monkey Sanctuary in Looe. Zoo keepers say it’s a great enrichment activity for the animals as it challenges them with their food and they have to focus on picking out the seeds. Keep your eyes peeled for cheeky monkey photos.

click on the thumbnail to see a bigger image

Guy’s Newsletter: summer rain & sleepy potatoes

The August rains which ruined many a holiday have got our winter cabbages, leeks, kales, romanesco and calabrese broccoli off to a good start. The prospects for the later winter crops look even better as the slow drop in temperature prepares them for the first frost that typically arrives in early October. Meanwhile, when weather conditions allow, our farming co-op are busy harvesting main crop potatoes and getting them into store. The plants have been defoliated, either naturally through blight attacking the leaves, or through mowing the tops off followed by burning to prevent blight hitting; now we wait three weeks for the tubers to set a firm skin and for any blight spores on the surface to die before harvesting into one ton wooden bins. Few things smell worse than a potato store melting to slime with blight, so it is worth being patient. Initially the store is ventilated with ambient air to dry the tubers and allow any skin damage caused by the harvesting machinery to heal. After two or three weeks the fridges are switched on to bring the temperature down to 3.5°C over a month or so, and thus put the tubers to sleep. Valor, the sleepiest variety, will happily slumber on until next May or even June.

Those August rains were a mixed blessing; good for recently planted hardy winter crops needing to get established, less good for tender salads. Our spinach succumbed first to mildew brought on by the damp and evolution (new mildew strains have overcome the resistance bred into existing varieties), and then to nitrogen deficiency resulting from soluble nutrients being carried down through the soil profile by the rain; spinach is too shallow rooted and quick maturing to reach them. Later sowings are now recovering to some extent but you may have noticed your box greens tending more towards kale and cabbage as we look for substitutes for failing spinach. We are also struggling with a flush of the small leaved, succulent chickweed; it is often a problem in the autumn, establishing an interwoven mat which smothers out all but the most vigorous competition. Sorting the weeds from the crop is slowing the picking of salad leaves and spinach, yet chickweed is much prized in some parts of the world so I hope you will not be too indignant if a few harmless leaves make it through to your bags.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: time to start squirrelling

As temperatures and light levels drop, we are approaching the end of our polytunnel crops; super-tender basil was the first to go, cucumbers will soon follow and the tomatoes are now ripening so slowly that they will make way for crops of winter salads in early October. On our farm in France, with better light, the pepper and chillies may soldier on to the end of October if there are no early frosts, but ripening is now painfully slow.

Heating would keep crops going into November, but about ten years ago we took the decision not to sell any produce from heated glasshouses; an environmental study we carried out with Exeter University showed it was about ten times more efficient (in terms of CO₂ emissions) to import out-of-season produce from Spain by truck and ferry (not by air freight). As light levels drop off, the flavour of UK tomatoes from early October onwards is invariably disappointing anyway.

With winter approaching, we are hoping some of you will feel a squirrel-like urge to line your shelves with preserves ready for the dark, hungry months ahead, or perhaps to give to distant aunts for Christmas. It just so happens that, as is always the case in autumn, we have a few seasonal gluts that would go very well in those jars, so if you fancy a project, these are a few of my favourites:

Green tomato chutney: as we clear the tomatoes there is inevitable lots of green fruit, compounded this year by a grey August and cool September which slowed ripening. For the idle we will make a good supply of this chutney ourselves, or, for the industrious, you can order bags of green tomatoes, with full chutney-making instructions, from us in the next few weeks.

Chillies for drying: we have a good crop of Joe’s Long; a thin walled, moderately hot chilli which dries and stores well. Use a needle and thread to make your own colourful and decorative ‘ristra’ and hang in a dry, airy place until needed (again, full instructions are included). Once dry they will keep for a year or more. Look out for them in the next few weeks.

Chilli oil: use our slightly hotter, more fleshy chillies like serenade or jalapeno. There are plenty of recipes online.

Guy Watson

Here comes the sun(flowers)


Guy’s grown a huge crop of organic sunflowers on our farm in France; we’ve around 100,000 glorious heads and the crop has been thronging with bumblebees. No nasty chemicals here! There’s more wildlife benefits to come closer to home too…. Guy’s decided to give them away in most veg boxes, once the flowers have dried a little.

Here’s what he has to say about it:

Watching the Vendéen bird population feasting on my bowing sunflower heads and realising it was barely worth harvesting our measly two hectares for oil, I had the idea that you might like to use them as bird feeders. If you don’t have a garden or balcony please pass the sunflower on to someone else.


How to hang your sunflower:
1. Use a pencil or biro to make a hole about 3cm from the rim
2. Thread a piece of string through
3. Hang it up with the seeds facing the side, so birds can access them easily, and high enough so cats can’t catch feeding birds
4. It may take a few days for English birds (unaccustomed to sunflowers) to catch on, but they will

Some may have a few seeds missing, as birds are already feasting on them in the field.

Finches, house sparrows and willow tits are partial. If you manage to get any photos of feasting birds, we would love to see them. Please share at and

Guy’s Newsletter: FE & food: an employer’s plea

Finding chefs, butchers and growers is the bane of most food businesses. Despite years of celebrity TV cooks and gardeners and all the blogs and newspaper columns devoted to food, there is a dearth of good practitioners in the nation’s fields and commercial kitchens. It’s true that many of the skills needed can be acquired on the job, but there’s always a place for classroom study to give perspective and depth, and add status and thus pride in work. How can we expect a teenager entering a profession (farming and cooking are professions, just as much as law, medicine and media) to value what they do if we won’t invest even modest sums in their training? Employers could certainly do more, (Riverford is no exception), but there is a crisis of funding unfolding in our Further Education (FE) colleges which threatens to undermine many professions.

FE colleges educate more 16 to 19 year olds taking A-levels than school sixth forms, yet, bizarrely, are excluded from the funding ‘ring fence’ protecting education; it could only happen in the class-ridden UK. Nowhere else in Europe is there such a blinkered view of what constitutes education, or are such teaching institutions so marginalised. One senior civil servant is reputed to have suggested FE could be cut “without anyone noticing”, while Boris Johnson confused FE colleges with secondary moderns in one of his speeches; such is the Westminster bubble that it appears to barely register the existence of FE. As a result, FE colleges have been an easy target, suffering funding cuts of around 35% since 2009, with a further 24% cut due in 2015/16. Imagine the outcry if schools were cut like that. Meanwhile the resulting skills shortage holds back economic growth, and it’s only going to get worse.

We are all born with different talents, which is just as well because the paths through life are as broad, varied and constantly changing as the needs of our economy and society. To restrict education funding and therefore career options in this way is as shortsighted as it is inefficient; ask almost any employer. It’s not just what’s on your plate that might suffer.

Guy Watson

PS. In another misguided narrowing of opportunities, all A-level food topics are to be axed. Visit to sign the petition.

References and further reading:

“The Association of Colleges warns that 190,000 adult education places will be lost next year as funding is slashed by 24%. Since 2010, the adult skills budget, which funds non-academic (university-based) education and training for those 19 or over, has been cut by a staggering 40%.”

“Continued cuts to the adult skills budget risk wiping out adult education and training in England within five years, the Association of Colleges (AoC) has warned after research showed 190,000 course places could be lost in 2015/16 alone.

The AoC has published research based on data from its 336 member colleges which points to a bleak future for the FE sector, which has faced adult skills budget cuts of around 35 per cent since 2009 and is now gearing up to deal with the consequences of a further 24 per cent cut in 2015/16.
According to the AoC, adult education and training provision could disappear completely by 2020 if cuts continue at the same rate as they have in recent years…..”

Skills shortage articles

Guy’s Newsletter: trust & honour among farmers

I love September; for both its abundance in the fields and the resultant possibilities in the kitchen. More selfishly, I relish the calm that returns to south Devon and, along with many of my surfing staff, look forward to the first of the autumn swells arriving on uncrowded beaches while the water is still warm. With the planting finished, we now settle into the regular rhythm of harvesting both fresh veg for the boxes and filling the stores with roots for the winter.

Any fine days feel like a bonus stolen in the face of autumn and it has started well; a few bright and sunny (if cool) days have allowed us to get on top of the weeding, make a start on the main crop potato harvest and to ensile the lupins, triticale, chicory and clover that will keep the family cows fed through winter.

To add to the abundance from our own fields, we are taking the plunge and adding a range of 100% organic store cupboard staples (pasta, rice, lentils, tinned tomatoes, beans etc.) to our fresh vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy offerings. Many of you have suggested this repeatedly over the years; it makes logistical, environmental and economic sense to be delivering as much as we sensibly can and reducing the need for other shopping trips, but I have dragged my feet. To date, if we or our farming co-op didn’t grow it we almost always knew the person who did; our trading relationships have been built up over years of walking their fields (normally followed by food and a few drinks), and most importantly the trust that comes from repeatedly honouring verbal deals and helping each other out when things go wrong. This becomes much more difficult with chickpeas and couscous which tend to come from further afield and are traded in a way that is hard to circumvent. Our solution is to work with Bristol based Essential Trading whom we know, like and trust. They are a well-run workers’ co-operative, trading for 44 years and committed to similar environmental and social goals to Riverford. Their pasta for one comes from a farming co-op in Italy (La Terra e il Cielo) that a few of our staff are visiting later this month, so keep an eye out for a video on our Facebook page. My initial reluctance has now been out voted by good logic, so here’s to more good food.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: freaks; where would we be without them?

Three weeks of gloom and relentless rain have caused a few problems with weeding and harvesting, but have done little to dampen our spirits here on the farm; with most of the planting finished, 2015 still looks like being a very good year. A bright September would allow us to get on top of the weeds, harvest in good conditions and ripen the tomatoes and squash, but sunny or not it will be the Soil Association’s Organic September. With organic sales rising again, my wife Geetie and I have been asked to give a talk in London as ‘organic pioneers’. Musing on this, I realise that there were plenty who came before us.

When I converted three acres of my parent’s farm 30 years ago and planted my first organic vegetables, I was clueless; I spent every spare moment visiting the real organic pioneers, some of whom had been quietly growing, experimenting and philosophising, largely in isolation, since the sixties. One used only horsepower and had taken the engine out of his only tractor to pull it more easily with a team of horses; one produced organic grain and beef very successfully for 20 years without ever charging a premium or even saying it was organic, explaining to me that, “there are no pockets in a shroud, Guy”; another devoted much of his life to developing a revolutionary cultivator and seed drill called the sod seeder; “It will make herbicides and the plough redundant,” he confidently predicted, but sadly it never really worked; another kept very happy pigs in the woods and would have moved in with them if his wife had allowed it. I was always welcomed, taken in, shown around, advised, fed and given a bed; there was never fear of shared knowledge leading to competition as no-one was in it for the money anyway; they just wanted to change the world. Most were pretty nuts but amid the madness were gems of creativity, genius and profound sanity.

Those pioneers shared an uncompromising, obsessive, anarchic view of the world and a deep commitment to finding a better way of farming; they were the freaks on the fringe whose difficult questions start movements. Some have refined their skills to become successful commercial farmers, some are consultants, counsellors or tai-chi teachers, a few have inevitably made use of the shroud; I doubt they had much to put in the pockets, but without their questions and generosity of spirit, Riverford would not exist to celebrate Organic September.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: perfect patios & tainted bread

As combine harvesters rumble across Britain through fields of rape, then barley, then wheat over the coming weeks, around a third of these crops will have been treated with the herbicide glyphosate to speed harvest and aid weed control. It’s no surprise that, according to Defra, this chemical is found in 30% of UK bread. When I grew my first field of veg back in the 1980s and was still arguing with myself about whether to go organic, I spent a lot of time pulling out docks, couch grass and creeping buttercup; they would regenerate from the smallest piece of root and it seemed a never-ending battle. The traditional method of weed control was deep cultivation and surface dragging to dry them out; time and energy consuming, impossible once a crop was planted, and damaging to the soil.

In 1970 Monsanto patented glyphosate, the active ingredient of Roundup. It is absorbed through the leaves to every part of a growing plant, so it kills even the roots. At university I was taught it had virtually zero mammalian toxicity and was environmentally benign, but this was too good to be true; the World Health Organisation has recently classified glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen”.

Glyphosate has grown to be the world’s favourite herbicide for farmers and gardeners alike, with sales growing 400% in the last 20 years alone. The patent lapsed in 2000 but by then Monsanto had moved onto GM crops, most of which were modified to withstand glyphosate, which is sold in combination with the seed. At Riverford we learned to control most weeds through crop rotation but
I have always found the argument that glyphosate reduces soil cultivation and therefore protects soil flora and fauna, and reduces erosion and fuel use, at least potentially persuasive. Set these benefits against its implication as a carcinogen, endocrine disrupter and cause of birth defects, and it rather loses its edge.

Monsanto and the agrochemical lobby is furious and are accusing the WHO of being selective in the choice of studies it has based its conclusions on; a bit rich considering the agrochemical industry’s history in selective use of data. Given the money involved this will be a long and dirty fight reminiscent of the battle the tobacco industry put up, but my bet is that glyphosate will be banned within ten years. Tell your friends and family, they will probably thank you for it.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: the three rules of flavour

A few years ago we scientifically tested every willing Riverford staff member for the sensitivity of their palate. The best formed a taste panel to assess the flavour of everything we grew; a good idea but, like so much science, it failed to deal with subjectivity and was excessively reductionist, tending to favour ubiquitous sweetness over anything challenging or complex. If we followed the panel’s guidance we would never have sold a radicchio, endive or cardoon. More recently we’ve put together a group of in-house chefs and food enthusiasts to assess our carrots, cheese, wine and olive oil. Last week we sat down to taste the tomatoes from our tunnels; as always, our cherry tomato Sakura won, along with some new trial orange and yellow baby plum tomatoes.

For all fruit and veg, great flavour comes from a combination of three things:

Variety: The more you intensively select for yield or early maturity, the more you lose less easily quantified traits like complex flavours and nutritional value. Over 30 years I have seen many of the varieties we selected for flavour dropped from breeders’ lists. Consolidation in the seed trade just adds to this; after a global buying spree Monsanto now owns a staggering 23% of the global seed trade and is negotiating to buy Syngenta who own a further 9%.

Growing conditions: Up to a point, slow, steady growth from a healthy, well balanced soil creates the best flavour. Excessive water and soluble nitrogen gives the luxuriant growth and high yields which look great in the field but disappoint in the kitchen. Too much stress can result in excessive bitterness, toughness and ‘off’ flavours, particularly in the brassica family, though in carrots and some herbs drought can result in incredible flavour, so it is hard to be dogmatic.

Harvest freshness and post harvest storage: Ideally fruit should be harvested fully ripe and never see a cold room, while green veg should be picked with the dew on them and eaten as soon as possible. Refrigeration can greatly extend life with variable impact on flavour; fine for salads, not great for courgettes.

Subjectivity can come close to snobbery and exclusivity but, without some trust in personal sensitivities, life would be very dull; a bit like supermarket veg.

Guy Watson