Guy’s news: Don’t blame the big man

Three weeks after a gale swept through the Vendée, the staff at our French farm have finally finished disentangling the disheartening remains of crop covers from the hedgerows. Although they were well weighted with bags of sand, the wind took the lot. Some can be re-used but most were shredded beyond repair. By the time we got new covers down, our chilled and buffeted crops had been set back a week. We have lost ten thousand of the more vulnerable cos lettuce and many hours of work. Such is farming; every year there will be a calamity, be it wind, rain, drought or pestilence. The important thing is not to take it as a personal slight from above. Without moving to a lab or a factory to produce our food, risk in farming can only be managed, never banished, however big your tractor or powerful your sprays.

The hedgerow oaks have yet to come into leaf. Not so different from home, yet lettuce harvesting will start here this week, just a few days after planting began in Devon. I still can’t really understand why they grow so well here in France. It is often much warmer by day, but there can be frosts at night into May. The answer lies in the quality of the Vendéen light; lettuces can take a lot of cold so long as they get the light.

After eight years, we are finding our feet here. Partly it is choosing the right crops for the land and the climate, partly investment in the right machinery. But mostly it is down to observation, questioning, and a restless determination to find a better way, leading to incremental improvement in skill, knowledge, and results. A little bit is also getting the arrogance kicked out of me and learning from neighbours. The beds are straighter, higher, and better drained; the crops more even; our staff have become multi-skilled and competent; and my accountant tells me that we made our first profit in 2016. The right plan gives you the chance of success, but it is attention to detail in the field that makes it a reality. That and undying hope. My father spent fifty years driving my mother nuts with his ‘Darling, I really think we are getting there.’ If you stop believing that, the gales have won.

WastED pop-up restaurant – Riverford meets New York

Last year we received a very exciting email asking if we’d like to be involved with a pop-up restaurant at Selfridges. It would be hosted by the illustrious Blue Hill Farm Restaurant, based in New York. Dan Barber, the head chef at Blue Hill, is something of an inspiration to our cooks at Riverford. Their ethos is similar to our own, with a focus on sustainable and local food from producers who respect artisanal techniques. The most exciting bit? The menu would use produce that would normally be considered waste; we’re not talking wonky veg, but by-products of the food industry that are never used.

After a little brainstorming, it was decided that Riverford would provide whole kale trees (the stalks with a few leaves on that are left at the end of the season), cabbage re-growth (leaves that re-appear once the cabbage has been harvested), and very undersized cabbages (ones that are too small to pick).


The pop-up opened its doors on Selfridges’ rooftop terrace on February 24th. Immediate feedback from the chefs told us the kale trees were going down a storm and were a visual sensation. They serve them whole on a spike on a wooden board, alongside scissors to cut the leaves yourself and a creamy, smoky dip.

A couple of us were lucky enough to go along. We entered through a dark corridor with black and white food and farming videos playing, and Jonny Cash’s Walk the Line on the playlist. Immediately, it was clear that the waste theme went further than just the food: there were lampshades made from dried mushrooms, tables from compressed artichoke fibres, and menus on recycled paper.

Each dish was presented to us with a story: how it’s made and where the produce comes from. Everything we ate and drank was innovative, wonderfully delicious and so inspiring. In a world where we waste a huge amount and many go without, projects like this are a fantastic way to fuel the food waste movement and keep the conversation alive.

To find out more, visited the WastED London website.

Guy’s news: Pesticides; redressing the balance

As a young man spraying crops, I frequently suffered headaches and nausea, while my brother was hospitalised with Paraquat poisoning. My decision to farm organically was initially driven simply by a desire not to handle those chemicals. Despite assurances of safety by manufacturers and regulators, most of the pesticides we used in the ‘70s and ‘80s have since been banned as evidence of damage to the environment or human health accumulated; a total of 147 previously “safe” chemicals. Every time we were told the replacements were safer, but history suggests there is no safe pesticide; as their power comes from disrupting fundamental life processes, there are only degrees of risk.

Organic farming isn’t perfect; a reasonable criticism is that without herbicides to control weeds, we end up overcultivating the soil. 30 years ago, as I planted my first organic crops and struggled to control docks I longed for glyphosate, the systemic herbicide that kills every bit of the plant, including the roots. We were told it had very low mammalian and environmental toxicity but over 40 years, as we have used an estimated ten million tonnes globally, evidence accumulated until it was classed a ‘probable carcinogen’ by the WHO in 2015.

Alongside this and similar U-turns, I have been spurred to write by frustration at the outrageous distortion of evidence put forward by the unholy alliance of the NFU and pesticide manufacturers. Initially it was suggested that restricting the use of bee-threatening neonicotinoids was unnecessary and would lead to major yield declines in wheat and oilseed rape; average yields actually rose in the UK in the years following the 2013 ban. More recently their claims that banning glyphosate will lead to a reduction in lapwing and skylark nests, and that 49% more farm labour would be required per hectare, are just too much to take. I sometimes get frustrated with the organic/environmental lobby selecting evidence to support their beliefs, but the NFU have surpassed all with their ludicrous claims. My blood is up and over the year we will be doing our best to redress the balance (hopefully in a calm and well-referenced way), starting with glyphosate, systemic pesticides and the ‘cocktail effect’. I think it’s long overdue and Big Ag won’t like it, but they’ve been shouting too loud for too long.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Wild garlic, pigeon poo & aficionados

I had my first wild garlic omelette last week, and will be eating it tossed through pasta, in risottos, sandwiches and soups, and on pizzas until my family begs for relief. Every spring in old deciduous woods, the bulbs and seeds of ramsons (the local name for wild garlic) awake and push their shoots up through last year’s leaf litter with the vigour typical of those with a purpose and little time. They have about six weeks to develop leaves and photosynthesise enough energy to allow them to create a slightly larger bulb for next year, or to flower and set seed. As the leaves open in the canopy above, stealing their light, the ramsons
senesce, leaving only their seeds and bulbs to renew the cycle next year.

Foraging satisfies primeval urges, but is generally too slow to make a living. Wild garlic is an exception; due to its short season and incredible vigour, it often covers the forest floor in a thick uniform mat, making picking relatively fast. The only problems are that garlic shares its shady ecological niche with lords-and-ladies (Arum italicum and maculatum) and dog’s mercury (Murcurialis perennis), both poisonous, plus good areas are sometimes rendered unpickable by pigeon poo, and the best woods are often steep and inaccessible.

Ramsons are not only delicious, but highly sustainable; they can yield as much as a field of spinach without the energy-consuming and habitat-destroying plough, whilst the same area simultaneously produces wood, nuts, and valuable wildlife habitat. For many years my children, nephews and their friends have spent the Easter holidays foraging for wild garlic in our woods; rest assured, they are expert at spotting and avoiding those fellow but toxic woodland plants. Later in the season we will gather, dry and thresh the ripe seeds before spreading them in some of the young woodlands planted by my brother. It will probably take at least five years, but my hope is that the wild garlic will establish itself before its toxic competitors, so that one day you will all be eating wild garlic omelettes. In the meantime, there is occasionally enough to put in some of the veg boxes at the peak of the season in April, but mostly it will be available for aficionados to order as an extra on your order.

Guy Watson

Penny’s gardening blog: how to make compost

As I get older, my body complains sometimes about the physical exertion I put it through, so I’m becoming a bit of a fan of the no-dig approach to growing. Charles Dowding is the guru of this method. Using his book, I’m gradually making more no-dig beds in the Field Kitchen garden at Riverford. Basically, it’s less work, and much better for the soil structure, but you do need lots and lots of compost to use as a mulch and conditioner.

For years I’ve simply chucked all the debris from cutting back and weeding against a wall, under a tree, in a rather redundant area of my garden. I’ve also lobbed the kitchen waste and ashes from my fire in that direction, plus a weekly or fortnightly layer of lawn clippings. It’s been a hazardous affair really! I need to up the ante on the compost-making front, and so should we all if we want to be green and put our own waste to good use.

Alys Fowler, the garden writer for the Guardian, likens making compost to baking a cake. I like this analogy and find it a useful visual, so I’m going to borrow it here. By following this basic recipe, you should be able to make a really nice, crumbly, rich smelling, loose textured compost within 6 months.

Ingredients

  • One third GREEN, nitrogen-rich material, such as weeds, lawn clippings, flowers, green stems, kitchen waste, tea bags, coffee grounds, egg shells.
  • Two thirds BROWN, carbon-rich material, such as twigs, branches, brown stems, leaves, roots, straw, ashes, paper, sawdust, wood chippings.
  • AIR is important to help with decomposition. Start your heap off with a load of broken branches and stems to encourage air up from the bottom. You should also turn your heap every few weeks to get some more air in there; it will be hotter in the middle, so move the outside in.
  • WATER. You may need to give it a watering every now and then, especially if your heap is under a tree. Don’t let it dry out.

Do not add

  • … any cooked foods, meat, or fish. This will encourage rats.
  • … diseased waste such as tomato plants that have suffered from blight and the like; you’ll risk spreading it around your garden.
  • … weeds that have gone to seed, if you can avoid it. You may be giving yourself a lot of extra work when they germinate around your garden after spreading it over your beds.

Method

  • Add the different ingredients to your heap in alternating layers not more than about six inches deep.
  • Water occasionally.
  • Cover with an old piece of carpet or some black plastic to encourage the build-up of heat.
  • Turn the heap every few weeks.
  • After about six months, maybe sooner, it should look like a brown crumbly compost and smell good and earthy. If so, it is ready to use.

Tips
Even the hottest heap may not kill nightmare weeds such as ground elder, bindweed or horse tail. Do not add perennial weeds to the heap; instead, keep them and their roots to one side and drown in a bucket of water. Within a few weeks, this will have turned into a sludgy soup. Pour this liquid on your heap and run! It may be a bit pongy but think silage, hold your nose, and all will be well.

Be sure to break up twiggy stems and branches and tough veg waste to help even decomposition.

Result
Compost is a fantastic soil conditioner that helps to improve its structure, drainage, and moisture retention. It’s full of micro-organisms that will release nutrients when the soil warms up in spring, encouraging healthy growth from your plants. Hopefully there should be a fair few worms in there too.

There’s nothing quite like spreading this nutritious crumble over your beds and amongst your plants to make you feel truly virtuous, like Demeter or Gaia.

Penny Hemming

Guy’s news: Factories, farming & feedlots

After three months spent eating five tonnes of silage (pickled grass) each, the cows were turned out to pasture last week, putting a spring and the occasional buck into the step of even the most aged. Cows are invariably healthier and happier outside, eating the fresh grass their giant rumen (a kind of onboard anaerobic digester) evolved to make digestible. Taking them to the food, where
they can return the fertility via urine and faeces, makes more sense than burning fuel hauling the food to them and then the muck back out again.

However, energy is cheap and around the world beef and dairy cows are being moved from pasture to confined ‘feedlots’ at an alarming rate (though the practice is forbidden in organic farming). The commercial drivers are the benefits of scale, labour-saving and the predictability that comes with removing the influence of seasons and weather, but all at a cost. The system produces less
healthy meat and dairy (now proven to have the wrong balance of fats) and the increased environmental risks that arise when you move away from traditional, self-reliant farm systems to commercially driven agribusiness, propped up by globally traded grain and fertilisers. Feeding ruminants grain and soya is environmental insanity; if feedlot farming bore all the externalised costs (currently paid for by the rest of us), they would be out of business.

But dogmatism either way seldom makes for good farming. Compromise, ducking and diving and managing risk works better; something family farms are much better at than big business. A few days after turnout we had a downpour and the cows had to come in again as wet pasture is quickly damaged by 1200 heavy hooves. Factory managers love standard operating procedures (SOPs); once you have standardised you can de-skill, up-scale, mechanise, drive out cost and offer the standard product a supermarket wants. But an SOP is no use if it leaves you driving cows through a quagmire in the rain. Attempts to standardise farming have generally not been successful due to its inherent interaction with an unstandardised nature. By excluding nature, feedlots can allow this profit-making standardisation and scale; I suspect we will all be the poorer for it, especially the cows.

10-a-day? No problem!

Recent scientific research suggests we should be eating 10 portions of fruit and vegetables a day to help live a longer life. To many people that may sound like a lot, but we don’t think so.

With 30 years’ experience growing organically, we really know our veg. We choose crops for flavour, rather than cosmetic perfection or high yield; for the carrotiest carrots, and potatoes like your grandad used to grow. Our boxes are all about bringing the best from the fields into customers’ homes. They are an inspiring way to cook from scratch, eat seasonally, and pack a load of goodness into your diet.

Founder and farmer Guy Watson believes squeezing 10 portions of fruit and veg into your daily diet is entirely possible. “It is easy to add 2 or 3 vegetables into every meal. From beetroot gratins to chard galettes, leeks on toast to every-veg curry, it really is so easy to make vegetables the star of every dish.”

Need some help getting to grips with the green stuff? You can access our veg nerds’ best tips and bright ideas for free on our recipe app, online recipe hub, YouTube channel – or even come along to one of our veg box cookery classes, happening across the country.

Shop organic fruit and veg

Guy’s News: Can free trade ever be fair?

This week marks the beginning of Fairtrade Fortnight. The principle of fairness is central to how we run Riverford, though the practice it is not always straightforward. Close to home, when we are able to manage relationships ourselves, we come very close to making principle a reality. Profits are shared with staff, we will become employee-owned next year, we have uniquely longterm, secure contracts with our fellow farmers and an honest pricing policy whereby all customers, new and old, pay the same. When trading further from home with more people in the supply chain things get harder; outside Europe we rely on Fairtrade certification, for bananas and pineapples in particular.

The combination of global free trade, innovation and capitalism has driven down the cost of almost everything, especially food, generating wealth and unprecedented consumption in the process. That there are benefits for most is unquestionable, but how these are shared has never been at all fair. Are brutal exploitation and inequality an intrinsic part of wealth creation? However much we want something to be fairer and are even willing to pay more for it, the power of capitalism stems from its simplistic measurement of value. This makes it good at delivering cheaply what can be objectively quantified and traded, but poor at integrating subjective concepts like fairness and human dignity.

Can free trade ever be fair? Can capitalism be harnessed to deliver more than wealth? I confess to occasional scepticism and sometimes feel it is futile to even try, yet, to quote Noam Chomsky, “If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.” Like all success stories Fairtrade has its critics and some participant growers are frustrated, yet all the ones I have met have told me it has benefitted their communities, bringing empowerment and encouraging co-operation and social cohesion. It is hard to put a value on fairness and hope, but life is worth little without them so we support Fairtrade and the contribution it makes to creating a better world.

Guy Watson

What’s new?

No matter how exciting a new product is, to make it onto our shelves, wowing in taste tests is only the first hurdle. We must be just as confident in the ethics of anything we sell as we are in the flavour.

Here are the inspiring stories behind the newest treats in our online farm shop.

Cornish sea salad

Often the best ideas are hiding right under our noses. So it was for Caro Warwick-Evans and Tim van Berkel, two ocean-loving surfers and the founders of the Cornish Seaweed Company.

Renewable energy graduate Caro was listening to a Radio 4 programme about the Irish seaweed industry when she had her ‘eureka!’ moment. Cornwall’s waters are bursting with richly nutritious seaweed; why wasn’t it being used?

Old friend & conservationist Tim soon got on board with the idea, but making it happen turned out to be far from easy. England had no seaweed industry to speak of, so they had no precedent to follow through the complex laws and regulations surrounding our coastline. Eventually, they were granted license to harvest from a 5-mile stretch of the Lizard coast by the Crown Estate.

Sustainability is a founding principle of the Cornish Seaweed Company. They worked with Natural England to create a national code of conduct for sustainable seaweeding, always harvest by hand, and dry the seaweed using sun and wind energy. They are certified organic by the Soil Association.

Shop Cornish sea salad

Shade-grown coffee

In its wild form, coffee is a shrub that grows in the forest shade, protected from the sun by a canopy of trees. However, to produce greater yields, a new breed of sun-tolerant coffee plants was created in the 1970s. Swathes of rainforest have now been cleared for sun-grown coffee plantations, destroying habitats, leaching the soil of nutrients, and polluting the ecosystem with chemical nasties.

Our new ground coffee is organically shade grown. The shade trees not only provide protection from the sun, but also drop leaves which turn to mulch, keeping the soil naturally moist and fertile. Local wildlife is free to thrive around the crops – especially birds, who repay the favour by taking on pest control duty and eating insects off the plants.

This coffee is better for people too. The beans are grown by Manos Campesinas, a cooperative of small-scale organic coffee farmers in the remote highlands of Guatemala. Manos Campesinas helps its members access the market and receive fair payment, as well as supporting them to plan and grow their businesses. The cooperative’s innovative work includes farmer-to-farmer training in advanced organic methods, and leadership programmes for women. Watch supplier Equal Exchange’s video about women in coffee.

Shop organic ground coffee

Pure peanut butter

Another treat from pioneering fair trade supplier Equal Exchange, this thick, flavoursome peanut butter is made with 100% organic peanuts and nothing else. No salt, no sugar, no palm oil, no lecithin stabilisers – just the best organic peanuts, roasted without blanching to preserve all their natural goodness.

The peanuts are grown by the Yishui Xingye Groundnut Professional Association, a group of 58 small-scale organic farmers in the Shandong province of China. Each farmer leases a few small plots to grow their crop, leaving as much of the area wooded as possible to encourage plants and wildlife. They have been farming organically since 1996, and process the nuts in their organic-only processing factory.

In 2009 the Association was certified Fairtrade. The farmers have decided jointly how to spend the additional income. A successful idea must fulfil the 3 points pinned up in their training centre: serving a basic need, improving the situation of all the farmers, and possessing a long-term benefit. So far they have chosen to improve roads in the area, buy books and clothes for schoolchildren, and invest in better seeds, tools and irrigation.

Shop organic peanut butter

To find out more, visit www.cornishseaweed.co.uk and www.equalexchange.co.uk

Guy’s news: Getting a bit impatient

The first daffodils are out and wild garlic is sprouting in the woods. With the sun edging higher and the days lengthening, a grower’s urge to plant escalates with each bright morning. Yet despite this sap rising from our boots, the soil is still cold and wet, and with memories of early plantings that struggled in cold seed beds being overtaken by those planted later in better conditions, we will temper the urge to sow and catch up on holidays instead. Early plantings have to spend longer fighting off weeds and disease and contending with gales and rain, often producing lower quality crops than those planted a month later.

So, apart from early potatoes in favoured coastal areas, the ever-hardy broad beans and perhaps some hopeful sowings of carrots, we will wait until mid or late March to start planting in earnest. Perhaps we have become too risk averse; Brexit and a 20% devaluation in the pound does renew the pressure to save a week of imports by starting our season early, but perhaps that is the sap talking.

We may not be planting but it is time to start getting our warmer, well-drained south facing slopes ready. On heavy, hard-to-cultivate clay soil it is traditional to plough in the autumn, leaving the furrows standing as high and exposed to frost as possible. The progressive action of freezing and thawing breaks clods into a fine seedbed with little need for cultivation in the spring; particularly useful if your horsepower comes from a horse, as was the case when the practice originated. While this time-honoured technique works well in the east of England where rainfall and soil temperatures are lower, it is disastrous under the 30 to 40 inches of winter rain typical in Devon. Here it can reduce bare soil to the foul smelling mess you might dredge from the bottom of a pond. Anaerobic, full of toxins and intrinsically sick, it’s certainly no place to plant a vulnerable seed. 30 years of trial and error have taught us to let our soils rest over the winter covered with grass, a green manure or even weeds until late January at the earliest; the root channels and earthworms help drainage and aeration, while the foliage cushions the impact of raindrops and prevents soil erosion. The next break in the weather will herald our soil’s rude awakening; first with muck and then with the plough, and the new farming season will begin in earnest.

Guy Watson