Guy’s newsletter: veg boxes; the vision & the reality

April and May are traditionally challenging months of self-denial for those living with a veg box. 20 years ago it was so hard to make a good box through the ‘hungry gap’ that many pioneering box schemes would close from March to July; some would limp through with repetitions of sprouting potatoes, woody swedes and blown cauliflowers, but either way it took a very committed customer to stick with them. However, this week’s boxes are fantastic. These improvements have come from a mixture of increased grower expertise, better storage, investment in polytunnels, our farm in France giving us a six week jump on the season, plus good, long term trading relationships with small scale growers in Spain and Italy. All in all it’s a long way from the first 30 boxes we packed on the barn floor 22 years ago.

Yet is this a compromise from the vision of those first tiny box schemes? Undeniably, but I would argue it’s a pragmatic, justifiable and sensible one; vision can be inspiring but seldom lasts without a fair degree of compromise. Most of those early box schemes have packed up; more have opened in their place but there seems to be a cycle driven by what a visiting academic writing her PhD on box schemes described as “mutual disappointment”. However ideological sounding and emotionally appealing, the veg box vision asked too much of growers and customers; the customers didn’t get the quality or variety of vegetables they wanted, and the farmers didn’t make the living they needed. It is very hard for one farmer to grow 100 crops well and even harder to do it on a small scale and produce food at an acceptable price without being ground into the dirt by the challenge. Even farmers like to take holidays now and then.

The relentless march to scale and specialisation in farming, like in everything else, is as depressing as it seems inevitable. At Riverford we have put the brakes on this trend with our farming co-op sharing machinery and expertise and thereby helping to sustain the viability of smaller farms. I do occasionally romanticise about our early days harvesting carrots and potatoes by hand or picking spinach with scissors, but there is no way back; the only people wanting to live like peasants are those who haven’t tried it.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: hot & busy in the Vendée

A dry and sunny Easter gave ideal conditions to get ahead with planting at home; we are already irrigating in earnest to help the seedlings out and get the first lettuce, cabbage and spinach away to a good start. This meanwhile is being typed 250 miles south, under a tree on the banks of the reservoir of our farm in the French Vendée. As we come to the end of leeks, cabbage, purple sprouting and cauliflower at home I am here to check on the start of our hungry-gap-plugging French harvest. This morning we cut the first of a fine crop of outdoor lettuce and chard which are already chilling in the cold room ready for the trip north tonight; just as well, because it is already 25°C and climbing. The irrigation pump is purring away, sending water to germinate the first sweetcorn. Two weeks ago, many of our fields were too wet to travel on and our crops were being chilled by bitter easterlies; this week we are irrigating gasping plants and our peppers are keeling over from heat stress. The crop covers and low-level tunnels we use in early spring advance crops and keep off the wind, but the big question is always when to remove them. Ideally you pick a damp, warm overcast day to minimise the shock to the plants; if none are forecast, we take them off in the evening, water immediately, and hope.

In a bid to keep up we have brought in contractors for the heavy work of muck spreading and ploughing, allowing our team to pick in the mornings before moving on to sow and plant sweetcorn, peppers, chillies, sunflower, cape gooseberries, tomatillos, butternut squash and fennel in the afternoon. Every rusty wreck of a tractor is dragged from the back of the barn and every able body pressed into action in an attempt to keep up with the work; the next six weeks are critical here. Planting will soon be done but there is a scary amount of vegetables to be picked by a largely inexperienced team. The aim is to plug the hungry gap at home while we wait for those new season UK crops. To go from a plod to a sprint in just a few weeks and then back to a plod again is a management challenge, but we are getting better at it; my accountant even tells me that, for the first time, we made a very modest profit here last year.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: where are the guardians of our soil?

April is a hectic month of change as planting gets underway in earnest all over the farm. Where last year’s crops are finished and the fields need a rest, we are sowing ‘leys’ to build fertility, and restore soil structure. After years of experimentation, my brother Oliver uses a mixture of triticale (a cross between rye and wheat), lupins, clovers (all nitrogen-fixing legumes), grasses and, more unusually, chicory. This bitter herb does well on our soils and seems to be favoured by the grazing dairy herd, but more importantly Oliver reckons it opens the soil structure and brings up nutrients from deeper in the soil profile. By July, as the lupins and triticale fill their seed heads, he takes a cut of silage to feed the cows in winter; the understory of clover and grass are then free of competition to form a dense sward for the cows to graze. After three or four years of such restorative activity, the soil is ready for vegetables again.

The complexity of our farm with its mixture of annual and perennial crops and livestock is unquestionably good for the soil and wildlife, but it’s rapidly becoming an anomaly in modern agriculture. The norm is for soil to be subjected to repetitive monocropping on large farms which specialise in one enterprise, generally propped up by chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers. After 30 years, with plenty of mistakes along the way, I feel confident that with each turn of the rotation our fields are improving and, while the commercial pressure is always towards simplicity and specialisation, we are getting better at managing the complexity. This is in stark contrast to most agriculture where the UN predicts that on average the world has just 60 years of crop growing capacity left, due to soil degradation.

Our system is far from perfect; the abiding weakness is the need to create a weed free seedbed for new crops to establish. The two poles of thinking are that you either spray or you plough; both are environmental catastrophes for soil flora and fauna, but ploughing is just a bit less flawed than the chemical alternative. As farmers we must learn to produce food while being better guardians of the fragile, much neglected soil that supports us all.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: surprising spring abundance

Walking around the barn, I find myself surprisingly happy with the veg boxes we are packing. As the old season ends, this is the time of year when I expect to start begging forgiveness for sprouting potatoes, too many leeks and excessive repetition in the boxes. Worse still, I often start making premature promises about the arrival of new season crops. Perhaps it is our 30 years of experience, perhaps it is good fortune, but this year we seem to have got it right.

Our purple sprouting broccoli is finally sending out an abundance of tender, sweet spears and flower heads; with lengthening days there is a rush to procreate and it will be a challenge to get everything picked before the buds open. The gathering deluge will appear in most boxes, most weeks through April, but I make no apologies; the season is brief and I have yet to meet a customer who doesn’t like PSB. Stir-fry, steam, griddle or boil; whatever you do, don’t overcook it. Meanwhile cauliflower, after decades in that culinary backwater that harbours out-of-fashion vegetables, seems to be pushing back into the mainstream. Just as well because there will be plenty of them over the next month. If you find yourself struggling for inspiration, try roasting. It was a revelation to me and you’ll find lots of other recipes on our website, including cauliflower rice. Again the season is drawing to an end; from early May you will not see a cauliflower again until September.

Our farming co-op grew a huge crop of carrots last year that taste very good and have stored so well that we have a surplus. Don’t let the cows get them; for the juicers among you we have dropped the 5kg bag from £5.65 to £4.65.

Meanwhile I will keep on shamelessly plugging our recipe boxes to the timestrapped among you wanting supper without shopping or planning, or those wishing to spread their culinary wings a little. Some of next week’s recipes come from my own kitchen and unsurprisingly include PSB (with a potato hash and poached egg, one of my favourite suppers or brunches), wet and wild garlic risotto and an especially good spring green, chilli, lentil and chicken dish.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: eating & wearing your way to a better world

You may be surprised to find a People Tree clothing catalogue in your box this week. We once put a copy of the Ecologist Magazine in, which precipitated a barrage of chastening comments along the lines of, “we like the veg, but don’t make assumptions about our beliefs and allegiances.” As a result we have kept bumph, however righteous, out of your boxes ever since. So I thought I better explain why I have broken the rule.

Non-organic cotton is an extraordinarily dirty crop, accounting for almost 25% of insecticides used worldwide. In India, where cotton accounts for 5% of cropped land, it accounts for a staggering 54% of all pesticides applied, and what’s worse is that they are among the most persistent, toxic and environmentally damaging, including organophosphates and organochlorines.

90% of People Tree cotton is organically grown (it would take more words than I have to explain the 10%) and its founder Safia Minney has spent 24 years developing a supply chain where she knows each step of the production process from sowing the seed through to garment manufacture. This is in contrast to most of the textile and fashion industry, which has an appalling record of exploitation, dangerous employment practices and environmental damage.

Safia is a force to be reckoned with and would expend her last breath fighting for ethical business practices, and that makes me want to support her efforts. In this world of corporate greenwash, I trust People Tree completely; like our Fair Trade pineapples from Togo they are the real thing, the gold standard in ethical business that others can be judged against. I love their fabrics and it feels good to wear something that represents the world I want to live in. I reckon they are fairly priced anyway but with the 20% discount for Riverford customers, they are a bargain. You really will be wearing your way to a better world.

For those of you near London we will be holding a sample sale and panel discussion on Saturday 9th May to mark World Fair Trade Day at our pub in Islington, Riverford at the Duke of Cambridge. Half the proceeds will go to charity; find out more at www.dukeorganic.co.uk.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: wild garlic & potato patience

I am in the midst of my annual wild garlic fest; whether mixed raw in a salad or sandwich, wilted into an omelette or over pasta, ground into pesto with roasted hazelnuts or melted into a risotto, the possibilities are endless. To add to that, unlike so much foraged food, wild garlic is quick and easy to use too.

Such is my enthusiasm that about eight years ago we started harvesting wild garlic from the woods and including it in the veg boxes; a few people said they would rather forage for their own, but the huge majority of you welcomed it, so we have continued. We did pause briefly after accidentally including a Lords and Ladies leaf in a bag; unfortunately wild garlic, known as ‘ransoms’ locally, shares its habitat with a number of mildly poisonous plants, most notably Lords and Ladies and Dog’s Mercury. Today our pickers are very careful and a second team sort through the leaves again in the barn before packing it into bags; even so, please keep an eye out for any odd leaves and if in doubt, discard them. Having said that, last year I nibbled the tiniest corner of a Lords and Ladies leaf as an experiment; it felt like a fox had sprayed in my mouth and I’d washed it down with sulphuric acid. Indeed a search of the web suggests the sensation in the mouth (caused by needle-like oxalate crystals) is so rapidly unpleasant that it would be hard to eat enough to cause lasting harm.

Meanwhile we have planted most of our early potatoes but it will be May before lifting starts even in the most favoured parts of west Cornwall and the Channel Islands; faster varieties like Rocket and Swift can be ready in April but they are invariably a disappointment when it comes to flavour. The remaining potatoes from last autumn’s harvest are being stored in the dark at 3°C and the most dormant varieties (mostly Desiree and Valor) will slumber on until May, as if they were lying dormant underground believing it is still winter above. We bring them up to 10°C before grading and bagging and you will find that from now on they will have a growing propensity to sprout; keeping them in the fridge helps if you have the space, but don’t worry about sprouting; they will still eat well provided there is no greening of the skins. They may even be sweeter.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: clouts, saints & impatience

With the soil drying well and the occasional T-shirt moment to be had in a sheltered spot, I find myself growing impatient to see some plants going into the ground. “Ne’er cast a clout til may be out,” warns John, my ever-stalwart farm manager, reminding me of all the years when the seedlings pushed out of the greenhouse into a cold, wet seedbed in March have been out-yielded by those planted in warmer April soils. The “may” referred to is hawthorn blossom (not the month) and while we have planted some early potatoes and carrots and the first spinach plants are hardening off, the may buds are some way from bursting, so John will have his way for a couple of weeks yet. Meanwhile, I will hope that our fields are not sodden when the hedges turn white.

In France, with no intelligible temperate guidance to restrain me, we have been busy planting for two months. There are occasional raised eyebrows, despairing shakings of heads and mutterings about “Les Saints de Glace” from our neighbours, but my French is not good enough to catch the nuances of implied recklessness; actually things seem to be going rather well. We are cutting wonderful lettuces and pak choi from the big tunnels, soon to be followed by our first lettuces from crops covered with mini tunnels, and then fleece, then the first unprotected crop in mid-April. When they are finished in early May, John may have cast his clout and there should be lettuce to cut in Devon.

As soon as the tunnels are cleared later this month we will be spreading compost and replanting them with chillies, peppers and padrons. Outside the cabbage, kohl rabi, garlic, beans and swiss chard are all doing well, but we have never excelled at growing crops from small seeds; we just don’t seem to be able to get a seed bed consistent enough to ensure the machines can sow to an even depth. This year, following local practice and the advice of neighbours, we have sown the seed on the surface and covered with about 7mm of sand. Apparently it warms quickly in the sun, giving rapid and even germination and emergence; the proof will be in the turnips you’ll (hopefully) find in your boxes come May.

Guy Watson