We have had a week enveloped in a haze of dandelion fluff. Finely-haired, parachuted seed borne aloft on summer updrafts, they swirl in the gentle breeze almost indefinitely, before settling in drifts. Irritating if that is in your tea or up a nostril and perhaps irritating for neighbouring conventional famers with their orderly, weed-free fields. Perhaps we should be concerned about the farming adage “one year’s seeding brings seven years’ weeding”. I suspect there might be some local tut-tutting about the unruly chaos of organic farming. Twenty years ago I might have worried. In my middle years I find myself almost celebrating it as Devon’s version of herds of migrating wildebeest; long may there be some semblance of untamed nature in our lives.
Meanwhile, back on the ground, the season is getting underway. The weeds are under control, we are up to date with the planting and are already harvesting leafy crops like spinach, cabbage, lettuce and rocket. With only an inch of rain in two months, the busiest man on the farm is Watery Tim, our irrigation man.
We finished our carrots two weeks ago and, due to the partial failure of our French crop, expected to have a break for a few weeks until the new crop starts as bunches on 7th June. In the meantime we were approached by a grower near Inverness who leaves his carrots in the ground all winter covered by a thick blanket of straw. Not only does this keep the frost out, it also delays the warming of the soil in spring and delays regrowth. Added to the cooling effect of being further north, once washed this is producing remarkably good carrots.
Spring has arrived and, after a frustratingly dormant winter, the farm is once again a hive of activity. Brought on by the sudden rise in temperature, the last of the overwintered crops are rushing to maturity giving us a late flush of cauliflower, leeks, purple sprouting broccoli and greens plus the wild garlic from our woods. The lengthening days are telling these plants it is now or never for procreation, so our mission is to get them harvested before they rush to seed. You may find an emerging bolt in the centre of your leek; given a chance this would extend to a metre in just a few days to carry the star burst flower typical of the allium family. Our rule is that if we see it poking out of the shank we have missed our chance and it stays in the field. In the early stages the bolt is fairly tender and digestible but if it offends you, slice the leek lengthways and remove.
Meanwhile we are harvesting the first salad onions and the first few sticks of rhubarb for the Field Kitchen; they should be available to buy with your regular order at the end of this month and in the boxes from May.
Apart from the picking we are busy preparing ground (muck spreading, ploughing and cultivating) ahead of a busy planting schedule; early lettuce, chard, spinach, cabbage and carrots are planted under covers and most of the potatoes are now in the ground. We have even started irrigating the shallow planted crops like lettuce which need help getting their roots out and down to the moist soil below.
help us celebrate our first year working with Send A Cow
As we continue our partnership with Send A Cow, supporting sustainable farming in Africa, we want you to get involved and be part of our efforts. We kick off a fortnight of Send A Cow events hosting a special African-themed supper (£20 each) on Thursday 29th April, with guest speaker Margaret Kifuko (Ugandan farmer). We’ll be discussing the similarities and differences of farming in Uganda – if you’d like to join in give us a call to book your place. Then, on Monday 3rd May we open our gates for an African inspired family day out – see the workings of an African farm, chat to Margaret, learn about keyhole gardens and say hello to the goats! Places are limited so you’ll need to book. Call us on 01803 762074.
It seems that everyone, from celebrity chef to home cook, is proclaiming seasonal and local eating. When people experience it in our Field Kitchen restaurant in Devon, they leave extolling the virtues of purple sprouting broccoli, parsnip and beetroot. But as a nation we are still struggling to convert aspiration into action in our own kitchens. We know that some of you struggle with the reality of dealing with a vegbox, so we are on a mission to help. We started with the Field Kitchen and followed it with a cook book and recipe-laden website and newsletters. More recently we have been recruiting an army of ‘Riverford Cooks’, a diverse bunch of people unified by a passion for seasonal ingredients and an enthusiasm for passing their skills on. We are recruiting cooks around the country to inspire you in various ways.
‘From the box’ cookery classes. Book a cookery lesson with lunch (or supper) in your home for you and 4-6 friends. Learn new ways to use your vegbox and pick up cooking techniques. £45 per person.
‘Riverford cooks at the weekend’. We’re running a series of residential weekends, starting with ‘a taste of summer’ in Devon from 21st-23rd May. You’ll stay in stunning converted barns and learn a range of summer dishes, eat together and relax. There’ll also be a visit to the Field Kitchen.
The Field Kitchen comes to you. We have fashioned a Mongolian-style yurt from farm-grown ash. It will spend the summer touring the country as a mobile version of the Field Kitchen. Fields and dates tentative – more details to follow.
Maybe you find life with a box a breeze. Perhaps you could be a Riverford Cook yourself; most are trained professionals but seasoned amateurs can be just as good at passing it on. We are particularly short of cooks in the North. To book a class, weekend or to become a cook, call 01803 762019 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out about events in your area and swap recipe ideas, join the online Riverford Cooks community at cooks.riverford.co.uk.
Contrary to most of the press coverage, the Food Standards Agency report published last week did not prove that organic food was no better for you than non-organic. It merely showed that there was no conclusive evidence either way, on the grounds of a limited review of existing research into a limited range of nutrients taken in isolation. read more in Guy Watson’s newsletter…
a customer’s thoughts
Thankfully many of our customers read past the headlines. Diane sent us this email in response to the FSA report:
“Firstly I would like to thank you for todays box of fresh, tasty, reasonably priced, nutritious vegetables, grown with conscience and compassion and most importantly without man-made chemicals.
I have just read the accompanying newsletter entitled ‘misguided?’ and I thought perhaps a ‘customer’ reaction to the FSA’s report might be gratifying for potentially damaged morale. I personally found the well publicised conclusion of the report somewhat incredulous; how can such a statement be made when only a number of nutrients have been considered and no other aspect of production has been taken into account. Additionally, does this statement truly reflect analysis that shows a positive increase in a number of important nutrients but which appears to have been ignored on the basis that there are too few studies to take the data from. During the last week it has become very apparent to me that many people simply scan read the newspaper primarily noting the headlines, no doubt as a result of our busy lives. Such statements/headlines are therefore often taken out of context with potentially damaging results. Perhaps we need to consider who stands to gain from such statements; are the interests of the global chemical giants being protected here? One would hope not but it is a worrying thought.
Keep up the good work Riverford, we still love you despite what you may read in the papers!”
We all know that air travel is the fastest-growing source of carbon emissions, so should the Soil Association try and discourage bringing organic vegetables to the uk by air? Or even refuse to grant anything air freighted organic status? If so, what about the African farmers just starting to make a living selling the organic green beans flown in to the UK?
At Riverford we have never air freighted anything, but we know it’s a complex issue and there’s an interesting consultation document on the Soil Association website
As Anna Bradley, Chair of the Soil Association Standards Board says: “as awareness of climate change has grown, concerns have been raised about the damage caused to the environment by air freight.
However, when reducing our impact on the world’s climate, we must carefully consider the social and economic benefits of air freight for international development and growth of the organic market as a whole.”
There’s a rather scary podcast on the Soil Association website about how intensively-farmed animals are devoloping a form of MRSA, which is spreading like “wildfire” in Europe and transferring to humans.
In Dutch hospitals a terrifying 25 per cent of all MRSA cases are now caused by the farm-animal strain, and farmers are no longer permitted in general wards without prior screening.
Scientists are blaming the over-use of antibiotics for creating the drug-resistant strain, and an almost untreatable form of e-coli, which means death for 30 per cent of people who contract it.
All of which makes a powerful case for organic farming!