As we enter Organic September, it is rewarding and a little reassuring to find that Charles Darwin and I are not alone in our obsession with earthworms. There is Emma Sherlock from the Natural History Museum (endearingly bonkers) who travels the globe looking for new species, Rachel Lovell (mildly eccentric on a good day) who with Emma’s expertise has organised Riverford’s Big Worm Dig citizen science project, and the many of you who have rummaged in your gardens for our survey. It has been great to see children swiftly overcome their squirmishness and to witness their enthusiasm for finding and identifying worms while getting a bit muddy in the process. If that’s got you interested, visit the Big Worm Dig website to get your survey pack as there’s still plenty of time to get involved. Indeed, worms are much easier to search for in damp soil, so autumn is a good time.
So why are we making so much fuss about these dumb, arguably dull (sorry Emma) workhorses of the underworld? Without their burying of organic matter, and constant mixing, aeration and drainage of the soil beneath us, life on this planet would be very hard for other species. This is especially so for farmers and even more so for organic farmers. In the absence of chemical fertilisers we need an active soil which recycles nutrients efficiently; worms are the first stage of this process and a great indicator of the general health of the soil.
Yet, as with bees, we are slaughtering our allies with toxic agrochemicals and brutish farming techniques. Organic farming, with its absence of pesticides and scorching fertilisers, alongside better management of organic matter (worm food) is probably better, but it pains me to think of the carnage caused by a plough or rotavator when we prepare a seedbed. Sadly, as with so many aspects of ecology, worms would be better off if we just went away. Maybe one day we will be smart enough to grow our food without such brutal interventions, but should I somehow find myself living the life of a worm, I’d chose an organic field any day.
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Tagged big worm dig, earth, farm, farming, garden, gardening, guy watson, organic, riverford, soil, veg, vegetables, worm
A hot July ended with a warm, damp and humid spell that stretched into August; ideal for the establishment of recently planted cauliflowers, leeks and cabbages. It also provided ideal conditions for blight to rampage through many of our potato crops. The disease is caused by the aggressive fungal pathogen phytophthora infestans, which can reduce a healthy crop to a field of blackened stumps in less than a week. Worse still, heavy downpours can leach infective spores down through the ridges to attack the tubers. The pathogen’s arrival in Ireland in 1845 wiped out their staple crop and, combined with woeful neglect from England, caused a famine that killed one million people and led another million to emigrate.
Non-organic growers spray with a systemic fungicide through summer until autumn; 8-10 sprays would not be uncommon. In organic crops, limited amounts of Bordeaux mixture (copper sulphate) can be used in some situations and can slow the spread of the disease. It is relatively innocuous, but only gives very temporary protection and some growers are concerned about its effect on soil life. There are more disease resistant varieties available now, but in most years, well before the crop has reached its potential yield, we still end up mowing off the tops and scorching the stumps to protect the crop below.
Fortunately, such aggressive pathogens are rare and are normally the result of relatively young relationships with their host. Over time the relationship typically evolves towards a slow, lingering death, then mere mild stunting of growth; why kill your host and move on if you can farm them and continue to reproduce indefinitely? It is likely that many symbiotic relationships were initially parasitic and slowly co-evolved towards mutual benefit.
On a more cheerful note, I hope you are enjoying our padron peppers. For me, most evenings start with a tapas of these delicious, if unpredictable, peppers quickly fried and salted. They take no more than five minutes to prepare. They are out-yielding expectations and it seems criminal to waste them, so, for the aficionados amongst you, we are now selling a 400g bag at £4.95.
Last Monday evening I went for a crop walk with our farming co-op members. On this occasion it was hosted by Antony and Mary Coker and their neighbours Alison and Ian Samuel, who produce a variety of veg as well as lamb and beef. Both farm about 100 acres of land that is a little too high, with soil a little too thin and a little too close to Dartmoor. Not ideal for growing veg, but we saw that with skill and experience, their crops had come through a very hot and dry July better than some on more favoured lower land.
Neither family could eke a living without the co-op to support them and the box scheme as a secure market. Such ‘mixed’ family farms have the most sustainable crop and livestock rotations, high biodiversity and form the backbone of many rural communities. They know every animal and inch of their farm and can be the best custodians of our countryside. They were the norm 30 years ago but have almost disappeared as farms get ever larger.
So does it matter? Is this just the inevitable progress of market economics as in any industry? Perhaps it is sentimentality, but I would argue that farming is different because of its impact on our countryside, the environment and our health, and because food is every bit as much a part of culture as art.
Farming in the UK is scaling up and moving towards the American style of factory farming at an alarming pace. 40 years of neo liberal governments surrendering control to the market is one reason; testosterone-fuelled egotism and the assumption that ‘bigger is better’ has played its part. Scale is not always bad, but it tends to be in farming. On the flip side, co-operatives offer a good way of preserving the viability of smaller farms through shared access to machinery, knowledge and marketing, as well as a common sense of purpose that can provide emotional support in difficult years. We have a very poor record of co-operation in this country which makes me all the more proud, 16 years after we first met in a pub to discuss the idea, to have been standing in a field with a bunch of (mostly) happy co-op members, talking about cabbages.
Sowing of our autumn and winter crops is all done, bar a few late kale plants and spring greens. A very dry and hot July caused some anxiety over leeks, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage planted beyond the reach of irrigation pipes. However in what is turning out to be a wonderful growing year, the rain came just in time and all crops are establishing well. Some growers had resorted to tanking water to their fields but even a ten tonne load is but a drop when the midday sun is beating down on ten acres of wilting cauliflower. It was enough to keep the plants alive (just), but it would have been a mere stay of execution had the rains not saved us. I struggle to remember when I have seen growers so happy or such fine crops of sugar snaps, cucumbers, sweetcorn, peppers and potatoes. The big question in such a good year is, will it all get eaten?
Left to me, crop planning used to be a largely intuitive process. I would do some cursory sums and consult the records of previous years, but when I got in the field with tractor and seed drill the area sown was ridiculously dependent on my mood. Such cavalier disregard for painstaking factual analysis is often typical of business founders; we are good at getting to roughly the right place swiftly, but it’s the obsessive types who achieve perfection.
Being right 80% of the time was good enough back then, but no longer; I have been pushed aside and crop planning is now a highly analytical process. Megabytes of spreadsheets lead from your (assumed) box preferences back through average yields, labour profiles, seed and plant orders down to an area to be planted of each crop, each week. The skills of our planning team also mean that even in this wonderful year when some crops are giving 50% over expectations, we don’t yet have the surpluses I expected. I suspect things will change and we may start urging you to eat more peas and corn fairly soon; I just hope you’re not too busy relaxing on the beach, pegging your tent down in a gale or tending your own garden to benefit from the bounty.
After the hottest weather since 1976, it’s now pouring and the relief is palpable as the thirsty soil sucks in the welcome rain. We have a huge lake that fills up through the winter here on our farm in France, and we’ve been busy pumping, piping and spraying from it this summer. Giant hose reels pull rain guns (giant agricultural sprinklers) slowly across the fields night and day, but it is never as good as the real thing and westruggle to get around all the crops before the first lot start looking thirsty again.
We will start picking sweetcorn in earnest this week. After battling with the weeds through a wet spring, our persistence has been rewarded with a pretty good crop. There are no badgers here but the ragondin (giant rodents the size of beavers) have acquired a taste for the ripening cobs. Introduced from South America for their pelts, they have become endemic and an occasional pest.
Meanwhile we have a fantastic crop of padron peppers, which will be on the extras list for the rest of the summer and will also appear in some of the boxes. These small green peppers are super trendy and ridiculously expensive in all those tapas bars that are taking over the country. They are best picked small and fried gently until the skin is blistered. Serve immediately with plenty of sea salt; most have a mild, wonderful flavour with about one in four delivering some moderate heat, and the occasional lurker with a real kick. They are great as a snack with a beer.
vote for your vegman!
Next month we gather with all of our local vegmen and vegladies for our annual head-scratching and navel-gazing about why we do what we do, and how we could do it better. There will be prizes for Vegman/Lady of the Year and the runners-up, so if you would like to put in a good word for yours, please email email@example.com by 5th August.
If you’re looking for something to keep the kids occupied, you can download our free Riverford Big Worm Dig pack here (and be in with a chance to win some lovely prizes): http://j.mp/15G28Op
As a soulful four-year-old, I spent a lot of time stomping behind the plough collecting the, “big fat squidgy ones” left wriggling on the inverted furrows. I probably should have been at playgroup developing social skills, but when my mum did send me I stole the tricycle and was found trying to ride home.
Worms might have been an eccentric interest for a pre-schooler, but I was in good company; Darwin studied earthworms for 40 years and sold more books on them in his lifetime than he did on natural selection. He reckoned just about all fertile soil had at some point passed through the gut of an earthworm. Interest has waned a little since 1881 but we are hoping to change that from this summer. Earthworms are vital to soil aeration, drainage and nutrient recycling and are also a very good visible indicator of the health of the wider soil community, including microscopic fungi and bacteria. Why should you care? Without healthy, active soils we would have little food and very little wildlife. What is good for earthworms is good for us and the planet.
Earthworms like moist, well-drained soils with plenty of organic matter. They hate synthetic fertilisers, most pesticides, excessive cultivation, compaction and extremes of temperature. Not surprisingly, you don’t find many in intensively farmed arable fields. Organic farming is better but we still need to develop methods less reliant on the plough to avoid disturbing our humble friends.
Despite their importance, very little is known about the UK earthworm population. To remedy this we’ve created an adult and kid-friendly survey with the help of Emma Sherlock, our semi-tame and highly enthusiastic boffin from the Natural History Museum. Yes, we want you digging and identifying. Visit www.riverford.co.uk/bigwormdig to get your booklet, and perhaps win a family holiday. I don’t recommend eating any worms you might find however.
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Tagged canopy & stars, compost, earthworms, ecover, farms, garden, gardening, guy watson, hugh fearnley-whittingstall, meat, national history museum, organic, organic meat, original organics, river cottage, riverford, science, veg, vegetables, worms, yeo valley
As the English asparagus season started in late April, I asked how you felt about us preceding it with Spanish asparagus from Pepe, a grower near Granada who we have worked with for many years. The results were two to one in favour.
Our mission is to enable and encourage you to eat well, affordably, with minimal environmental impact and hopefully some positive social outcomes, but without undue dogmatism that might drive you back to a supermarket. With diversity of opinion and eating habits this is a balancing act; it’ll be easier when we can offer a more personalised box (the ultimate aim of the ongoing website disruption).
So is local always best? If we’re just considering environmental impact, certainly not for out of season crops like tomatoes and peppers. Heating a single glazed glasshouse to 20˚C in January is as insane as airfreight and we don’t do either, ever. I’m also increasingly sceptical about growing crops outside their climatic comfort zone. It often involves enormous cost and effort to produce an unreliable harvest of dubious flavour. Interestingly, the first English asparagus grown in a cold spring, though fresher, was not as good as Pepe’s crop grown in the sun.
Don’t worry, we have not given up on local; these are the musings of a man who spent the day weeding a stunted crop of sweetcorn in the rain. If we are ever to eat truly sustainably we must learn from nature and make more of plants that thrive in our climate with minimal intervention. I am inspired by how happily samphire, ransoms (wild garlic), dandelions, wild strawberries, nettles, fat hen, chickweed, rose hips, elderflower, crab apples, summer purslane, damsons and sloes (all of which have largely unexploited culinary potential) grow in the wild. Agriculture sometimes feels like an absurd, futile and vain battle with nature; without access to depleting fossil fuels, we would always lose.
On a more positive note, we were delighted to be named Best Retailer at the Observer Ethical Awards 2013; many thanks indeed to all of you who voted for us.
I have been brought to my knees by potato blight, hail storms, supermarket buyers and drought, but none of that prepared me for the last two months of website hell. As we have matured we have become calmer and more philosophical about coping with the uncontrollable, but the last few weeks have left me wanting to scream and shout, punch and stamp. I can’t remember feeling such frustration since I wept in a field of dying potatoes 25 years ago. If only a temper tantrum and a sledgehammer would help.
I can only assume that those of you who have encountered our website falling over or running at a snail’s pace, or have had the wrong stuff delivered, must be feeling the same way. Most of you are showing much more maturity than me. We are getting some understandably irate calls (and our favourite message “I’ll have to apologise to my laptop for all the terrible things I’ve said to it tonight” from a customer on Facebook), but for the most part I am amazed by, and incredibly thankful for, your patience and loyalty. Without it, the business I am so proud of would be in dire straits. I am also very grateful to and proud of our staff and your local veg teams. They are equally frustrated but are working unbelievably hard to keep some semblance of service going.
Apologies and explanations start to sound lame at this point. A tantrum might bring some brief relief, but I would quickly feel foolish wielding a sledgehammer surrounded by whirring debris. So we must feign maturity and sort out the mess. There is no doubt we have made mistakes, but we are slowly climbing up what is proving to be a very slippery pole, back to normality.
We do have the first English new potatoes in the boxes this week and there is lots going on in the fields, but right now all that seems to matter is a string of noughts and ones being shepherded around the ether. Once again thank you for your patience. We will get there. If not I am off to live in a cave.
Farmers don’t respond well to being told what to do; especially if those doing the telling are outsiders with no demonstrable understanding of their farm. What brings about change is seeing good crops grown by somebody like them. In my early days of veg growing, I was repeatedly told that organic farming “would never feed the world”. I wanted to see for myself, so I spent two months in East Africa, visiting farming friends and a few charities in Kenya. It was a pretty depressing trip, where few aid interventions had lasting effect and sometimes had the unintended consequence of perpetuating dependency.
My final visit was to Timothy Njakasi in Uganda. He had worked at Riverford as part of his training, before returning home to develop his own smallholding. It was extraordinarily productive and sustainable; relying on local materials and local skills. For several years we supported him, helping him turn his farm (flatteringly named Kasenge Riverford) into a training institute. Recently he has worked with the charity Send a Cow, which trains farmers, mostly women, in small scale sustainable farming using peer farmer training. They accept the importance of long term support and social change; helping people to help themselves, working through farmers they can relate to.
Riverford has committed to raising £75,000 to support a similar Send a Cow project in war-torn Northern Uganda. We have raised funds by selling used gardening fleece, a banana ‘tax’, running marathons etc and you can now add a £1 donation to your order on our website, with the chance to win a year’s worth of veg thrown in. Working on the assumption that cooks are like farmers (more easily influenced by friends and colleagues than by companies and institutions) we are hoping you will know someone who should be getting a vegbox. If you manage to persuade them, we will donate £20 to this project. You could call it chugging (charity mugging), but I promise that every penny will be spent on this fantastic project. It’s win win. Look out for the tear-off slips to give to your friend on your newsletter, or find the details here.
As the lettuce and spinach season starts in Devon, we are clearing up the last stragglers on our farm in France and are busy harvesting cabbage, kohl rabi and the first courgettes. When the first female courgette flowers opened two weeks ago there was not enough pollen about (weirdly the male flowers seem to open a little later) and not enough pollinating insects to carry it to female flowers. Poor pollination produces aborted or misshapen fruit, which must be picked off by hand to divert the plant’s efforts into filling better fruit. After the first pick, the ground is littered with rejects, with only 20% making it into the barrow. Next week will be better and we will be picking until early July when the UK crop starts.
In the tunnels, the ramiro peppers are looking fantastic. There is a nail-biting, ecological race going on between the peppers, aphids and their predators and parasites. Most plants now have sizeable colonies of aphids. Having settled on a suitable plant, the winged aphids plug one end (their proboscis) into a pepper vein and produce a stream of babies from the other. If the food source is good, sex and wings are abandoned in favour of efficient, flightless, genetically identical asexual reproduction. Such efficiency can quickly result in a truly scary population explosion; the peppers would quickly be sucked into a premature, stunted death if it weren’t for the intervention of a tiny, midge sized parasitic wasp. Each adult wasp deftly oviposits a single egg in over a hundred aphids. The egg hatches and devours the aphid from within, emerging two weeks later as an adult which immediately mates and starts the cycle again. Maybe those aphids should have kept their wings. There is a photo of the mummified aphids on blog.riverford.co.uk and you can watch the gruesome business on YouTube (search ‘National Geographic parasitic wasps and aphids’).
It’s a race of relative fecundity, but provided we introduce enough wasps early enough (I think we have) they will establish a balance within a few weeks and the peppers will be fine. We should be picking green ramiros in July and red from August through to October.