Category Archives: Farm stories

Here comes the sun(flowers)

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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.

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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 www.facebook.com/riverford and www.twitter.com/riverford.

kirsty’s cooking blog: blueberries

There was a bit of a green-fingered rummage in the office on Monday as we gathered up some of the seedlings rejected for not being quite up to scratch for our Box to Grows. Some also go to local schools for their garden projects, and I hope the Totnes Incredible Edible scheme might get a few too; they plant unused spaces around the town with veg and herbs for residents to pick for free.

Those seedlings probably stand a pretty good chance of surviving, but for those heading for my garden, good luck to them! I only have a courtyard garden, but it’s amazing what you can fit in; even artichokes will grow quite happily in large pots. As I have such a small space, I only grow things I can eat, particularly herbs, as I use bucket loads of them.

My blueberry bush, which has survived my murderous attempts for 3 years now, amazes me each summer by offering up a bumper crop. Blueberries seem to grow really well in Devon; they even manage to grow them up on Dartmoor. Mine is only just blossoming, but we have the first of our blueberries available now. Plumper and sweeter than supermarket berries, they’re good with porridge or granola and yoghurt for breakfast. Or try this easy blueberry & yoghurt cake (below), delicately flavoured with a little almond and lemon. It can be made with gluten-free flour too, for those with an allergy.

I’m not a huge fan of meringues, but I love the delicate flavour of saffron, which pairs well in our recipe for saffron meringues with blueberry compôte (below). The meringues also go well with poached pears.

 blueberry & yoghurt cake

prep: 10 mins cook: 50 mins serves: 12

If you want to make a gluten-free cake, Doves Farm make a gluten-free self-raising flour, although it isn’t organic, but you could use gluten-free plain flour with baking powder if you prefer.

you will need:
300g self-raising flour
pinch fine sea salt
175g caster sugar
50g ground almonds
finely grated zest of 1 large or 1 ½ smaller lemons
2 large eggs
150g plain whole yoghurt
125g unsalted butter, melted, plus a little extra to grease the tin
1 tsp almond extract
250g blueberries

Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease a 20cm cake tin with a little butter on a piece of kitchen paper. Line the base and sides with baking parchment. In one bowl, mix together the flour, salt, sugar, ground almonds and lemon zest. In another bowl, lightly beat the eggs, then stir together with the yoghurt, butter and almond extract. Pour the egg mixture into the dry ingredient bowl. Stir until all the ingredients are just combined. Add the blueberries and gently stir them in. Pour into the tin, level it and bake for 50 mins or until just cooked through and golden brown (insert a skewer or cocktail stick in the middle, it should come out clean). Let the cake cool in the tin for 15-20 mins then turn out onto a cooling rack.

saffron meringues with blueberry compôte

prep: 20 mins    cook: 2 hours    serves: 4

for the meringues:
2 egg whites
pinch of saffron threads
100g golden caster sugar
1 tsp cornflour
1 tsp white wine vinegar

for the compôte:
250g blueberries
2 tbsp golden caster sugar
juice ½ lime, more to taste
2 mint leaves, finely shredded
whipped double or clotted cream to serve

Preheat the oven to 180C. Line a baking sheet with baking parchment. Put the saffron in a small heatproof bowl. Add 2 tsp boiling water and leave to steep. Crack the eggs and tip each half of the shell from side to side over a small bowl to separate the whites from yolks (do this one at a time into the bowl, in case the egg whites and yolks mix together, transferring the egg whites to a large clean, dry bowl. Save the yolks to make mayonnaise or hollandaise. Whisk the whites until they form stiff peaks. Gradually add the sugar, 1 tbsp at a time, until the eggs are stiff and have a satin looking sheen. You should be able to tip the bowl upside down without them falling out! Don’t over whisk though, or this will cause the egg whites to break down and the meringues will turn soggy in the oven. Strain the saffron liquid; discard the strands and keep the bright yellow liquid. Add this to the meringue with the cornflour and vinegar. The cornflour and vinegar help the insides of the meringue have a marshmallowy rather than powdery texture. Whisk until just combined. Use 2 dessert spoons to make 8 similar sized oval dollops on the baking sheet. Turn the oven down to 120C and pop the meringues in the oven. Cook for 1 ½ hours or so, until the bottom sounds hollow when tapped. Turn off the oven and leave the meringues in there to cool completely. This will stop the meringues from cracking.

To make the compote, put half the blueberries and the sugar in a small saucepan with 2 tbsp water. Heat gently to dissolve the sugar, about 4-5 mins. Add the lime juice and strain the mixture over a sieve. Stir in the rest of the blueberries. Serve the meringues sandwiched together with cream, with the blueberry compôte.

Returning to devon

After a month of picking sweetcorn and tomatillos on our farm in France, I am back in Devon and wondering why. It’s still raining but everyone seems remarkably cheery and no-one seems to have missed me; slightly disturbing to the ego but I’ll put it down to my management skills. You all seem to be buying a lot of veg though, which is great. Could it be down to failing gardens and allotments? We know over half of you grow some of your own and this normally contributes to a sales slump around the same time that our courgettes and runner beans are ready.

A lot of the sun loving summer crops have failed (most of the sweetcorn, pumpkins and squash), or drastically underperformed (spinach, chard and salad leaves). On a more positive note, the carrots and often fickle parsnips have germinated and established well in the wet. However, potatoes continue to be a disaster. Potato blight, caused by the aggressive fungal pathogen Phytophthora infestans and brought on by persistent damp, has wiped out all but the most resistant variety, Valor. To avoid spores infecting tubers by being washed down diseased leaves, we have been forced to mow off the foliage early. Potatoes are an expensive crop to grow and in order to give our blighted growers some return, we have decided to grade and wash the small potatoes (as long as they cook and eat well) and include them in the boxes over the winter. I am hoping that provided you don’t have to wash and peel marble-like spuds, you will be happy to roast, boil and mash them with their skins on. Let us know. For the next few weeks we will continue to have the wonderful salad potato Charlotte in the boxes, so no need to fret just yet.

Overall, we have planted our autumn and winter veg almost to schedule and most crops are coming on well. So, with the exception of potatoes and squash, the outlook for the winter boxes is looking good. The summer of 2012 will go down as the worst in any grower’s memory, certainly in the West. It has cost us and many of our growers dear, but we will survive and no-one will starve.

Guy Watson

A visit from uganda

Charles Mulwana, a farmer from Uganda, is staying with us at our Riverford Farm in Devon for the next two months. In 2005, aided by charity Send a Cow, Charles received his first cow, Helen. Send a Cow helped him learn about sustainable organic agriculture, looking after livestock and how to grow a variety of crops to feed himself and his family.

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Charles has come to the farm at Riverford to learn how we grow organic crops on a larger scale. He is passionate about passing on the knowledge he has gained, particularly on the importance of organic farming and having a balanced diet. To do this Charles is hoping to raise enough money to build a community centre in his village in the  Nakifuma Mukono district of Uganda, to educate young people in his area on agriculture and running a business. He has become a Peer farmer trainer for Send A Cow, helping to train other farmers, and has passed on a gift of a calf to other farmers in his community from his first cow.

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This is Charles’ second visit to Riverford. During this stay he will be spending time with our picking and farm management team learning how we plan and produce our seasonal veg. So far our farm team have kept him busy learning a variety of larger-scale farming techniques. It’s also been very hands on and Charles has been helping us with our everyday farm work – from picking and bunching spring onions to go in our Riverford boxes, to harvesting our lettuces and spinach. A useful agricultural tip he said has learned while working in the fields here is how we harvest our spinach. When harvesting spinach in Uganda they traditionally leave part of the plant remaining, in order for it to grow back. Here Charles has found that if you cut off all the leaves, the plant will grow back quicker (within 2-3 weeks). Charles is also interested in the different varieties of fruit and veg that he doesn’t currently grow at home. In particular, he is hoping to grow more varieties of tomato on his return to Uganda, including beef and cherry tomatoes, which he feels will be popular. He’s also keen to grow cherries and green peppers.

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At home in Uganda, Charles grows a range of crops to feed his family, with a little extra to sell. These include onions, spinach, kale and sweetcorn which are prepared daily by his wife Barbara for their four children. Sadly his first cow passed away, however his new calf (also called Helen) produces approximately 12 litres of milk each day and he grows bananas and coffee which he sells.

It’s been great to welcome Charles to the farm to spend time with the team at Riverford.

If you have any questions for Charles on farming in Uganda and the UK, please send us a message at help@www.riverford.co.uk/blog and we’ll be happy to answer your questions.

News from the farms

Our regional farms around the UK (and one in France) are our way of growing fruit and veg as close to your home as practical.

Guy Watson, Wash Farm, Devon

Three acres of broad beans were sown in January and, hungry crows allowing, they should be ready in mid-June. We’ve covered the crop with mesh to help protect the emerging seedlings and warm the soil a little, so fingers crossed we get a decent harvest. Spring greens and purple sprouting broccoli have done well despite a little early flushing due to the mild weather. Meanwhile, our new polytunnel has earned its keep so far by easily meeting the planned yields for our winter salad leaves. The gentle start to the winter certainly helped. The final salad crops have been sown inside, after which they’ll move outside to clear the way for spring onions, tomatoes, mini cucumbers and French beans.

Nigel Venni, Sacrewell Farm, Cambridgeshire

After a good season of winter crops including leeks, cabbages, kale and spring greens, it’s turnaround time for Nigel. Two acres of garlic were planted before Christmas, which will be harvested in May as the Mediterranean-inspired wet garlic. Broad beans, Batavia and Little Gem lettuces will follow, as well as spinach. The farm has nearly four acres of wild bird seed plots too, and this winter brought visitors including corn buntings, grey partridge, lapwings, fieldfares, red kites and barn owls.

Peter + Jo-ann Richardson, Home Farm, North Yorkshire

After the mildest winter for several years, it’s been an almost seamless transition into the spring planting season for Peter. Broad beans went in back in February, to be followed by new plantings every few weeks to keep the supply coming. Novella, the first of his potatoes (easily the biggest crop on the farm) will go in during March, as will the early carrots for harvesting as bunches in June or July. This year Peter also hopes to try out Pink Fir Apple potatoes; fantastic to eat, but a devil to grow organically.

Chris Wakefield, Upper Norton Farm, Hampshire

The spring onions that Chris and his team planted in the polytunnels during November got off to a great start, thanks to the mild conditions. The crop should yield a very healthy 25,000 bunches around two weeks ahead of outdoor-grown plantings in March. Butterhead lettuce also went in during early January, and once those crops are cleared, the herb season recommences. Coriander, parsley and basil will be nurtured in the warmth of the polytunnels, while sage, thyme, rosemary and oregano will grow outside. There will also be a new crop of mint, after some culinary testing!

Guy Watson, Le Boutinard, France

Our autumn-sown carrots are doing well, putting us on track to have them ready in April to plug the supply gap before the UK crop is ready. Meanwhile our spinach is struggling; poor germination followed by some fairly extensive frost damage have taken their toll. Thankfully the Batavia lettuces are looking good under their mini-tunnels, and we are busy planning in chilli peppers, squash and 25 acres of sweetcorn, possibly to include a multicoloured variety. After experimenting with Cape gooseberries and tomatillos back in Devon last year we’re giving both crops a go here in France this summer, as well as the locally popular Mogette beans, for drying and relishing in winter stews.

Clucking in the clover

Watch our organic chickens getting into the free range spirit with a little help from Guy and some wiggly worms.

You can read all about animal welfare at Riverford here.

A famous potato

Some of you may have noticed a Riverford veg box in the national newspapers last week. Not in an article about organic vegetables, nor in a review about our Field Kitchen restaurant, but this time as an integral part of Santa Claus’ sledge, captured on camera travelling through the stratosphere. Out of the blue, the media got hold of a project we worked on with our local primary school last December, to send one of our potatoes into space.

We commissioned the children of Landscove C of E Primary School to design a space rocket and costume for the potato, so it could be sent into the stratosphere, 20 miles above the surface of the earth. The potato was dressed as Father Christmas and housed in a two litre plastic drinks bottle, with a miniature vegbox attached to the rear. We developed primitive GPS tracking and made electronic circuits to control digital cameras that would take photos of earth. On 23rd December we launched Spudnik into the heavens with the aid of a super-high altitude helium balloon. We retrieved the craft almost four hours later just east of Basingstoke (some 230km from the launch site in Devon). You can see the amazing pictures and video from the onboard cameras on the spudnik1.co.uk website.

Perhaps even more amazing than the technical success of Spudnik is the amount of media interest it has generated. Our humble project, which cost just £400, was splashed over most of the national papers and even appeared in the Australian Daily Telegraph. Russian TV is interviewing the school this week and a Japanese broadcast company wants to feature the project in a documentary. The fame has been brilliant for the school, who have had donations of scientific instruments and micro-computers. We are overjoyed that we could make learning such fun for the children and help to make their class famous the world over. And it’s great that we can generate such good publicity by simply doing a fun little project with a school. Who needs rapping farmers?

Alex Henderson from our IT team (and the brains behind Spudnik)

Once bittern

bittern at Riverford Organic, YorkshireI am still reeling from a flirtation with a (feathered) bird last week. I was driving down the road on my way to Maunby when a bird flew out of the hedge and straight into my Landrover. The impact stunned the bird so I backed up to have a good look at it. The bird was unfamiliar looking and quite a fair size. It wasn’t in a good way so I called Mark back at the farm and asked him to come down with two large boxes as quick as he could. Mark turned up five minutes later with two large veg boxes (turns out he thought I had run somebody over and wanted to give them some veg to say sorry – not that I wanted something to put the bird in). We took a photo of the bird, looked it up and discovered that it was a bittern, one of the most threatened species in the UK – apparently there are only 50 males left. Gradually the bird got his senses back and crawled into the hedge. I went back an hour or so later to check on him and he launched at me – he seemed to be improving. Then I walked back to the farm to get my dad to come and have a look, but by the time we got back the bird had flown away. Glad to see a happy ending.

Peter Richardson from Home Farm in Yorkshire