Category Archives: Guy’s newsletter

Guy’s news: Waiting for the plough

A pair of pigeons is edging closer on the branch outside my room. She is tolerating his wooing… from a distance. This is no weather to be starting a brood – or planting vegetables. Like the pigeons, we are in limbo, waiting for the sun to make its appearance; they could be building their nest, and we should be ploughing in readiness, but nothing is happening.

Ploughed ground usually dries faster, provided the furrows stand up and allow air into the soil; should we have taken our meagre chances and ploughed last month? Plough too soon, and the furrows will slump in heavy rain, reducing to an airless pudding which is slower than ever to dry and can go sour. The ideal is to plough far enough ahead to allow soil fungi and bacteria to start breaking down the residues of previous crops, compost and manures into soluble nutrients, but not so early that those nutrients are leached by the rain before crops can use them. Achieving such perfect timing is not so easy when grabbing whatever opportunities the weather provides.

Ploughing is a well proven, but deeply flawed, pragmatic compromise; by inverting the soil and leaving it bare, soil life is damaged and the danger of soil loss is multiplied many times. Against this, the new crop is given a weedfree start and the aeration can provide a short-term fix for soil compaction, therefore aiding root growth. The truth is, we don’t know how to grow many crops without ploughing – especially without the aid of chemical herbicides. This year, working with other members of our co-op and a research initiative called Innovative Farmers, we are experimenting with only cultivating narrow strips to plant into. The idea is to give the crop enough competitive advantage without ploughing the whole field. Like most innovation, it will almost certainly fail first time, but I hope it will provide experience to build on and be the first step towards a less compromised, more sustainable growing system. It seemed like a great and worthy idea in the calm of January; I suspect I may be cursing my enthusiasm in the heat of June.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Grey bananas & early lettuce

As the last vestiges of snow retreat into north-facing hedges, we are counting the cost brought by the tail of winter that arrived at the beginning of spring. Despite valiant efforts from our drivers, we had five lorries loaded with 30,000 items of produce stuck in the snow, plus many Riverford vans that had to abandon their rounds. Over the last few days we sorted through the returned orders, re-using hardy, unharmed veg like carrots and potatoes in this week’s boxes, and did our best to find homes for what was too ripe through local schools and charities. Bananas were the biggest casualty; they got too cold and turned an unappetising grey.

On the land, the thaw combined with heavy rain and has left our soils sodden, re-opening springs that have been dry all winter. The target dates for planting the first cabbage, lettuce, peas, broad beans and potatoes have passed, and the backlog of plants is building up in the greenhouses and hardening-off yards. With no sign of settled weather ahead, the chances of planting this month seem remote. It is frustrating not to be able to make a start, but the soil is still cold; experience has so often seen later plantings quickly catch up and often overtake those planted weeks earlier in poor conditions. We must be patient; at least it allows time to complete our winter tree planting and maintenance, though mercifully our polytunnels, which are not designed to support heavy snow accumulations, survived largely unscathed. We often lament the steepness of our land which challenges mechanisation and so adds labour cost, but it does have the virtue of draining rapidly and drying quickly; something we are glad of this year.

Meanwhile, 250 miles further south we have been planting crops in the sandy, well drained land on our French farm for two months already. We had nights of -6°C last week but, with the help of crop covers and low-level tunnels, the first lettuce will be ready for your boxes in just two weeks, thanks to the superior light quality and milder conditions. It has not been an easy year, but the growing experience of our team there has helped us to make the best of it by grabbing what weather windows we get.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Risk, consistent blandness & pineapples

Two weeks in Sri Lanka feasting morning, noon and night on the best food I have ever eaten has left me craving coconut, jackfruit, lime and curry leaf, but not their pineapples. Fresh aromatic leaves, fruit, vegetables and spices with minimal meat, a little dried fish and a marked absence of processed ingredients, prepared in the simplest of kitchens with honesty and confidence was available on every street, village and market.

Within hours of returning home I was on the farm in search of greenery to detox from my airline food; there was not much to be had on account of the cold and I found myself embroiled in a debate about pineapples instead. Grown in Togo, ours were better than any I had eaten on holiday but tragically the sweetest and most juicy were being rejected. One in four had small areas of internal browning as they reached their peak of sweetness and, after a rash of complaints, we were playing safe; hopefully most will go to food charities or be eaten by staff rather than by the cows. The tragedy of such waste is compounded by memories of visiting the growers and witnessing the human effort that went into nurturing the fruit; most have been grown using only mattocks and carried a kilometre or more from small remote fields to the nearest road, in the first stage of their long and tortuous journey to your door. Added frustration comes from knowing that those growers would view a such light browning as little more than a sign of ripeness.

If we accept that “the customer is always right” and assess satisfaction by measuring complaints we will, paradoxically, manage ourselves into a situation where we sell consistent but mildly disappointing fruit while accepting ludicrous waste; just like most supermarkets. We must be brave enough to accept occasional complaints and I would ask you, our customers, not to give up on us at the first over-ripe piece of fruit. We must both trust, forgive and take a little risk, in order to avoid a life of predictable blandness.

Outside the ground is hard as iron and snow is falling on snow. Our intrepid drivers will do their best but, in anticipation of logistical carnage, I apologise to those whose boxes arrived late or not at all.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Good news for birds, bees – and organic farmers

Guy is on holiday this week, hopefully enjoying better weather than we are. In his absence, we are using his space to share the heartening results from the 2018 Soil Association Organic Market Report. In fields and shops alike, the organic sector is seeing its sixth year of strong growth. The amount of UK farmland going organic has increased by 22% since 2016, and organic food sales are at an all-time high, growing by 6% (against non-organic sales growth of just 2%).

This is good news for us at Riverford, of course, but also for the planet. Organic farming is about working with nature, not against it. This principle guides all sorts of choices: from never using artificial pesticides and fertilisers, to maintaining wide field margins, mature hedgerows, reservoirs and healthy soil. We leave our hedgerows uncut between March and August so the local wildlife
can breed in peace. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it: new Soil Association research shows that plant, insect and bird life is typically 50% more abundant on organic farms, which can be home to 30% more species.

Organic certification also demands the highest level of animal welfare – setting much higher standards than, for example, free range. Animals have real freedom to roam on open pasture, enjoy a rich natural diet, and are reared without the routine use of drugs, antibiotics or wormers. Riverford’s meat all comes from small-scale West Country farmers we know and trust. Our fresh milk for customers in the South comes from the Riverford Dairy (owned by Guy’s brother and sister), and from the Tweddle family’s Acorn Dairy for customers in the North and East. The cows do a good job of making sure nothing goes to waste here in Devon… they will cheerfully devour any grade-out veg that isn’t good enough for human plates. Broccoli is their favourite!

30 years ago, when Guy first started growing veg in one field of his family’s farm, there was little evidence to support organic methods. In Guy’s own words, he chose organic ‘largely because it just felt right’. Since then, we’ve stuck by organic through thick and thin, supported by you, our customers. It’s good to see this growth, and to know that organic is beginning to feel right to a new generation of farmers and shoppers. Long may it continue.

Guy’s news: Packaging; an apology for drifting

As we prepare for employee ownership I’m writing an ethos statement to be included in the documentation. “Only dead fish go with the flow” made it in there and seems to embody our independent spirit. However staff pointed out that going with the flow can conserve energy for more important battles, that it can be soothing to drift along with others, and sometimes everyone else is right.
On reflection the principle should be knowing when to drift, and when to swim.

In 2007 we did some swimming. A collaboration with Exeter University informed an environmental policy which challenged many popular, intuitive views of the time. We abandoned our tentative move towards biofuels, stopped using biodegradable plastic bags, stopped using UK heated glass houses and argued that plastic often has a lower carbon footprint than paper. Plastic marine pollution was not a widely recognised issue at the time; our assumption was that climate change was the main challenge facing our planet.

Through recessions, an IT crisis, and the collapse and recovery of the organic market, we’ve swum in other areas but drifted on packaging. In our defence, we encouraged you to return packaging for us to sort, reuse or recycle, but the problem is that we’ve drifted into using too much packaging in the first place. There’s always a reason: reducing wilting and waste, separating allergens,
maintaining temperature requirements, carrying vital labels, and occasionally, because it makes our lives and systems easier. But we’ve drifted too far and need to challenge those pressures. That should have come from me but I am ashamed to say it has come from feedback from you, our customers.

Please be assured that we have woken up; all packaging is being critically challenged. We have already moved from plastic to biodegradable nets made from wood and you will see other changes in coming weeks. We’re not going to jump into degradable plastics, or from plastic to paper, without investing in substantial research first. So this is an apology for not living up to the expectations we’ve courted and a promise that we’ve heard you and will change as quickly as we can. While we may be way ahead of most retailers in this area, we have drifted too long.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Planning & long-term relationships

Leafing through the glossy pages of seed catalogues can be a dangerous pastime during short, cold winter days. We know our carrots will be more wrinkled and there will be few onions with such flawless skin, but in a warm kitchen, disbelief can be suspended and dangerous dreams of vegetable perfection can take root. Thankfully, the days when a year’s cropping was based on my emotional state when ordering the seeds are long past; today planning is rational and meticulous. The ideal contents of every veg box from May ‘18 to April ‘19 were decided by September ‘17; by November we’d agreed which fellow farmers will grow what and agreed prices, leaving January to order seeds and plants and plan our own farm cropping. It can be two years before some crops end up in your boxes; last minute adjustments may be needed as crops fail or out-yield, or come early or late, but for the most part it works. Waste is minimal, and (correct me if I am wrong) the variety and balance in your boxes is infinitely better than in the dark ages of my whims.

My greatest pride in Riverford stems from breaking the industry norms of short-term, competitive relationships and almost ritualistic abuse of growers by supermarket and wholesaler buyers who have little knowledge (and even less interest) in flavour or the realities of farming. The waste, brutality and frustration I experienced on the wrong side of those negotiations made me determined to find a better way of working with our own growers. There is usually more to be gained by cooperation and long-term, mutually beneficial relationships than brutal competition for short-term contracts; it all depends on building and valuing mutual trust. We also have a preference for smaller family farms with a heartfelt commitment to organic farming, over large, commercially-motivated growers who keep a foot in both organic and conventional camps and move whichever way the wind blows. Maintaining relationships with growers, whether in Devon, Yorkshire, Spain or Togo, often over 10 or even 20 years, is not always the cheapest way of buying, but it does produce the best veg. Respect for humanity and the environment are included free.

Read about our recent trip to visit our Spanish growers here.

Guy’s news: Ode to a fallen oak

January’s first gale finally toppled one of our oldest field oaks. It has stood alone for all my 57 years, increasingly skeletal, surrounded by successive crops of grass, rhubarb, chard, cabbages and grass again. Unlike the more aggressively colonising ash tree, which stunts the growth of any crop within 20 metres, oaks allow grass and vegetables to grow right up to their branches; they seem happy to share, knowing that they will outlive their competitors. In my early years, resentful of the cropping area lost to this old oak, we probably took advantage of its good nature and ploughed too close. It pains me now to think my greed may have accelerated the tree’s end by damaging its roots.

It is said to have taken an incredible 1000 oaks to build Nelson’s HMS Victory, and 2000 plus for the larger ships of the line, leading to a severe national timber shortage by the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Riverford is rich in mature 200- to 300-year-old oak trees, probably planted in response to this shortage. Most stand alone in hedges or fields, where the absence of nearby trees gives them a stately grandeur. Their forms, though instantly recognisable for the sturdiness of their trunks and lacelike finery of their branches, are incredibly varied, shaped (like all of us) by a combination of genetics and growing conditions. Each tree is an ecosystem, home to a myriad of fungal and insect parasites, to little deleterious effect; time and evolution have resulted in tolerant, if not quite symbiotic, co-existence. They have provided grace, shade, shelter and food for centuries… and this one, now fallen, will heat my home for a year or more. My veneration of the ancient trees grows with every year I age myself. In my animist moments, I wonder how the survivors will judge our brief custodial tenure of the landscape they grace.

We have finally phased out the paper receipts in all areas (saving 2.6m bits of paper a year). Most of you have responded that this was long overdue. You will get an e-receipt the morning of your delivery – as long as you have an email registered with us. If we don’t have an email for you, or if you have any other questions, please call your local veg team or the team at the farm.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: The proof is in the Rt Honourable’s pudding

It is hard to understand the inhumanity or moral blindness that made 19th century slavery acceptable, but it makes the courage and mental fortitude of those who spoke out all the more admirable. Future generations will surely place our abuse of the environment they will inherit top of their own list of retrospective shame. The generous might cite our inability to find the mechanisms to act collectively in the face of pervasive global capitalism; the angry might say we were just too selfish and busy feeding our appetites to consider those who share our planet now and in years to come.

After an inexplicable two-year delay, our government published its 25 Year Environment Plan last week. I read most of its 150 pages expecting, perhaps even trying, to be cynical, but I reckon it covers most of what it should and reaches most of the right conclusions. It is surprisingly broad thinking in appreciating the hard-to-measure contributions of the environment (eg. to mental health and community) and includes as many firm commitments and as few crowd pleasers as one could hope. Of course, the challenge will be financing all that tree planting, actually getting the packaging industry to rationalise its use of plastic, and standing up to lobbying from wealthy landowners and the agro-chemical industry. The plan falls down in that it includes little meaningful commitment to reducing pesticide use and no mention of the environmental contributions of organic farming (though it advocates much of what we do). And will we support our farmers with their higher standards when faced with US trade negotiations? I do worry about the ability of liberal, market-orientated democracy to turn these aspirations into long-term legislation, rather than short-term vote-winning publicity stunts. However, it feels like an honest appreciation of the magnitude and importance of the problems we face, and is a significant step towards addressing them.

Closer to home, you can add a free sunflower birdfeeder (grown on our French farm) to your order this week. As the Defra report says, farming is about more than just feeding ourselves; I enjoy growing them, a few more birds may make it through winter, and watching their colourful acrobatics may even contribute to our mental health.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Anger, hope & Oprah

Every January, two sides of agriculture gather in Oxford; the 82-year-old, mostly male and suit-clad ‘conventional’ Oxford Farming Conference, and the nine-year-old challenger, the Oxford Real Farming Conference, with no suits, fewer landowners, and a broader spread of age, gender and ethnicity. The former is sponsored by banks, chemical manufacturers and accountants and is bashful about anything not justified by profit, while the latter is sponsored by charities, a not-for-profit bank, individuals and, this year, Riverford. It also challenges the dominance of capital over labour, specialisation over diversity, and champions labourers and the landless. The former, with its defence of the privilege of the most privileged, makes me ashamed of my profession. The latter fills me with hope and inspiration that a more equitable way of farming is within grasp; that, to echo Oprah Winfrey, “a new day is on the horizon”.

Despite driving a Land Rover and liking tweed, I have never identified with my more landed farming peers. Too often they are united by a sense of entitlement without acknowledgement of their (often inherited) privilege or the taxpayer’s money that perpetuates it, or the responsibilities that should come with those advantages. I thought I had mellowed in my middle years but the baying
bigotry of this sector of farming makes my blood boil at times. Secretary of State for Defra Michael Gove addressed both conferences and, to my surprise, stated unequivocally that the current £2.5bn payments that are essentially government subsidies for owning land are “unjust” and will stop by 2024. Perhaps more importantly the sold-out ‘real’ conference had twice as many delegates and a long waiting list, with doers outnumbering talkers. There were impassioned, deeply practical talks on everything from soil structure to weeding by laser-armed robot swarms. Inevitably a lot of time was devoted to Brexit, but the prevailing feeling was that this is the chance for a food and farming policy that represents the many over the few, the wildlife we share our countryside with, and future generations. Mercifully my anger seemed to be an anomaly drowned in a sea of hope.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Stunted growth, spotty sprouts & Sevilles

It’s wild, wet and windy out there. The sun, when we see it, barely reaches the north-facing fields even at midday. If I were a bear, I would find a warm cave and take a nap. Nothing grows in the first two weeks of January, but the stunt doesn’t last long. By the end of the month, kales, leeks and cabbages will begin to grow again as the days start to draw out and the noon sun starts to climb. On our French farm, just 200 miles south, we’ll be planting lettuces before the end of the month. I can’t explain it, but even growers in areas like southern California, where their winter is similar to our summer, avoid sowing in early January. A druid might put it down the need for solar rebirth; a bear might take it as a chance for a nap.

I once got berated as a heartless bully by a number of you for being unforgiving about the repeated failures, and consequent lack of quality, of one of our cauliflower growers (Mr M for those who remember). I ate humble pie, apologised, and we went on buying his caulis, but it made no difference in the end; he continued to hope for the best rather than weed his crop, and went bust soon after. It might have been kinder to be harder sooner; it is a hard judgement to know when to stop working with a grower. Riverford is extraordinary within our industry for the long-term relationships we have with suppliers. It’s something I feel very proud of and hope survives me, but sometimes the farm or the farmer is wrong for the crop and no amount of ethics or support will change the inevitable outcome; it just prolongs the agony and undermines other growers. If you were one of the 20% of customers who had to trim small, spotty Brussels sprouts this year, I am sorry; it was the third year of poor sprouts from this grower, but we won’t give up on him quite yet.

On a lighter note, to mark two more successful long-term relationships, the first blood oranges from Sicily and Sevilles from Ave Maria Farm in Mairena del Alcor have arrived and are as excellent as in previous years. Now is the time to make marmalade. You can even cook alongside me on our YouTube channel if you need a little guidance.

Guy Singh-Watson