Category Archives: Guy’s newsletter

Guy’s news: Recipe boxes, carthorses & unicorns

It’s hard being a carthorse grazing with unicorns. 30 years of learning our trade and patiently reinvesting profits have served Riverford well, but are we out of step with the herd? Looking around our field, I find us surrounded by a new and impatient breed of business: hungry for growth, and backed by even hungrier private capital. The combination is explosive, and makes scary company for an old nag used to plodding along alone.

For the more grounded among you, a ‘unicorn’ is a privately owned startup company valued at more than $1 billion; think Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, Dropbox and Pinterest. They call them unicorns because they are so vanishingly rare – but that doesn’t stop a generation of techy wannabes dreaming of being the next Mark Zuckerberg. Home delivery of food ordered over the internet, and recipe boxes in particular, are seen as high-growth areas ripe for unicorn status; Farmdrop, Gousto, HelloFresh and the like vye with the more traditional mammoths like Amazon/Whole Foods and Ocado.

Having declared that Riverford will be sold not to venture capitalists, but to its hard-working, modestly paid staff, we have no access to the cash sloshing around the global economy looking to grow on the back of the next big thing. Instead we must make a profit before we can invest. That means we stick to what we know, don’t spend much on marketing, and look after our long-term customers rather than discounting to tease in new ones; in short, we plod. That might mean we get left behind, worrying about growing veg rather than share value. But it may also mean that those unicorns all chase themselves round the field faster and faster, running in ever smaller circles, until poof! All that is left is a cloud of smoke and some stardust… and we can all go back to our carrots.

Before they got me thinking about unicorns, I meant to write about our organic recipe boxes. We don’t advertise much, but they really are the best. You can now choose whichever recipes you fancy each week: 1, 2, 3 or more, including new vegan options. We’ll deliver everything bar the salt and pepper for your chosen recipes. All the joys of cooking with good ingredients, with none of the waste or the faff of planning.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Sauerkraut for cows

After three frantic weeks, we are very nearly caught up with the planting; just a few more rhubarb crowns and artichokes to go, and we will be there. Most crops are establishing well, but even the recent glorious weather won’t make up for a month’s delay in starting – making a long, hungry wait for the first harvest.

South Devon has come alive with the hum of mowers as dairy farmers take their first cut of silage. The grass is cut, bruised to speed wilting, and left for a day to dry, before being windrowed (raked into rows) for the forage harvester; a ravenous, roaring beast which seems to get bigger and faster with every passing year. Back at the farm, the finely chopped grass is rolled into a ‘clamp’ (a heap that is covered and compressed) to exclude oxygen. This promotes the anaerobic fermentation which generates lactic acid, thereby pickling and preserving the grass. It’s sauerkraut for cows on a huge scale; they will each eat about ten tonnes through the winter. These early cuts give lower yields, but the grass is more digestible. So, provided there are enough sugars to feed the right bacteria, quality will be good, the cows will eat more and produce more milk.

Silage is undoubtedly a more efficient and advanced way of preserving grass than haymaking, which normally requires five to seven consecutive dry days, making it risky, time consuming and often frustrating. However, the early and frequent cutting used for silage is less good for ground-nesting birds. Traditional hay meadows were typically cut in July, when most nesting was complete and a diverse range of grasses and flowers had set seed. The transition from hay to silage gained momentum in the 1960s; silage must now account for 95% of forage conservation in the UK. Its rising popularity is also associated with a move from species-rich permanent pasture to monocultures of sweet, high-yielding ryegrasses which respond well to nitrogen fertilisers. Organic farmers will have more diverse mixtures, including clovers and sometimes more varied grasses, but nothing to compare with the species richness of traditional hay meadows – or the sweet smell of well-made hay. Despite silage’s flaws, it is good to see (or rather hear) the dairy farmers getting started, just as we finish catching up ourselves.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Supermarkets, muckspreaders & unholy couplings

I’m very excited about my ‘new’ muckspreader. Actually it’s twenty years old, and tiny; a toy by modern standards, spreading a mere tonne at a time. No one else wanted it, but I think it’s just perfect for the job, spreading its load with a light, nimble touch on the land. Can a muckspreader be elegant? We do have a larger one, taking ten tonnes and needing a 150hp tractor to pull it; this behemoth is a cheaper way to get the job done, but it crushes everything in its path, leaving a trail of destruction behind. The true cost of its lumbering is long term and subterranean, making it hard to resist the short term benefits of speed, convenience and cost. Nobody asked the earthworms, but I squirm in sympathy as the beast devours their homes.

The unholy coupling of Asdapod and Sainsceratops will create a clumsy gargantuan, let loose to destroy all in the path of its flailing battle with Tescosaurus rex. More anonymous, over-travelled, additive-laden food, larger distribution centres, more low-paid jobs… The earthworms here will be the helpless, invisible suppliers: forced to wait ever longer to be paid while their cash feeds the beast’s insatiable appetite for growth, and squeezed to extinction just to shave a penny off the price of butter. No, I don’t think the merger is a great idea. I used to feed these monsters myself, before side-stepping into a cave too small for them.

How do we turn this around, for some sanity to prevail? It took a massive meteorite strike to end the dinosaurs’ reign, allowing those freaky, light-footed mammals on the fringes to have their day. Might the internet topple the vast, inflexible beasts? Perhaps, but beware the voracious Amazonosaurus.

But it hasn’t all been bad news. The EU virtually banned neonicotinoid insecticides last week, as the evidence of their contribution to the catastrophic decline of bees and other pollinators became overwhelming. Michael Gove, Defra, and the UK government’s advisory panel on pesticides even led the way. Well done.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Raving busy

After a raving busy fortnight of muckspreading, ploughing and planting, we are well on the way to catching up from the setbacks of March’s shock weather. A few plants went in while conditions were still borderline, and may struggle to make that crucial early contact with the soil (which, cultivated before it was quite dry, was more vulnerable to damage under our tyres and feet). But after a week, most plants have sent out an inch of vigorous roots and are away.

The big job this week is dividing and replanting spent rhubarb crowns. Ideally this would have been done in February, but rhubarb, in addition to muck and custard, likes water; we plant it in deep, moisture retentive soil which is only now drying enough to make the work tolerable. The roots, which resemble rotten, lifeless tree stumps, are undercut, lifted and cut into 3-8 sections with spades and machetes. It is crucial to clean off the clinging roots of any perennial weeds before replanting in a weed-free field; couch grass, creeping nettle and creeping buttercup are the banes of organic rhubarb.

Rhubarb, initially brought from China as a purgative, was almost abandoned in the late 20th century in favour of airfreighted peaches, strawberries and grapes. Now it’s back in fashion with a vengeance. The UK forced rhubarb season starts in January, but planting stock has become very expensive, and we haven’t found a way to make this commercially viable. Instead, our outdoor crop starts in late April and runs through the summer, until the stalks get dry and tough or you lose your appetite for the stuff (whichever comes sooner). We have just started picking the remaining younger crowns, but expect a reduced crop; in such a wet winter, we weren’t able to spread the muck it so loves.

In the woods, we’re in the last week of wild garlic harvesting. As the trees come into leaf above, the leaves on the forest floor will yellow, putting all their remaining energy into seed and bulb production before being shaded out for the summer. The oak is out well before the ash, which, according to folk law, suggests we are ‘in for a splash’ rather than a ‘soak’, i.e. we should look forward to a dry summer – a welcome prospect after a winter from which we are only now recovering.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: And we’re off!

The sun is out, the birdsong is deafening, and every available hand and tractor is frantically at work catching up on six wet lost weeks. Most of our well-drained, south-facing slopes have been mucked, rotovated and ploughed. It then typically takes two or three days of sun and wind to dry the soil enough to allow the cultivators to create a good seedbed for the planters and seed drills.

Many of the older plants, forced to wait out the bad weather in trays, have grown leggy and vulnerable. This makes the mechanical planters unreliable; progress is slow, with a team following the machines to fill in the gaps and right toppled plants by hand. But, as we get into younger plants, the pace is already quickening. The planting team is followed immediately by the fleecers. They cover the vulnerable plants with ultra-light floating crop covers that will boost temperatures and humidity, reducing stress and helping these plantings to catch up on some of their lost growth. By the time you read this, we should have planted most of the backlog of pak choi, lettuce, chards, cabbages, peas and beans. In the polytunnels we are ripping out the winter salads to make room for for basil (already planted), tomatoes (next week), cucumbers and chillies (early May). Next we just have to wait; there won’t be much to pick before mid-June. The danger is that we will then be overwhelmed with a tidal wave of greenery.

After six weeks of shortages, the warmth and sunlight have brought on a last flush of leeks, cauliflowers and purple sprouting broccoli. Just like the noisy birds, they are all change, from dull survival to frenzied reproduction in a matter of days. For nearly a year the leeks have been quietly producing new leaves, but the rising temperature and lengthening days flip a switch in their stems: a ‘bolt’ emerges from the base of each, pushing up with triffid-like speed and unpalatable woodiness. Given the chance, they would carry the starburst flower characteristic of the allium family. The next ten days will be a rush to beat the bolts and get the leeks picked for your tables.

Despite the hectic activity, no one is complaining. It is a relief to walk with mud-free boots, to feel the sun on your back and to have finally made a start… albeit a late one.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Time to emerge from the gloom?

A few tantalising breaks in the clouds reveal a sun growing in strength, but with sodden ground nothing has been planted to soak up the rays. To add to our gloom, areas of purple sprouting broccoli are withering, stunted and yellow. Digging up a few plants reveals roots rotting in airless, water-logged soil.

We homo sapiens are incredibly versatile. Given peace, stability and reasonable governance, we manage to grow food in the most extreme circumstances: in deserts, on the sides of mountains, and in the Arctic Circle. I am confident we can adapt to a bit of rain. However, successful agronomy is always based on accumulated experience, and the assumption that the future will be similar to the past. A longer time frame and more objectivity than I can muster are needed to assess whether unusual weather should be attributed to climate change, but perhaps it is time to rethink some of our farming practices.

Based on the last ten years, the biggest challenge we face (in the west at least) is extended periods of heavy rainfall, with consequent problems of water-logging, the inability to plough, plant and weed in critical periods, soil being lost or leached of nutrients, and difficulties in harvesting. Most modern horticultural trends exacerbate the problem: ever larger machines and fields, intensification to squeeze more crops from the same area, and the abandoning of crop rotations which give soil a chance to recover under grass. This ‘progress’ isn’t inevitable; better doesn’t have to mean bigger and more. There are advances in GPS guidance, battery technology, robotics and our understanding of ecology and soil health that could all make a very different type of farming possible.

We are experimenting with permanent raised beds, alley and mixed cropping amongst perennials, low ground-pressure vehicles, and small areas of crops surrounded by buffers of grass. All have the potential to be more resilient, less damaging and even, one day, more profitable than prevailing methods; but inspiring a wider agricultural mindshift will need more investment in machinery and knowledge than a few maverick gardeners and farmers can offer. For now, the sun is beginning to shine. Perhaps by the time this is read we will have started planting.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Still waiting… and starting to worry

I know it’s getting repetitive, but it’s also getting serious; we are still waiting for the wet weather to give us a break longer than 36 hours, to allow tractors to travel and planting to begin. Brassicas (cabbages, cauliflowers and the like) can wait weeks in the yard, with leaves going yellow and roots brown, and still grow well when finally planted. But lettuces grow tall in the tray, become vulnerable to damage and disease, and, beyond a certain point, will never really recover. Then there is the added problem of six weeks’ plants being concertinaed into a few days of planting, which will inevitably result in gluts come harvest time.

In my frustration, I took an old plough out last week during a brief dry spell. My mission was to plough a small, steep but well-drained slope and plant a spinney of beech before the buds burst on the saplings. For all my efforts, it was simply too wet; the soil was soon clinging to the mouldboards (curved blades of the plough), resulting in poor inversion and frequent blockages. I could imagine John Scott, who taught me to plough as a teenager, berating me that I had “left holes big enough to bury pigs in”. Despite my shame, my wife Geetie and I planted the 500 trees; their roots will soon emerge to support them. The beech will be inter-planted with artichokes, which we will feast on until the trees grow too tall and the ground beneath too shady. At that point I will scatter wild garlic seeds from nearby woods, which will flourish in the shade. It is my own version of agroforestry. Thank you to the person who sent in an oak to replace the fallen one – we have planted it at the corner of the new wood.

April is peak wild garlic season. It will make one or two appearances in most boxes, and be available to order through to early May. If foraging for it yourself, be careful to avoid the toxic Lords-and-Ladies and Dog’s Mercury which share the same habitat. We have an experienced team of five in the woods, and another five in the barn painstakingly sorting out any toxic leaves the pickers miss. Wild garlic leaves, or ramsons as they are known in Devon, are great in omelettes, risottos or pastas. Or simply whizz with fresh lemon, olive oil and salt, for a pistou that will lift the dullest soup, stew or grilled meat – and cheer up the most frustrated farmer.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Anxiously awaiting utopia

Easter has passed without a seed going in the ground. With no sign of let up from the weather fronts sweeping in off the Atlantic, it is starting to get serious. A knot of anxiety is growing in my stomach; it could be impatience to plant, but I suspect a larger part is the momentous change just two months away.

After twelve years of research, thought and consultation, Riverford becomes 74% employee-owned on the 8th June (with me holding onto 26%). It all seemed so straightforward when I was planning my utopia, hoe in hand, with only a field of unquestioning artichokes for company. The reality involves lawyers, governance, banks, and hardest of all for me, lots of listening, questions and communication. I have no doubt that it is the right path but, as with sowing my first organic leeks, I never stopped to consider the journey.

I want so much more for Riverford, its staff, suppliers and customers than I have been able to deliver while owning it myself. Management should be about getting the most from staff while giving the most back. Yet in so many organisations, particularly in the UK, people are estimated to achieve only one to two thirds of their potential – resulting in low pay and unfulfilled staff. This is a miserable indictment of the short-term, narrow-minded management so often demanded by conventional ownership.

Too many managers are excited by the numbers and technology that offer predictable returns on investment, but understandably scared of the emotional complications and unpredictable results from investing in people. I should know; I am one of the (mostly male) managers who made it this way. But after thirty years, I am frustrated by the result and want to be part of something less wasteful of our human potential. Over the last year, as we approach employee ownership, we have taken the first steps towards more people-centric management. It will be a long, scary and exciting journey, full of learning, along an unmarked path. But if each of us at Riverford achieves three-quarters of our potential we will fly – and we hope others will follow. I find myself as excited about my involvement in this next leg of Riverford’s journey as when I sowed those first leeks.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Still waiting

For the second time this month, the snow has melted from our fields just in time for more rain. The plough, greased and ready to go, must stay in the shed, and the plants must stay in the greenhouse, or at best be moved to the yard.

We can’t put off ploughing forever; already we are clearing the last of our kales, and cabbages and leeks will soon run to seed. There is one cheering sight in the fields: Red Russian kale is having a last hurrah, telescoping upwards with a superbly tasty stem that we will pick for the 100% UK veg box this week. Looking at sales of this box – formerly known by some within Riverford as the ‘Dogma Box’ – I am delighted to see that last week they were approaching 6% of all veg box sales. This may seem modest, but it is 50% up on last year and treble the year before. I have been known to despair at the gulf between the often-professed enthusiasm for all things local and seasonal, and the contents of many proponents’ fridges, but it seems things are changing; I commend the 2000+ of you who have taken the plunge and are embracing the UK seasons. We have another month before things get really hard in the ‘Hungry Gap’ of May and June, before improving as tomatoes, cucumbers etc. start in July. If you find the 100% UK box too challenging, consider a pragmatic weekly alternation with one of the other boxes. Sometimes it’s better to bend than to break; by voting with your box choice, you are putting a welcome pressure on us to up our game and do all we can to maximise what we can grow at home.

Another homegrown treat has survived the snow to liven up all our plates: we have started foraging for wild garlic in local woods, mostly bordering the River Dart between Totnes and Dartmoor. As always, our skilled and eager-eyed pickers do their best to avoid the toxic Lords-and-Ladies and Dog’s Mercury which share the same shady habitat under mature deciduous woodland. We then sort through what we’ve picked again in the barn to give 99.999% confidence; even so, if you see any unfamiliar leaves, please discard them and let us know, preferably with an emailed photo. As an added reassurance, in the name of honour and science I have eaten small quantities of each and lived to tell the unpleasant tale.

Guy Singh-Watson

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