Category Archives: Guy’s newsletter

Guy’s news: Tomatoes, weeds & building regs

A gorgeous, sunny and warm May and June were followed by a persistently damp and cool July and early August. Good for our newly-planted, cool-loving winter brassicas and leeks which have established well, and even the beans are benefitting from the rain and cropping heavily despite cool temperatures, but our sun-loving salads are struggling. Time is also running out for our tomatoes. Sown in February under glass and planted out in unheated tunnels in April, picking starts in late July. By mid October, with light levels and temperatures dipping, flavour deteriorates and ripening slows so we start ripping them out and planting the polytunnels with winter salads. The market for green tomato chutney is limited so last week we “stopped” the plants (ie. removed the leading shoot) to encourage them to fill and ripen the fruit already set. It’s a race against time to hit the 40 tonnes of tomatoes we budgeted for this year as we’ve only picked 12 tonnes so far; we desperately need sun for ripening to catch up, but flavour is surprisingly good despite the grey skies. We could heat the tunnels to extend our tomato season as most commercial growers do, but the CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels to heat uninsulated greenhouses make this environmental madness; indeed if greenhouses contained humans rather than tomatoes, building regulations would make it illegal.

Leeks, kale and cabbage love rain; but so do the weeds. Our strategy to minimise hand weeding is to create a fine and firm “stale” seedbed a month or more ahead of planting; repeated shallow cultivations expose weed seeds to light and changes of temperature, stimulating germination only for the emerging seeds to be killed by the next cultivation. With the help of rain or irrigation, it is possible to remove 90% or more of the weed “burden” so the crop emerges virtually weed-free. If we get it right, mechanical cultivation between the rows combined with moving soil to smother emerging weeds can be enough, especially for vigorous crops like kale and cabbage which quickly form a canopy that out-grows competing plants. This year we got it wrong; a dry May and June meant the weeds waited and germinated as we planted instead. The result will be many hours spent hand-weeding leeks; boring, but not a disaster.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news – The price of a swim in a clean river

The River Dart, which flows past Riverford, was so polluted in the ‘60s and ‘70s that, as the flow dropped in summer, the bottom became covered in several inches of brown slime; we seldom swam past June. The nearby sewage works was the main culprit but farmers and the local tannery were also to blame. Over 40 years of investment – prompted by legislation, grants and occasional prosecution – farms, industry and South West Water have cleaned up the river; an achievement we should collectively celebrate. Today the once fetid Dart is a delight all year for swimmers, fisherman, canoeists and anyone seeking tranquillity on its shaded banks.

25 years ago, pulled by a grant and pushed by tightening legislation, my brother built a huge concrete pit to store cow slurry through the winter until ground conditions allow it to be spread and fertilise the land without fear of pollution. This autumn he is building two sheds; one to store manure under cover to prevent leaching by winter rains, and another to house livestock during wet
winters to prevent damage to soil structure by heavy hooves, and stop faeces running off into water courses. Again there is some grant aid, but also financial benefits from making better use of the manures. Collectively, a desire to do the right thing, the threat of prosecution, and grants have combined to bring progressive improvement in our river and others around the country. I am not
convinced it would have happened without added pressure from EU directives on water quality. It is a knee-jerk response of most farmers to complain about red tape and interference. I would argue that, on our over-crowded island, it is the cost of living in a civilised society with a relatively clean environment.

Guy Watson

A change to our minimum spend
We’ve managed to avoid increasing the minimum spend for years, but delivery costs have risen and the sums are no longer adding up. If you have a veg box, meat box or recipe box in your order, this won’t affect you.
– For all non-meat items, the new minimum spend will be £15
– The meat minimum spend will remain £15
Delivery is still free for everyone!

Guy’s News: A co-operative partnership

I don’t much like big businesses but somehow we have become one. I like making worthwhile things happen but I am a bit mixed up about the need to control and own them. One such worthwhile thing is the South Devon Organic Producers Co-op (SDOP), conceived in a pub 20 years ago when I couldn’t keep up with demand and saw an opportunity for organic vegetables to be grown on other traditional mixed family farms. Through such co-operation I felt perhaps we could get the benefits of mechanisation and scale, while resisting the march towards ever larger farms.

There are advantages to growing veg as part of a long rotation on mixed, ecologically diverse farms, but had I stopped to appreciate the scale of the challenge, I would have stayed at home. We made a lot of mistakes in the early years, struggled to find reliable markets and to meet the exacting specification of supermarket buyers but, with the energy of youth, determination and an EU grant, we survived. Things got easier as we found the right crops for each farm, our skill levels rose and we bought the right machinery, but I think all members would agree that we would have gone under without the reliable market provided by the growing Riverford box scheme. In my more idealistic moments I like to think of the box scheme as a partnership between those farmers and you, with Riverford as the facilitator which has allowed 14 family farms to survive, and supported the conversion of thousands of acres to organic farming. It has also brought a group of farmers together and thereby made a challenging profession a little easier and less lonely.

Last week I visited Antony Coker, a founder member and now SDOP chairman. He recently bought a solar powered robot to help weed and sometimes plant his crops; I want one. He and his wife Mary showed us their crops of runner beans, courgettes and beetroot, all of which will be in your boxes soon. His staff seemed happy, skilled and engaged and my QC team tell me their quality is reliably good. 20 years on we have come a long way and the foundation and survival of the SDOP is perhaps the achievement which I am most proud of. The biggest challenge is now finding the next generation to take the reins.

Guy’s News: Auditing virtue

History tells us that no organisation is capable of reliable self-regulation, whether a newspaper, government, the police, the Catholic church and certainly not a supermarket; yet Sainsbury’s appear to be on the verge of ditching the established third-party Fairtrade Foundation certification system in favour of their own “fairly traded” labelling.

I do have some sympathy with Sainsbury’s on two counts; firstly, Fairtrade is far from being a perfect or complete solution to producer exploitation and secondly, the auditing of ethics can be an expensive and bureaucratic process. It is tempting to think that a commercially-focused organisation could do better on its own. Despite my own misgivings about Fairtrade (mainly around rewarding quality and securing long-term markets) my visits to, and contact with, producers has convinced me that despite its faults, it is by far the best option available and has delivered substantial gains for producers. As such we continue to support it through the certified bananas, pineapples, avocadoes and mangoes we sell. As for the cost; it must be accepted as the price of progress.

Riverford is currently moving towards employee ownership (EO), with staff due to take a 74% stake in May 2018. This has led to a lot of navel-gazing about what values Riverford stands for, and how we will protect them into the future. We have visited other values-driven and EO companies, studied their governance structures and researched what works and what doesn’t. Through this I have almost managed to grow out of my knee-jerk antagonism to the idea of someone else auditing my virtue.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Revenge of the tomatillos

Some seeds will be taken by the birds, some will fall on stony ground, and some will be choked by weeds – but a few will find fertile ground and multiply ‘a hundredfold’. So goes the parable; and two millennia later, despite agricultural advances improving the chances for many crops, one saleable sweetcorn cob per four seeds sown is still a fair expectation. Here in France, we sow 86,000 seeds per hectare for the early crop. In a good year, we expect 55,000 to establish, and to pick around 20,000 cobs, having discarded those poorly filled and pest damaged. With increasing competence and favourable weather, we are managing around 30,000 cobs per hectare this year; something I assured my team was virtually impossible. Like Paddy Ashdown, I must eat my hat.

We might even have had more were it not for the tomatillos. They have self-seeded from previous years and grown as ‘volunteers’ with such vigour that we have struggled to control them between the rows and avoid them engulfing and choking the sweetcorn. Should I be driven out of France by Brexit, their seed may be my revenge, left to curse future farmers of this land. If all crops had
the vigour, disease resistance and sprawling dominance of tomatillos, farming would be a doddle. Luckily they make an excellent salsa verde with chilli, coriander and lime, to go with your barbequed sweetcorn.

We also have bumper crops of padron peppers, aubergine, squash, borlotti beans, and many different types of pepper, which will all be in your boxes over the next couple of months. The padrons taste infinitely better than any I have bought, though with the flavour comes more heat than might be optimal for some tapas eaters. As with so many crops, the flavour is better when grown outside rather than in a tunnel, but they are later and less regular in shape.

After six years, the French farm is finally doing well. It’s taken some hard lessons to find the crops that suit the soil, our skills, and hopefully your tastes; the experience has humbled and occasionally humiliated me, and I won’t be repeating it. But it gives me some satisfaction to suddenly find myself superfluous, and even an irritation. We’ve built such a skilled team that they no longer need me. So, I’ve left them to it and am writing this from the beach – with not a tomatillo in sight.

Guy Watson

Guys news: Cautious steps & revolutionary leaps

We were double winners at the Soil Association Best of Organic Market awards this month; best and most innovative organic farmer. The urge to innovate stems from our restless dissatisfaction with the way things are, a determination to find a better way and constant pushing of the boundaries. It got man out of the cave, brought us the Industrial Revolution, the Green Revolution and the internet but arguably also the Enclosures Act, climate change, deforestation, gun powder and industrialised farming. Clearly it can be a force for both good and bad; as yet we are incapable of distinguishing the useful from the destructive before lunging forward into the chaos that ensues when we let the marketplace decide. The innovations that are scaled up are invariably the profitable ones (usually to a small minority), not necessarily balanced, beneficial to all or thought through in their consequences for humankind and the planet.

I am an irrepressible innovator and sometimes loathe the restless dissatisfaction that comes with it. I know it makes life hard for my staff and those around me and have determined to take time to celebrate achievements before dashing on. On this occasion, celebration involved a lot of organic vodka, imbibed on a warm London night with some self-satisfaction.

To be a good, maybe even the best, organic farmer requires much more balance, and some wisdom. Innovation has its place but, unless preceded by a lot of observation, patience and bit of humility we would be charging around creating clever solutions to the wrong problems. Last week we were clearing up the yard and I noticed a number of my early inventions disappearing into the skip (I couldn’t help retrieving the long-abandoned, barely used, lie-down weeder; a genius idea which my staff hated). Mercifully, over most of my 30 years of organic growing my impetuous nature has been balanced by our more considered farm team, particularly John, our cautious farms manager of 25 years. I appreciate his patience and consideration but will never emulate it; I will be an innovator to the grave. To succeed and persist another 30 years we need both approaches, and the wisdom to recognise when each is appropriate; when to risk my revolutionary leaps and when to progress in John’s cautious steps.

Guy’s news: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”

We taste everything that goes in your veg boxes; in fact at one time we tested the palates of all our staff and formed a panel from those with the most sensitivity. It was an admirably democratic exercise, but proved useless as it failed to accommodate the fact that taste is subjective, highly related to the individual and therefore defies objective measurement.

Forty years of business mantra maintains that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. If you can’t manage it, the easiest thing to do is pretend that it doesn’t exist; an approach that has been misapplied to healthcare and education as well as the quality of vegetables. What measurables there are have improved over the years: shelf life, uniformity, yield, even the elements of flavour which can be quantified like sweetness and crunchiness/turgidity. However, these improvements have been won at the cost of harder to measure, more subtle flavours, and almost certainly nutritional quality. Flavour comes from the crop variety, soil type, growing conditions (most notably the availability of nitrogen and water) and freshness. The best flavour normally comes from vegetables and fruit that have grown slowly, often with a degree of hardship that falls just short of stress (which can result in bitter/off flavours). As such, most commercial farmers cannot risk aiming for flavour when cosmetic appearance is what their buyers will judge quality on.

Introducing…The Riverford Flavour Tour

To bring the focus of food back to flavour we are launching a hands-on, mouthwatering experience of organic vegetables farmed for flavour. Drop by for veg growing, cooking classes, veg games, tastings, demos, and much more! We’ll also be running our new Master Veg cookery classes and Pop-Up Feasts nationwide – see website for details.

WOMAD: 28th-30th July
Riverford on Home Farm: 4th-6th & 8th-9th Aug
Riverford on Sacrewell Farm: 18th-20th Aug
Abergavenny Food Festival: 16th-17th Sept

Guy’s news: Plants; not so dumb & passive

Much of horticulture is about managing the urge of plants to reproduce. Humans need and crave the more digestible, nutrient-dense food found in the reproductive parts of crops; that is the flowers, fruits, seeds, bulbs and tubers. As growers we devote ourselves to manipulating plants to maximise the yield and quality of those tender and tasty reproductive organs, which is a tricky balance to strike. If only we could sell you grass for your supper; alas the easy to grow, non-reproductive parts of plants are largely indigestible to humans.

Plants in their wild state have survived the challenges of pestilence, drought, flood, ice ages and now Homo sapiens by mastering a long-term strategy of balancing growth and dominance against risk. Getting bigger to increase their reproductive capacity must be balanced against the risk of not making it to maturity. At a cellular level the strategy all boils down to whether a cell in the apical meristem (growing point) differentiates into leaf or flower (above ground) and root or starch-saving tuber (below). If things are looking good a plant will
typically extend its vegetative life, assuming the chance for greater fecundity will come later; if things are getting tough (drought, lack of nutrients or light etc) it will switch to sexual mode early so at least some genes are preserved.

Such were my musings as I observed our early runner beans which have grown and grown but failed to produce a crop. The generally-held wisdom is to build a strong plant, then stress it with water deprivation to make it flower, then give it everything it needs so it feels confident and fills every pod. As our plants reach for the polytunnel roof and the soil is covered with aborted flowers and just a few crates of beans to show for it, it’s plain we haven’t grasped the subtleties.

There is a tendency to regard plants as dumb and passive, yet their interaction with the world goes far beyond the basic tropisms we learnt at school. They can sense, even “hear” pest attack and respond with defence chemicals, much as our own immune system works. They may not moo, baa or rush around, but the apparent passivity of plants hides subtleties and complex responses which have served them well. It remains to be seen how well they will survive us.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Hot, hot, hot

It hit 41˚C in the polytunnels yesterday; too hot for people and too hot for crops. Picking starts at 5am to get the cucumbers, salad onions and basil picked and tomatoes side-shooted before it becomes unbearable. Even the bees head for the exit when it reaches 30˚C, as would most humans. I’ve headed to some shade by the reservoir to write this; not a bad office for today.

On our French farm we hire a helicopter to spray lime on the tunnels which is remarkably effective at reducing temperatures and stopping the peppers getting sunburnt; it’s hard to believe, but in the quest for the perfect pepper we seem to have bred out tolerance to the sun. Such is my frustration with overbred veg and overpriced seed that we are experimenting with some older varieties from central Europe this year. Meanwhile our early tunnel-grown runner beans are aborting their fruit in confusion at the extreme heat, so we are yet to pick a bean. We have started picking the first padron peppers which will be available next week; they have so much more flavour than anything available in a supermarket or any tapas bar I’ve visited. Shallow or dry fried until 50% of the skin blisters and sprinkled with sea salt, they are the perfect appetiser.

Even outside the polytunnels the heat is causing stress in many crops, particularly our cool-loving brassicas. Plenty of water can help by affording the plant the chance to cool itself through evaporation from the leaves (as we do by sweating) but in this weather most farmers, us included, don’t have access to enough water pipes, pumps and sprinklers to get around needy crops and back to the start in time. Broccoli has been the worst affected; every head harvested this week ended up being fed to the cows. It was fine when picked but even with the best refrigeration nothing could undo the stress suffered in the field.

Sweetcorn on the other hand is lapping it up; it has a slightly different method of photosynthesis (the C4 pathway) which comes into its own as temperatures rise and water gets scarce. In France we have the biggest, greenest, most uniform crop I have seen in 30 years of growing, and expect to start picking some thumping cobs in early July ready for your BBQs.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Exodus; not a good time for slugs

For the last month, our irrigation reservoirs have been rimmed by a black mass of writhing tadpoles. I reckon there are over a million in the one I swim in, even after the carp have feasted. Last week they got their legs and this week they are off; the ground around the ponds is heaving as they go in search of their first terrestrial meal. Facing this hungry biblical plague, slugs have no chance. It will be two years before the toads return to breed, by which time they’ll have made a home on the waterless hill half a mile away.

“What we do about slugs” is always the visiting gardener’s top question on our organic farms. The answer, with the occasional exception of our polytunnels, is nothing; they aren’t a problem for our field crops. I know you will find the occasional slimy surprise in our lettuces and our sprouts are often scarred (which we hope and assume you can live with), but I cannot remember ever seeing any organic crops suffering significantly. Most conventional potato growers will routinely apply vast quantities of slug pellets and still have substantial damage. Likewise, slugs can be a huge problem in winter wheat and barley even after applying pellets, but almost never when the ground has been organic for three years or more. The reason is undoubtedly that our soils, free from pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, are teeming with life looking for a meal; toads, frogs and carabid beetles like to munch on slugs, nematodes will parasitize them, and there are almost certainly many other predators and pathogens. No-one makes money from their activity, so this unglamorous part of ecology hasn’t been studied much.

The principle of organic farming is to find balance; the population of every indigenous pest (except Homo sapiens) is regulated by predators and pathogens. It doesn’t always work; sometimes you have to encourage them a little (e.g. flowering plants to foster the lacewings and hoverflies that control aphids), but with slugs all you have to do is spare the soil those toxic chemicals, and soil ecology will do the rest. Annoyingly I know this approach does not work in a garden; I suspect there is just too much cover for the slugs to retreat to. If you can handle the poo and keep the foxes away, get a duck.

Guy Watson