Category Archives: Guy’s newsletter

Guy’s news: Freaks from the wet west

Last week ex-hurricane Ophelia ripped the plastic from two of our older polytunnels, trashed the last of our delicate outdoor salads and dropped some unwelcome rain, but we are not complaining; 2017 has been a kind year for growers so far. A warm, if dull, ‘back end’ allowed summer crops to catch up and finish well, and a damp mid and late summer helped to establish the leeks, cabbage, kale and cauliflower that will be our staples for the next six months. But it’s a long way to spring; if anything, we would like temperatures to drop and to slow crops which are now getting a little ahead of themselves.

There have been some brief dry periods; enough to allow an (albeit difficult) grain harvest, but not enough for harvesting roots, especially on heavier land. We still have 30 acres of potatoes and almost all our carrots in the ground. Most non-organic root crops are grown on light sandy soils which drain quickly after rain so are easier to work, usually in the east of England where rainfall is about half that in the west. By contrast, organic, especially smaller scale production, tends to be concentrated in the wetter west and on heavier clay soils. The west bit is partly a hangover from bearded hippy wannabe organic farmers heading for the hills in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and partly because there is more muck out west, where the cows live. Meanwhile, the prevalence of clay soils on organic farms is partly because it hangs on to fertility well, and because those hippies rejecting urban commercialism didn’t know better. In contrast, the sandy soils loved by chemical-wedded commercial growers rapidly lose soluble nutrients in heavy rain. That’s OK if you can tip some more out of a bag of artificial fertiliser (though river life may disagree); more problematic if you have to wait for the soil fungi and bacteria to replace it at a natural rate.

But this is not a moan; I love the west, the wet and our soil and I’m grateful for the muck. I am also convinced that a balanced soil with enough clay or silt grows better-tasting veg than any sand, though this doesn’t concern most growers. Our ‘roots team’ attended a carrot variety trial last week; among hundreds of farmers, they alone tasted the carrots as part of their assessment. They said they felt like freaks from the west.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Cheap food, dignity & Victorian working practices

Our Polish worker Martin arrived 20 years ago with a tent and a guitar. He came back the following summer with some friends, and the farm has become increasingly dependent on eastern European workers ever since. I am frequently asked how we will cope post-Brexit if there are no new migrants; the answer is it will be tough, but not impossible. There will be lots of restructuring in food and farming, bringing opportunities for new entrants and smaller, more human-scale businesses; something I welcome. The relentless march to scale, whether on fruit farms or in poultry slaughterhouses, has been facilitated by the availability of compliant ‘operatives’ who don’t question or complain and are therefore deemed to be happy. They are not; they have the same human needs for decent housing, dignity and respect as the rest of us, but simply have fewer options. Cheap food has too often come at the cost of a return to Victorian working practices. There are exceptions, but it has been too easy to be a bad employer in an industry I sometimes feel ashamed to be part of.

Today non-UK staff, mostly Romanian, Polish, Lithuanian and Slovakian, make up around 35% of our staff at Riverford (the norm in horticulture is closer to 90%); they have made a huge contribution. Most started as seasonal field workers, and the majority return home after a season or two, while some have married, put down roots and worked their way up through the business.

Field work is unbelievably tough for those who have not experienced it. Hours in the gym will not prepare you for the endurance required; it takes at least a month for a fit and able body to become field-hardened. I used to do 60 hours a week but I couldn’t hack it now. It is a good guiding principle to avoid asking others to do what you wouldn’t do yourself. While the commonly heard farmers’ bleat that “Brits just don’t want the work” is largely true, they should spend more time asking themselves why and what they could do to make the jobs more attractive. I for one will not be lobbying for agriculture to be a “special case”; I almost relish the challenge of attracting and retaining staff in a post-Brexit UK. It will force us to do things we probably should be doing anyway.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Help. We need governance

My last boss’s parting words 30 years ago were that I was ‘unemployable, ungovernable and mad’. I thought he was pretty bonkers too; most entrepreneurs are, and they are almost always resistant to rules, structures and governance. Running your own business, when it works, is an extraordinary privilege and indulgence; for the most part you can do what you like without self-justification. 30 years of ungovernability (tempered by my fellow directors) have got me this far, but it is time to grow up. What could be worse than an aging man asserting himself with more force than wisdom?

In six months, Riverford will be employee owned and, as enshrined in our nascent ethos statement and articles, will be accountable to staff, suppliers, customers and community rather than to me (though I am not going anywhere and will maintain a minority share). We are in the process of developing a governing structure that will reflect the dispersed power and devolved decision
making. There will be an elected staff council, a fairly conventional executive board and five trustees (two external) to hold them to account. The biggest challenge will be to achieve this without getting bogged down in treacle. If we get it right, and I have every confidence we will, our staff will be more fulfilled and engaged, we will learn faster, be more innovative and, ultimately, better at what we do. We might even show that there is a better way of doing business.

To help us, we are looking for two external trustees and two non-executive directors to bring in external experience and wisdom and to accelerate our learning, while avoiding some pitfalls along the way. Our path will never be a conventional one, and I hope we will continue to challenge orthodox assumptions about business, but it is vital to understand the conventions we are challenging. To do that, we need trustees and non-execs with broad experience gained in substantial (probably bigger than us) and complex organisations, plus an appetite for both challenging and facilitating as part of a team… in short, enough force and a lot of wisdom.

Know someone who might fit the bill? You will find full job descriptions at riverford.co.uk/aboutus/jobs.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Tomatoes, twerking & work/life balance

Some welcome late sunshine has helped ripen the last of our tomatoes. Over the next two weeks we will harvest what is ripe for your boxes, pick those ‘on the turn’ to ripen in trays in a warm polytunnel, and hope that the preservers amongst you will take the rest to make green tomato chutney. Within 48 hours of the last picking, we will be planting winter salads. One day’s growth now will take a week to achieve in dark December, so it is vital to get the rocket, claytonia, mustards and chards established soon to provide salads in January.

Out in the fields, with planting and weeding finished for the year, the staff is reducing to the most winter hardy, to settle into a steady season of harvesting the frost-tolerant kale, leeks and cabbages that will be the mainstay of your boxes in the coming months. Temperatures and light levels have so far held up, with no sign of our first frost, which in Devon typically comes with the first spell of settled, clear skies in October. We have the normal late plague of aphids; lower temperatures tip the ecological balance in their favour, as they keep on sucking sap and squeezing out babies after their predators, the ladybirds, lacewings and hover fly larvae, have become dozy and lost their appetite. The last generation of cabbage whites can make a mess of autumn cabbages, and give unwelcome movement to a head of broccoli; we reckon you can tolerate a few slugs in your lettuce, but a broccoli head heaving with green caterpillars can deter even the most tolerant organic die-hard. So, we did our last spray with the bacterial toxin Baccilus thurengeniusis (Bt) last week. No pesticide is totally safe but, being naturally occurring (in this case from a soil-living bacteria), short lived, and relatively specific to Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), Bt is safer than most, and thus one of the 15 pesticides permitted under organic rules.

Meanwhile, Beyoncé joined us at our board meeting this month… there was more clucking than twerking though, as Beyoncé is our rescue chicken, incongruously named by my step-daughter Mabel. She waltzed in, pecked some toes, stole some lunch, then stretched herself out in the sun like she owned the place. I am thinking of registering her at Companies House as Director of Work/Life Balance at Riverford.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: More than you need to know about onions

Onions are one of the most expensive and challenging crops to grow organically; only stubbornness keeps us from giving up and buying cheap (and irritatingly good) ones from Holland. They establish slowly, never producing a full canopy, and are not very competitive, making weed control a challenge in a dry year and near impossible in a wet one. The fungal disease mildew always threatens yield – and can kill the leaves before the necks of the onions are sealed, meaning they will not keep.

Assuming they survive weed and pestilence to reach maturity, the next challenge is getting the onions harvested and dried, with the set skins and sealed necks that will protect them from disease in store. The occasional calamitous year is inevitable; in ’98 the whole stinking crop went on the compost heap. To give ourselves the best chance, we have moved the storing crop to Sacrewell, our farm in Cambridgeshire, where the humidity is lower and the rainfall is roughly half that of Devon, stacking the odds more in our favour.

The onion crop at Sacrewell has been ready to harvest for weeks, but we have been frustrated by the weather. Once most of the crop has formed a neck and the leaves have ‘gone over’ (bent towards the ground), we top away most of the remaining leaves, harvest the onions into windrows, and bring them into store as quickly as the weather allows. As I write, half the crop is in the field and half in the barn, where we initially blow air at 29°C for three days to seal the onions’ necks. The barn is then kept at 26°C using recirculated air for three weeks while the skins set, before slowly being brought down to ambient temperature. The whole process takes about a month, after which the onions are ready for sale. Those we plan to keep are then put in cold store to delay sprouting until just before sale, when they are warmed up again and cleaned ready to go in your boxes. It’s a skilled and specialised job with a high cost of failure, and the market price never really seems to reflect the work and the risk. That said, when you get it right, there are few things more satisfying than going into winter with a barn full of firm, rustling dry onions.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Disillusioned with uniformity in my artichokes

Last week I was singing the praises of hybrids, with just a few reservations. In the space of one damp week the first hybrid variety of my beloved artichokes succumbed to mildew and is now all but dead; what promised to be a bumper yield ended up barely paying for the inflated cost of the seed (four times the price of non-hybrids). Next door, in the genetically highly varied, open pollinated variety a few plants have been weakened but most have the genetics to resist the pathogen and are still doing well.

Hybrids can produce high yields and be uniform in appearance and maturity, making them quick to pick; but their narrow genetic base means they are often poorly equipped to withstand the challenges of pest and disease attack, weather extremes or areas of low fertility in the field. Farmers become enslaved to meeting the narrow needs of their hybrid seeds, whatever the environmental cost. Farmers and customers have come to expect, and even require the uniform vegetables hybrids produce, to the extent that it is getting harder and harder to find a market for the traditional open pollinated varieties which often look wild and woolly by comparison. Were we always drawn to that controlled, neat uniformity or have our eyes been trained to it by the environment we live in and more particularly, shop in, with all those neat parallel shelves?

Uniformity is an anathema in nature; it is inherently unstable and risky. When the meteorite strikes, the volcano erupts or the glaciers melt it is the freaks on the fringes that provide the genetic diversity that allows adaptation and survival. The uniform mainstream, specialised to narrow ‘normality’, is wiped out when normality shifts. Given the current market paradigm, it is hard to argue against the development of narrow normality as represented by hybrids (and GM in more extreme circumstances), but it will be wiped out; maybe not in my lifetime and maybe not by this freak, but it will happen. One day earthlings will look back on the lumbering and domineering Monsanto and Tesco with the dismay and disbelief elicited when looking up at T. rex in the Natural History Museum.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Artichokes, phenotypes, genotypes & Luddites

Last week I picked 300 globe artichokes before I found one that didn’t cut it. The extraordinary uniformity and succulence of the crop was partly down to a damp summer and our growing skills allowing even growth, but most of the credit goes to the plant breeders; the variety (Opera) was an F1 hybrid. Hybrids are created by many generations of inbreeding to create two genetically uniform parental strains. These strains lack vigour and virtue in themselves, but when crossed, every cell of every plant will receive one gene from each of the parents making the first ‘F1’ generation both genetically uniform and highly vigorous. In my 30 years as a grower, hybrid veg varieties have gone from 5% to 95% of the market, reflecting the falling costs of the technology, and economic benefits to growers, retailers and, arguably, consumers.

For years I grew traditional open-pollinated artichokes; they were hardy and the best tasted wonderful but picking was slow, yields were low and a third were unacceptably thorny and tough, reminding me of their thistle-like progenitors. As such it would be ridiculous, and perhaps Luddite, to deny the benefits of hybridisation. However, as only the first generation gets the prized uniformity, its prevalence has removed the ability of farmers to save their own seed and develop strains to suit local conditions and tastes; a big issue for subsistence farmers in the developing world who risk getting into unsustainable debt through buying seed each year. I do also have some concerns over loss of genetic diversity (global food supply is becoming dependent on a worryingly narrow genetic base) as well as flavour and nutritional content, though without supporting evidence, this could be a Luddite prejudice I should question. Perhaps more worryingly 56% (and rising) of the world seed market is now controlled by four global, predominantly agrochemical companies with little interest in diversity, organic or small-scale production.

Purple and green, mostly hybrid artichokes, which are mostly splendid, will be available until the first hard frost. We also plan to sell the baby artichokes (much loved in southern Europe) by the kilo; quantities will be limited so artichoke lovers watch the website.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Nostalgia & declining vigour

The evenings are drawing in and morning dews are getting heavier, but finally we have seen some sunshine. Just in time for our increasingly nervous, grain-growing neighbours to snatch a harvest which was looking at risk.

Having won the church tenancy of Riverford in 1951, my father recalls being persuaded to take possession early when it was suggested that another harvest with a binder would kill the previous tenant. The binder and threshing machine was replaced by a combine harvester. Pa might have been a forerunner of the new age of mechanised farming but we were never much good at growing barley and sold the dilapidated and painfully slow combine harvester after our last grain harvest 40 years ago. On a long, dry day, free of break-downs, it might have cut and threshed 10 acres. Memories persist of teas laid out on a blanket in the field and later, when I proved my worth by pitching bales, cider from a barrel in a shaded hedge; the labour was such that you sweated it out before ever getting drunk.

Years on I find myself looking over hedges at combine harvesters pouring grain into waiting trailers with a nostalgia that I don’t quite trust; harvest was a backbreaking job that seemed to go on for months. Today’s combines can clear 10 acres in half an hour and it’s a long time since anyone pitched a bale of straw by hand, preferring to make giant 500kg bales and move them mechanically.

On our side of the hedge a sunny end to August has helped, but may prove a little too late for the tomatoes; it will take a miraculously sunny September to ripen the 10 tonnes of waiting, green fruit. I hope some of you are keen chutney makers; I suspect we will be pushing green tomatoes by the end of the month. With age and declining light our basil has run out of vigour and flavour and been abandoned, but cucumbers are still going strong. Rather than try to coax yield out of exhausted plants we are increasingly taking the view that it is better to plant a second crop which, with the vigour of youth, seems less willing to accept that summer is over in August. This works well for cucumbers and courgettes and could also work for basil; something to try next year.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Toxic exports

When I was a teenager, my brother was hospitalised with Paraquat poisoning after spraying weeds with a leaking knapsack; skin contact alone was enough to make him seriously ill. I frequently suffered headaches and nausea as a young man spraying crops, and my decision to farm organically was initially driven simply by a desire not to handle those chemicals. Despite assurances of safety
by manufacturers and regulators, most of the pesticides we used in the ‘70s and ‘80s have since been banned as evidence of damage to the environment or human health accumulated. Paraquat is among the most toxic both to humans and animals, and has also been linked to the development of Parkinson’s disease in farm workers. The danger it poses to human health is such that the chemical was outlawed by EU states in 2007, yet this week The Guardian revealed that Paraquat is still being manufactured in the UK, but for export. According to the article, 122,831 tonnes has been exported since 2015, 62% of which has gone to developing countries including Mexico, Indonesia and India.

Many farmers using Paraquat and other agrochemicals in these countries are illiterate and have little appreciation of the dangers involved, frequently applying them with no protective clothing whatsoever. Profiting from the lack of chemical regulation and education in such places is a human rights abuse up there with modern slavery; for the UK government to be complicit is staggering. While Paraquat is banned in over 40 countries, including Switzerland (home to manufacturer Syngenta), it is so unregulated and available in these developing countries that it is the suicide tool of choice, often by the very poverty-stricken farmers to whom it is marketed.

History has shown that the agrochemical giants profit from the chemicals they produce for as long as possible and move on, leaving the environment and the rest of humanity to pay the price. The fact is there’s no shortage of genuinely effective alternatives to Paraquat, but no-one makes money from sharing this farming knowledge, so GM seeds, Paraquat, and many other agro-chemicals are peddled unchecked to the uneducated and vulnerable as ‘progressive farming’, while the ethics that surround it could not be more backward.

Guy Watson

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