Category Archives: Guy’s newsletter

Guy’s news: Getting a bit impatient

The first daffodils are out and wild garlic is sprouting in the woods. With the sun edging higher and the days lengthening, a grower’s urge to plant escalates with each bright morning. Yet despite this sap rising from our boots, the soil is still cold and wet, and with memories of early plantings that struggled in cold seed beds being overtaken by those planted later in better conditions, we will temper the urge to sow and catch up on holidays instead. Early plantings have to spend longer fighting off weeds and disease and contending with gales and rain, often producing lower quality crops than those planted a month later.

So, apart from early potatoes in favoured coastal areas, the ever-hardy broad beans and perhaps some hopeful sowings of carrots, we will wait until mid or late March to start planting in earnest. Perhaps we have become too risk averse; Brexit and a 20% devaluation in the pound does renew the pressure to save a week of imports by starting our season early, but perhaps that is the sap talking.

We may not be planting but it is time to start getting our warmer, well-drained south facing slopes ready. On heavy, hard-to-cultivate clay soil it is traditional to plough in the autumn, leaving the furrows standing as high and exposed to frost as possible. The progressive action of freezing and thawing breaks clods into a fine seedbed with little need for cultivation in the spring; particularly useful if your horsepower comes from a horse, as was the case when the practice originated. While this time-honoured technique works well in the east of England where rainfall and soil temperatures are lower, it is disastrous under the 30 to 40 inches of winter rain typical in Devon. Here it can reduce bare soil to the foul smelling mess you might dredge from the bottom of a pond. Anaerobic, full of toxins and intrinsically sick, it’s certainly no place to plant a vulnerable seed. 30 years of trial and error have taught us to let our soils rest over the winter covered with grass, a green manure or even weeds until late January at the earliest; the root channels and earthworms help drainage and aeration, while the foliage cushions the impact of raindrops and prevents soil erosion. The next break in the weather will herald our soil’s rude awakening; first with muck and then with the plough, and the new farming season will begin in earnest.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Corn Laws, Brexit & Trump

1815 to 1870 was the golden age for British farming. Early industrialisation brought burgeoning urban populations which, combined with high tariffs on imported cereals created by the 1815 ‘Corn Laws’, kept food prices and farm rents high. Through controlling the food available, farmers and landowners prospered at the expense of the urban poor and invested heavily in their farms; arguably a bucolic rural idyll was built on the back of desperate urban poverty. The Corn Laws were repealed in 1846; this, combined with new shipping and rail routes that opened the fertile US prairies to the plough, meant cereal imports rocketed and led to a collapse in UK grain prices and farm rents post 1870. Bar a brief let-up in WW1, the rural recession lasted until we were again threatened with dire food shortages by Germany’s U boats in WW2, exposing the risks of relying on global markets to feed us.

Post-war, UK and then EU farming subsidies brought a partial return to stability, prosperity and investment in farming over the last 60 years. I would argue its rules have also protected us from the most extreme and environmentally damaging versions of “free market” farming seen in the USA: lax pesticide regulation, vast intensive animal feedlots, the worst antibiotic abuse, soil loss, depopulated villages and hormone-injected cattle.

Judging by the limited information emerging from May’s discussions with Trump, it seems likely that farming, food safety and animal welfare will be sacrificed in a rush to the unregulated bottom that is World Trade Organization rules. Perhaps we could compete on world markets if farmers were free to bulldoze hedges, fell trees, pollute waterways and abuse their livestock, but I
doubt that is what Leave voters envisaged on June 23rd last year. Our island is too small and there are too many other legitimate stakeholders who want a say in how our food is produced and countryside managed. Welcome to an uncertain world in which we need to keep our eyes firmly on ensuring a decent food supply for all.

Guy Watson
With thanks to Professor Tim Lang for inspiration and editing.

Guy’s news: Veg men & veg ladies wanted

When we started packing veg boxes back in 1993, marketing consisted of evenings spent photocopying and folding leaflets after I got home from delivering the boxes. As sales grew and I wanted to get back to the fields, I employed feckless young men who crashed my vans and were rude to customers, leaving me increasingly frustrated. For a short while a local group of musicians handled the sales and deliveries, leaving me to grow the veg. It worked well at first but they turned out to be as stubbornly independent and anarchic as me but less reliable; they were all charging different prices, sometimes adding non-organic eggs etc., and often competing with each other in the same village. My big sister, having spent her life marketing in London, told me I should be concentrating on developing my brand; I honestly didn’t know what she was talking about but could see that we needed organisation and consistency to move forward. Taking her advice, I tried to organise my band of anarchists into accepting allocated sales territories and selling produce at the same price and even adopting some common systems, but predictably most told me where I could stick it.

At about that time a bright young staff member called Martin went to a seminar and came back telling me there was a name for what I was trying to do; franchising. For years I just called it “the F word”; there are so many horribly exploitative businesses that have followed this model that I refused to accept it. However, after 20 years I now do; our 61 local franchisees know their customers and areas better than we could ever hope to and deliver a level of personal service we struggle to match when we deliver ourselves. As over 50% of our franchisees came to us as customers first, might it be for you? We need veg men and ladies to help bring our fields into our customers’ homes, connecting them to how their food is grown and helping them enjoy it around the kitchen table. Business should be fun, so we are looking for franchisees who we like, trust and who share our vision for a world where good food, good farming and good business are the norm.

Take a look at riverford.co.uk/franchise to find out more.

Guy’s news: The courgette “crisis”

Last week I was interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme about the great courgette “crisis”. The word “crisis” is questionable, but courgettes are indeed hard to come by; snow in Spain and extreme cold in Italy has killed many crops and brought others to a halt. Predictably, I advocated eating instead seasonal veg grown closer to home, but recent hard frosts have left greens of all sorts in short supply, even in Devon.

I suspect the term “crisis” refers to the followers of “clean eating” and in particular those fond of spiralizing courgettes. I am inherently resistant to claims of ‘superfoods’ and most dietary dogma as I question whether the healthiness, or otherwise, of a food can be defined by one parameter, whether salt, saturated fat, carbs, alkalinity or even organicness; I hope I have never made outlandish claims for my cabbages or cardoons. Yet with 40 years of scientific advice to switch from unprocessed “natural” animal fats like butter to factory-made unsaturated fats like margarine now looking questionable at best, some skepticism of conventional scientific advice is understandable. It is unfortunate that the highly-processed foods we should avoid have the biggest budgets for advertising, lobbying and sponsoring the research which shapes advice and our choices.

So who should we trust? Instinct might have been a guide (as it is for most animals) but probably not when standing in a supermarket aisle where it is corrupted beyond usefulness by advertising, packaging, the food choices presented, plus a media more prone to extremes than balance. Our government’s “Eat Well Guide” is a good start, though even here I suspect commercial
influence in places. Beware of anyone with a product or brand to sell and anyone quoting gurus, absolutes and pseudo-science (having said that I detect a bitter misogyny behind the recent slating of the Hemsleys, Deliciously Ella etc.) Instead I reckon Michael Pollan’s (I paraphrase) “Eat less, mostly plants, and only things your grandmother would recognise as food” is an intelligible place to start.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Machines for People

We planted the first lettuce on our French farm last week, immediately covering it with low-level tunnels. At midday it might reach 20°C but once the sun sets, the thin plastic does little to maintain temperatures (which sank to -6°C last night), so we lay fleece over the tunnels for some added insulation. All being well, the first lettuce will be cut in late March, six weeks ahead of the UK crop.

Our biggest worry is lack of water; after a drought that went on into November, followed by a dry winter so far, our 12 acre reservoir is still only about 25% full. In previous winters, waterlogging has been the biggest problem, delaying planting and stunting root growth. Without water, in this climate, we might as well pack up; there should still be three months of rain left but rather than wait we have started pumping from small ponds in a desperate attempt to ensure water for our crops. Meanwhile, new affordable GPS technology has helped us to make semi-permanent raised beds; with satellite-guided tractors always running in the same tracks, the crop soil now remains undamaged.

A recent trip to the regional horticultural show in Angers left me astounded by the level of mechanisation and specialisation of even smaller producers in France. Improved battery technology has spawned a range of small, light weeding and planting aids that should make work easier while being more people-centric and allowing greater autonomy for workers than the heavy machines that typically drive field workers like cattle across the Fens. Small battery-powered machines are still less flexible than an autonomous human; mechanisation, and the investment required, drives specialisation, often to the detriment of rotations, diversity and nature. In a world where farmers get less than 2% of GDP, efficiency is critical to survival; the only answer is for farmers to co-operate to allow more than one enterprise to thrive on a farm without being owned and managed by the same person. We have no livestock here in France but, as we do in Devon, we work with a local organic dairy farmer who grazes the clover leys making up 50% of our rotation, and generates manure without us having to worry about milking cows.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Farming post-Brexit; an industry at the crossroads

Two farming tribes gathered in Oxford last week: the mainstream Oxford Farming Conference, sponsored by pesticide and machinery suppliers and accountants, and, provocatively on the same two days, the Oxford Real Farming Conference; the radical challenger with no suits, more hair and jumpers, more women and no commercial sponsors – just a lot of people determined to change the direction UK farming has followed towards scale and intensification.

I spoke at both conferences, but felt more at home with the hair and jumpers. The suits were more open-minded than I expected; they invited and listened to environmental journalist George Monbiot who with cool, well-informed and devastating logic questioned the moral and political acceptability of paying £3bn to farmers in subsidies, with precious little in return. There seemed to be an acceptance that, post-Brexit, farmers will instead only be paid for what they deliver, whether it is food or “public goods” (flood prevention, public access, etc). Even more heartening was the acceptance that we cannot continue to abuse our soils, and better still that knowledge combined with ‘biological’ farming offered a genuine alternative to blindly following the agrochemical and GM industry.

Down the road at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, the feeling was of a movement that has found its time in agricultural history. There was talk of beliefs and justice with an acceptance that, while farming decisions must not be based only on profit, profit was still vital. These were not the starry-eyed idealists that have driven me to distraction over the last 30 years; they were human and imaginative but above all, intensely practical in their search for ways to grow nutritious food with social and environmental justice. Like the 14th century Peasants’ Revolt and the 17th century Diggers and Levellers, they lack the land, power and capital to match their determination and independence, but let’s hope they don’t get hanged this time. In an industry depressingly subservient to the needs of its suppliers, these people bring hope and deserve support. Surely now, as the UK shapes its new post-Brexit agricultural policy, it should look to serve farmer, consumer and the environment with equity and to support new entrants, rather than predominantly to perpetuate the privilege of the rich and powerful.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Hard frosts make for hard picking

It dipped to minus 5 last week and dawn to dusk sunshine could not shift the frost from our north facing slopes; nothing exceptional in January but it was our 20th frost this winter – about three times the average. It’s all down to weirdly persistent easterly winds which have brought us a gloriously bright and dry winter so far, in contrast to the dull, damp Devon mildness usually delivered by the prevalent moisture-laden westerlies.

A dry January is mostly good; it means less mud and fewer miserable days in damp oilskins, plus we need the cold to keep growth in check so our fields don’t empty of winter crops before new season crops are even planted. Some frost is OK but the cumulative effect wears a plant down, especially as it approaches maturity. Cauliflower and purple sprouting broccoli (PSB) can take a lot of frost
until the vulnerable flower heads start revealing themselves close to harvest, when even a light frost will cause damage. During the expected January and February frosts, we program PSB and cauliflower from our growers along the Devon and Cornwall coasts where the moderating effect of the gulf stream keeps the water above 8°C, normally enough to keep frosts a mile or two inland. Even so we have lost much of our early PSB and cauliflowers will now be short until the next mild spell.

Without flowers, cabbages, leeks, kale and spring greens can take a lot of cold but picking frozen greenery risks quality and is hard on the fingers. Harvesting this winter is all about making use of the few hours at the end of the day when the frost has melted; we pick like crazy and rush the crop into the barn before the frost returns. If your kale or cabbage has small translucent areas, this probably means we were a bit impatient; it’s a narrow line to tread.

The salads in our tunnels have so far survived unscathed. The harder frosts definitely get in there and the fine leaves can look very sad in the morning but the drier soil and dry leaves seem to save them so that by noon they stand up ready for harvest. With good light levels so far the winter salad bags have been good. We hope some mild weather will bring cauliflowers and PSB back into the boxes soon.

Guy Watson

Guy’s News: Thanks to the weather, the ladybirds & you

As we approach the winter solstice and prepare to send out the last of this year’s 2.2 million veg and meat orders, I look back on the farming year with some satisfaction and gratitude. The winter has been exceptionally kind so far, with lots of dry weather for harvesting and enough cold to slow down crop growth. Despite a cold and wet early spring, it ended up being a good summer with just enough rain at the right times to grow some healthy (if not huge) crops with a marked absence of pests and disease, particularly in the west.

Farmers in the west tend to look to the drier and flatter east of the country with some envy, but this year the grass was greener under our feet in Devon. A lot of that was down to ecology; as the years go by it is increasingly obvious that our smaller fields and ‘unproductive’ land, whether that’s abundant thick hedges, small areas of copse and woodland or big areas of permanent pasture, all contribute to the biological diversity, harbouring the predators and parasites which keep crop pests in check. In contrast to this, our growers in the flat east (and in the French Vendée) with their big fields have suffered a succession of invaders including diamondback moth and aphids, which has made growing harder this year and means that many will struggle to break even.

I am also hugely grateful to you, our customers; the fact that I say the same thing every year doesn’t make it any less true. Without your loyalty we couldn’t farm the way we do, couldn’t honour the agreed crop programmes and prices with other farmers, couldn’t look after our staff as well, and would be forced to make short term decisions which would not be best for the environment; and we would waste veg that was too small or had minor blemishes. The hidden cost of choice and responsiveness to customer needs is almost always borne by the growers, workers and the environment. Our position on this means we walk a fine line between arrogance and principle, but I hope we stay the right side. Your tolerance of what I know may seem like intransigence allows us to farm and trade honestly and for the long term. For that, staff, growers and I offer our heartfelt thanks. With the help of our vastly improved IT team, we might get a little more flexible in 2017…

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Talking kettles & selling solutions

I have a kettle that talks to me. It lights up and is full of clever solutions to problems I never knew I had, but it is unreliable at boiling water. I should probably read the manual but instead I curse it for being an over-elaborate solution designed with little regard for the problem it’s there to solve.

The same could be said of agriculture. Since the ‘60s, farming has been shaped by the solutions peddled by agrochemical, pharmaceutical and machinery suppliers. So often both the underlying problem and its solution lie in the husbandry of the soil, livestock and the farm environment; something previous generations of farmers understood and had the confidence to manage through intimate knowledge of their farms; essentially they were welly-wearing ecologists. Perhaps it was the closing of so many agricultural colleges, the withdrawal of virtually all public funding for ‘near market’ agricultural research and advice, or the power of Big Ag’s advertising and lobbying, but somewhere along the line many farmers have lost confidence in the power of their own knowledge and experience to solve problems, and have ceded control to the agrochemical industry. However, many of the problems non-organic farmers face would not exist without the last round of agrochemical ‘solutions’; insecticides to control aphids thriving in over-fertilised monocrops for example, or antibiotics to keep stressed, overcrowded farm animals alive.

I don’t believe that agrochemicals, veterinary medicines, machinery and even (potentially) GM have nothing to offer agriculture, but the approach adopted by their proponents too often ignores the underlying problem and focuses on selling something. I made this point to camera in a leek field last week and it has gone viral on Facebook (1 million views and 20,000 shares so far, visit
facebook.com/riverford to watch it) so I am guessing many agree.

On a lighter note, most of you will find a cob of dried corn in your box this week. We grew them in France and the idea is you hang it on your Christmas tree then, come twelfth night, break off the kernels and make popcorn. Oh dear; perhaps that solves a problem you never knew you had, but I hope you get some pleasure from it at least.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Kale: ubiquitous, underrated & tasty

I got gloomy about mud too soon; the sun is back, the ground is remarkably dry underfoot again and the picking is good, if slightly delayed in the mornings while the frost melts. It is always hard to know how crops will thaw if you pick them with frozen leaves; they can turn to mush, so it is better for the crop and the fingers to wait for the sun, even though it can be a struggle to get the picking done before the light goes. Given enough pairs of socks and good boots, cold and dry is great working weather once the heat builds up in your overalls.

Wherever people grow vegetables there is kale; everywhere from the Equator to Norway, growers have selected varieties to suit local growing conditions and culinary tastes. We grow Cavolo Nero (Italian and regally smug), Red Russian kale (sweet and tender though I’m not sure it is Russian at all; I first encountered it on a roundabout in Spain) Hungry Gap kale (tender, smooth and from Devon; planted too early this year so some has been in your boxes already), and Curly Green (frilly and reliable, if occasionally a bit tough) plus a few trial varieties. Of all the cultivated brassicas (swede, sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, bok choy, mustard, etc.) kale is the least altered from their wild ancestors, which can still be found growing above the high tide mark on gravelly beaches near us.

As with all leafy veg, the most nutritious parts of kale are the dark green outer leaves which with its loose, leafy formation, is all of it; perhaps the reason some herald it as a superfood. Apart from being extraordinarily good for us (off the scale for vitamin A, high in vitamin C as well as Omega 3, antioxidants and fibre), it is also pretty easy to grow. Its indeterminate growth habit makes it particularly well suited to cut-and-come-again harvesting; even on a square metre you can have a regular supply of greens from September to April. We generally pick the crop three times, removing the lower leaves while they are unblemished and tender, leaving the palm tree-like apical meristem to generate more leaves. By February, with lengthening days, most varieties are starting to run to seed so we take the head in a final pick and turn in the cattle to eat what’s left, so not one leaf is wasted.

Guy Watson