Category Archives: Guy’s newsletter

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

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