Category Archives: Rants

Business, ethics + corporate drivel

A vegetable-free rant from Guy.

We recently won the Observer’s Best Ethical Online Retailer award for the second year running, adding to our Best Ethical Business and Best Ethical Restaurant awards, so I’ve been asked to write about ethical business. If you just want the fruit and veg and can do without ranting and pontificating, you’d better turn the page now. Though I am proud of these awards, the term ‘ethical business’, for most large, publically quoted companies is an oxymoron.

Over the last few years I have been asked to talk at a number of conferences on ‘business ethics’, ‘values driven business’, ‘corporate social responsibility (CSR)’ and the pursuit of the ‘triple bottom line’; increasingly hideous expressions that have entered business speak. Few of us would take issue with the idea that business might have a purpose beyond maximising short term profit and most would support the consideration of environmental and social issues in decision making. Unfortunately, because actions are more often driven by the needs of brand protection than by a genuine desire to do anything useful, the effects are normally shallow, short term and depressingly ineffectual in bringing about meaningful change. After attending a few such conferences, I have decided it is more fun talking to the WI about slugs on their hostas than pouring my heart out to a roomful of accountants who just don’t get the idea that the starting point for change might be belief rather than profit.

Since Adam Smith published Wealth of Nations in 1776, the basis for business and capitalism has been an assumption that the decisions of rational individuals are driven by personal greed. We have surrendered to this assumption and the resulting competitive forces have shaped the world around us. In the 80s and more recently in the City, it was even declared that ‘greed was good’, since it drove us to an ever more feverish pursuit of wealth.

I am convinced that unfettered greed will destroy all that we hold dear on our planet and is incompatible with ethical business. I am certain that most people are motivated just as much by the desire to do something useful, to master skills, to be involved socially, to share, and that if we just had the confidence to acknowledge and incorporate these desires at work we would have some chance of business serving people, rather than people being slaves to business. Why is it that, when we step out of the door to go to work, we abandon these values and become slaves to greed? Greed has been supported in its all-pervasive hegemony by capitalism, which moves like an amoebic life form in the background; changing shape to move around, engulf, disparage, corrupt, co-opt and subsume anything that might resist it.

The reason for the rant is not a God-fearing, born again summer of Bible study. It is frustration with how public demands for change from business on social and environmental issues have produced nothing but smoke screens. The pervading argument that change will be driven by customer choice is ludicrous; customers just don’t have the time to do the research and become experts on competing claims, and as a result have been cynically fobbed off with emotive greenwash. Take bio fuels, and bio diesel in particular. It took an interested staff member a week of desk research in 2007 to conclude that (with a few exceptions) bio fuels were bad for the environment and liable to contribute to world hunger, and therefore had no place in an ethical business. So, given the resources of supermarkets and our government, why have bio fuels persisted as part of their environmental message for so long?

Perhaps we have been lucky at Riverford in that the support of our customers has given us the freedom to do business in our own way. But it is also having the confidence to question whether greed is synonymous with rationality. Initiatives start with a desire to be genuinely useful: to staff, to customers, to suppliers or to the environment. Of course most must be profitable and many are discarded, but this is very different from seeking profit and then, as a window-dressing afterthought, trying to appear useful. Until we find a way to displace greed as the main motivator in decision making, CSR will stand for a Complete Shame Really in my book. There endeth the rant.

Guy Watson

The white stuff

My father never got on with sheep (“always looking for a new way to die”), so every morning and evening he milked 30 Ayrshire cows on our farm. In the 60 years since, the rule of farming has been to get bigger or get out, so my brother and sister now milk 250 cows at Riverford. When the local dairy stopped bottling organic milk, Oliver and Louise partnered up with some of the old dairy staff to pasteurise and carton the milk on the farm and to make yoghurt, cream and more recently, butter. I now have 250 words to convince you to buy the stuff. Here goes:

1.It tastes great. Maybe that’s because it is fresher; we go for a seven day shelf life compared to big dairies’ 14. Maybe it is that the cows have a more natural diet of forage (grass, clover etc.), not grain and soya. You can taste a cow’s diet in the milk, as we discovered recently when the cows ate waste apple pulp during cider making season. Not everyone liked it.

2.It’s better for you. Cows that eat more forage have substantially higher levels of Omega 3 in their milk. Most milk is homogenised to break up fat globules to nano-sized particles and stop them from separating out. There is some evidence that these can be absorbed into the blood directly across the gut wall, with potential health implications. We don’t homogenise, leaving you to decide if you want to give the milk a shake or not.

3.It is better for the cows. Our cows suffer less mastitis, less lameness, less infertility and live for much longer. Some super-intensive herds get fewer than two lactations per cow; the average is perhaps three or four. We get five.

4.It’s better for the environment. Our pastures get no synthetic fertilisers or sprays and are seldom ploughed, resulting in more biodiversity, lower use of fossil fuels and carbon dioxide being sequestrated in soil organic matter.

5.You know where it comes from. The milk is all from our cows, 200 yards from the dairy and delivered straight to your doorstep, without being transported unnecessarily or mixed with milk from hundreds of different farms.

Guy Watson

order milk, cream, cheese, yoghurt and other dairy from Riverford

why organic?

I know a significant number of customers don’t care whether the box on their doorstep is organic so long as the veg is fresh, tastes good and is reasonably priced. They tend to be male and bemoan the lack of frozen peas in their diet since Riverford got in the door. Many have a suspicion that the whole organic thing is a bit of a fad and perhaps even a con. Had I not grown up on a farm I suspect I might have been one of them, but after 25 years of farming organically I would never go back. As we are in the middle of Organic Fortnight I thought I would say, very briefly, why.

  1. It’s better for you: no pesticide residues, strict control on additives, far fewer antibiotics and arguably better flavour and nutritional value.
  2. Better for animals: the highest standards backed up by law; far higher than free range.
  3. Better for the environment: more biodiversity, particularly in the soil, and about a third less CO2 emissions.
  4. Better for those who work the land: we are not exposed to pesticides.
  5. Better for humanity: organic farming teaches humility in the face of nature. All world rulers should have a veg patch; we would have fewer wars (just my opinion, that one).

I could cite evidence and scientific papers, but I am sure the anti lobby could cite just as many proving the opposite. You will have to make up your own minds. Most conventional growers I meet do not eat the veg they grow commercially; many have their own gardens which they tend, very nearly, organically. To me that says it all.

Guy Watson

In praise of the artichoke

globe artichokes

Having forgotten to buy my twelve year old son a birthday present, imagine my pride and relief when he said “that’s alright dad, you can just give me six jars of your preserved artichoke hearts”. Globe artichokes came bottom in our kids’ veg challenge questionnaire this summer, with only 16% of children having eaten them. Predictably, carrots were favourite, followed by sweetcorn and broccoli. Again, not surprisingly, children of Riverford customers ate a wider range of ‘weird’ veg than those of non customers. It’s seldom cool to be weird, but most children who try artichokes love them, so I plan to persist.

After twenty years of growing globe artichokes, I think I might have finally grown a crop that will turn a profit. I planted this year’s crop on a good field right outside the Field Kitchen where they have been watered, weeded and mollycoddled every time I needed to escape from the office; the result is by far the best crop I have ever grown both in quantity and quality. We had intended to put them just on the extras list but some will go in the boxes as well.

My apologies to those of you who don’t share my enthusiasm for artichokes. Eating them is a performance (an enjoyable one I hope) and brings people together, but with three quarters of the head ending up on the compost heap this is not a rational way to eat. But then food is about much more than efficient feeding. Our chef Jane shares my love of artichokes (and has even paid me the rare compliment of saying that mine are the best) so there are lots of recipes on the website. I recommend you start with plain boiled artichokes with melted butter or vinaigrette.

organic fortnight 3rd-17th september
The Soil Association’s annual celebration of all things organic is here. This year’s theme is Choose Organic Every Day. In our latest calculations our vegboxes worked out on average 20% cheaper than supermarket organic veg (the best performing box was 44% cheaper). I hope this gives some reassurance that organic isn’t just for the wealthy: it can be an affordable everyday purchase.

Guy Watson from Riverford in Devon

Rules, slogans, emotional engagement + philosophy

There is no denying it; the organic market is on the slide. The rate of decline may have slowed from about 15% last year to perhaps 8% (depends on what you are measuring) but it is still slipping. The reason for organic’s fall from favour, according to marketing pundits quoted in last week’s Grocer magazine, is that we have failed to communicate a simple, emotionally engaging message.

Another way of putting it is that we have been too honest and perhaps too ambitious in wanting to solve all the world’s problems. Environmental and ethical issues are never simple. Organic farming embraces more than can be squeezed into a soundbite: the balance of wildlife and biodiversity benefits, animal welfare, absence of pesticide residues in our food, reduced CO2 emissions, severe restrictions on additives and arguably flavour and nutritional quality is just too much to convey in one snappy slogan.

Single issue products, whether fair trade, free range, “pesticide-free” or local, have proved easier to sell, despite their silence on other issues. For example a “free range” chicken may spend next to no time outside, be kept in a shed the size of an aircraft hangar, in a sea of mud with tens of thousands of others at a stocking density double that allowed by the Soil Association, be routinely de-beaked and fed antibiotics. Its rations will be produced with the aid of pesticides and fertilisers but none of this is a barrier to conveying a simple emotionally engaging message. In marketing terms, it takes too many words to explain that organic poultry offers so much more.

I would never claim that organic farming is the only answer, but after twenty five years of unceasingly questioning what we do, I am convinced that it comes closer than anything else. Organic is better regulated and has stood the test of time (since 1946), whilst other wannabe brands and claims have come and gone. Our complex proposition may be hard to convey, but that is because it has so much more to offer. We have our book of rules but behind them is a philosophical commitment, shared by farmers and customers, to finding a better way to happily coexist with 7 billion others without destroying the planet we share; probably too much for a simple marketing slogan but ultimately more durable.
 

Guy Watson from Riverford in Devon

oh, for an abacus

My patience with modern technology is not good and I am well known in the office for my computer-induced tantrums, so I would like to apologise to those of you who have suffered such frustrations with our new website. The changeover has been fraught with difficulties and in many ways the old one did the job, so it would be reasonable to ask, as many of you have, why we changed it.

Fundamentally we wanted to make it easier for you to use (by making it more like other websites) and easier for us to keep it updated as crops come in and out of season. We had reached the end of the road with our inflexible and increasingly idiosyncratic old website; every time we wanted to do something new, the “computer said no”. We needed to rejoin the mainstream and follow everyone else with a conventional shopping basket. Carving your own path in IT when your speciality is growing vegetables is not a good idea.

The site is now running much more quickly and we are working on the teething problems. It will be an ever-evolving beast. It is now possible to see all the box contents on one page (a foolish omission) and we have tried to make the checkout process more intuitive. Thanks for staying with us and for the feedback (which wasn’t all negative); it has been useful. I am forever sceptical about claims from the IT industry, but those who know more than I do assure me we are moving in the right direction. If you are having trouble, please give us a call on 0845 600 2311 or 01803 762059; we will be very happy to help. 

Guy Watson

Tea, elixirs + faith

Despite studying natural sciences at university and absorbing all that Darwinian, evidence-based rationality, I like to think I am still an open minded man. When Raphs, one of our longest standing and more cosmically attuned members of staff suggested focusing positive energy on the artichokes using cups of aluminium filings and a copper wire I gave it a go (still awaiting results). I have sprayed my onions with liquid seaweed (seemed to work) and my cauliflowers with garlic extract (definitely didn’t) without any concrete evidence of efficacy. One winter I even tried to wade my way through the endless, unfathomable sentences of Rudolf Steiner (the father of biodynamic agriculture) in an attempt to get my head around why I should fill a cow horn with excrement and bury it for six months before diluting the contents and spraying them on my crops in the spring. I have not yet let the bloke from the pub, who claims to have invented perpetual motion, retune our tractor engines but I have bought him a drink; who knows, he might be a genius.

Over lunch today, John, our solid, sensible, Arsenal-supporting farm manager, told me he was spraying the drought-stricken celeriac with compost tea fermented from the worm casts. Reading through the bumph, it seems it will improve yield, root development, disease resistance, colour and even eating quality; a true elixir in the best tradition of a catch-all cure. My dull, reductionist training immediately asks; how will it achieve these remarkable results? By inoculating the soil with beneficial microorganisms it would seem. It sounds like total tosh to me but we will give it a go. As an agnostic in need of evidence, I have suggested a control area be marked off for comparison.

Organic farmers are wholly dependent on the health of their soil. That soil is such a rich and complex ecosystem; a myriad of relationships between hundreds of thousands of different plants, bacteria, fungi and invertebrates as well as water, temperature and the soil minerals themselves. Science has barely begun to understand this complex underworld so it would be arrogant and foolhardy to write off anything that works just because we don’t understand how or why. To deny the inexplicable would be to imply there is nothing new to learn. That would be dull.
 

Guy Watson

Untamed nature

We have had a week enveloped in a haze of dandelion fluff. Finely-haired, parachuted seed borne aloft on summer updrafts, they swirl in the gentle breeze almost indefinitely, before settling in drifts. Irritating if that is in your tea or up a nostril and perhaps irritating for neighbouring conventional famers with their orderly, weed-free fields. Perhaps we should be concerned about the farming adage “one year’s seeding brings seven years’ weeding”. I suspect there might be some local tut-tutting about the unruly chaos of organic farming. Twenty years ago I might have worried. In my middle years I find myself almost celebrating it as Devon’s version of herds of migrating wildebeest; long may there be some semblance of untamed nature in our lives.

Meanwhile, back on the ground, the season is getting underway. The weeds are under control, we are up to date with the planting and are already harvesting leafy crops like spinach, cabbage, lettuce and rocket. With only an inch of rain in two months, the busiest man on the farm is Watery Tim, our irrigation man.

We finished our carrots two weeks ago and, due to the partial failure of our French crop, expected to have a break for a few weeks until the new crop starts as bunches on 7th June. In the meantime we were approached by a grower near Inverness who leaves his carrots in the ground all winter covered by a thick blanket of straw. Not only does this keep the frost out, it also delays the warming of the soil in spring and delays regrowth. Added to the cooling effect of being further north, once washed this is producing remarkably good carrots.

Guy Watson

Busy at last

Spring has arrived and, after a frustratingly dormant winter, the farm is once again a hive of activity. Brought on by the sudden rise in temperature, the last of the overwintered crops are rushing to maturity giving us a late flush of cauliflower, leeks, purple sprouting broccoli and greens plus the wild garlic from our woods. The lengthening days are telling these plants it is now or never for procreation, so our mission is to get them harvested before they rush to seed. You may find an emerging bolt in the centre of your leek; given a chance this would extend to a metre in just a few days to carry the star burst flower typical of the allium family. Our rule is that if we see it poking out of the shank we have missed our chance and it stays in the field. In the early stages the bolt is fairly tender and digestible but if it offends you, slice the leek lengthways and remove.

Meanwhile we are harvesting the first salad onions and the first few sticks of rhubarb for the Field Kitchen; they should be available to buy with your regular order at the end of this month and in the boxes from May.

Apart from the picking we are busy preparing ground (muck spreading, ploughing and cultivating) ahead of a busy planting schedule; early lettuce, chard, spinach, cabbage and carrots are planted under covers and most of the potatoes are now in the ground. We have even started irrigating the shallow planted crops like lettuce which need help getting their roots out and down to the moist soil below.

help us celebrate our first year working with Send A Cow

As we continue our partnership with Send A Cow, supporting sustainable farming in Africa, we want you to get involved and be part of our efforts. We kick off a fortnight of Send A Cow events hosting a special African-themed supper (£20 each) on Thursday 29th April, with guest speaker Margaret Kifuko (Ugandan farmer). We’ll be discussing the similarities and differences of farming in Uganda – if you’d like to join in give us a call to book your place. Then, on Monday 3rd May we open our gates for an African inspired family day out – see the workings of an African farm, chat to Margaret, learn about keyhole gardens and say hello to the goats! Places are limited so you’ll need to book. Call us on 01803 762074.

Riverford, restaurants, cooks + cooking

It seems that everyone, from celebrity chef to home cook, is proclaiming seasonal and local eating. When people experience it in our Field Kitchen restaurant in Devon, they leave extolling the virtues of purple sprouting broccoli, parsnip and beetroot. But as a nation we are still struggling to convert aspiration into action in our own kitchens. We know that some of you struggle with the reality of dealing with a vegbox, so we are on a mission to help. We started with the Field Kitchen and followed it with a cook book and recipe-laden website and newsletters. More recently we have been recruiting an army of ‘Riverford Cooks’, a diverse bunch of people unified by a passion for seasonal ingredients and an enthusiasm for passing their skills on. We are recruiting cooks around the country to inspire you in various ways.

‘From the box’ cookery classes. Book a cookery lesson with lunch (or supper) in your home for you and 4-6 friends. Learn new ways to use your vegbox and pick up cooking techniques. £45 per person.

‘Riverford cooks at the weekend’. We’re running a series of residential weekends, starting with ‘a taste of summer’ in Devon from 21st-23rd May. You’ll stay in stunning converted barns and learn a range of summer dishes, eat together and relax. There’ll also be a visit to the Field Kitchen.

The Field Kitchen comes to you. We have fashioned a Mongolian-style yurt from farm-grown ash. It will spend the summer touring the country as a mobile version of the Field Kitchen. Fields and dates tentative – more details to follow.

getting involved

Maybe you find life with a box a breeze. Perhaps you could be a Riverford Cook yourself; most are trained professionals but seasoned amateurs can be just as good at passing it on. We are particularly short of cooks in the North. To book a class, weekend or to become a cook, call 01803 762019 or email recipes@riverford.co.uk. To find out about events in your area and swap recipe ideas, join the online Riverford Cooks community.

Guy Watson