Guy’s news: Time to emerge from the gloom?

A few tantalising breaks in the clouds reveal a sun growing in strength, but with sodden ground nothing has been planted to soak up the rays. To add to our gloom, areas of purple sprouting broccoli are withering, stunted and yellow. Digging up a few plants reveals roots rotting in airless, water-logged soil.

We homo sapiens are incredibly versatile. Given peace, stability and reasonable governance, we manage to grow food in the most extreme circumstances: in deserts, on the sides of mountains, and in the Arctic Circle. I am confident we can adapt to a bit of rain. However, successful agronomy is always based on accumulated experience, and the assumption that the future will be similar to the past. A longer time frame and more objectivity than I can muster are needed to assess whether unusual weather should be attributed to climate change, but perhaps it is time to rethink some of our farming practices.

Based on the last ten years, the biggest challenge we face (in the west at least) is extended periods of heavy rainfall, with consequent problems of water-logging, the inability to plough, plant and weed in critical periods, soil being lost or leached of nutrients, and difficulties in harvesting. Most modern horticultural trends exacerbate the problem: ever larger machines and fields, intensification to squeeze more crops from the same area, and the abandoning of crop rotations which give soil a chance to recover under grass. This ‘progress’ isn’t inevitable; better doesn’t have to mean bigger and more. There are advances in GPS guidance, battery technology, robotics and our understanding of ecology and soil health that could all make a very different type of farming possible.

We are experimenting with permanent raised beds, alley and mixed cropping amongst perennials, low ground-pressure vehicles, and small areas of crops surrounded by buffers of grass. All have the potential to be more resilient, less damaging and even, one day, more profitable than prevailing methods; but inspiring a wider agricultural mindshift will need more investment in machinery and knowledge than a few maverick gardeners and farmers can offer. For now, the sun is beginning to shine. Perhaps by the time this is read we will have started planting.

Guy Singh-Watson

5 wild garlic recipes

Every year we forage wild garlic from the woods around our Devon farm. The pungent leaves add a welcome dash of green and liven up all our plates during The Hungry Gap when other crops can be sparse.

Wild garlic leaves have a milder taste compared with dried garlic, and are good stirred into soups, risotto, pasta dishes and eggs; hardcore garlic fans may enjoy wild garlic shredded into salads. Here are a few recipe suggestions.

Wild Garlic Chicken Kiev with Baked Beetroot Bubble & Squeak

Chicken Kiev is a retro classic. Originally made with dried garlic, it works equally as well with the fresh wild garlic we pick each year on the farm. You may get a little butter leak from your chicken; this is normal, just pour it over at the end.

Read the full wild garlic chicken kiev with baked beetroot bubble & squeak recipe.

Wild Garlic & Potato Soup

Paired with the punchy taste of wild garlic, potatoes make a wonderfully savoury and inexpensive soup. Increase the amount of wild garlic, if you dare! We send out the wild garlic leaves but not the flowers, as they’re too delicate to travel, so you’ll have to forage for those if you want to use them – or garnish with lots of chopped parsley instead.

Read the full wild garlic and potato soup recipe.

Wild Garlic Pesto Pasta with Slow Cooked Courgettes

Watch as the courgettes collapse into a thick and unctuous sauce. Low and slow is the key. If you have lots of wild garlic, the pesto recipe can be scaled up and will keep well jarred in the fridge for at least a week if covered with a layer of oil.

Read the full wild garlic pesto pasta with slow cooked courgettes recipe.

Lemon & Thyme Pork with Potato & Wild Garlic Hash

For this recipe, we use spare rib pork steaks as they have a deeper flavour and wonderful marbling of fat to keep them succulent. Paired with chucks of fried potato and wilted wild garlic, this recipe makes a quick, simple dinner.

Read the full lemon & thyme pork with potato & wild garlic hash recipe.

Broccoli, Tomato & Wild Garlic Wheatberries with Mashed Potato

If you’ve not tried wheatberries (wholegrain wheat kernels) before then I hope you like them and want to use them again. They add a really good texture to vegetarian dishes, and can be used in stew style dishes or cooked, cooled and used in salads.

Read the full broccoli, tomato & wild garlic wheatberries with mashed potato recipe.

What is the Hungry Gap?

From time to time, you might hear us refer to the Hungry Gap. This is the hardest time of year for UK farmers: a few weeks, usually in April, May and early June, after the winter crops have ended but before the new season’s plantings are ready to harvest.

It all comes down to the UK’s latitude. We sit right at the geographical limit for many spring crops, which would not survive our cold winter temperatures if grown any earlier. At the same time, as the days warm up into spring, many hardy winter crops like sprouts, kales, and caulis ‘bolt’ (abandon leaf growth to start producing flowers and seeds). The result is unproductive fields – and sometimes, rather repetitive boxes! In fact, our 100% UK veg box has to stop completely for a few weeks every year.

If it’s such a dire time, why hasn’t everyone heard more about the Hungry Gap before – or noticed its impact on their plates?

Airfreight and artificial heat

The name ‘the Hungry Gap’ harks back to a time when an empty field really meant going hungry. Traditionally, the gap had to be bridged with a spartan diet of cabbage, old potatoes, and fruits preserved during kinder months. These days, however, very few people eat a local, seasonal diet; the supermarkets can easily top up their shelves with even more imported produce, or crops grown in the UK under heated glass, and no one need notice the difference.

Of course, we don’t want anyone going hungry – but unfettered airfreight and artificial heat isn’t an environmentally responsible solution. Over the years, Riverford has worked out a pretty good system of workarounds and intelligent compromises, allowing us to keep our veg boxes varied, fresh and full without sacrificing our founding values…

Finding a better way

Like the supermarkets, we rely more on imported produce during the Hungry Gap. However, whether in the UK or abroad, we only work with small-scale organic farmers that we know, trust, and look after for the long term. A few of us recently went out to visit some of our growers in Spain, who have been keeping our shelves stocked with broad beans, garden peas and more… read all about it in Luke’s blog.

Importing isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s far less damaging than growing the same crops in the UK using artificial heat. Take the example of tomatoes. The huge amounts of heat used in glass hothouses is produced by burning gas or oil. For every kilo of tomatoes this way, 2-3 kilos of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. Trucking tomatoes over from Spain uses just a tenth of the carbon compared with growing them in the UK using heat. It’s not perfect, but it’s the least damaging option.

Our imports are always brought over by land or sea, never by air. Airfreight causes 40-50 times the CO2 emissions of sea freight.

Guy’s French farm

Seven years ago, Guy decided on an interesting addition to his armoury against the Hungry Gap: he’d buy his own farm in France. Le Boutinard is 10 miles from the coast, in the Vendée region of Western France. He chose the situation very carefully: the light and rainfall there are just right for producing a bounty of colourful spring crops that are ready to harvest just a few vital weeks ahead of the UK. It’s environmentally friendly, too: by road, Le Boutinard is the same distance from our Devon farm as the Fens.

Watch Guy’s video to learn more about his reasons for buying the French farm – and the learning curve he’s faced along the way:

Using our imagination

As well as all these solutions from overseas, we’ve learned to be a bit more resourceful with what greenery we can gather on our own shores. Foraged wild garlic and bitter dandelion leaves both offer some welcome pep for palates that are dulled with winter stodge.


On our Devon farm, we also grow lots of Hungry Gap kale. The clue’s in the name: this reliable variety is at its best when the rest of its kale-y cousins have bolted, and has been helping people bridge the gap for generations.

The Hungry Gap is on its way in the next few weeks. We have planned carefully, and hope you’ll enjoy an interesting, good quality and bountiful mix in your box. In the meanwhile, for a tasty little glimmer of homegrown green, why not order some Hungry Gap kale – it’s available online now.

Guy’s news: Still waiting… and starting to worry

I know it’s getting repetitive, but it’s also getting serious; we are still waiting for the wet weather to give us a break longer than 36 hours, to allow tractors to travel and planting to begin. Brassicas (cabbages, cauliflowers and the like) can wait weeks in the yard, with leaves going yellow and roots brown, and still grow well when finally planted. But lettuces grow tall in the tray, become vulnerable to damage and disease, and, beyond a certain point, will never really recover. Then there is the added problem of six weeks’ plants being concertinaed into a few days of planting, which will inevitably result in gluts come harvest time.

In my frustration, I took an old plough out last week during a brief dry spell. My mission was to plough a small, steep but well-drained slope and plant a spinney of beech before the buds burst on the saplings. For all my efforts, it was simply too wet; the soil was soon clinging to the mouldboards (curved blades of the plough), resulting in poor inversion and frequent blockages. I could imagine John Scott, who taught me to plough as a teenager, berating me that I had “left holes big enough to bury pigs in”. Despite my shame, my wife Geetie and I planted the 500 trees; their roots will soon emerge to support them. The beech will be inter-planted with artichokes, which we will feast on until the trees grow too tall and the ground beneath too shady. At that point I will scatter wild garlic seeds from nearby woods, which will flourish in the shade. It is my own version of agroforestry. Thank you to the person who sent in an oak to replace the fallen one – we have planted it at the corner of the new wood.

April is peak wild garlic season. It will make one or two appearances in most boxes, and be available to order through to early May. If foraging for it yourself, be careful to avoid the toxic Lords-and-Ladies and Dog’s Mercury which share the same habitat. We have an experienced team of five in the woods, and another five in the barn painstakingly sorting out any toxic leaves the pickers miss. Wild garlic leaves, or ramsons as they are known in Devon, are great in omelettes, risottos or pastas. Or simply whizz with fresh lemon, olive oil and salt, for a pistou that will lift the dullest soup, stew or grilled meat – and cheer up the most frustrated farmer.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Anxiously awaiting utopia

Easter has passed without a seed going in the ground. With no sign of let up from the weather fronts sweeping in off the Atlantic, it is starting to get serious. A knot of anxiety is growing in my stomach; it could be impatience to plant, but I suspect a larger part is the momentous change just two months away.

After twelve years of research, thought and consultation, Riverford becomes 74% employee-owned on the 8th June (with me holding onto 26%). It all seemed so straightforward when I was planning my utopia, hoe in hand, with only a field of unquestioning artichokes for company. The reality involves lawyers, governance, banks, and hardest of all for me, lots of listening, questions and communication. I have no doubt that it is the right path but, as with sowing my first organic leeks, I never stopped to consider the journey.

I want so much more for Riverford, its staff, suppliers and customers than I have been able to deliver while owning it myself. Management should be about getting the most from staff while giving the most back. Yet in so many organisations, particularly in the UK, people are estimated to achieve only one to two thirds of their potential – resulting in low pay and unfulfilled staff. This is a miserable indictment of the short-term, narrow-minded management so often demanded by conventional ownership.

Too many managers are excited by the numbers and technology that offer predictable returns on investment, but understandably scared of the emotional complications and unpredictable results from investing in people. I should know; I am one of the (mostly male) managers who made it this way. But after thirty years, I am frustrated by the result and want to be part of something less wasteful of our human potential. Over the last year, as we approach employee ownership, we have taken the first steps towards more people-centric management. It will be a long, scary and exciting journey, full of learning, along an unmarked path. But if each of us at Riverford achieves three-quarters of our potential we will fly – and we hope others will follow. I find myself as excited about my involvement in this next leg of Riverford’s journey as when I sowed those first leeks.

Guy Singh-Watson

A little plastic packaging update

Our packaging technologist, Robyn, has written a little update on some recent changes that you might have spotted in your box. Read Robyn’s previous blog post to find out more about her role at Riverford.

You may have seen a few changes to our packaging over the last few weeks. I thought I’d write a quick blog to let you know what we’ve changed, and why.

Ditching some plastic
Cucumbers, cauliflowers and romanescos bought separately (not as part of a veg box) are all now free from their plastic bags. We did some tests and found that, by and large, these items are well-enough protected by the cardboard veg boxes. They might be more at risk of the odd bump and bruise during handling, so we’ve put measures in place to make sure they are handled extra carefully.

We’re glad to have identified some unnecessary plastic – it’s another step on our journey towards reducing all our packaging. Over the course of the year, we expect to save a significant amount of plastic by not putting it on these popular veg. However, please be aware that at certain times of year cucumbers can be more prone to dehydration; in those cases, you may see the plastic bags return for a short time, to prevent spoilage and food waste.

No one likes a limp lettuce
I often get asked about salad and leafy greens – why are they packed in plastic rather than paper bags? Salad and leafy greens are examples of vegetables that dehydrate. If we were to use paper bags, the paper would very quickly draw moisture from the leaves, reducing its shelf life and quality, and ultimately leaving it inedible! By packing in plastic, we can prevent water loss – and thereby food waste.

Swiss chard bag test. These gorgeous greens will remain in bags due to the severe dehydration when tested without.

Why don’t we use biodegradable plastic?
We are currently looking at moving to biodegradable plastic bags – but with caution. There are some downsides to biodegradable plastics; before we use them, we need to make sure they are the right solution.

Here are the current main issues with biodegradable plastics:

1) Some don’t break down in home composting.
2) If land is being used to grow the crops used to make plastic (e.g. corn, often GM), then it isn’t being used to grow food.
3) Most biodegradable plastics don’t break down if they end up in the ocean. This creates the same problems as traditional plastic.
4) If biodegradable bags are mistakenly put into plastic recycling, then they can degrade the quality of the recycled plastic.

Not sure what to do with the plastic packaging you’ve received from us? Pop it in your box for your local veg team to take back, and we will recycle it at the farm.

Guy’s news: Still waiting

For the second time this month, the snow has melted from our fields just in time for more rain. The plough, greased and ready to go, must stay in the shed, and the plants must stay in the greenhouse, or at best be moved to the yard.

We can’t put off ploughing forever; already we are clearing the last of our kales, and cabbages and leeks will soon run to seed. There is one cheering sight in the fields: Red Russian kale is having a last hurrah, telescoping upwards with a superbly tasty stem that we will pick for the 100% UK veg box this week. Looking at sales of this box – formerly known by some within Riverford as the ‘Dogma Box’ – I am delighted to see that last week they were approaching 6% of all veg box sales. This may seem modest, but it is 50% up on last year and treble the year before. I have been known to despair at the gulf between the often-professed enthusiasm for all things local and seasonal, and the contents of many proponents’ fridges, but it seems things are changing; I commend the 2000+ of you who have taken the plunge and are embracing the UK seasons. We have another month before things get really hard in the ‘Hungry Gap’ of May and June, before improving as tomatoes, cucumbers etc. start in July. If you find the 100% UK box too challenging, consider a pragmatic weekly alternation with one of the other boxes. Sometimes it’s better to bend than to break; by voting with your box choice, you are putting a welcome pressure on us to up our game and do all we can to maximise what we can grow at home.

Another homegrown treat has survived the snow to liven up all our plates: we have started foraging for wild garlic in local woods, mostly bordering the River Dart between Totnes and Dartmoor. As always, our skilled and eager-eyed pickers do their best to avoid the toxic Lords-and-Ladies and Dog’s Mercury which share the same shady habitat under mature deciduous woodland. We then sort through what we’ve picked again in the barn to give 99.999% confidence; even so, if you see any unfamiliar leaves, please discard them and let us know, preferably with an emailed photo. As an added reassurance, in the name of honour and science I have eaten small quantities of each and lived to tell the unpleasant tale.

Guy Singh-Watson

Green tomato… beer?

A special new brew has recently been added to our shelves: Barnaby’s green tomato saison, made just for Riverford using our own surplus organic green tomatoes. How did this unusual – and very tasty – tipple come about?

Barnaby’s Brewhouse is a small organic craft brewery based at the Riverford Dairy’s Hole Farm in South Devon. It benefits from natural spring water that rises on the farm; the water has a very low mineral content and is therefore perfect for brewing organic craft lagers.

Barnaby’s Brewhouse has close ties with Riverford, having brewed special batches of ‘foraged beer’ for our award-winning Devon farm restaurant The Riverford Field Kitchen. Their crisp, refreshing pilsner lager and distinctively tinged Red Helles lager are both available in our online shop and have gone down a treat with customers.

After a grey and gloomy summer last year, we ended up with a glut of green tomatoes that just wouldn’t ripen. While visiting Barnaby and the team, we jokingly asked if they could use any green tomatoes in a brew?

Much to our surprise, the brewers rose to the challenge and came up with a recipe for a green tomato saison – almost certainly the first of its kind in the UK.

‘Saison’ is a Belgian farmhouse style of beer, so called because it was brewed at the end of the farming season when temperatures were ideal for fermentation. It had to be strong enough to last through the summer – when farmers were back working on the land – and so typically has an alcohol content between 5 and 8% ABV.

Traditionally, Saison beers have often been made with spices and botanicals; a range of fruit varieties still exist on the market including apricot, strawberry, raspberry and cherry. It is a very distinctive rustic beer, light yet earthy and spicy in flavour. Saison also typically has a high level of carbonation and is sometimes sold in champagne-like bottles.

Using green tomatoes in Barnaby’s saison gives it freshness and a hint of sourness. Because of the amount of fruit that is used, it also has a slightly wine-like quality. This means it pairs exceptionally well with a range of foods.

According to Garrett Oliver, author of The Brewmaster’s Table, it ‘… seems to go with almost everything. The combination of dynamic bitterness, scouring carbonation, bright aromatics, spicy flavours, pepper notes, dark earthy underpinnings and racy acidity gives these beers a hook to hang their hat on for a wide range of dishes.’

We’ve found it to be delicious with peppered steaks, Thai dishes, spicy sausages, creamy goats milk cheese – the list goes on and on. Give it a try and let us know what dishes you pair it with!

Barnaby’s green tomato saison is now available online – save 5% when you buy a case of 12.

5 vegan recipes for March

Not only does March (hopefully!) mean a little welcome sunshine and the start of longer days, on the farm it also means the arrival of wild garlic, foraged from the woodland around our Devon farm, and purple sprouting broccoli (PSB), which has been long awaited this year; we usually start picking it in late January but the weather decided otherwise for us this season.

As we approach the Hungry Gap, we’re grateful for the root veg harvested and stored through the winter, and continue to make the most of beautiful vibrant beetroot and our sweet, iconic carrots.

Here are our 5 vegan recipe picks for the month.

Wheatberries & Purple Sprouting Broccoli with Crispy Garlic & Chilli

A hearty and healthy dish combining toothsome wheatberries, PSB and crispy fried onions. Wheatberries are the entire wheat kernel except for the hull. They take a while to cook but have a good nutty texture, lending real substance to a dish.

Read the full wheatberries and purple sprouting broccoli with crispy garlic and chilli recipe.

Red Pepper Paella with Wild Garlic & Almonds

Want to sound authentic and well-travelled? Learn to pronounce paella properly. Essentially the trick is to stifle the ll sound in the back of the throat and replace it with a y sound instead. pie-eh-ya. This recipe makes the most of wild garlic during its short season, and is topped with toasted flaked almonds for an added crunch.

Read the full red pepper paella with wild garlic, almonds & an olive & orange salad recipe.

Indian Masala Roast Carrots with Coconut Red Lentils & Flatbreads

The sweet earthy qualities of the humble carrot make it an ideal vehicle for a whole world of spices. Set against this simple dahl-like bowl of lentils they are best roasted with a little bite left to them.

Read the full indian masala roast carrots with coconut red lentils & flatbreads recipe.

Roasted Beetroot, Carrot, Lentil & Cumin Seed Salad

This colourful, hearty salad has sweet notes from the roasted carrots and beetroot, and a mild, earthy flavour from green lentils. We’ve finished it with a simple zesty dressing made from lemon and olive oil. Try other root veg in place of carrots and beetroot; parsnips or celeriac would work especially well.

Read the full roasted beetroot, carrot, lentil and cumin seed salad recipe.

Jerk Chickpeas & Roasted Peppers with Callaloo

Jerk spice is a Jamaican style spice mix traditionally used to flavour meat, but it also works for vegetarians with pulses and beans. We’ve swapped the blow-your-socks-off Scotch bonnet chillies for some paprika. This makes the flavour more aromatic rather than too hot to handle, as there’s also chillies in the callaloo spinach and coconut sauce. Callaloo is a Caribbean dish which uses an amaranth leaf native to the area, but spinach or chard work well as an alternative.

Read the full jerk chickpeas & roasted peppers with callaloo (spinach & coconut sauce) recipe.

Guy’s news: Waiting for the plough

A pair of pigeons is edging closer on the branch outside my room. She is tolerating his wooing… from a distance. This is no weather to be starting a brood – or planting vegetables. Like the pigeons, we are in limbo, waiting for the sun to make its appearance; they could be building their nest, and we should be ploughing in readiness, but nothing is happening.

Ploughed ground usually dries faster, provided the furrows stand up and allow air into the soil; should we have taken our meagre chances and ploughed last month? Plough too soon, and the furrows will slump in heavy rain, reducing to an airless pudding which is slower than ever to dry and can go sour. The ideal is to plough far enough ahead to allow soil fungi and bacteria to start breaking down the residues of previous crops, compost and manures into soluble nutrients, but not so early that those nutrients are leached by the rain before crops can use them. Achieving such perfect timing is not so easy when grabbing whatever opportunities the weather provides.

Ploughing is a well proven, but deeply flawed, pragmatic compromise; by inverting the soil and leaving it bare, soil life is damaged and the danger of soil loss is multiplied many times. Against this, the new crop is given a weedfree start and the aeration can provide a short-term fix for soil compaction, therefore aiding root growth. The truth is, we don’t know how to grow many crops without ploughing – especially without the aid of chemical herbicides. This year, working with other members of our co-op and a research initiative called Innovative Farmers, we are experimenting with only cultivating narrow strips to plant into. The idea is to give the crop enough competitive advantage without ploughing the whole field. Like most innovation, it will almost certainly fail first time, but I hope it will provide experience to build on and be the first step towards a less compromised, more sustainable growing system. It seemed like a great and worthy idea in the calm of January; I suspect I may be cursing my enthusiasm in the heat of June.

Guy Singh-Watson