Guy’s news: Packaging; trying to be less bad

In 2005 we spent two years working with Exeter University looking at Riverford’s environmental footprint; in keeping with the thinking of the time we focused on climate change. The conclusions (many of which were counterintuitive) were published, none have been challenged and, though it is time for a review, they remain true today. Transport creates the biggest impact, but packaging is a significant, if confusing issue. The key findings include:

• Recycling does not make packaging OK, just marginally less bad. Never forget the mantra reduce, re-use, recycle in that order. With China’s recent threat to effectively ban the import of plastic waste, the packaging and recycling industry will need to change very quickly. We now have a team, headed by Robyn, who are devoted to questioning every bit of our packaging. As a result, we are confident you will see big reductions in the next year, particularly of plastic.

• Our cardboard veg boxes, despite being made from 100% recycled materials, being re-used several times and being recyclable, still contribute four times the CO2 footprint of all the plastic we use, and almost as much as our lorries. The most effective thing you can do to reduce the environmental impact of your veg is still to leave the box out for collection. I hope that we will one day move to a deposit-carrying, reusable tray that will do hundreds of trips; a substantial obstacle is customer acceptance of plastic, while the £3m cost is another.

• Perhaps most contentiously, on CO2 emissions alone, plastic bags are normally better for the environment than paper. Much as most of us loathe plastic, it should not be condemned out of hand as a lot of its impact depends on how it is disposed of. If your local authority does not recycle plastic bags, please leave ours in your folded-down veg box and we will sort and recycle.

Climate change is not everything; society has underestimated plastic as a source of marine pollution and must work harder to reduce its use, though I still question moving to paper. For onion netting we just switched from plastic to a net made from sustainably managed beech wood; read Robyn’s blog about it online. We intend for this to be just the beginning of a change in the tide.

Guy Singh-Watson

Wooden nets & your thoughts about packaging

Hello, I’m Robyn – Riverford’s new(ish) packaging technologist. I’ve been working at Riverford HQ on the Devon farm for six months. Like everyone here, I’m passionate about food and the environment. Now that I’ve had some time to get to grips with the business and its ethos, I’m starting to review our existing packaging, making sure it reflects our ethics and looking at ways for us to improve.

Can’t live with it, can’t live without it
As much as people (ourselves included!) might wish that we could do without packaging entirely, it plays a huge part in ensuring product quality and enabling distribution through our whole supply chain – from the boxes that loop between our farm and your door, to the punnets that hold our mushrooms secure in transit. In general, our ethos is that less is more: if the product is robust enough to travel without being damaged, then there’s no need to add unnecessary packaging. Although we already look consciously at our packaging, my role has been created to really make sure that we’re doing the best we can.

Consistent customer feedback, as well as thoughts within Riverford, have lead me to rethink one item of our packaging first: plastic nets. We use these for items such as citrus and onions that are packaged in individual portions for people to add to their veg boxes or choose when building an individual order from scratch. My conundrum was this: we couldn’t get rid of nets entirely, as we rely on them to distribute equal-weight portions to every customer; and we couldn’t swap to another type of packaging without using even more material. I was stuck…. But then I came across a really exciting company in Austria that produces biodegradable net alternatives made from beech wood.

Wood, making a net?
It sounds strange, but actually works beautifully, and is very environmentally friendly. The wood is a by-product from the forestry industry: when the trees in PEFC-certified sustainable forests grow to a certain height, some are thinned out to give the remaining trees space and light to grow. The thinned-out trees would normally be burned; however, the net provides an alternative use. The wood is chipped and broken down further into pulp, spun into a string-like material, then knitted together into a net tube ready for our products.

Watch our video below to find out more about beech netting and how it’s made…

Needless to say, we decided to use the net – and in fact, have already started! We also have a large stock of plastic nets that we want to use up; you will still see some plastic nets in your boxes until we completely run out. We felt it would be wasteful to just throw away our existing stock, so as each plastic colour runs out we will replace it with the biodegradable version. Green and white biodegradable nets are already being used.

If you’re confused about what your net is made from, the feel will give it away: if it’s soft and natural feeling then you’ve got a biodegradable one. If it’s hard and plastic-y then it’s from the last of the plastic stock.

The way to dispose of your beech wood net is to cut off the metal clips (these aren’t biodegradable, though we are looking into alternatives) and put the net on your compost heap or in your council compost bin.

To find out more about our existing packaging and research with the University of Exeter, visit our packaging manifesto.

Share your thoughts on Riverford packaging
As part of my review of our existing packaging, I’m really keen to hear what customers think. If you have a few minutes to spare, please fill out the questionnaire below. I look forward to hearing your feedback, and will be personally reading the responses and bringing you more sustainable packaging changes in the future!

Click here to fill in the Riverford packaging survey

Guy’s news: ‘Puddling’ & unpredictable water

Organic veg growers obsess over how to build and preserve an open, stable soil structure with lots of pores to allow free passage of water and air. This creates the perfect environment for root growth and an ideal habitat for the invertebrates, fungi and bacteria that keep our crops fed and healthy. The better the structure, the more resilient it is to damage from machinery, livestock and pickers’ feet. However, this week our mission is to destroy soil structure; we are smashing up those delicate aggregates of clay, silt and organic matter through excessive wetting and compacting with swing shovels, bulldozers, rollers and tractors, reducing that precious structure to something as homogenous and airless as potter’s clay. When we are finished, no terrestrial plant will thrive there for 100 years; which is fine, because we are lining a leaking reservoir.

In the words of the Mercedes-driving, one legged, hazel-stick-twitching water diviner employed 20 years ago to locate a bore hole on the farm, “Water moves in strange and unpredictable ways in these parts.” I can’t remember if he got paid, but his prophecy that, “There is a river running at 150 feet,” proved unreliable; we gave up at 300 feet and have since relied on winter fill reservoirs for our irrigation water rather than bore holes. The Stetson-wearing Cornishman who built this reservoir 15 years ago found our water no more predictable in its movement; he finally gave in after burning thousands of litres of diesel, and left us with a giant leaking hole in the ground. Back in June when we got nervous about running out of water, we promised ourselves we would fix that leak. The plan is now to line the reservoir with 200mm of ‘puddled’ clay, in much the same way as our canals were built 250 years ago. Failing this, we will leave it to the tadpoles, and call it a nature reserve.

Meanwhile, last week’s prediction of a sodden November looks unfounded; the sun emerged as my fingers left the keyboard and has stayed with us since. We are busy harvesting carrots in good conditions and praying the rains hold off long enough to allow lifting of the last potatoes. Another dry week and it will be tempting to sow the winter broad beans, Guy Fawkes being the target date.

Guy Singh-Watson

Pumpkin Day 2017; another year of autumnal cheer

On Saturday we opened our four farms’ gates to 6,00o visitors for our legendary annual Pumpkin Day event. Families across Devon, Yorkshire, Peterborough and Hampshire joined us for pumpkin carving, face painting, worm digging, live music, tasty organic food and a good dose of fresh farm air!

The weather was on our side and once again we had a successful year welcoming people to see where we grow our iconic veg. We’re not sure of the exact start date of Pumpkin Day, but the Watson family recall the event happening on our original Devon farm over 20 years ago.

A new addition this year was our wonderfully eccentric and rather noisy Human Veg Machine, where participants had to match veg to win prizes.

A huge thanks to everyone who came. Here’s a glimpse of the action.

Ben’s wine blog: Autumn and winter wines have arrived

It’s that time of year when we need to start shaking things up for Christmas. It’s been a bit of a year for that already… We’ve had the Brexit-induced currency devaluation to contend with, followed by the Chancellor, in his divine wisdom, taking his slice at budget time, and now we’re having to plan ahead following one of the worst grape harvests in living memory. Late frosts and a hot, dry summer have meant yields are down by 25% – 50% across most of Europe. We all know how farmers like to moan, but this time they might have some justification.

Wine is a classic example of that old saying from The Leopard: ‘If things are going to stay the same around here, something has to change.’ Wine is a tiny part of the business, so the range has to stay small. To keep it interesting and vibrant, we must make some changes. Hopefully the quality continues to improve, but there are inevitably a few casualties in the form of old favourites no longer being available.

Before we go on to the chunky autumn and Christmas reds, two wines we added in mid-summer that seem to have flicked a few switches are our Fedele Nero d’Avola and Fedele Catararatto Pinot Grigio from Sicily. The Nero d’Avola is classic Nero d’Avola. We listed it in the summer because it’s perfect for barbecues, with bags of red berry fruits, smooth tannins and that sweet edge that works with caramelised meat and veg. So, worth an outing for Bonfire Night, but it’s also a great value Christmas party wine.

The Catarratto/Pinot Grigio white is even better. The two grapes together create an enjoyable, everyday drinking wine with intense citrus aromas and tropical fruit flavours; perfect with seafood or by itself. Veneto Pinot Grigio now has DOC status, which will inevitably lead to price rises – as will this year’s bad harvest. So, we’ll have to look elsewhere for our fridge door staple. It could be that Sicily provides the answer.

Also Italian and returning is Barone Pizzini Pievalta Verdicchio. From the Marche on the Adriatic coast, it’s a style of white that works well by itself or with many antipasti, fish and vegetable dishes. We love it – so much that we’ve also listed a sparkling version: Barone Pizzini Perlugo Spumante. 100% Verdicchio, traditional method, zero dosage (no sugar) fizz with an inviting leesy lemon nose and long-lasting fine mousse. Delicious, says Jancis Robinson.

My favourite of the new reds, and perfect for the autumn, is Dominio de Basconcillos Ribera del Duero. Historically, Ribera’s reputation has been built around Vega Sicilia. It’s acknowledged as one of the world’s great wines, and everybody has tried to copy its style of heavy, tannic wines aged for years in old oak. Many aren’t even released for a decade. All very old-school, but now, at last, things are changing, and the iconoclastic wine hipsters are moving in – with spectacular dividends. The Basconcillos is aged in oak for a mere six months before bottling; just enough to round things out, making it smooth in the mouth with ripe, velvety tannins. Long, elegant, fresh and very well balanced across the palate, it’s perfect with a roast or hearty Spanish stew – fabada asturiana, for example.

Over in the Languedoc, Mas Gabriel winemaker Peter Core probably wouldn’t call himself a hipster (despite playing the saxophone). Peter and his wife Deborah have been making wine in their tiny cellar at Caux, near Pezenas 20km from the Mediterranean, for about a decade. I met Deborah at the London Wine Fair years ago and have been wanting to list their wines ever since. A stellar 2014 vintage and a 93/100 rating from Robert Parker, Wine Advocate did the trick and now it’s here. Mas Gabriel’s Clos des Lièvres is 70% Syrah/30% Grenache and Carignan, a year in mainly used 500l barrels, and a real box of tricks – maybe too many. One minute it’s blackcurrant, then chocolate, then eucalyptus, then something else. It just keeps giving.

And that’s not all folks! Arriving in November, in plenty of time for Christmas, are Domaine Begude’s top end ‘Esprit’ Pinot Noir and ‘Etoile’ Chardonnay. 2016 was a great year for Begude’s Pinots (we sold out months ago) and the barrel aged Esprit is even better. The Etoile Chardonnay never fails to impress and 2016 is no exception.

We all have our fantasy wine Christmas dinner (or maybe, sadly, it’s just me), probably with a £10,000 bottle of Romanée-Conti as the ‘piece de resistance’. But really, nothing works better than fizz, followed by Chardonnay, followed by Pinot Noir, followed by a glass of PX with the pudding. If you’re hitting the cheese board before the pudding, then chuck in a bottle of Mas Gabriel Clos des Lièvres as well. It will happily follow you to the sofa.

We really do have Christmas all wrapped up.

Browse our whole range of organic wines for autumn and winter here. Check back in November to see our extra Christmas stars!

Guy’s news – Don’t be dull; get bitter

The tree leaves are mostly gone, the ground is sodden and the sky heavy, but it is still warm. I find myself impatient for winter. November brings a dull light which keeps crops alive but without vigour, like the last of the fat, dozy flies lingering in the warmth inside my window; the game is definitely over, but death hasn’t quite arrived. Over the years, I have become less convinced of the wisdom of stretching the seasons of summer crops, particularly at the back end. A lot of effort goes into producing low yields which lack vigour, frequently succumb to pest and disease, and often disappoint in the kitchen. Better to let summer go; bring on the first frost, and roasts and stews aplenty.

Radicchio is the culinary highlight in a dull month; so handsome in scarlet and white, with a bitter brightness that restores my vigour. The last of the lettuces are usually a disappointment as light levels drop, but radicchio is from different stock. Descended from dandelions, which thrive in the partial shade of broken deciduous woodland, the dim, damp November weather only adds to its sweetness and succulence. The Italians have many different types of radicchio, with regional recipes to match, and will assert with total conviction that theirs is the only one worth eating. We grow Treviso (shaped like a Cos lettuce), and the more solid and winter hardy Chioggia (shaped like a cannonball). Enjoy them in salads (great with blue cheese, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and pears), in risotto (bizarrely with red wine), grilled, or with chilli, garlic and cream over pasta.

We have had a great sunflower crop in the Vendée. One day we will make oil, but this year we are again offering them as bird feeders. Hung in your garden, they will provide hours of entertainment for you and your birds. £1.95 for two.

I am buoyed by the growing acceptance of radicchio, but suspect my enthusiasm for bitter has gone too far with cardoons; seldom have I had more complaints than when we put them in the boxes last year. But they are at their most succulent now, and I can’t quite bring myself to plough them in. So, in one last throw, I am offering them totally free. All you have to do is order (and cook; my gratin recipe is included). Bitter lovers, enjoy… the rest of you can stick to your dull sweetness.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Freaks from the wet west

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

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

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

Guy Singh-Watson

Put pumpkin on your plate, not the bin!

Every year the UK wastes around 18,000 tons of perfectly edible pumpkin flesh and seeds as the nation carves away to make spooky Halloween lanterns.

Like squash, pumpkin is sweet and warming and can be delicious if cooked in the right recipes. Here are a few veg-centric recipes to help turn your pumpkin waste into a tasty meal or treat.

For all of the below you can substitute pumpkin for squash if you need a little inspiration to use up your Squash Box.


Pumpkin Madeleines with Pumpkin Custard & Cinnamon Meringue
Unusual and slightly long winded but totally worth it. The meringue isn’t necessary but adds an impressive finish. All the elements can be made individually if you don’t want to tackle the whole recipe.
See recipe

 


Pumpkin Fritters with Romesco
These fritters are simple to prepare and the romesco is a delicious accompaniment, but can be substituted for a simple mayonnaise mixed with paprika and garlic. We like the romesco with a mix of nuts rather than using just almonds. Cashews add a creamy taste to the sauce.
See recipe

 


Roasted Pumpkin Salad with Pumpkin Seed Dukka, Sumac Red Onions, Wootton White, Pistachio & Pomegranate
This dish has a Middle Eastern feel to it and is a good way to use up pumpkin flesh and seeds. Wootton White is an English Greek style sheep’s cheese and can be substituted with feta.
See recipe

 


Thai Pumpkin Curry
Squash and pumpkin work well in a Thai curry as the coconut milk complements the sweetness of the veg and lemony flavours add a fresh flavour. Make sure you bruise the lemongrass by bashing it with a rolling pin to release the aromatic flavour. If you don’t fancy making the paste, you can buy it ready made.
See recipe

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

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

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

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

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Help. We need governance

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

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

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

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

Guy Watson