Tag Archives: farming

Guy’s Newsletter: hasty veg & a bitter imposition

We are finally enjoying some very welcome cold, dry and bright weather. It will take another week before our most free-draining land dries enough to allow any soil preparation for planting though; spring still feels a long way off. Most winter crops are running four to six weeks ahead of schedule due to the mild winter so far, while our other fields look worryingly bare; it will be three or four months before the spring crops are ready. We still have plenty of roots, kale and leeks, but there will be gaps left by the hasty cauliflowers and cabbages, so we will have to juggle our box contents planning a little.

In contrast to this, over on our farm in France a break in the weather allowed us to plant the first batavia lettuce this week, as the sandy soils there are more forgiving. The first cos lettuce will go into the ground tomorrow; the seed bed was prepared and covered back in October, avoiding the need for any cultivation now when it is difficult to get machinery on the wet land. We plant by hand this early in the year, but still need a tractor to bend hoops and lay the low-level polytunnels that will protect and advance the crop, allowing us to start cutting in late March. Overall our farm in the Vendée has come a long way to filling the UK’s Hungry Gap, but it looks as if that gap might be wider than usual this year. Thankfully, after five years on our own, an organic neighbour will be growing spinach for your boxes in late April and May.

Most of the crop planning for the coming season is done, and seeds and plants ordered with just a few details to refine; I would be grateful if some of you could pass comment on the pale green, solid-ish, bitter and crunchy heads of pain de sucre (salad chicory) that have been in some boxes over the last month. I love growing and eating them and they provide some winter variety without the need to go 1000 miles south, but is this a bitter imposition or do you like them too? There is a very, very brief questionnaire at www.riverford.co.uk/paindesucre; I am just as keen to hear from the haters as the lovers.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: average – the new good?

In much of the UK we are blessed with a moist, temperate climate and good soils, making farming relatively easy compared to the more extreme climates of the world. Farming evolves with decades of experimentation and observation, based on assumptions about the weather and its implications for crops, varieties, soil types and topographies. Some scientists have suggested that higher average temperatures and atmospheric CO2 levels (a key limit to plant growth) could benefit farmers in temperate climates. This may be true under average conditions, but experience suggests that extremes may be more critical in determining the fate of a particular crop, and ultimately our food security. And all climatologists seem to agree that we should expect more extremes.

In Devon, November brought temperatures 3˚C above average, half the average sunshine and about 50% extra rain. December saw temperatures a staggering 4˚C up, with sunshine about 30% down. Warm, dull wet weather is what we expect in a Devon winter but this is extreme; plants need the sun, if not to grow, to maintain themselves and to give the strength to fight off pathogens. Until recently most crops held up well, including cabbages, kale and swede and a fair crop of slightly weather-beaten leeks. Harvesting is slower in the mud, especially with the extra trimming of damaged leaves, but generally morale in the teams has held up well. Into the New Year the inevitable problems started to surface: fungal disease in the spring greens outside and salad greens in our tunnels, head rot hitting early purple sprouting broccoli and aphids and an (as yet) unidentified stem rot in tunnel-grown lettuce. All problems that would disappear with some bright, cold, or even average, weather.

What better way to while away a grim January day than making Seville orange marmalade? According to Paddington Bear, every family needs a marmalade day. If you can’t be bothered with our marmalade kits, just try this year’s excellent blood oranges. Both are at their best over the next few weeks.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: when I grow up

Taken as a whole, 2015 has treated us well. A bright and dry, if cool, spring allowed us to plant in good conditions, and though crops were slow to get away in the cold, all was well as we entered summer. The persistent dampness of late summer brought a spate of fungal disease, but the wonderfully bright and dry September and October were a gift to all farmers, allowing perfect ripening and harvesting conditions and a late rally in many crops. Since then it has been relentlessly grim in the fields with barely a few hours of brightness and no chance of harvesting the last carrots, but that is pretty much what we expect.

Good farmers make the most of their chances; bad farmers make the most of their excuses. To be in the former group you must grow the right crops on the right soils in the right climate and be ready to make the most of the opportunities the weather presents. After years of pig-headedly fighting with our heavier Devon soils and damp climate, we now focus on the crops that do well here; brassicas like cabbage, broccoli, swede and kale, plus salads, potatoes and leeks. The onions, Brussels sprouts and parsnips have moved to lighter soils in the drier east; it flies in the face of ‘local food’ but reduces risk and the wasted work and energy expended on failed or half crops. I strongly suspect it makes better environmental sense as well.

I reckon the attendance and mood of work Christmas parties is as good an indication of an organisation’s health as the accounts. We’ve had our ups and downs; the low was in the late ‘90s, when I spent a week cooking, rented a river boat and band, only for 10% of staff to show up. I tried in vain to console myself by drinking the booze; the hangover was bad, but not as bad as the year that followed. By contrast, I reckon last weekend’s raucous affair, themed ‘what I want to be when I grow up’, was our best yet; we seem to have come of age without getting boring so I feel confident we will rise to the inevitable challenges ahead. When I was growing up I could hardly have wished for more.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: farming, not buying

In 1999, after 12 years as an organic grower in the UK, I was starting to get the knack of it; my soils and crops were improving, sales were up and I had founded a local growers’ co-op. None of that prevented me being repeatedly told, “organic is all very well for the rich, but will never feed the world”. It has always struck me that industrialised, chemical agriculture wasn’t doing that well either, but I wanted to see for myself. Sub-Saharan Africa, where food couldn’t be described as a lifestyle choice, seemed a good place to start.

After a month in Kenya, visiting both subsistence farmers and large scale veg growers, I crossed the border into Uganda with a heavy heart; I had yet to see anything likely to inspire imitation, organic or not. My guide Timothy Njakasi and I spent a week visiting growers, many trained by him through the charity Send a Cow. There was plenty of bush burning and bad farming, but my spirits rose as I saw more integrated agriculture involving water conservation, composting and the use of trees and perennial crops in multi-canopy systems.

Established by a group of Devon farmers, Send a Cow teaches sustainable farming techniques across Africa using local skills and materials. I have been hugely impressed by their patient, ground-up approach, relying on demonstration and peer farmers to change lives permanently. According to the UN, small scale farms produce up to 80% of food in non-industrialised countries, and the agro-ecological techniques they generally employ have been shown to double yields in 3-5 years. This is far from the picture of futureless ‘peasant farming’ painted by the agri-chemical industry’s clever marketing. Yet as there is little opportunity to profit from such self-sufficient agriculture by selling chemicals or machinery, no-one with marketing money talks about it. Simply put, it’s hard to get support for farming that doesn’t involve buying stuff.

I have supported Send a Cow ever since that visit, and our staff and customers raise £25,000 every year to support their work. Until the end of December every £1 donated to Send a Cow will be matched by our government. For something that could change a family’s life forever, that has to be good value. Visit www.riverford.co.uk/sendacow for details.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: whacky veg that works

A couple of years ago I asked for suggestions of less familiar vegetables you would like us to grow for your veg boxes. Among the more frequent suggestions were oca, purslane, turmeric, lemon grass, yukon, puntarelle, ratte potatoes, cardoons, some whacky tomatoes and cime di rapa. I’m a sucker for a challenge, so we have run growing and cooking trials on these vegetables and more. Inevitably most were flops; they didn’t grow, were too slow to harvest, they yellowed or wilted as soon as were picked or, if they grew, lacked culinary merit. I refuse to grow things on the basis of novelty alone; they have to taste good too.

Cime di rapa is looking promising and after a couple of false starts we think we might now have got the agronomy right (sowing date, spacing, soil, variety etc.); our first field-scale trial will be harvested this week. It is a staple winter green in southern Italy; sold in bunches in the markets, normally as it starts to flower. It is very succulent with a slightly lemony bitterness and is classically sautéed with garlic and chilli, and tossed through pasta or served as a side green. Meanwhile in our third year of trials we are still struggling with the Peruvian tuber oca (Oxalis tuberosa). It is closer to a yam than a potato, tastes pretty good, is said to be easy to grow in our climate but seems to miss home; despite having seen it growing happily halfway up a Welsh mountain we have twice failed to get an economic yield ourselves. Thinking it needs more heat and less rain we are now growing it in France with more success. Don’t hold your breath though; the yield will be tiny this year with just a few hundred kilos available on the extras list in November, but we are hoping to go large next year.

Cardoons have proved easy to grow and I am slowly winning our restaurant teams over to cooking them; they need just the right combination of growing expertise to minimise bitterness and toughness, paired with the right techniques in the kitchen. I love them but acknowledge they are too out there to risk putting in the boxes, but they will occasionally be on the extras list. We send the flowers as a freebie in the boxes now and then, and have started drying the flower stamens to grind into a vegetarian rennet substitute. We ate the first cardoon cheese last week; who knows, we may even get a herd of milking sheep.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: summer rain & sleepy potatoes

The August rains which ruined many a holiday have got our winter cabbages, leeks, kales, romanesco and calabrese broccoli off to a good start. The prospects for the later winter crops look even better as the slow drop in temperature prepares them for the first frost that typically arrives in early October. Meanwhile, when weather conditions allow, our farming co-op are busy harvesting main crop potatoes and getting them into store. The plants have been defoliated, either naturally through blight attacking the leaves, or through mowing the tops off followed by burning to prevent blight hitting; now we wait three weeks for the tubers to set a firm skin and for any blight spores on the surface to die before harvesting into one ton wooden bins. Few things smell worse than a potato store melting to slime with blight, so it is worth being patient. Initially the store is ventilated with ambient air to dry the tubers and allow any skin damage caused by the harvesting machinery to heal. After two or three weeks the fridges are switched on to bring the temperature down to 3.5°C over a month or so, and thus put the tubers to sleep. Valor, the sleepiest variety, will happily slumber on until next May or even June.

Those August rains were a mixed blessing; good for recently planted hardy winter crops needing to get established, less good for tender salads. Our spinach succumbed first to mildew brought on by the damp and evolution (new mildew strains have overcome the resistance bred into existing varieties), and then to nitrogen deficiency resulting from soluble nutrients being carried down through the soil profile by the rain; spinach is too shallow rooted and quick maturing to reach them. Later sowings are now recovering to some extent but you may have noticed your box greens tending more towards kale and cabbage as we look for substitutes for failing spinach. We are also struggling with a flush of the small leaved, succulent chickweed; it is often a problem in the autumn, establishing an interwoven mat which smothers out all but the most vigorous competition. Sorting the weeds from the crop is slowing the picking of salad leaves and spinach, yet chickweed is much prized in some parts of the world so I hope you will not be too indignant if a few harmless leaves make it through to your bags.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: FE & food: an employer’s plea

Finding chefs, butchers and growers is the bane of most food businesses. Despite years of celebrity TV cooks and gardeners and all the blogs and newspaper columns devoted to food, there is a dearth of good practitioners in the nation’s fields and commercial kitchens. It’s true that many of the skills needed can be acquired on the job, but there’s always a place for classroom study to give perspective and depth, and add status and thus pride in work. How can we expect a teenager entering a profession (farming and cooking are professions, just as much as law, medicine and media) to value what they do if we won’t invest even modest sums in their training? Employers could certainly do more, (Riverford is no exception), but there is a crisis of funding unfolding in our Further Education (FE) colleges which threatens to undermine many professions.

FE colleges educate more 16 to 19 year olds taking A-levels than school sixth forms, yet, bizarrely, are excluded from the funding ‘ring fence’ protecting education; it could only happen in the class-ridden UK. Nowhere else in Europe is there such a blinkered view of what constitutes education, or are such teaching institutions so marginalised. One senior civil servant is reputed to have suggested FE could be cut “without anyone noticing”, while Boris Johnson confused FE colleges with secondary moderns in one of his speeches; such is the Westminster bubble that it appears to barely register the existence of FE. As a result, FE colleges have been an easy target, suffering funding cuts of around 35% since 2009, with a further 24% cut due in 2015/16. Imagine the outcry if schools were cut like that. Meanwhile the resulting skills shortage holds back economic growth, and it’s only going to get worse.

We are all born with different talents, which is just as well because the paths through life are as broad, varied and constantly changing as the needs of our economy and society. To restrict education funding and therefore career options in this way is as shortsighted as it is inefficient; ask almost any employer. It’s not just what’s on your plate that might suffer.

Guy Watson

PS. In another misguided narrowing of opportunities, all A-level food topics are to be axed. Visit www.savefood.tech to sign the petition.

References and further reading:
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/26/adult-education-funding-cuts

“The Association of Colleges warns that 190,000 adult education places will be lost next year as funding is slashed by 24%. Since 2010, the adult skills budget, which funds non-academic (university-based) education and training for those 19 or over, has been cut by a staggering 40%.”

http://feweek.co.uk/2015/03/25/government-cuts-could-decimate-adult-education-by-2020-aoc-warns/

“Continued cuts to the adult skills budget risk wiping out adult education and training in England within five years, the Association of Colleges (AoC) has warned after research showed 190,000 course places could be lost in 2015/16 alone.

The AoC has published research based on data from its 336 member colleges which points to a bleak future for the FE sector, which has faced adult skills budget cuts of around 35 per cent since 2009 and is now gearing up to deal with the consequences of a further 24 per cent cut in 2015/16.
According to the AoC, adult education and training provision could disappear completely by 2020 if cuts continue at the same rate as they have in recent years…..”

Skills shortage articles
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/jobs/11724149/Shortage-of-skilled-workers-drags-down-UK-jobs-market-driving-up-pay-inflation.html

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2948908/Britain-hit-worst-skills-shortage-30-years-means-earn-100-000-year-plumber-aged-just-19-prepared-graft.html

Guy’s Newsletter: trust & honour among farmers

I love September; for both its abundance in the fields and the resultant possibilities in the kitchen. More selfishly, I relish the calm that returns to south Devon and, along with many of my surfing staff, look forward to the first of the autumn swells arriving on uncrowded beaches while the water is still warm. With the planting finished, we now settle into the regular rhythm of harvesting both fresh veg for the boxes and filling the stores with roots for the winter.

Any fine days feel like a bonus stolen in the face of autumn and it has started well; a few bright and sunny (if cool) days have allowed us to get on top of the weeding, make a start on the main crop potato harvest and to ensile the lupins, triticale, chicory and clover that will keep the family cows fed through winter.

To add to the abundance from our own fields, we are taking the plunge and adding a range of 100% organic store cupboard staples (pasta, rice, lentils, tinned tomatoes, beans etc.) to our fresh vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy offerings. Many of you have suggested this repeatedly over the years; it makes logistical, environmental and economic sense to be delivering as much as we sensibly can and reducing the need for other shopping trips, but I have dragged my feet. To date, if we or our farming co-op didn’t grow it we almost always knew the person who did; our trading relationships have been built up over years of walking their fields (normally followed by food and a few drinks), and most importantly the trust that comes from repeatedly honouring verbal deals and helping each other out when things go wrong. This becomes much more difficult with chickpeas and couscous which tend to come from further afield and are traded in a way that is hard to circumvent. Our solution is to work with Bristol based Essential Trading whom we know, like and trust. They are a well-run workers’ co-operative, trading for 44 years and committed to similar environmental and social goals to Riverford. Their pasta for one comes from a farming co-op in Italy (La Terra e il Cielo) that a few of our staff are visiting later this month, so keep an eye out for a video on our Facebook page. My initial reluctance has now been out voted by good logic, so here’s to more good food.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: freaks; where would we be without them?

Three weeks of gloom and relentless rain have caused a few problems with weeding and harvesting, but have done little to dampen our spirits here on the farm; with most of the planting finished, 2015 still looks like being a very good year. A bright September would allow us to get on top of the weeds, harvest in good conditions and ripen the tomatoes and squash, but sunny or not it will be the Soil Association’s Organic September. With organic sales rising again, my wife Geetie and I have been asked to give a talk in London as ‘organic pioneers’. Musing on this, I realise that there were plenty who came before us.

When I converted three acres of my parent’s farm 30 years ago and planted my first organic vegetables, I was clueless; I spent every spare moment visiting the real organic pioneers, some of whom had been quietly growing, experimenting and philosophising, largely in isolation, since the sixties. One used only horsepower and had taken the engine out of his only tractor to pull it more easily with a team of horses; one produced organic grain and beef very successfully for 20 years without ever charging a premium or even saying it was organic, explaining to me that, “there are no pockets in a shroud, Guy”; another devoted much of his life to developing a revolutionary cultivator and seed drill called the sod seeder; “It will make herbicides and the plough redundant,” he confidently predicted, but sadly it never really worked; another kept very happy pigs in the woods and would have moved in with them if his wife had allowed it. I was always welcomed, taken in, shown around, advised, fed and given a bed; there was never fear of shared knowledge leading to competition as no-one was in it for the money anyway; they just wanted to change the world. Most were pretty nuts but amid the madness were gems of creativity, genius and profound sanity.

Those pioneers shared an uncompromising, obsessive, anarchic view of the world and a deep commitment to finding a better way of farming; they were the freaks on the fringe whose difficult questions start movements. Some have refined their skills to become successful commercial farmers, some are consultants, counsellors or tai-chi teachers, a few have inevitably made use of the shroud; I doubt they had much to put in the pockets, but without their questions and generosity of spirit, Riverford would not exist to celebrate Organic September.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: bumper crops, caterpillars & gleaners

We are picking the first of a fine crop of sweetcorn on our farm in France; six weeks ahead of the main UK crop and in time for your BBQs. Annoyingly you are in competition with the European corn borer, a moth which particularly favours maize and sweetcorn for nursing its young; the eggs hatch into a voracious caterpillar which feeds on the ripening cobs. The agri-tech solution would be to regularly spray insecticides, or to grow a GM variety where every cell of every plant continuously generates its own insecticide. Instead we use a minute wasp called Trichogramma which lays an egg inside the eggs of the corn borer, devouring the pest from within once it hatches. This is a well-proven system of biological control used for over 100 years, but it does rely on breeding and releasing enough wasps at just the right time; I suspect we were a little late. Where damage is not severe we will trim in the field; however the occasional cob is bound to slip through so please accept our apologies. One could say it is the price of insecticide-free food, but we’re happy to replace if you feel hard done by.

Nearby we have good crops of padron peppers and tomatillos, which will appear in most boxes over the summer. The padrons make a great snack when quickly pan-fried and salted; about one in five are mildly hot but it varies according to the plant, weather, maturity and where they are grown. Meanwhile tomatillos form the basis of many Mexican dishes, most particularly salsa verde; great with just about anything grilled or fried. There are some good recipes here.

At home we are coming to the end of a record breaking crop of broad beans; lots of spring sunshine helped the bees thoroughly pollinate the flowers which, coupled with just enough rain, has resulted in well-filled pods. We have upped the portions in your boxes (on us), and our veg men and ladies will carry some complimentary bags to give to those of you who are not beaned out, but even this will not shift the colossal harvest. According to the Old Testament’s Deuteronomic Code, we should leave part of the crop for widows, orphans and strangers; even after six years of austerity we don’t find many of them wandering the parish, so we have called in Gleaning Network UK to come and pick the remains for distribution to food banks and other charities.

Guy Watson