Tag Archives: organic

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: feeling good about ourselves

Our veg boxes have just been voted Ethical Product of the Decade at the Observer Ethical Awards; wow, quite an accolade. I am still smiling. Thanks to those of you who voted and to all of you who have supported us over the decade, and in many cases, longer. I like to think that we offer a positive alternative to mainstream food production, but without your trust and occasional forgiveness it would have been hard to resist the calls for compromise, especially during the recession. Turning ethical intentions into ethical business is often simply down to taking the long view and having faith that you (or someone else) will be around long enough to see the benefit. Investing in our collective long-term future, whether in staff conditions and development, supplier relationships, energy efficiency or building soil fertility normally makes sense commercially (as well as ethically and environmentally), but you also need patience and the comfort of not having shareholders and bankers clamouring for short-term returns.

We’ve had a great start to the summer with some very good quality bumper crops. Some of that is down to good fortune (mainly good weather), but there’s a large element of making your own luck in farming, by making the right decisions through experience, good planning, being on top of the work and therefore being able to do things at the right time. In the next three weeks we will plant most of the winter crops; timing is critical and we are bang on schedule and no-one (with the possible exception of the irrigation team) even seems to be stressed; a long way from the chaos of old. How did we learn so much, collect so much skill and organise it so well, so seemingly effortlessly? I reckon doing things ethically has a lot to do with it; our staff like it and are proud to work here.

In 30 years we’ve grown into a big-ish company and at times I’ve worried that this would make us less human, less caring and a bit boring. Last Saturday, witnessing our summer staff party (possibly the best yet) being enjoyed by so many convinced me that big often is, but doesn’t have to be, bad. Scale can help you do things better; whether organising a party, logistics, or managing pest/predator balance in tomatoes. Yes, I’m feeling a little pleased with myself but enough of that. I’m a farmer and better go find something to be miserable about.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: GM, PR & the BBC

In 1998 some GM maize trials were planned on a neighbour’s farm across the river from Riverford, which threatened to cross-pollinate with my organic sweetcorn. I wasn’t overly bothered but my father, recently retired and reinvented as an eco-warrior, was getting agitated. He dumped a pile of papers on my desk and, reluctantly at first, I got reading.

At university, ten years earlier, I had been intrigued by the neatly simple, powerful genetic coding that controlled the synthesis of proteins and hence heredity and all life. Wow; who wouldn’t be excited? The discovery won Watson, Crick and Wilkins a well-deserved Nobel Prize in 1962 and, as the tools developed to apply and exploit the discovery, a science, an industry and then a political lobby was born.

After a month of reading I was alarmed by the potential food safety and environmental implications of the emerging technology, and with encouragement from the Soil Association and Friends of the Earth, I challenged the legality of the maize trials and the case went all the way to the High Court; but the real battle turned out to be in the media.

Despite being a vocal campaigner I was never fundamentally opposed to the technology, rather the rush to commercialise it at any cost. With cries of ‘Frankenstein food’ from the anti-GM movement and spurious claims of solving world hunger from the pro lobby, the smokescreen of misleading, emotive information from both sides has made it almost impossible to form a non-partisan, informed opinion. I got fed up, declined invitations to speak and backed out of the fight. Money talks in PR, if only because it can buy the persistence that few causes can maintain, and over the last 15 years the GM industry has won the battle, in England and Wales at least. Is this down to the strength of their arguments or the depth of their pockets? Either way, the culmination was seen last week with the BBC’s blatantly pro-GM edition of Panorama, entitled ‘Cultivating Fear’.

What most took me aback was how the programme justified the use of GM aubergine in Bangladesh as a means of preventing pesticide poisoning among farming families. The scale of the poisoning was truly horrific and is repeated across the developing world where many farmers are illiterate and use pesticides with no protective clothing. One of the most disturbing things I have ever seen is a Ugandan farmer smoking a soggy cigarette while spraying tomatoes; it was soggy with the toxic liquid leaking from his back pack sprayer. In the Punjab, according to doctors quoted in the excellent film The True Cost, it is common for villages to have 70 or more children suffering from birth defects, cancers and mental illness resulting from pesticide exposure. As such I found it almost surreal to hear these horrific consequences of the last round of agritech progress being used as a justification for the next, especially when the products in question are supplied by the same western companies. This was PR spin at its worst, yet I wondered if I had become a hopelessly romantic Luddite, part of former Secretary of State Owen Paterson’s “green blob” resisting progress from a position of privilege. I needed the facts, so 15 years on from that courtroom battle I sat down again to read. This is what I found out:

  • GM crops have not reduced pesticide use; according to the US Department of Agriculture (normally pro GM), over 15 years GM crops have resulted in a 7% increase in pesticide use due to weeds and insects developing resistance.
  • It turns out that even the Bangladesh GM aubergine is far from an unbridled success, and that Panorama painted a very flattering picture of it. According to a local scientist, many of the farmers who took part in the experiment are demanding compensation.
  • The USDA states there is no evidence of GM increasing yield potential. It turns out conventional breeding has been much better at boosting yields at a fraction of the cost.
  • None of the claims for nutritionally enhanced food, drought-tolerant or more nitrogen-efficient crops have been successful to date. Owen Paterson labelled the anti-GM lobby “wicked” for resisting vitamin A enhanced GM ‘golden rice’. The reality is that it has proved difficult to make the technology work and the developers at the International Rice Research Institute say they are years from being ready to grow a successful commercial crop. How and why could a politician with research assistants make such a provocative and poorly informed statement?
  • After 18 years of Americans eating GM food it is claimed that there are no obvious health impacts, but the same was said after much longer periods for smoking, trans fats, asbestos, excessive salt etc. There have been peer reviewed animal studies which have raised concern but I find it worrying that in the case of any questioning of GM the response is always a near hysterical hounding of the scientists from their post.

These are just some of the issues that should concern all of us. For all but the most ardent laissez faire capitalist I would suggest there are two more worth considering:

  • In the last 20 years the biotech companies have been buying up the global seed trade; the top three (Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta) own a staggering 47%. With the loss of smaller companies go local varieties suited to local conditions and requirements. As a grower myself, I have seen a very noticeable decline in choice.
  • Even more extreme: 87% of the global surface of GM crops is controlled by Monsanto, either directly through the sale of seeds or indirectly through the licence of traits for which they own the patents.

I am reluctant to be branded a communist (again) but I was taught that the efficiency of capitalism required free markets and that a key part of a free market was the avoidance of monopolies. Monsanto and the other so called ‘big ag’ multinationals clearly have a vision for our future and are rapidly getting in a position to impose it; Owen Paterson and the Panorama presenter Tom Heap may be comfortable with that, but I am uneasy with a global food supply being controlled by the same people who brought us DDT, Agent Orange and PCBs.

I think it is highly likely that GM will have a role in shaping sustainable agriculture at some point; no one can predict where science can take us. But in debating how to feed the world, bombarding us with emotive and misleading messages driven more by a PR agenda than by fact is unforgivable. We need, rather, a cool headed evaluation of the scientific evidence, tempered by transparency around the commercial interests at play.

Guy Watson

SOURCES:

Main scientific content: http://earthopensource.org/earth-open-source-reports/gmo-myths-and-truths-2nd-edition/, itself fully referenced with many scientific citations.

A different view of Bt. Brinjal in Bangladesh – not scientific (but neither was Panorama): http://ubinig.org/index.php/home/showAerticle/76/english”

The status of the Golden Rice project: International Rice Research Institute

Guy’s Newsletter: farming to order

Back in 2007 we took on the tenancy of Sacrewell Farm near Peterborough, just off the famously fertile Fens, to grow veg and pack our veg boxes for customers in the east of England. After a lifetime in Devon’s restrictively small, hilly fields I was seduced by the prospect of farming 500 acres of level, freely draining, relatively uniform soil; surely this would be easy. It turned out that the land was exhausted, flogged by 20 years of continual conventional cropping with potatoes and cereals. We set about sowing grass clover leys to restore natural fertility, planting an orchard and hedgerows and converting to organic methods; early crops were disappointing but eight years on our farm team are getting better crops each year as the life comes back into the soil and we learn which crops suit the silty loam. The harder climate and lower humidity means we get much less fungal disease so we now grow most of our onions here to avoid the mildew that inevitably hits us in damp Devon, and this year’s crop is looking very good.

Watching the transformation of Sacrewell has made me appreciate how much farms on our relatively small island can vary as a result of their natural geology and how the soil has been treated. In Devon the mixed farming my father employed for 50 years has protected the loamy, balanced (if shallow) soils, and the thick hedgerows are a blessing; it turns out that they help keep insect pests under control by providing habitats for insect predators to overwinter. In the east, while we have created a rich, biodiverse farm at Sacrewell, monocultures and huge fields are the norm where a ‘hedge’ is a sparse, stunted row of thorns. While their influence means we still have rapid outbreaks of aphids here that we never see in Devon, the change in the past eight years has been incredible; an RSPB survey last year counted 70 species on the farm including lapwings, corn buntings, grey partridges and red kites.

Organic farming means treating each farm as an individual and finding its virtues; it has taken us a few years to appreciate them, but now we are undoubtedly bringing out their best.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: where are the guardians of our soil?

April is a hectic month of change as planting gets underway in earnest all over the farm. Where last year’s crops are finished and the fields need a rest, we are sowing ‘leys’ to build fertility, and restore soil structure. After years of experimentation, my brother Oliver uses a mixture of triticale (a cross between rye and wheat), lupins, clovers (all nitrogen-fixing legumes), grasses and, more unusually, chicory. This bitter herb does well on our soils and seems to be favoured by the grazing dairy herd, but more importantly Oliver reckons it opens the soil structure and brings up nutrients from deeper in the soil profile. By July, as the lupins and triticale fill their seed heads, he takes a cut of silage to feed the cows in winter; the understory of clover and grass are then free of competition to form a dense sward for the cows to graze. After three or four years of such restorative activity, the soil is ready for vegetables again.

The complexity of our farm with its mixture of annual and perennial crops and livestock is unquestionably good for the soil and wildlife, but it’s rapidly becoming an anomaly in modern agriculture. The norm is for soil to be subjected to repetitive monocropping on large farms which specialise in one enterprise, generally propped up by chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers. After 30 years, with plenty of mistakes along the way, I feel confident that with each turn of the rotation our fields are improving and, while the commercial pressure is always towards simplicity and specialisation, we are getting better at managing the complexity. This is in stark contrast to most agriculture where the UN predicts that on average the world has just 60 years of crop growing capacity left, due to soil degradation.

Our system is far from perfect; the abiding weakness is the need to create a weed free seedbed for new crops to establish. The two poles of thinking are that you either spray or you plough; both are environmental catastrophes for soil flora and fauna, but ploughing is just a bit less flawed than the chemical alternative. As farmers we must learn to produce food while being better guardians of the fragile, much neglected soil that supports us all.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: eating & wearing your way to a better world

You may be surprised to find a People Tree clothing catalogue in your box this week. We once put a copy of the Ecologist Magazine in, which precipitated a barrage of chastening comments along the lines of, “we like the veg, but don’t make assumptions about our beliefs and allegiances.” As a result we have kept bumph, however righteous, out of your boxes ever since. So I thought I better explain why I have broken the rule.

Non-organic cotton is an extraordinarily dirty crop, accounting for almost 25% of insecticides used worldwide. In India, where cotton accounts for 5% of cropped land, it accounts for a staggering 54% of all pesticides applied, and what’s worse is that they are among the most persistent, toxic and environmentally damaging, including organophosphates and organochlorines.

90% of People Tree cotton is organically grown (it would take more words than I have to explain the 10%) and its founder Safia Minney has spent 24 years developing a supply chain where she knows each step of the production process from sowing the seed through to garment manufacture. This is in contrast to most of the textile and fashion industry, which has an appalling record of exploitation, dangerous employment practices and environmental damage.

Safia is a force to be reckoned with and would expend her last breath fighting for ethical business practices, and that makes me want to support her efforts. In this world of corporate greenwash, I trust People Tree completely; like our Fair Trade pineapples from Togo they are the real thing, the gold standard in ethical business that others can be judged against. I love their fabrics and it feels good to wear something that represents the world I want to live in. I reckon they are fairly priced anyway but with the 20% discount for Riverford customers, they are a bargain. You really will be wearing your way to a better world.

For those of you near London we will be holding a sample sale and panel discussion on Saturday 9th May to mark World Fair Trade Day at our pub in Islington, Riverford at the Duke of Cambridge. Half the proceeds will go to charity; find out more at www.dukeorganic.co.uk.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: easing life with a vegbox

I hope you are rested, fortified and full of good intentions for you, your family and the world at large. In my drowsy fireside perusings of the yuletide press there seemed to be a growing acceptance that we would live happier, better lives by focusing on experiences rather than possessions; bring it on I say. While this generally led on to suggestions of the ultimate holiday in the papers, I would suggest an even better place to start is with cooking and sharing food.

We know that life with a vegbox is not always easy; from last year’s customer survey (thanks to those who filled it in) only 22% found it really easy; 25% struggled to identify all the contents and 39% didn’t know how to cook some of them. Clearly you don’t have to jump off a bridge with an elasticated rope tied to your ankles to get a challenging experience. Some may relish the gentle testing that life with a vegbox brings, but a busy weeknight evening may not be the time you want it, so we clearly need to do more to make it easier.

One of the most heartening emails I recently read was from a customer whose cantankerously carnivorous, non-cooking, organic-sceptic husband had finally relented his Riverford resistance on grounds of flavour, and then went on to become a convert to cooking with our recipe boxes. Apparently he is now a full blown apostle. I’m really proud of our recipe boxes, in particular I love the empowerment they give to less confident cooks; even my junk-food-loving 16 year old has managed to cook from them. Many people buy them to provide quick, healthy and affordable midweek meals without having to plan and shop, or to widen their cooking repertoire. This year, all being well, you can expect some guest chef boxes from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the Hemsley + Hemsley sisters too.

Cooking from a vegbox will never be a bungee jump but we do like to provide some gentle stimulation through the occasional mystery vegetable; this year look out for puntarelle (a type of chicory), make-your-own-popcorn-on-the-cob, corn nuts, huitlacoche and probably a few things even I don’t know about yet. One thing that will be unchanged is that whatever it is, it will all be 100% organic.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: learning with leeks

Leeks were the first crop I grew on a substantial scale and they remain an important staple for us, keeping the vegboxes full and our staff busy throughout the winter. They tested my back and my organic resolve during my early days as a grower and, what with the escapee that always seemed to be decaying under the car seat, plus the pervasive odour on my clothes, they kept me celibate through my first winter. Only pig farmers smell worse. After I had been planting and weeding all summer, the early winter of 1987–8 was horrendously wet; the field descended into a quagmire and the crop succumbed to the fungal disease rust. As I watched the previously vigorous foliage melt into a slime of decay, the advisers and chemical salesmen were whispering, serpent-like, in my uncertain ears that all my woes could be solved with a few potent kilos of fungicide.

Somehow I maintained my resolve and a sudden drop in temperature proved more powerful than any fungicide, halting the disease while the leeks carried on growing. By February the plants had replaced the infected leaves with new ones and I had learnt that rust is a disease of warm, damp Devon autumns and that I should not listen to chemical salesmen. By April, with an aching back and incipient rheumatism in my fingers, there was £6,000 in the bank and Riverford Organic Vegetables was on its way.

We normally start picking in September and harvest increasing volumes through the winter as the supply of other vegetables declines. By March, with the first hint of spring, the leeks are getting lusty; if you dissect one lengthways you may find, thrusting up through the leaves, the start of the ‘bolt’ that would eventually carry the starburst flower characteristic of the allium family (onions, garlic, chives). Initially this bolt is tender and perfectly edible but as it lengthens and pushes up through the leaves it rapidly becomes tough and unpleasant to eat. By early May the UK season is over and you should be wary of buying leeks without closely examining the centres for hard yellow stalks (bolts), until the new crop is ready.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: steam sterilisation – an ethical dilemma

I am reluctantly concluding in France, as we have done in Devon, that it would be wiser to get our neighbours to grow the crops we are less competent at. There are local organic farmers so skilled in growing baby leaf salad that they can charge a little over half our production costs, but we face an ethical dilemma. In order to control weeds to facilitate mechanical harvesting, their standard practice is to steam-sterilise the top 6cm of soil once a year; better than the now banned methyl bromide once used by conventional growers for the same purpose, but many would argue that, since caring for the soil is an integral part of organic farming, to indiscriminately kill the good micro-organisms as well as the pathogenic is an anathema. Yet what I find far more worrying is the 5000l/hectare of oil burned in the process, meaning that each kilo of salad produced has involved the burning of an astounding 1l of oil. This happens to be about the same amount as it takes to fly produce from Kenya.

As we have undertaken not to sell airfreighted produce on environmental grounds, should we sell salads produced using steam sterilisation, even if they carry the organic stamp? I am inclined to say no but it is a hard and commercially punitive decision when our competitors do. Of course humans did survive pre-the baby leaf salad bag, so perhaps we should only grow them when and where we can do a reasonable job without sterilisation, as we do in Devon. It is reassuring that the Soil Association standards go beyond those in Europe and do not allow steam sterilisation for weed control in the open field; an impressive bit of sanity. While we ponder all of this, we are experimenting with using mustard, grown as a green manure, as a weed suppressant.

Guy Watson

a chilli Christmas?
We’ve a huge crop of chillies this year and have just finished drying several tonnes of habanero, cayenne and scotch bonnet for you to hang from your tree (they look great). Come Twelfth Night follow our recipe to make chilli oil to enliven your cooking in the coming winter months, all for £3.80 for 20 chillies.

guy’s newsletter: Riverford comes to London

After a few years of dithering, I finally got my pub in London. It was simple in the end; I married a publican. Geetie Singh opened the Duke of Cambridge in Islington in 1998. Raised in a commune and appalled by the food she served as a waitress, Geetie was determined to put her scrupulous ethics into practice; the Duke was, and remains, the only organic pub in the UK and the Queen even gave Geetie an MBE in recognition of her efforts.

Last week a charming and highly complimentary Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, members of the food glitterati and sundry friends and customers of both businesses came to the opening of Riverford at the Duke of Cambridge. The pub was a forest of cardoons, cabbages, radicchio and leeks; the food was fantastic but the vegetable cocktails stole the night. My favourite, ‘Farm Fury’, was a take on a Whisky Sour cum Old Fashioned where radicchio extract replaced the bitters; an inspirational elixir providing inebriation and purification at once.

Many restaurants and pubs make vague and mostly spurious claims about their sourcing; I was recently assured by a waiter that all their chickens were wild, produced within London and exclusively slow plucked. Wow; do they think diners are really so gullible? At the Duke everything is 100% organic or wild and until last week, the only imported fruit or vegetable on the menu was a lemon. Geetie and I argue about this still and we will compromise a little, but at least 90% of what we serve will still be UK grown. The beer is fantastic, and Benoit our genius in the kitchen is no madder than most chefs. In addition to exceptional food, wine and beer, there will be a produce market every Saturday (perhaps soon to be accompanied by brunch), supper clubs and cookery classes from the New Year. Find out more here.

Benoit has had cardoon fritters on the menu every day but he isn’t going to use them all before winter closes in. They are more tender and less bitter than I have managed to grow before, and make a fantastic simple gratin. I cannot bear to see them wasted, so the last 500 or so can be added to your box at £4 each, complete with my gratin recipe, on a first come-first-served-basis.

Guy Watson