Tag Archives: vendee

Here comes the sun(flowers)

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Guy’s grown a huge crop of organic sunflowers on our farm in France; we’ve around 100,000 glorious heads and the crop has been thronging with bumblebees. No nasty chemicals here! There’s more wildlife benefits to come closer to home too…. Guy’s decided to give them away in most veg boxes, once the flowers have dried a little.

Here’s what he has to say about it:

Watching the Vendéen bird population feasting on my bowing sunflower heads and realising it was barely worth harvesting our measly two hectares for oil, I had the idea that you might like to use them as bird feeders. If you don’t have a garden or balcony please pass the sunflower on to someone else.

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How to hang your sunflower:
1. Use a pencil or biro to make a hole about 3cm from the rim
2. Thread a piece of string through
3. Hang it up with the seeds facing the side, so birds can access them easily, and high enough so cats can’t catch feeding birds
4. It may take a few days for English birds (unaccustomed to sunflowers) to catch on, but they will

Some may have a few seeds missing, as birds are already feasting on them in the field.

Finches, house sparrows and willow tits are partial. If you manage to get any photos of feasting birds, we would love to see them. Please share at www.facebook.com/riverford and www.twitter.com/riverford.

Guy’s newsletter: french flings & devon dalliances

The boxes are still looking fresh, varied and full; not a bad achievement in the depths of the hungry gap, and largely down to a good harvest on our farm in the French Vendée. After a parched and sunny six weeks, April ended with a 100mm deluge making me very glad of the money invested in drainage here last autumn. We have lost some squash (wrenched out by the wind) and spinach (dying in a bog) and I fear for sweetcorn and sunflower seeds germinating in waterlogged seedbeds, but with luck the water will subside before the drowning soil becomes anaerobic and toxic to our crops.

Despite gales, mud, striking dockers and four French bank holidays in May (all staunchly observed with Gallic militancy), the veg boxes must be filled and harvest must go on. With 35 largely novice recruits picking lettuce, chard, turnips, garlic and cabbage to fill a truck a day we are stretched to breaking point. Thankfully the first lettuce will be harvested in Devon this week, allowing us to catch up on weeding before the sweetcorn and peppers disappear under fat hen, red shank and nightshade. By mid-June, as harvest in the UK gets in full swing, our French farm will be cast off like a jilted lover until next April when the hungry gap leaves holes to be filled in your boxes once more.

Back in Devon we are running a four day, hands on, growing, harvesting and cooking course in partnership with neighbouring Schumacher College this June. Teaching will be by their chefs and growers and ours in their kitchens, gardens and our fields. Geetie (my ethical pioneer wife and founder of our pub, the Duke of Cambridge) and I will also be contributing. The college might be a step or two beyond us on the spectrum towards the cosmos (pre-breakfast meditation is optional) but we have had our hands in the soil for 30 years so you can be assured the course will be well rooted on planet earth and there should be some healthy debate as well. Visit www.schumachercollege.org.uk for more details.

If you would rather cook in your own kitchen with a little celebrity help then for the next two weeks Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has created some guest recipe boxes with us, and very good they are too; visit www.riverford.co.uk/recipeboxes to order.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: hot & busy in the Vendée

A dry and sunny Easter gave ideal conditions to get ahead with planting at home; we are already irrigating in earnest to help the seedlings out and get the first lettuce, cabbage and spinach away to a good start. This meanwhile is being typed 250 miles south, under a tree on the banks of the reservoir of our farm in the French Vendée. As we come to the end of leeks, cabbage, purple sprouting and cauliflower at home I am here to check on the start of our hungry-gap-plugging French harvest. This morning we cut the first of a fine crop of outdoor lettuce and chard which are already chilling in the cold room ready for the trip north tonight; just as well, because it is already 25°C and climbing. The irrigation pump is purring away, sending water to germinate the first sweetcorn. Two weeks ago, many of our fields were too wet to travel on and our crops were being chilled by bitter easterlies; this week we are irrigating gasping plants and our peppers are keeling over from heat stress. The crop covers and low-level tunnels we use in early spring advance crops and keep off the wind, but the big question is always when to remove them. Ideally you pick a damp, warm overcast day to minimise the shock to the plants; if none are forecast, we take them off in the evening, water immediately, and hope.

In a bid to keep up we have brought in contractors for the heavy work of muck spreading and ploughing, allowing our team to pick in the mornings before moving on to sow and plant sweetcorn, peppers, chillies, sunflower, cape gooseberries, tomatillos, butternut squash and fennel in the afternoon. Every rusty wreck of a tractor is dragged from the back of the barn and every able body pressed into action in an attempt to keep up with the work; the next six weeks are critical here. Planting will soon be done but there is a scary amount of vegetables to be picked by a largely inexperienced team. The aim is to plug the hungry gap at home while we wait for those new season UK crops. To go from a plod to a sprint in just a few weeks and then back to a plod again is a management challenge, but we are getting better at it; my accountant even tells me that, for the first time, we made a very modest profit here last year.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: clouts, saints & impatience

With the soil drying well and the occasional T-shirt moment to be had in a sheltered spot, I find myself growing impatient to see some plants going into the ground. “Ne’er cast a clout til may be out,” warns John, my ever-stalwart farm manager, reminding me of all the years when the seedlings pushed out of the greenhouse into a cold, wet seedbed in March have been out-yielded by those planted in warmer April soils. The “may” referred to is hawthorn blossom (not the month) and while we have planted some early potatoes and carrots and the first spinach plants are hardening off, the may buds are some way from bursting, so John will have his way for a couple of weeks yet. Meanwhile, I will hope that our fields are not sodden when the hedges turn white.

In France, with no intelligible temperate guidance to restrain me, we have been busy planting for two months. There are occasional raised eyebrows, despairing shakings of heads and mutterings about “Les Saints de Glace” from our neighbours, but my French is not good enough to catch the nuances of implied recklessness; actually things seem to be going rather well. We are cutting wonderful lettuces and pak choi from the big tunnels, soon to be followed by our first lettuces from crops covered with mini tunnels, and then fleece, then the first unprotected crop in mid-April. When they are finished in early May, John may have cast his clout and there should be lettuce to cut in Devon.

As soon as the tunnels are cleared later this month we will be spreading compost and replanting them with chillies, peppers and padrons. Outside the cabbage, kohl rabi, garlic, beans and swiss chard are all doing well, but we have never excelled at growing crops from small seeds; we just don’t seem to be able to get a seed bed consistent enough to ensure the machines can sow to an even depth. This year, following local practice and the advice of neighbours, we have sown the seed on the surface and covered with about 7mm of sand. Apparently it warms quickly in the sun, giving rapid and even germination and emergence; the proof will be in the turnips you’ll (hopefully) find in your boxes come May.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: hope springs eternal

In France we have already got the first of our early lettuce in the ground. The planter is immediately followed by a machine which synchronously bends and implants wire hoops, before stretching over clear plastic to create a mini tunnel that prevents the tender greenhouse-raised seedlings catching a chill and wilting. These lettuces are destined for your vegboxes in March and April, while this week we will start planting turnips, cabbage and swiss chard. On these slightly hardier vegetables we use a very light (17g/m²) translucent fleece which floats on top of the crop, protecting it from the worst of the cold winds and frost. Even now, there is enough warmth in the sun by midday for the young plants to put out roots and a few shy new leaves. I’m often surprised by how well crops grow here when it’s barely warmer in winter than Devon, but it’s all down to the light quality; the Vendée even had its own impressionists.

The farm here is pretty flat, typically with 60cm of highly porous sands lying over a heavy, impervious clay; the result is that rain soaks in quickly but then sits on the clay, moving only very slowly down the slope. To get the early crops needed to bridge the ‘hungry gap’ at home (April-early June), we need to get on the land early, even in a wet year. Following the advice of neighbours we have now deepened ditches, filled in the dips and invested in drainage pipes every ten metres. It seems to be paying off; I just wish we’d done it sooner.

Nobody said it would be this hard; after six years of farming in France the best I can say is that we are losing money more slowly. Arguably it was the height of bellicose, arrogant stupidity to think I could breeze in and bend that soil and sunshine to my will. Every year we uncover a new set of problems but bizarrely I am still relishing the challenge and almost always enjoy my visits. I leave full of ideas for new crops and ways of growing them. In addition to tomatillos, cape gooseberries, sugar loaf chicory and lots of new varieties of peppers and chillies, this year we will be growing oca (a very tasty Peruvian tuber), popcorn-destined sweetcorn, endive and a small area of sunflowers.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter : a sprout crisis & a mistletoe gift

Brussels sprouts are among the most challenging crops to grow organically; they require a rich soil, a long growing season and are highly prone to fungal disease and, to a lesser extent, aphids and slugs. To spread the risk and prevent letting you down on the big day, we have split the crop between our farm in Yorkshire and organic growers in Lancashire and East Anglia. Here the colder, drier weather reduces the risk of fungal disease, which we felt was a better idea than expecting you to peel spotty Devon sprouts for Christmas. At the end of October it seemed like a smart plan but an incredible nine inches of November rain leached away most of the nitrogen below the rooting zone of the soil, bringing growth to an abrupt stop; it now looks like we will have a very small crop of very small sprouts. With a bit of work we still reckon we can find enough for the Christmas week vegboxes though, so no cause for panic.

We have finally had a proper frost which will improve the flavour of our parsnips and might slow the rampant growth of leeks, cabbage and kales, all of which are two to four weeks ahead of schedule. Some of you will get pain de sucre (also known as sugar loaf chicory) from our French farm over the next few weeks; looking a bit like a pale pointed cabbage but related to and tasting like a mild radicchio, they can be eaten in salads or cooked as you might endive.

When not cutting pain de sucre or pak choi from our tunnels, our team in France have been busy harvesting mistletoe from the hedges on our neighbours’ farms. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on a range of hosts, but particularly favours poplar and is very common in France. If left unchecked it can kill the tree so over the next couple of weeks we will be trimming the huge balls into sprigs which, all being well, will be in your boxes as a Christmas present the week commencing 8th December. Just in case anyone thinks this is my latest culinary craze, I better assert that mistletoe is poisonous and that this gift is intended to encourage revelry rather the culinary experimentation.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: getting there in the vendée

As our team picks the last chillies, squash and peppers, and the first autumn gale shakes a fine crop of cape gooseberries to the ground, I retreat to the office to try to make some sense of our accounts. After five years of growing lovely cabbages, spinach, sweetcorn, tomatillos, courgettes and peppers here on our farm in France (mainly to fill the ‘hungry gap’ in spring), the best I can say is that we are losing money more slowly than we were. Perhaps I should draw some consolation from the amount I have contributed to the French tax system.

After a dreadful start it was a pretty good growing year; we just never made back what we lost from the sodden and aphid-plagued lettuce in the spring. We are definitely making fewer mistakes and have grown some fine crops, and our team seems happy, harmonious and well organised, but the margin for error is very small. As a young man, when stuff went wrong I just bent over and worked harder and shouted at those around me to do the same; demonic determination and energy compensated for the mistakes. Twenty years later, trying to do the same thing in France isn’t working for all sorts of reasons; I don’t have the energy, I am not here enough, I’m not sure shouting works and the market has become a lot less forgiving, with tighter margins giving little room for failure, whether caused by inexperience or the weather. My accountant thinks I should pull the plug but I am a chip off the old block; as the farm lurched from crisis to crisis my father spent 50 years infuriating my mother by saying, “Do you know darling, I really think we are getting there”. I’ll give it another year.

Guy Watson

Riverford pumpkin day – free family day out!
Join us at the farm on Saturday 25th October 11am-4pm. Expect children’s activities, worm digging, pumpkin carving, chilli stringing and seasonal food.

Call us or visitour website for details.

guy’s newsletter: smut & wacky veg from the vendée

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I am on our farm in France, where we are picking the best crop of sweetcorn I have ever grown; 30,000 cobs to the hectare which are so plump and sweet you can eat them raw. Walking through the crop, my spirits rose to giddy heights until I reached the field next door, where 70% of the cobs are grotesquely deformed with galls of the soil-borne fungal pathogen, smut.

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Guy with sweetcorn affected by ‘corn smut’ or huitlacoche as it is known in Mexico (where they consider it a delicacy).

With the majority of crops from this farm designed to plug the spring ‘hungry gap’ back home, our busiest time here is past and we have sown green manures to replenish the soil, ready for next year. The fertility building mixture of clover, oats and phacelia has germinated well but ironically so has a flush of exceedingly healthy summer purslane; a succulent weed I have previously cultivated as a salad crop in the UK, with mixed success. Meanwhile we will start hand picking our beautiful red-flecked borlotti beans next week. Harvested immature in the pods as ‘demi-sec’, they require much less cooking and retain more flavour than a dried bean and can be used in stews, but are best appreciated in a salad. Don’t be put off if the pods look tatty, the beans are beautiful inside, as many an Italian will tell you.

Since buying the farm here I have developed a passion for growing, eating, bottling and drying chillies; like our sweetcorn they love the dry heat of a Vendéen summer. We have grown different varieties for tapas, stuffing, drying and pickling which include padrons, pablanos, Joe’s long, jalapenos, plus a few devastatingly hot scotch bonnets and habaneros for the deranged chilli nuts among you. Most will be available (along with instructions for preserving) to add to your order over the next two months. We are also busy picking tomatillos for you to make salsa verde, and starting on the cape gooseberries. A few of you might think this sounds all too esoteric and are wondering where the potatoes and carrots are; just count yourself lucky there is no smutty corn in your box.

corn smut close up

In Mexico it is considered a delicacy and they charge more for it. Maybe we need to develop a recipe for smut galls with summer purslane.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: patience is a virtue…

“…and virtue is a good thing,” is what my partner Geetie tells her 5 year old daughter at least three times a week. That never worked on a Sainsbury buyer I once worked with, but I will try it on you and throw in a plea to accept a little compromise (that never worked either). Summer is taking its time to arrive and most crop covers are staying on while we wait for the temperature to rise, but with no late frosts and enough windows of dry weather to get the planting done, we are not complaining. Keeping the boxes both full and varied over the next few weeks is a struggle, even after using more imported produce than we would like, but I think we are just about managing it.

Meanwhile down on our farm in France we are manically busy harvesting greens, turnips, chard, kohl rabi and lettuce as fast as our team can get them in the crates. Elsewhere, the first Charlotte new potatoes will be dug in Jersey this week though they will only be on the extras list until we start digging in Cornwall and have enough to go in the boxes. By now we could easily be digging quick-growing new potato varieties like Swift and Rocket; they look the part but are at best watery and tasteless. We will wait for the slower growing, tasty varieties like Charlotte that give some cause to celebrate a new season, and hope that you will be patient with us. In the meantime our stored Valor spuds are still tasting good, though do keep them in a paper bag in the fridge as they are now waking up and will quickly sprout at room temperature. So long as you keep them in the dark and there is no greening, a few sprouts (chits) can be knocked off without loss of eating quality.

After a lifetime in marketing, my sister Rachel always insists on a positive end so here goes; the new season is tantalisingly close and your boxes will soon be brimming with homegrown broad beans, salads, flavoursome potatoes, bunched carrots, beets, basil and much more. Best of all I soon won’t have to be patient or apologise for any compromise.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: stress, tardy males & wet garlic

I am writing this on our farm in the French Vendée where, as we plant more crops and the weeds start romping away, stress levels are rising fast. It doesn’t help that while the workload increases, it’s impossible to get a Frenchman to work on Sunday or curtail lunch. Annoying as it is, I can’t help admiring such uncompromising relegation of the demands of work; lunch is quite rightly non-negotiable. Staffing up for our manic, hungry gap-plugging eight week season is always going to be challenging, but we have a great team and despite the shorter hours I suspect they get as much done.

Up until now our courgettes had us worried as they were throwing out female flowers and initiating fruits only to abort them because the tardy male flowers were yet to make pollen available to fertilise the fruit. Today, with the sun out, the first males are opening and the bees are at work so we will be picking next week. It looks like we will have a fine crop which, with lwet garlicuck, will be tailing off as the UK crop starts in June.

Frustratingly, damp weather means mildew has wreaked havoc in the lettuce here, but thankfully our early lettuce in Devon is much better and will be ready in two weeks. Meanwhile kohl rabi, turnips and cabbage all look good and will be in your boxes soon, and this week we are busy with spinach, chard and the best crop of garlic I have ever grown. After 15 years of growing it in Devon we have given up and moved most here to the Vendée, where it is less prone to the fungal disease rust. Much of the crop will be harvested immature and soon arrive in your boxes as ‘wet’ garlic. You will find it milder than dry garlic and can use the whole plant, leaves and all, while they are fresh. I like to finely slice it and marinade in vinaigrette before tossing in a green salad, and it’s great in a stirfry or omlette. Keep it in the fridge and use in larger quantities than dry garlic, adding it later in your cooking. Just don’t mistake it for a baby leek!

Guy Watson