Tag Archives: weather

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: 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: 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: greenery struggles

We are conscious that the vegboxes are lacking in greenery. Even with all our experience, late winter harvests and the resulting box contents are hard to plan; a few days lost in August due to drought or late planting, and crops don’t mature enough before growth shuts down in December. Or, as was the case this year, too mild an autumn (the ‘long back end’ as Devon farmers call it) and our cabbages, kales, leeks and cauliflower bury us in a glut before Christmas, leaving very little for the rest of the winter.

To add to the woe, a cold February has stopped the winter cauliflowers in their tracks; the hardy varieties bred to make a curd (the white head that you eat) at this time of year rely on drawing nutrients from a big plant frame grown in the autumn. During the winter they are said to ‘grow from their stumps’ rather than their leaves, but even this process grinds to a halt below 7°C. However we have been saved to some degree by the vagaries of a kale crisp-maker; we grew 20 tonnes for them to fry only to be told they were the wrong shape; we were only too glad to put this curly kale in the boxes instead. Additional relief is at hand as we start picking spring greens too; sown in July at a high density, they are traditionally harvested in the mild southwest as loose-hearted, immature cabbages from now to April. Without the regular addition of nitrogen fertiliser given to conventional crops, ours grow more slowly and will be smaller and paler, but the flavour is much better. Last year the cows broke in and ate most of them but this year, despite a lot of weed, we have a fair crop of this hugely underrated vegetable.

To plug some gaps in your boxes we are using more imported calabrese broccoli than I would like, but our own winter-hardy and infinitely superior purple sprouting broccoli will soon displace it. Harvest reaches its peak in late March and should continue to the end of April as the first new greens (already planted and growing away under fleece) start arriving from our farm in France. Along with some spinach and beans from our growers in Spain, we think we have the ‘hungry gap’ between old and new crops pretty well covered this year.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: frozen patience

Looking up to the north there is snow on the moors, while in the valley the emerging wild garlic and snowdrops are frozen into the ground. After months of warm, wet Atlantic air giving a mild start to winter and an abundance of green veg, high pressure has anchored itself over Ireland. This is bringing bright skies and cold winds from the north and east; a mixed blessing for a vegetable farmer. Our southern-facing banks (the same fields we plant with our early crops) are not clear of frost until 10am, and we are unable to harvest leeks, cabbage, kale and the first of our purple sprouting broccoli until that time. Meanwhile our north facing slopes hold frost all day, and the sun is equally welcomed by crops and pickers. Any growth encouraged by longer days has stopped and I suspect we will be short of cauliflower, purple sprouting and anything green by the end of the month.

On the positive side it is lovely to see the sun, and, though there is nothing as sticky and slippery as recently thawed ground, most of the time there is less mud on your boots. It is also possible for the tractors to move without damaging our soil, especially in the morning when the frost is hardest. In my younger days we would have been hitching up the muck spreader and even the plough, but I soon learned that ploughing down frost was like thawing ice in a tea cosy; impatience just cooled the soil and delayed spring. Spreading muck on frozen ground is also a bad idea, partly because of the danger of run-off polluting water courses, and partly because we now realise that 60% of the precious nitrogen can be lost to the atmosphere as ammonia. In warmer conditions this is avoided by swiftly mixing the muck into the soil by ploughing or shallow cultivation, which helps the nitrogen attach to soil clay particles where it is held until a plant root absorbs it.

We are busy planting in France but in Devon we must be patient a little longer. As soon as the frost is out of the ground we will busy as nesting swallows; spreading muck, ploughing and planting the first early potatoes, carrots and spring broad beans. 28 years on, my heart still quickens a little at the thought.

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: talking pumpkins & putting people in boxes

A break in the weather this week should let us harvest the last of the carrots and potatoes, and make a start on the parsnips and swedes. In such a warm autumn it seems too early to acknowledge winter by sending you hardy veg, but I remind myself that it is November, and the shortest day is only six weeks away.

Many of you will have pink fir apple potatoes in your boxes this week and I apologise to those who miss out; their late maturity, combined with a susceptibility to blight means they are very hard to grow organically (some say impossible). After too many failures in mild, blight-ridden Devon, we grew them in cooler, drier Yorkshire with our partner Peter Richardson this year. He had a pretty good crop and we will definitely bully him into sowing more in 2015. Shaped more like ginger than a potato, pink fir apples are hard to beat for flavour; they are known mainly as a salad potato though I find them a little dry and prefer them roast. Whatever you do, don’t bother peeling them.

One night, stumbling home under a full moon and other influences in my first year as a grower, I had an out-of-body experience in my pumpkin patch; they glowed like lazy Belisha beacons and spoke to me. I have sown pumpkins ever since but sadly, in my sobriety, have never found them remotely communicative. I soon got fed up with packaging and transport often costing more than I was paid for the crop, so I decided I would rather give them away. Our first Pumpkin Day, designed to raise money for Oxfam, was almost 20 years ago. Last weekend we opened up our farms for the annual event and had an astonishing, terrifying, 6500 visitors; far more than expected. We raised lots of money for the charity Send a Cow but my greatest pride was in seeing the genuinely happy visitors and how amiably a leek puller could transform into a smiling director of parking, how a website manager could carve pumpkins with children or how willingly my slouching skater teenage son would clear tables. We must try harder not to consign people to boxes; most people have so much more potential than their jobs allow them to express. We are not an events company but I reckon we hold pretty good ones; it’s good to break out of our own specialist box now and then.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: awash with vegetables & smutty corn

We are awash with vegetables; I can hardly remember being surrounded by such bounty and quality in the fields, barns and boxes. We’ve wonderful cos lettuce that Mr McGregor could only have dreamed of, great tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers from the tunnels, the sweetest carrots, sound onions and tasty charlotte potatoes. It has been a near perfect season so far and confidence is returning in the fields, almost enough to make me want to plant more soft fruit; but the memories of the 2012 deluge have not quite faded.

There was a growing drought worry with levels dropping in our irrigation reservoirs and soil moisture near exhausted, but over the last few days we have had over an inch of rain with more forecast this week; just what all those young cauliflowers, leeks, cabbages and broccoli need to help get their roots to the moisture deeper in the soil. With days already drawing in and dews getting heavier, I reckon we are safe. The rain has even drowned most of the flea beetles that have been plaguing us all summer. Without wishing to court disaster, it has been a near perfect year to be a veg grower. All we need now is for you to eat more.

Further south, on our French farm, up to half the early sweetcorn has developed the fungal galls of corn smut, as described last week. It is also known as ‘corn truffle’ or ‘huitlacoche’ in Mexico, where it is considered a delicacy and is sought-after to fill quesadillas. After much research and experimentation including an evening cooking with a chef from Wahaca, I reckon the more adventurous among you might like to give it a go. It is hard to describe the flavour of the spore-filled galls as they are unique; they cook down to a black paste reminiscent of squid ink, and have an earthy bitterness which I love. Great with refried beans, guacamole, tomatillo salsa and corn tortillas. As I write, we are working out a huitlacoche meal kit and recipes which should also be on the website over the next two or three weeks. All being well, you might be able to eat Riverford huitlacoche at Wahaca restaurants this autumn too.

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