Guy’s news: Getting a bit impatient

The first daffodils are out and wild garlic is sprouting in the woods. With the sun edging higher and the days lengthening, a grower’s urge to plant escalates with each bright morning. Yet despite this sap rising from our boots, the soil is still cold and wet, and with memories of early plantings that struggled in cold seed beds being overtaken by those planted later in better conditions, we will temper the urge to sow and catch up on holidays instead. Early plantings have to spend longer fighting off weeds and disease and contending with gales and rain, often producing lower quality crops than those planted a month later.

So, apart from early potatoes in favoured coastal areas, the ever-hardy broad beans and perhaps some hopeful sowings of carrots, we will wait until mid or late March to start planting in earnest. Perhaps we have become too risk averse; Brexit and a 20% devaluation in the pound does renew the pressure to save a week of imports by starting our season early, but perhaps that is the sap talking.

We may not be planting but it is time to start getting our warmer, well-drained south facing slopes ready. On heavy, hard-to-cultivate clay soil it is traditional to plough in the autumn, leaving the furrows standing as high and exposed to frost as possible. The progressive action of freezing and thawing breaks clods into a fine seedbed with little need for cultivation in the spring; particularly useful if your horsepower comes from a horse, as was the case when the practice originated. While this time-honoured technique works well in the east of England where rainfall and soil temperatures are lower, it is disastrous under the 30 to 40 inches of winter rain typical in Devon. Here it can reduce bare soil to the foul smelling mess you might dredge from the bottom of a pond. Anaerobic, full of toxins and intrinsically sick, it’s certainly no place to plant a vulnerable seed. 30 years of trial and error have taught us to let our soils rest over the winter covered with grass, a green manure or even weeds until late January at the earliest; the root channels and earthworms help drainage and aeration, while the foliage cushions the impact of raindrops and prevents soil erosion. The next break in the weather will herald our soil’s rude awakening; first with muck and then with the plough, and the new farming season will begin in earnest.

Guy Watson

Hens on the veg


Because of the current avian flu threat, our chickens (like all UK poultry) must be kept indoors until spring, to make sure they don’t have any contact with wild birds that might carry the infection.

The sheds are safe and comfortable, but our birds are used to roaming on open green pasture all day; understandably, they can get a bit bored. We’ve done all sorts to keep them entertained – even giving them some footballs to play with! But the thing they seem to enjoy the most is lots of tasty grade-out produce to graze on.

Watch our video below to see our hens living life on the veg.

Order organic eggs and chicken in our online farm shop.

Guy’s news: Corn Laws, Brexit & Trump

1815 to 1870 was the golden age for British farming. Early industrialisation brought burgeoning urban populations which, combined with high tariffs on imported cereals created by the 1815 ‘Corn Laws’, kept food prices and farm rents high. Through controlling the food available, farmers and landowners prospered at the expense of the urban poor and invested heavily in their farms; arguably a bucolic rural idyll was built on the back of desperate urban poverty. The Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, thanks to the campaigning of belligerent defender of the 19th century yeoman farmer, William Cobbett. This, combined with new shipping and rail routes that opened the fertile US prairies to the plough, meant cereal imports rocketed and led to a collapse in UK grain prices and farm rents post 1870. Bar a brief let-up in WW1, the rural recession lasted until we were again threatened with dire food shortages by Germany’s U boats in WW2, exposing the risks of relying on global markets to feed us.

Post-war, UK and then EU farming subsidies brought a partial return to stability, prosperity and investment in farming over the last 60 years. I would argue its rules have also protected us from the most extreme and environmentally damaging versions of “free market” farming seen in the USA: lax pesticide regulation, vast intensive animal feedlots, the worst antibiotic abuse, soil loss, depopulated villages and hormone-injected cattle.

Judging by the limited information emerging from May’s discussions with Trump, it seems likely that farming, food safety and animal welfare will be sacrificed in a rush to the unregulated bottom that is World Trade Organization rules. Perhaps we could compete on world markets if farmers were free to bulldoze hedges, fell trees, pollute waterways and abuse their livestock, but I
doubt that is what Leave voters envisaged on June 23rd last year. Our island is too small and there are too many other legitimate stakeholders who want a say in how our food is produced and countryside managed. I do wonder what Cobbett would say about UK agriculture’s political landscape today; welcome to an uncertain world in which we need to keep our eyes firmly on ensuring a decent food supply for all.

Guy Watson
With thanks to Professor Tim Lang for inspiration and editing.

Iceberg lettuce shortage? Kale Caesar!

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As supermarkets ration veg because of bad weather in Spain and Italy, is the shortage of iceberg lettuce the big deal many are making it out to be?

Riverford founder, and organic veg box pioneer, Guy Watson thinks not. ‘We need to relearn the potential of great British veg, and embrace seasonal British winter crops instead of relying on imports. Right now our fields are brimming with wonderful cabbages, leeks, kale, swede and flavourful greenery that have much more to offer than imported courgettes or watery iceberg lettuce.’

He continues, ‘A lack of lettuce isn’t a big deal. One of our most popular winter dishes in the Riverford Field Kitchen restaurant is our Kale Caesar Salad; it is always a hit with diners, who are rarely aware that kale can be a far superior substitute for bland salad leaves. It’s also really easy to make a vibrant winter slaw using beetroot, carrot, red cabbage and swede – all in season and growing in British fields right now.’

As farmers ourselves, we know how devastating bad weather can be for a crop, and have a commitment to support our growers, and minimise waste by having much more generous specifications than the supermarkets.

‘In my experience, when I was growing for supermarkets, up to a half of all veg was often left in the field due to unnecessarily tight cosmetic specifications. We don’t believe in such needless waste so for example, we’re currently including undersized broccoli heads in our veg boxes, but just giving more of them. Because we grow, source, pack and deliver our veg ourselves, we have the flexibility to widen our specifications.’

With 30 years of veg growing experience behind us, we really know how to make great British veg sing. Our recipe hub is packed with recipes to help bring British veg to life, such as Kale, Chorizo and Potato Hash, Moroccan Cauliflower Salad with Chickpeas and Hazelnuts, and Kale, Fruit and Nut Pilaf.

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Guy’s news: Veg men & veg ladies wanted

When we started packing veg boxes back in 1993, marketing consisted of evenings spent photocopying and folding leaflets after I got home from delivering the boxes. As sales grew and I wanted to get back to the fields, I employed feckless young men who crashed my vans and were rude to customers, leaving me increasingly frustrated. For a short while a local group of musicians handled the sales and deliveries, leaving me to grow the veg. It worked well at first but they turned out to be as stubbornly independent and anarchic as me but less reliable; they were all charging different prices, sometimes adding non-organic eggs etc., and often competing with each other in the same village. My big sister, having spent her life marketing in London, told me I should be concentrating on developing my brand; I honestly didn’t know what she was talking about but could see that we needed organisation and consistency to move forward. Taking her advice, I tried to organise my band of anarchists into accepting allocated sales territories and selling produce at the same price and even adopting some common systems, but predictably most told me where I could stick it.

At about that time a bright young staff member called Martin went to a seminar and came back telling me there was a name for what I was trying to do; franchising. For years I just called it “the F word”; there are so many horribly exploitative businesses that have followed this model that I refused to accept it. However, after 20 years I now do; our 61 local franchisees know their customers and areas better than we could ever hope to and deliver a level of personal service we struggle to match when we deliver ourselves. As over 50% of our franchisees came to us as customers first, might it be for you? We need veg men and ladies to help bring our fields into our customers’ homes, connecting them to how their food is grown and helping them enjoy it around the kitchen table. Business should be fun, so we are looking for franchisees who we like, trust and who share our vision for a world where good food, good farming and good business are the norm.

Take a look at riverford.co.uk/franchise to find out more.

Top tips for juicing

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Seasonal fruit and succulent veg, zingy citrus, fresh herbs and spices… our new organic juicing box is brimming with all you need to make at least 3 litres of organic juice. With such a rainbow of squeezable things at your fingertips, the possible mixes are endless.

Here is our chefs’ guide to juicing, to help you make the most of all that good stuff.

Getting started
If you’re completely new to juicing, start by squeezing a few things separately then mixing, rather than trying to judge a harmonious blend straight into the glass. This also lets you taste the individual flavours; you can’t rely on vegetables’ cooked taste as a strict frame of reference for their juice.

Mixology
The key to a good blend is well balanced flavours. Start with the premise that what works well on the plate – beetroot and orange, apple and celery, cucumber and mint – will also work in the glass, and build from there using this flavour guide.

Mild
Mild ingredients such as apple, celery, cucumber, courgette, lettuce and melon form the base of your juice. They tend to yield large amounts of liquid, and act as a carrier for brasher flavours.

Sweet
Most people’s favourite flavour, found in most fruits and some veg (e.g. parsnips and carrots). Don’t be tempted to go too sweet; it’s much more satisfying when tempered with other, more complex flavours.

Bitter
Bitter veg such as dark leaves and brassicas definitely taste like they’re doing you good, but needn’t be taken as punishment. Combine with something sharp or sweet to round off their harsher edges.

Sharp
A hint of something sharp can do wonders to pep up a juice. Too much will make you wince, but a well-judged squeeze of lemon or lime is a good foil for excessive sweetness or bitterness.

Earthy
A deep, sturdy flavour found in most roots, especially carrots and beetroots. The right complementary flavours can really make it sing – try beetroot and orange, or carrot, apple and ginger.

Aromatic
Fresh greens herbs and spices, such as mint, parsley, turmeric and ginger, can be very dominating. Use cautiously, as a garnish to your juice.

It’s not just about flavour…
Yield
As well as a good flavour, you need enough liquid to make a decent drink. Some things yield a small amount of strong-tasting juice (e.g. kale, parsnips); others produce a larger volume with a milder flavour (e.g. cucumber, lettuce, melon). Try to choose at least one high-yielding ingredient.

Colour conscious
A photogenic juice is not your main aim, but it is worth remembering you colour charts from primary school. If you’re aiming for a certain hue, try to keep things in roughly the same spectrum. If all goes brown and murky, just add beetroot.

Thicken it up
Bananas and avocados are far too soft and mushy to juice; blend them into your juice instead.

Practical tips
Whatever the blend, these hints will come in handy.

  • As we are organic, there’s no worry of chemicals or wax on the skins, so most things can be juiced without peeling. Just take off any strong-tasting peel (e.g. citrus), or very tough skins that might challenge your juicer (e.g. melon or pineapple).
  • Greens are best tightly rolled before putting them in the juicer.
  • Slow and steady wins the race. Don’t try to force through too much, too fast.
  • Don’t forget to taste, tweak, and taste again, just as you would when cooking.
  • Finish with a high-yielding ingredient (e.g. cucumber) to wash through any trapped flavours.
  • Depending on the oomph of your juicer, it may be worth re-juicing the pulp to see if you can extract a few last drops.
  • Drink your juice as soon as possible. It will last up to 2 days in the fridge, but starts to oxidise and lose nutritional value quickly.
  • Compost your pulp. You could plant some veg in the results and juice that, too; a perfect circle.

Get juicing!
We hope these tips inspire you to become a mad juice scientist, creating your own colourful concoctions. Also try chef Bob’s juicing recipes, updated every week to reflect what’s in the box.

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Guy’s news: The courgette “crisis”

Last week I was interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme about the great courgette “crisis”. The word “crisis” is questionable, but courgettes are indeed hard to come by; snow in Spain and extreme cold in Italy has killed many crops and brought others to a halt. Predictably, I advocated eating instead seasonal veg grown closer to home, but recent hard frosts have left greens of all sorts in short supply, even in Devon.

I suspect the term “crisis” refers to the followers of “clean eating” and in particular those fond of spiralizing courgettes. I am inherently resistant to claims of ‘superfoods’ and most dietary dogma as I question whether the healthiness, or otherwise, of a food can be defined by one parameter, whether salt, saturated fat, carbs, alkalinity or even organicness; I hope I have never made outlandish claims for my cabbages or cardoons. Yet with 40 years of scientific advice to switch from unprocessed “natural” animal fats like butter to factory-made unsaturated fats like margarine now looking questionable at best, some skepticism of conventional scientific advice is understandable. It is unfortunate that the highly-processed foods we should avoid have the biggest budgets for advertising, lobbying and sponsoring the research which shapes advice and our choices.

So who should we trust? Instinct might have been a guide (as it is for most animals) but probably not when standing in a supermarket aisle where it is corrupted beyond usefulness by advertising, packaging, the food choices presented, plus a media more prone to extremes than balance. Our government’s “Eat Well Guide” is a good start, though even here I suspect commercial
influence in places. Beware of anyone with a product or brand to sell and anyone quoting gurus, absolutes and pseudo-science (having said that I detect a bitter misogyny behind the recent slating of the Hemsleys, Deliciously Ella etc.) Instead I reckon Michael Pollan’s (I paraphrase) “Eat less, mostly plants, and only things your grandmother would recognise as food” is an intelligible place to start.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Machines for People

We planted the first lettuce on our French farm last week, immediately covering it with low-level tunnels. At midday it might reach 20°C but once the sun sets, the thin plastic does little to maintain temperatures (which sank to -6°C last night), so we lay fleece over the tunnels for some added insulation. All being well, the first lettuce will be cut in late March, six weeks ahead of the UK crop.

Our biggest worry is lack of water; after a drought that went on into November, followed by a dry winter so far, our 12 acre reservoir is still only about 25% full. In previous winters, waterlogging has been the biggest problem, delaying planting and stunting root growth. Without water, in this climate, we might as well pack up; there should still be three months of rain left but rather than wait we have started pumping from small ponds in a desperate attempt to ensure water for our crops. Meanwhile, new affordable GPS technology has helped us to make semi-permanent raised beds; with satellite-guided tractors always running in the same tracks, the crop soil now remains undamaged.

A recent trip to the regional horticultural show in Angers left me astounded by the level of mechanisation and specialisation of even smaller producers in France. Improved battery technology has spawned a range of small, light weeding and planting aids that should make work easier while being more people-centric and allowing greater autonomy for workers than the heavy machines that typically drive field workers like cattle across the Fens. Small battery-powered machines are still less flexible than an autonomous human; mechanisation, and the investment required, drives specialisation, often to the detriment of rotations, diversity and nature. In a world where farmers get less than 2% of GDP, efficiency is critical to survival; the only answer is for farmers to co-operate to allow more than one enterprise to thrive on a farm without being owned and managed by the same person. We have no livestock here in France but, as we do in Devon, we work with a local organic dairy farmer who grazes the clover leys making up 50% of our rotation, and generates manure without us having to worry about milking cows.

Guy Watson

Feed the Birds with a Riverford Sunflower

birds with sunflowerIn 2015, Guy decided to plant thousands of sunflowers on his French farm in the Vendée, hoping to make his own organic sunflower oil. Whilst watching the local wildlife thrive off the crop, he had an idea. Instead of making oil, he would give them away in the boxes, to feed British birds!

The sunflowers went down a treat – and not just with birds. People sent us snaps of everything from wild birds to chickens, the odd cheeky squirrel, and even a hamster munching their way through this organic snack. We also donated some to Paignton Zoo, Shaldon Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and the Monkey Sanctuary in Looe, where keepers said they made a great enrichment activity.

It was so wonderful to see all those creatures great and small enjoying Guy’s gift, he decided to grow even more sunflowers and do it again this year. The glowing yellow fields have been harvested, the flower heads have been dried, and they’re ready to go out. Most people will be getting one in their box this week, so keep your eyes peeled.

Once your sunflower arrives, hang it up so the birds can access the seeds easily, and high enough to keep them safe from prowling cats. It may take a few days for the English birds to catch on, but they will. Then simply enjoy the spectacle.

Wildlife photography competition

We would love to see photos of any feasting birds. Please share at facebook.com/riverford and twitter.com/riverford using #riverfordsunflower for your chance to win 6 months’ worth of Riverford veg boxes.

For inspiration, have a look at some of our favourite pictures from last time below.

Guy’s news: Farming post-Brexit; an industry at the crossroads

Two farming tribes gathered in Oxford last week: the mainstream Oxford Farming Conference, sponsored by pesticide and machinery suppliers and accountants, and, provocatively on the same two days, the Oxford Real Farming Conference; the radical challenger with no suits, more hair and jumpers, more women and no commercial sponsors – just a lot of people determined to change the direction UK farming has followed towards scale and intensification.

I spoke at both conferences, but felt more at home with the hair and jumpers. The suits were more open-minded than I expected; they invited and listened to environmental journalist George Monbiot who with cool, well-informed and devastating logic questioned the moral and political acceptability of paying £3bn to farmers in subsidies, with precious little in return. There seemed to be an acceptance that, post-Brexit, farmers will instead only be paid for what they deliver, whether it is food or “public goods” (flood prevention, public access, etc). Even more heartening was the acceptance that we cannot continue to abuse our soils, and better still that knowledge combined with ‘biological’ farming offered a genuine alternative to blindly following the agrochemical and GM industry.

Down the road at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, the feeling was of a movement that has found its time in agricultural history. There was talk of beliefs and justice with an acceptance that, while farming decisions must not be based only on profit, profit was still vital. These were not the starry-eyed idealists that have driven me to distraction over the last 30 years; they were human and imaginative but above all, intensely practical in their search for ways to grow nutritious food with social and environmental justice. Like the 14th century Peasants’ Revolt and the 17th century Diggers and Levellers, they lack the land, power and capital to match their determination and independence, but let’s hope they don’t get hanged this time. In an industry depressingly subservient to the needs of its suppliers, these people bring hope and deserve support. Surely now, as the UK shapes its new post-Brexit agricultural policy, it should look to serve farmer, consumer and the environment with equity and to support new entrants, rather than predominantly to perpetuate the privilege of the rich and powerful.

Guy Watson