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: an aphid’s view

If things are this good why grow wings, why even move? Why have sex and risk producing variable babies that may not be as good as me? Sexual reproduction is so full of uncertainty. Why not just stay put, plug in, suck that sweet, sweet sap and pour out a stream of babies identical to me through parthenogenesis; they need only shake free of my abdomen, plug in and enjoy the same good life. Within five days the young’uns will be squeezing out their own; it’s perfect.

Two weeks ago, looking around the peppers on our farm in France I calculated that about 20 million wingless aphids were sucking the life out of my crop; each leaf had up to ten mothers with a stream of look-a-likes plugging in within millimetres of their mother. Marco, my ever-calm agronomist, told me not to worry; “I’m on top of it,” he said. The temptation for the macho and inexperienced would be to wade in with some soap spray (restricted but permissible under organic regulations) which effectively suffocates the aphids it touches by invading their spiracles, but this would also risk killing the predators already feasting on the aphids and destroy our chances of reaching the holy grail of organic pest control; balance. Marco’s policy was to wash off the worst colonies with water and introduce more ladybirds to mop up the rest. I was nervous; a ladybird can eat 5000 aphids in its life but can’t compete with their reproduction rate. Who would eat their way to the top? As well as ladybirds we often seek help from my favourite aphid predator, Aphidius colemani. This tiny parasitic wasp oviposits a single egg in each aphid which slowly digests them from within before emerging two weeks later, alien style, as an adult wasp ready to lay another 200 eggs; we introduced some of them for good measure.

Two weeks later, Marco was proved right; the ladybirds won and it looks like we will have a good, if slightly delayed, crop of peppers. Having seen the scenario played out so many times since we gave up spraying soap on aphids 15 years ago, I should have had more faith in the under-promoted virtue of using less and understanding more. If a fraction of the money spent on pesticides and GM went into studying agro-ecology, most insecticide use could be avoided.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: competition, collaboration & car manufacture

Last week we were visited by some of our growers from Andalucia. For years they’ve produced veg for us that we can’t grow at home without heating with fossil fuels. As I approached Pepe, who this year has grown the spinach and asparagus which precedes the UK crop, I extended my hand with typical English reserve, only to be pulled into an extended Andalusian embrace. After six years, what started as a trading relationship has developed into a lasting friendship; one that’s benefited us and our box customers and will, I expect, see one or both of us into retirement.

The contrast couldn’t be greater with our (now long past) annual trips to supermarket HQ: having scrubbed up for the nightmare session of abuse from a buyer, the visit would start with the ritualistic humiliation of a two-hour wait (calculated to soften you up) before finally we would be summoned to meet the latest testosterone-charged buyer. Thankfully, that was fifteen years ago, but I gather things at some supermarkets haven’t changed much.

Does business have to be done like this? After thirty years of trying to find an efficient and courteous alternative I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that competition is pretty good at driving innovation and improvement. Brutal as it sounds, if you don’t have the incentive to find a way of both doing what you have to do today, and doing it a little bit better tomorrow, it’s only a matter of time before someone else does and your number is up.

This is not to accept that short term, cut-throat deal making is the best way. A school friend has spent his working life making parts for the automotive industry. I’m always amazed to hear how the larger car manufacturers, having selected a partner, invest heavily in making the relationship work, in the long run and for both parties. Car manufacture must be one of the most competitive and sophisticated industries in the world; it is heartening that there, like Pepe and me, they have reached the conclusion that building and maintaining relationships is critical to long term success.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: bean counting & leek pulling

Like life, walking a crop is a subjective experience where you can always find something to worry about; something that could have been done better. Whether I focus on the pigeon-pecked, aphid ridden stunted plants or the vigorous healthy ones, how the veg appears can be as much to do with my mood as their relative numbers in the field; but I’ve learned that it’s always a good idea to take a second look before getting too excited or depressed. Having said that, seeing the new crops being harvested for your boxes this week, it looks like we have made a good start to the new season. I might even risk a smile.

But will those smiles be turned to beans in the bank? Our Finance Director Steve, who has been so good at giving me the answer to this for the last seven years, is leaving us this summer to progress his bean counting with a career among cheesemakers. He is proving hard to replace, in part because I am having trouble resigning myself to the outrageous salaries earned by those at the top of his profession. While a leek puller’s remuneration has risen by a measly 10% or so since the recession, market rates for executive pay appears to have risen by 50% (especially for anyone in IT or accounts), making it hard to accommodate our self-imposed discipline on how much those at the top earn relative to those at the bottom. My hope is that this message might reach someone with the qualifications and experience we need, and who is prepared to trade a bit of salary and a suit for mud on their shoes, a fine view, and the pleasures of a relaxed and beautiful place of work in a determined and dynamic team on a mission to change the way business is done. Lunch is pretty good too.

Talking of lunch; we are also looking for a head chef for our pub in Islington. Relative to the norms of this profession the pay is more generous but in contrast to its other norms we would love to find someone who can communicate without shouting, even when slammed (busy, in kitchen speak). They must also, of course, love cooking from scratch using seasonal vegetables.

Visit www.riverford.co.uk/jobs to find out more about both of these posts.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: now you’ve won, please have a little faith

I believe that given half a chance, most people, most of the time, are smarter, fairer, more generous and capable of more empathy than our institutions give us credit for. I found both the election campaigns and the result hugely depressing without really understanding why; with the exception of the Greens I feel no more aligned with the policies of the losers than the winners. On reflection I realise the reason for my gloom is a conviction that the institution with the most cynical view of our behavioural motivations is the modern Conservative party.

I’m guessing that, as someone already personally rich, I will be richer under an unfettered Conservative government; but I don’t expect to be happier. What I find so depressing about modern post-Thatcherite Conservatism (and only marginally less so about post-Blairite Labour) is the apparent ubiquitous cynical belief that appealling to personal greed is the only way to get anything done. Considering the almost complete lack of evidence to back up this assumption, it has gained extraordinary traction in Westminster and the City over the last 30 years. In the real world, where businesses have to compete by getting the best out of people, it has largely been abandoned as a piece of failed, ideologically driven dogma.

For the most part, we are emotional beings responding to much deeper, less tangible but more powerful emotional motivators; ask anyone in advertising. Ultimately we all want to feel good about ourselves and at work this falls broadly into three areas: feeling we are learning and getting better at stuff, feeling some control over our lives and feeling a sense of purpose. To believe that ‘carrot and stick’ management is why a nurse will care for a patient, a parole officer will struggle to support a young offender or why a programmer would write exceptional code is crass to the point of incredulity. I suspect it is even more threatening to public services and wellbeing than cuts and austerity.

Both hope and cynicism, given enough voice, can be self-fulfilling prophecies. My plea to Cameron and his team is to have a little faith in the people they lead; we’re not as shallow, selfish or as dumb as you seem to think. Show some trust, give us some hope and we might even surprise you.

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: getting edgy with veg

As we plough in the last of our bolting leeks, kales, cauliflower and cabbage and see the back of the potato, beetroot and carrot stores, another farming year is consigned to memory and the accountants’ spreadsheets. I think they’ll show it to be a little better than average, mostly because of the weather but also boosted by a welcome renaissance in the eating of these more traditional veg. Kale has been riding that wave for a while now and after years of drifting in the sulphurous doldrums of neglected brassicas, even cauliflower seems to have made something of a comeback; I have seen it on fashionable menus roasted (good), baked brain like and whole (hideous to look at and worse to eat in my opinion), bashed with farfalle (dreadful), grated into cous cous (surprisingly successful) and served tempura style (excellent). I still think it is hard to beat the comfort of a reassuring cauliflower cheese on a January evening though.

Cauliflower does well in our mild Devon climate and, as we prepare to sow next year’s crop, I am tempted to up the acreage. But let’s not get carried away; a visiting journalist warned me last week that our white curds are already considered “a bit last year” in the metropolis. It’s hard to keep up with foodie fashion as tweeting journalists and hipster chefs compete to be edgy with veg. Of course we are grateful that what we grow is the subject of their twitter storm, however fleetingly its epicentre hovers over us, especially if it allows a humble cabbage grown on a Devon hillside to get a leg up over a jumped up bell pepper trucked from Spain (or worse still, molly-coddled in a fossil fuel heated greenhouse at home). It’s just a bit frustrating that the timeframes of fashion and nature are so disparate; by the time we have planted and nurtured our chioggia beetroot or purple carrots to harvest, it will be foraged nettles and broccoli sprouts that the twitterati are raving about. I might sow a few more caulis anyway; I reckon we will still be eating cauliflower cheese after the bloggers have moved on. There is so much to celebrate and be proud of in the rising interest in cooking, particularly with seasonal veg, and particularly among the youth, but no part of our farming is perfected without the repetition and tinkering that continues long after the catwalk has left.

Guy Watson