Guy’s newsletter: unruly cabbages; the last stand

I hope you are enjoying the spring greens that have started to appear in the veg boxes. They may look a little pale and unruly, with the occasional weatherbeaten leaf, but please don’t let them linger in the back of your fridge; they are a delight simply cooked for two mins in plenty of salted, vigorously boiling water. A small knob of butter might help, but I’d implore you to do nothing more.

You may notice that the individual spring green plants vary from 50-200g; this is partly from fighting off weeds and pests, but also a result of genetic variation as they are among the few remaining open pollinated crops which are not grown from ‘F1’ hybrid seeds. For thousands of years, farmers have saved seeds from the best of their crops, thus exerting a selective pressure which led to incremental genetic improvement. In the 1930s, American maize researchers found that if you created two intensively inbred, and therefore relatively uniform strains, and then crossed them, the first (‘F1’) generation could combine the best of both strains while maintaining uniformity and adding hybrid vigour. Hybrid plant breeding helped boost yields and reduce production costs through the late 20th century, and has contributed to the low food prices we have today.

When I started growing vegetables in the ‘80s, my crops were perhaps 20% hybrids; now it’s 90% plus. Mostly it’s a change for the best as we have benefited from better disease resistance, more vigour and increased yield. On the downside I suspect that we have lost some flavour in a few crops. Bigger issues are that hybrids often need near-perfect growing conditions to thrive (hence our open-pollinated spring greens still win out in the tough depths of winter) and most significantly, hybrids do not breed true; this means that farmers cannot harvest their own seed but must buy new seed in every year. Over the last 20 years the GM companies Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont have bought up seed companies so they now control almost half the global seed trade; I would argue that this monopoly is a bigger issue than GM. Everything around food starts with the seed, so do we really want its future controlled by companies that have risen on the backs of manufacturing PCBs, Agent Orange, bovine growth hormone and glyphosate tolerant GM crops? Long live the unruly greens I say.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: Fairtrade; not perfect, but worth supporting

Our pineapples are grown by small scale, organic, Fairtrade farmers in Togo, West Africa. It’s an insanely idealistic and ambitious project co-ordinated by the NGO ProNatura who must win trust, co-ordinate production and provide technical support to hundreds of widely dispersed farmers on tennis-court sized fields cut out of the bush. Once the farmers have carried the fruit in baskets to a dirt road, containers must be packed, loaded and transported on decrepit trucks to Tema in Ghana, ready for the 10-20 day journey to Southampton. Overall it’s a huge credit to everyone’s determination to make Fairtrade work. It is also a testimony to the commitment of our staff and forgiveness and support of our customers, because inevitably the first few containers were a disaster; it would be much easier to buy airfreighted fruit from larger scale suppliers.

I visited the project in 2010 with its backer Henri de Pazzis (see the video), partly to see for myself whether Fairtrade really works for producers. From this in addition to meeting our banana growers in the Dominican Republic, coffee growers in Brazil and cocoa growers in Ghana, my conclusion is that though there are persistent problems in rewarding quality and guaranteeing a niche market for the produce, on balance Fairtrade is improving the lives of small scale farmers. Like organic farming it may not be a perfect or whole answer, but as an alternative to the brutal exploitation of world commodity markets, it is doing a pretty good job and deserves our support.

That said, after 20 years of growth, last year UK Fairtrade sales fell by 4%. Some blame the rise of discounters and the recession, but I suspect that cynical and often bogus claims of alternative products being “better than Fairtrade” have eroded support and given us an excuse to be selfish. Traders the world over hate anything that gets in the way of them cutting a good deal. More irritatingly is the rise of the bearded food trendy who has come to lament Fairtrade as an obstacle to rewarding consistent crop quality. They have a point, but I could introduce them to many a farmer whose children would not have gone to school or had medical care without Fairtrade; perhaps they might muse on that as they lament the lack of complexity in their Hoxton brew.

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: the restraint of greed

A few of you have warned me over the years that while you like the veg, you can do without my “commie rants”. I try to confine my weekly musings to the farm but trying to run a business responsibly is itself a political act, so here’s another.

When, five years ago, I realised the business had grown beyond my management skills, I was fortunate to find my managing director Rob Haward; a man who shares my beliefs. Along with setting up a staff profit-share scheme, Rob and I agreed that no-one in the company, including us, would ever earn more than nine times the lowest wage. This may not seem radical but it was as far as we could go without making recruitment and retention of senior and specialist staff impossible; a typical ratio for a UK company of our size is between 15 and 25:1.

Since the recession began and despite Cameron’s cries of “we are in it together”, the rich-poor pay gap has spiralled out of control; executive pay was 60 times the national average salary in the 1990s, but 180 times that today. Indeed in the USA, since the recession the top 1% have taken a staggering 93% of income growth, and the picture is similar here. Not even the most rabid freemarket advocate could argue that is fair. I found myself musing on all this as a result of listening to Robert Peston’s excellent BBC Radio 4 series The Price of Inequality, but my blood reached boiling point last week with news that HSBC appears to have colluded in tax evasion by the super-rich. Worst of all was the extraordinarily complacent response of Cameron, HMRC and HSBC. Have we really sunk into such collective lethargy where we accept such moral bankruptcy as inevitable? Yet, as Robert Peston asserted to an incredulous billionaire; there are powerful rewards other than money. Given half a chance most of us want to do a good job and contribute to something worthwhile, but those potentially very strong motivations are eroded in the face of greed of the rich and powerful.

Despite all of this and to my immense pride (and my MD’s credit) there is a feeling at Riverford that we really are in it together, and we have never had better or more motivated staff, despite being increasingly out of step with executive pay. The restraint of greed can only start at the top.

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: glamour & cabbages

When food and farming rubs up against fashion and celebrity I get the urge to bolt for the cabbage patch; then again, recipes from a fry-up chomping leek puller aren’t going to shift the kale and cauliflower. With that in mind, let’s leave prejudice in the fields and bring on the irritatingly young and gorgeous Hemsley sisters. They might be more commonly seen smiling from the pages of Vogue promoting stomach flattening, bowel curative, gluten-free cooking, but I met them two years ago in proper farmer’s wellies, picking samphire in the mud and rain with one of our farming co-op members. Despite the glamour and lifestyle photography, away from the cameras the sisters talk sense and are pretty down to earth; more to the point I like their food and we share an enthusiasm for lots of minimally cooked vegetables to the extent that this week’s recipe for lamb curry (on the reverse) is from Jasmine and Melissa. Another thing that makes me want to break for the cauliflower patch is anything approaching a faddish diet; something that might have led me to resist their mission to banish starch (gluten in particular), but when rice is replaced by grated cauliflower, who am I to argue. I doubt it would get me into Vogue but I am pretty sure that I would feel better for a bit less stodge anyway.

We have been selling our recipe boxes (everything for three quick meals in a box) for six months now; they are a waste free way of cooking tasty, affordable, healthy meals while expanding your cooking repertoire; it’s the only way I can get my son to cook me supper. For the next two weeks we have a guest box featuring recipes from the Hemsley sisters, ideal for those who are after a hassle-free way of trying their style of cooking. Having honed our skills on the southern guinea pigs, our recipe boxes are now also available to those of you in the north and east, so there’s no need to feel left out.

Meanwhile, we have been obliged to make a lot of substitutions to our planned box contents recently due to unexpected quality and transport problems, so apologies if you have been disappointed. We seem to be through it now and as our spring crops are looking really good, there’s plenty to look forward to.

Guy Watson