As we enter Organic September, it is rewarding and a little reassuring to find that Charles Darwin and I are not alone in our obsession with earthworms. There is Emma Sherlock from the Natural History Museum (endearingly bonkers) who travels the globe looking for new species, Rachel Lovell (mildly eccentric on a good day) who with Emma’s expertise has organised Riverford’s Big Worm Dig citizen science project, and the many of you who have rummaged in your gardens for our survey. It has been great to see children swiftly overcome their squirmishness and to witness their enthusiasm for finding and identifying worms while getting a bit muddy in the process. If that’s got you interested, visit the Big Worm Dig website to get your survey pack as there’s still plenty of time to get involved. Indeed, worms are much easier to search for in damp soil, so autumn is a good time.
So why are we making so much fuss about these dumb, arguably dull (sorry Emma) workhorses of the underworld? Without their burying of organic matter, and constant mixing, aeration and drainage of the soil beneath us, life on this planet would be very hard for other species. This is especially so for farmers and even more so for organic farmers. In the absence of chemical fertilisers we need an active soil which recycles nutrients efficiently; worms are the first stage of this process and a great indicator of the general health of the soil.
Yet, as with bees, we are slaughtering our allies with toxic agrochemicals and brutish farming techniques. Organic farming, with its absence of pesticides and scorching fertilisers, alongside better management of organic matter (worm food) is probably better, but it pains me to think of the carnage caused by a plough or rotavator when we prepare a seedbed. Sadly, as with so many aspects of ecology, worms would be better off if we just went away. Maybe one day we will be smart enough to grow our food without such brutal interventions, but should I somehow find myself living the life of a worm, I’d chose an organic field any day.
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Tagged big worm dig, earth, farm, farming, garden, gardening, guy watson, organic, riverford, soil, veg, vegetables, worm
A hot July ended with a warm, damp and humid spell that stretched into August; ideal for the establishment of recently planted cauliflowers, leeks and cabbages. It also provided ideal conditions for blight to rampage through many of our potato crops. The disease is caused by the aggressive fungal pathogen phytophthora infestans, which can reduce a healthy crop to a field of blackened stumps in less than a week. Worse still, heavy downpours can leach infective spores down through the ridges to attack the tubers. The pathogen’s arrival in Ireland in 1845 wiped out their staple crop and, combined with woeful neglect from England, caused a famine that killed one million people and led another million to emigrate.
Non-organic growers spray with a systemic fungicide through summer until autumn; 8-10 sprays would not be uncommon. In organic crops, limited amounts of Bordeaux mixture (copper sulphate) can be used in some situations and can slow the spread of the disease. It is relatively innocuous, but only gives very temporary protection and some growers are concerned about its effect on soil life. There are more disease resistant varieties available now, but in most years, well before the crop has reached its potential yield, we still end up mowing off the tops and scorching the stumps to protect the crop below.
Fortunately, such aggressive pathogens are rare and are normally the result of relatively young relationships with their host. Over time the relationship typically evolves towards a slow, lingering death, then mere mild stunting of growth; why kill your host and move on if you can farm them and continue to reproduce indefinitely? It is likely that many symbiotic relationships were initially parasitic and slowly co-evolved towards mutual benefit.
On a more cheerful note, I hope you are enjoying our padron peppers. For me, most evenings start with a tapas of these delicious, if unpredictable, peppers quickly fried and salted. They take no more than five minutes to prepare. They are out-yielding expectations and it seems criminal to waste them, so, for the aficionados amongst you, we are now selling a 400g bag at £4.95.
Sowing of our autumn and winter crops is all done, bar a few late kale plants and spring greens. A very dry and hot July caused some anxiety over leeks, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage planted beyond the reach of irrigation pipes. However in what is turning out to be a wonderful growing year, the rain came just in time and all crops are establishing well. Some growers had resorted to tanking water to their fields but even a ten tonne load is but a drop when the midday sun is beating down on ten acres of wilting cauliflower. It was enough to keep the plants alive (just), but it would have been a mere stay of execution had the rains not saved us. I struggle to remember when I have seen growers so happy or such fine crops of sugar snaps, cucumbers, sweetcorn, peppers and potatoes. The big question in such a good year is, will it all get eaten?
Left to me, crop planning used to be a largely intuitive process. I would do some cursory sums and consult the records of previous years, but when I got in the field with tractor and seed drill the area sown was ridiculously dependent on my mood. Such cavalier disregard for painstaking factual analysis is often typical of business founders; we are good at getting to roughly the right place swiftly, but it’s the obsessive types who achieve perfection.
Being right 80% of the time was good enough back then, but no longer; I have been pushed aside and crop planning is now a highly analytical process. Megabytes of spreadsheets lead from your (assumed) box preferences back through average yields, labour profiles, seed and plant orders down to an area to be planted of each crop, each week. The skills of our planning team also mean that even in this wonderful year when some crops are giving 50% over expectations, we don’t yet have the surpluses I expected. I suspect things will change and we may start urging you to eat more peas and corn fairly soon; I just hope you’re not too busy relaxing on the beach, pegging your tent down in a gale or tending your own garden to benefit from the bounty.
Roll up your sleeves and get baking!
This summer holiday we’re hoping to encourage more children to don an apron and have a go at baking with our Riverford Kids Summer Bake Off. Each week on a Friday morning we’ll be sharing an easy-to-bake recipe for you to try in the kitchen.
We’re offering a different Riverford goodie bag as a prize each week, so if you’d like to enter, simply send us a picture of your tasty creations and we’ll enter you into our prize draw!
To take part:
Simply download our recipe card, cook up our weekly recipe and then send a photo of you and your baking efforts to us!
For more information visit our Riverford Kids Summer Bake Off page here.
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Tagged bake off, baking, children, cooking, family, holidays, kids, organic, recipes, riverford, summer, veg, vegetables, win
After the hottest weather since 1976, it’s now pouring and the relief is palpable as the thirsty soil sucks in the welcome rain. We have a huge lake that fills up through the winter here on our farm in France, and we’ve been busy pumping, piping and spraying from it this summer. Giant hose reels pull rain guns (giant agricultural sprinklers) slowly across the fields night and day, but it is never as good as the real thing and westruggle to get around all the crops before the first lot start looking thirsty again.
We will start picking sweetcorn in earnest this week. After battling with the weeds through a wet spring, our persistence has been rewarded with a pretty good crop. There are no badgers here but the ragondin (giant rodents the size of beavers) have acquired a taste for the ripening cobs. Introduced from South America for their pelts, they have become endemic and an occasional pest.
Meanwhile we have a fantastic crop of padron peppers, which will be on the extras list for the rest of the summer and will also appear in some of the boxes. These small green peppers are super trendy and ridiculously expensive in all those tapas bars that are taking over the country. They are best picked small and fried gently until the skin is blistered. Serve immediately with plenty of sea salt; most have a mild, wonderful flavour with about one in four delivering some moderate heat, and the occasional lurker with a real kick. They are great as a snack with a beer.
vote for your vegman!
Next month we gather with all of our local vegmen and vegladies for our annual head-scratching and navel-gazing about why we do what we do, and how we could do it better. There will be prizes for Vegman/Lady of the Year and the runners-up, so if you would like to put in a good word for yours, please email firstname.lastname@example.org by 5th August.
If you’re looking for something to keep the kids occupied, you can download our free Riverford Big Worm Dig pack here (and be in with a chance to win some lovely prizes): http://j.mp/15G28Op
As a soulful four-year-old, I spent a lot of time stomping behind the plough collecting the, “big fat squidgy ones” left wriggling on the inverted furrows. I probably should have been at playgroup developing social skills, but when my mum did send me I stole the tricycle and was found trying to ride home.
Worms might have been an eccentric interest for a pre-schooler, but I was in good company; Darwin studied earthworms for 40 years and sold more books on them in his lifetime than he did on natural selection. He reckoned just about all fertile soil had at some point passed through the gut of an earthworm. Interest has waned a little since 1881 but we are hoping to change that from this summer. Earthworms are vital to soil aeration, drainage and nutrient recycling and are also a very good visible indicator of the health of the wider soil community, including microscopic fungi and bacteria. Why should you care? Without healthy, active soils we would have little food and very little wildlife. What is good for earthworms is good for us and the planet.
Earthworms like moist, well-drained soils with plenty of organic matter. They hate synthetic fertilisers, most pesticides, excessive cultivation, compaction and extremes of temperature. Not surprisingly, you don’t find many in intensively farmed arable fields. Organic farming is better but we still need to develop methods less reliant on the plough to avoid disturbing our humble friends.
Despite their importance, very little is known about the UK earthworm population. To remedy this we’ve created an adult and kid-friendly survey with the help of Emma Sherlock, our semi-tame and highly enthusiastic boffin from the Natural History Museum. Yes, we want you digging and identifying. Visit www.riverford.co.uk/bigwormdig to get your booklet, and perhaps win a family holiday. I don’t recommend eating any worms you might find however.
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Tagged canopy & stars, compost, earthworms, ecover, farms, garden, gardening, guy watson, hugh fearnley-whittingstall, meat, national history museum, organic, organic meat, original organics, river cottage, riverford, science, veg, vegetables, worms, yeo valley