Last summer, Guy Singh-Watson handed over three-quarters of his Riverford Organic Farmers veg box business to his employees. But the pioneering organic farmer is not hanging up his wellington boots just yet, he tells Karen Thomas – not while agribusinesses are getting so much of our land management so very wrong
It’s a sultry summer morning outside Totnes. Down a gravel path, teams of farm workers sit at outdoor trestle tables, tucking into plates of salad vegetables. The voices of children rise from a play area tucked away behind a butterfly-strewn bank of eau de cologne mint, sorrel and marjoram.
Beyond the farm’s working areas, Riverford Field Kitchen has thrown open its French doors to catch the breeze. Guy Singh-Watson, aka the boss, is drinking coffee outside under a parasol, dressed in shorts and a green t-shirt. He has customised the back of the T-shirt, scrawled letters spelling out the quote from Noam Chomsky that’s a mantra for the Extinction Rebellion generation: If you assume there is no hope, you guarantee there is no hope. It’s a whole series of clues that life at Riverford may not be agribusiness as usual.
Last summer organic farmer Singh-Watson, pictured above on the right, placed 74 per cent of Riverford, his organic produce-box company, into an employee-owned trust. The business is worth some £20 million and employs 650 people.
“I understand the need for systems, for professional management and meetings, and what-have-you,” he explains. “I personally don’t enjoy all that. Spending time in boardrooms is not what energises me. So I’ve been happy to step back from that.
“I’m sixty now, and enjoy having more time to talk to people, to think about things like Brexit, the agriculture bill and the environment bill, from which the word organic seems to be entirely missing. And spending more time growing vegetables.”
Growing vegetables has always been Singh-Watson’s passion. He spent the summer battling aphids in his polytunnels. We drive down through the fields to inspect the crop. A dozen farm workers are picking side shoots off tomatoes and cucumbers. In one polytunnel, four infested rows of cucumbers run parallel to unaffected plants. The infested plants are droopy and stunted.
Riverford being organic, pesticides are not an option. The farm manager explains how he’s bought in two types of parasitic wasps and ladybird larvae to fight the aphids, an effective solution that doesn’t come cheap.
Singh-Watson is philosophical about the costs. “It’s the first time in years that we’ve come unstuck,” he says. “We’ve lost about a third of our cucumber crop. But even on non-organic farms, spraying isn’t 100 per cent effective. A third of our cucumbers adds up to about 3 per cent of our total crop. If that happens every three years, let’s say we lose 1 per cent of our crop to infestation.”
Chemicals wipe out the hoverflies, lacewings and other predators that naturally mop up aphids. “It’s now far more widely acknowledged that our farms have taken a wrong turning,” Singh-Watson says. “More people acknowledge that agrichemical companies have become the main source of information for farmers and the main source of research funding for universities.
“Nearly all the agricultural colleges around here have been shut – there’s just one left. So where does our information come from? All environmental solutions require a site-specific knowledge, learning and observation. The silver bullet solution is almost always wrong.”
Just 3 per cent of UK farming is organic. But it’s the promise of silver bullets that drives conventional farming, Singh-Watson argues. The farmer agrees with the local agronomist what to grow and how. “And part of that plan will be crop-spraying,” he says. “There won’t be regular inspections of pest numbers, yet the National Farmers’ Union will tell you that all farmers practice integrated pest management.
“If you asked some farmers what a hoverfly or a lacewing looks like, a lot of them wouldn’t have a fucking clue. [Agronomists] come round and advise. Most make money from a percentage on whatever [chemical solution] they sell to that farm. That’s the standard business model. Very few farmers go out to their fields to look at pests. They certainly don’t monitor their predators.”
When Riverford hosted a Plymouth University-led study into the balance of aphid numbers in the fields against those of hoverflies, lacewings and ladybirds, it found that soap and pyrethrum killed aphids effectively, knocking out about 90 per cent.
“But a fortnight later all the plots were virtually the same. We’ve found as good a result by leaving things alone, because soap and pyrethrum also killed the predators. It’s all about finding a balance.”
All too often, debates about sustainable farming pit those who produce our food against those who campaign for the environment. Both sides can meet in the middle, Singh-Watson argues.
“There’s been a significant change of heart among farmers,” he says. “A significant number now want to be part of the solution. Yes, there are still vile agribusinesses, mostly in the east of the UK. There are lobbies within our industry pushing a hard-nosed, commercial agenda, who consider it effeminate to want to do things to save the planet. That incredibly macho approach.
“But more and more of us want to do things differently now – that’s something I encounter more in the west than in the east – particularly when it comes to soil health.”
Organic farming is growing around 7 per cent a year in the UK, he says, as more farmers question whether it’s sustainable to keep throwing soluble pesticides and fertilisers, fungicides and herbicides at our soil.
“Our wheat yields have plateaued, and that’s a key indicator of where agriculture is going – we’ve reached the end of the road. We’ve seen a catastrophic decline in insect numbers.”
He blames a lot of ill-feeling between scientists, farmers and environmental campaigners on the row over genetically modified crops. Having opposed GM, he has softened his stance, but says scientists are now more open to organic arguments, having seen the impact of chemicals on soil health and insect numbers.
“Ecology is a science. Can you call yourself a scientist and seek to understand a field of wheat and the environment it’s growing in without reference to ecology? The way farmers have used pesticides during my lifetime has not been based on any science – it’s been pig-ignorant,” he says.
“To be using glyphosate as a pre-harvest desiccant in wheat destined for human consumption is completely absurd. It’s the world gone mad – and all for tiny benefits to farmers. It’s an outrage – and there’s nothing scientific about it.”
Organic farming is more mainstream in other parts of Europe, Singh-Watson says. Will Brexit help or hinder a change of heart? Here, he is ambivalent. He admired previous environment secretary Michael Gove – but Gove and his promises are long gone. This month brings the prospect of the UK crashing out of the European Union without a deal. UK farming will become a bargaining chip for trade talks.
“We’ll go to trade with the Americans, looking to offer banking services or to access their telecoms market or whatever, and in return they’ll want to sell us beef produced on some feedlot in Texas, fed on the most environmentally destructive feed possible. And my guess is that we’ll buy it. How do you expect our farmers to cope with that?”
Apart from aphids, Riverford’s most pressing ecological challenge is soil erosion, particularly during heavy rain. Work with the local rivers trust concluded that the problem is with water penetration and percolation. That means working to maintain an open soil structure to absorb heavy rain.
“It’s always difficult to time farming operations perfectly,” Singh-Watson says. “In an ideal world, after our last weeding, we go through any crop left over winter with tines, to open the soil for water to penetrate. Where there’s a particularly high risk, we may put in headlands, taking out 10m in the middle of the field, leaving it to grass.
“If you do get run-off, the grass can trap some of those silts and sediments. In late summer, we clear the fields and sow vetches. By late August, that leaves a mix of vetches and grazing rye. By October we can only sow rye, as that’s the only thing with enough vigour to establish. Thereafter, we just leave weeds as ground cover. Bare, compacted ground is vulnerable ground; late-harvested maize is where a lot of problems stem from.”
Singh-Watson holds no truck with the view that climate change will benefit UK farmers, higher levels of carbon dioxide boosting plant growth and warmer temperatures supporting new crops. The prospect of farmers turning fields into vineyards is nonsense, he says.
“What you need as a farmer is predictability – it’s a real challenge for us is when things are not,” he says. “You go to plough the ground in April, in May and June there’s typically not too much rain but any that does fall will accumulate in the soil.
“You plant cauliflowers when the field is at maximum water-holding capacity so the field has been left bare in May and June. That’s when we’ve had some of the worst soil loss, having had three inches of rain fall in 20 minutes. It happened a couple of years ago; a terrible thing to see.”
Riverford is building new reservoirs to withstand torrent and drought. The latest, underway this summer, brings its total to seven, all holding less than 12,000 cu m. That doesn’t come cheap either – but building resilience will be critical to tackle climate change.
“We need to invest more in water storage. Any environmental solution requires patient capital. Investing in a reservoir you use one year in five is not a good return, unless you are patient enough. Low interest rates certainly make that easier. People from the farm go swimming there. So it does enhance nature and wellbeing.”
Singh-Watson and his wife Geetie, an organic restaurateur, bonded over vegetables. One of his daughters is a vegan chef. Not vegan himself –his siblings farm cattle next door – he is sympathetic to the cause, exploring the business case for at least one plant-based business venture.
The question is whether he has the time or the energy, he says. “We’ve had meetings about growing nuts, but it’s incredibly high-risk,” he says. “We don’t really grow nuts at commercial scale in the UK, bar a few cobnuts in the east. But in terms of sequestering carbon, in terms of moving towards a more plant-based diet, in terms of perennial crops being more resilient and better for the environment than annual crops, there are strong arguments for it.
“Nearly all our food crops are annuals, involving more soil cultivation, which becomes problematic if the climate changes as we expect. You could have a terrible, wet year, and lose a whole crop of nuts to fungal disease but most years they’ll require minimal intervention. I’m not about to plant vines and I’m not about to plant almonds. But walnuts and hazel nuts might just work.”
And that Chomsky quote on the T-shirt? It’s a tribute to Singh-Watson’s father, John, who died in January. The quality he most admired in his father; his sense of hope.
“My hope is that we embrace a more noble vision of what it means to be human,” he concludes. “People want to help other people; most want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. That’s why Extinction Rebellion is out on the streets – because saving the planet seems a worthwhile thing to do.
“Nobody starts growing vegetables to get rich – it seemed like a worthwhile thing to do. What stands in our way, frankly, is capitalism. We need a more spiritual interpretation of what it means to be human. That might seem absurdly head-in-the-clouds. I think it’s our only hope. That – not green capitalism – is the solution.”
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