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A life devoted to cucumbers or chaos

This is being typed by the reservoir on my farm in the Vendée, France, after a lunchtime swim. Having walked the fields and seen the best crops we have grown in our ten years here, my contentment almost matches the smug cacophony of croaking frogs lazing in the water.

A dry and sunny spring has helped but, more importantly, accumulated experimentation, observation and learning have enabled us to make the most of the chances that the weather presented.

Last week, I was 3m below sea level on the Dutch polders, searching in vain for weeds in a field of onions. It has been 30 years since I first visited, with the aim of acquiring some of the polder farmers’ extraordinary proficiency in organic growing. We have caught up a bit, but they have moved on again, helped by specialisation, cooperation and an extraordinarily long view.

One grower grew only onions and garlic, exchanging fields with another growing only carrots and potatoes. If that sounds boring, I once visited a grower who grew only cucumbers. He apologised for having to leave early to attend his local play rehearsals; asked what the play was about he replied, with no irony, ‘cucumbers’.

Perhaps most striking was their willingness to invest for the long term, whether in machinery, storage facilities, land, or never letting a weed set seed; I would estimate their weed burden – viable weed seeds in the top 150mm of cultivated soil – is a thousand times less than ours. It was all a refreshing contrast with the UK and France, where so much energy is wasted on arguing and short-termism. Could their revolutionary success be something to do with the joint and herculean endeavour required to keep the sea at bay? Best of all, they seemed as content as my frogs.

Combining technical competence with complexity will always be a challenge. Sage advice is generally to focus on doing things well, and to not try to do too much. Tempting as it is to devote my declining years exclusively to the cultivation of artichokes and cardoons, my undisciplined mental ramblings constantly lead me off down other paths.

Simplicity is an anathema to society and the human condition (mine anyway); happy as those Dutch farmers seemed, it would never work for me. I will stumble on in search of contentment among the weeds.

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    Guy Singh-Watson

    Self-confessed veg nerd, Guy Singh-Watson has over the last 30 years taken Riverford from one man and a wheelbarrow delivering homegrown organic veg to friends, to a national veg box scheme delivering to around 50,000 customers a week. Guy is an opinionated and admired figure in the world of organic farming, who still spends more time in the fields than in the boardroom. Twice awarded BBC Radio 4 Farmer of the Year, Guy is passionate about sharing with others the organic farming and business knowledge he has accumulated over the last three decades. His video rants have provided a powerful platform to do this, with a video on pesticides going viral on Facebook to reach 5.6 million views and 91,000 shares. His weekly veg box newsletters connect customers to the farm with refreshingly honest accounts of the trials and tribulations of producing organic food, and the occasional rant about farming, ethical and business issues he feels strongly about. In June 2018, Guy handed over the reins of Riverford to its staff, choosing employee ownership as the model that will protect Riverford's ethical values forever and ensure the security of its employees.  

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