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Making the Amazon from the Atacama

After ten cold, bright, drying days of (sometimes gale force) easterlies, we are able to spread compost, plough and plant. The conditions are ideal for the soil – if challenging for tender young plants.

After being raised cheek by jowl with their cousins in a warm, sheltered, humid greenhouse with regular mist irrigation, the transition to standing alone, whipped by gusts of near-freezing, desiccating air, is like growing up in the Amazon and waking in the Atacama Desert; a shock which can cause plants to wilt instantly.

The secret is to harden them off in the yard for three or four days before planting, and to cover them with light, translucent fleece which, under a warming sun on our south-facing banks, creates tropical rainforest warmth and humidity underneath.

The plants love it; free from stress, they root out and establish quickly. The challenge is handling the fleece, especially pre-used rolls, in strong winds. We once lost a whole fleece the size of a football pitch, which was drawn up hundreds of feet into the air, before travelling along the valley to settle on our local sewage works; we didn’t reuse that one. The first lettuce will be ready in mid-May, and cabbage, chard and spinach in early June.

I am hugely impressed by the fast, flexible, committed and intelligent way our co-owners have responded to the current crisis. The nation seems to have found a magnanimity and can-do attitude, which I am sure is being complemented at Riverford by employee ownership, in a way that gives me hope for humanity and for our planet.

Sales staff are driving delivery vans at a day’s notice; waiters and chefs from our closed restaurant are packing boxes; marketing staff are answering emails and calls with our customer services team; and perhaps most impressively, when our already inadequate old website was overwhelmed by a massive uplift in traffic, our genius in-house IT team responded by bringing forward the launch of a new site in just a few days. Astoundingly, it went without a hitch; after previous experiences with outsourced IT projects (which reduced me to a frustrated, gibbering wreck), I am in awe of our team.

Thank you, as well, to the Riverford customers who have adapted to the new range and swapped onto a veg box. To help you live life on the veg for the weeks and months ahead, we have pulled together lots of recipes, resources, and positive things to read and do at choose.riverford.co.uk. Please enjoy – we will add more every week.

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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 55,000 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 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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