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Padrons, sweetcorn & smut from the Vendée

I left our farm in the Vendée region of western France this morning to the sight of our pickers disappearing into a massive, head-high crop of sweetcorn. It will appear in many of your boxes next week – six weeks ahead of the UK crop, which was set back by a cold June.

An even earlier French crop, grown from plants raised in a greenhouse, was largely wiped out by a combination of corn borer grubs and corn smut (a fungal disease), neither of which are common in the UK. We do our best to control the corn borers by releasing a predatory wasp which parasitizes the grubs.

As with all biological control, efficacy is highly dependent on timing releases to coincide with the appearance of the pest: too early and the predator dies of hunger; too late and the pest has already done its damage.

But the loss of the first corn crop wasn’t a total waste. Corn smut’s fungal spores infect plants through the silks (the threadlike bits you find at the top of each ear of corn), which normally convey pollen to the waiting kernels. The cobs then develop hideous, grey, spore-filled galls.

In the absence of any known control for these tumour-like growths, the indigenous Americans decided the best thing was to eat them. In Mexico, the galls, known as ‘corn truffle’ or ‘huitlacoche’, are considered a delicacy cooked with garlic, chilli and onion and served in a quesadilla; so much so that maize is sometimes purposefully infected. Last night I made a variation on porcini risotto, substituting corn smut galls for porcini mushrooms; no one died, and I reckon it was delicious.

This year, in order to make more room for aubergines in our tunnels, we have moved most of the peppers (Padrons, plus red, yellow and orange mini peppers) to the open field. It can be a risk in a wet summer, but with careful management and some luck they can produce almost as much – and always taste better without plastic between them and the sun, as well as often suffering less pests.

Padron peppers will be available to add to your order, and occasionally appear in the boxes, until October. You will find ours hotter than those bought in a supermarket or tapas bar, but infinitely tastier. So far the ratio of mild to spicy is about right, with one or two in ten having a kick; eating them, we always say, is like playing a game of Russian roulette.

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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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