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Pumpkins, plastic & pushing our luck

pumpkins

This week, I woke to find the lightest of ground frosts rolling off my southfacing pumpkin and squash field and settling in the sheltered valley meadow below. During the day, temperatures are still climbing to 20°C; this will help to harden the squashes’ skins, sweeten the flesh and seal the stalks. With good, well-cured skins, some varieties will keep to the spring – but even a light frost will soften the skins and prevent them from keeping. We are pushing our luck.

Some heavy rain last week, followed by a few days of dry weather, have made ideal conditions for potato harvesting. But if they are to store through to the first new season’s liftings in May, we must be patient and wait for the skins to set. Organic potato crops are normally brought to an abrupt, premature end by potato blight: a voracious pathogen that, under warm, humid conditions, can go from a few black specks to 90% leaf loss in a week. Without care the blight can also reach the tubers, resulting in a foul, putrescent smell unequalled in the plant kingdom. Our strategy is to remove the foliage when 30% of the leaf area is affected, by mowing or burning it off with a giant tractor-mounted gas grill; we then wait two weeks (three this year) for the potatoes’ skins to set before harvesting them into wooden boxes. For two or three weeks the store is ventilated with ambient air to dry the tubers and allow any harvest damage to heal. Until Christmas, most varieties can be stored at ambient temperature or cooled with just night air; after that we must use fridges to fool those drowsy spuds that spring is still a distant dream. Typically they are kept at 4°C until it is time to gently warm them prior to grading (cold spuds bruise easily). Valor, the most naturally dozy variety, will keep until June.

For the last nine months we have been agonising about what is the least bad packaging option, particularly when it comes to plastic. We have settled on 100% home-compostable punnets and bags by the end of 2020 – but it has been a hugely frustrating process. Try as we might, we cannot deliver a sensible policy while the government abdicates its responsibility by allowing countless different kerbside collection policies across the UK. Those with the time and inclination can hear my thoughts at facebook.com/riverford.

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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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