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16 Mar 2014

Guy Watson on how Riverford Farm is living with climate change

Guy Watson

Perhaps those for whom the notion of ‘living with climate change’ is most acutely felt are farmers.  Their business models depend on the weather obliging them with good growing conditions, something it is increasingly failing to do.  We talked to Guy Watson, the founder of Riverford Organic Vegetables to hear his thoughts and experiences.  His main suggestions?  We need perennial cereals.  And to develop a love for kale.

We’ve had a few weeks of very extreme weather over the last little while. How has that manifested at Riverford?

It has rained pretty relentlessly since early December.  We’ve had 10 weeks of rain which seems to have come to an end now. We’ve actually been very lucky in that it’s happened at the dormant time of year where we’ve finished harvesting roots and we would be planting a few things by now and preparing the ground for planting in an ideal year, but hopefully we’ll be able to start doing something next week. A delay of a month in planting sometimes means absolutely nothing when it comes to harvest, because growing conditions in that month can be so variable, what you plant in late March can come earlier than what you plant in late February.

So we’ve been very lucky, but I suppose.  We’ve got livestock that we overwinter on some pretty light draining land and it’s all been poached up, meaning that the grass has all been turned to mud. But actually, that was land that we were going to plough and grass up this spring anyway and it won’t damage the soil significantly because it’s quite resilient ground.


We have been lucky. I can see on neighbours’ land, people who sowed autumn cereals late, they just haven’t grown. The ground’s been waterlogged and there’s been a fair amount of soil erosion, and it’s been a pretty sad sight. I think our ground has stood up. I’m quite encouraged actually, walking around. Over the last 5 years I suppose we’ve adopted a more extensive rotation, by which I mean there’s more grass and less cultivation, which has meant that the structure of the ground is better.

There are probably more earthworms, more organic matter. The ground is more open, meaning that water can enter the soil and percolate through it faster so you get less run-off, better drainage and more air in the soil. Where we haven’t driven over it with a tractor – sometimes you have to drive into fields to get vegetables out – or poached it up with livestock, it’s in a pretty good state. I think it will drain and recover quite quickly.

Our winter crops, yes we’ve had to go in there and harvest leeks and cauliflowers and so on. You have to get them out of the field with a tractor and that has made a mess, but it’s in fairly small areas and the crops have been OK. It’s been miserable for our staff but actually it’s been OK.

One of the most striking images of the recent floods was a picture of the UK from space where you could see this brown stain around the South, these plumes of soil being washed out. Can organic farming be seen as a solution to that?

I think organic is probably less likely to result in soil loss when we do get these extreme weather events. The reason for that is I think the soil is in better structure, and more open so you get more percolation and less run-off. I think if you go to the Environment Agency, that’s what they’ll be wanting to encourage farmers, the farming practices that lead to those sorts of things. I can look around at neighbours’ ground where there’s been intensive cereals and you can see the run-off is appalling.

You can see the water just does not soak into the ground, and I think the adoption of autumn sown cereals rather than spring sown cereals, some of the cultivation techniques that are used now – people using power harrows rather than traditional harrows. You can plough and plant cereals in borderline conditions but probably damaging the soil quite a lot. I think I can see the effect of that. Good agricultural practice would be to bring sowing dates forward to ensure you’ve got a good ground cover before winter. People are still sowing well into November.  I seem to remember we did have a very dampish autumn and then it dried up in late October- November and I think that’s when most of the cereals were sown this year, and it was too late for a lot of them.

I think organic practice, by virtue of having better soil structure, is likely to result in less erosion. You get virtually no erosion off grass fields. We tend to have a lot more grass in our rotation. Of course, you might argue that that’s not going to feed a population that’s hungry for grain and hungry for animals that eat the grain, chickens and pigs and increasingly dairy cows now, but I suppose one might argue that we shouldn’t be eating so many of those foods. I feel very strongly that it would take more than a shift to organic agriculture to solve the looming problems that we have.


I think we need to look very carefully at the balance. Most of our food crops are annual crops. Wheat, barley; if you look around the world, wheat, barley, maize, rice, potatoes to some extent. So they’re annual crops which require intensive cultivation, which inevitably means damage to the soil. Some cultivations are worse than others and you can grow with less cultivation, but annual crops are bad for the soil there’s absolutely no question about it. If you have any sensitivity to it, if you go and look at a permanent grass field you’ll see it’s absolutely teeming with life, earthworms and invertebrates. It will have ten times the population of earthworms if not a hundred and that’s probably reflected in all the other soil species as well.

You then compare that to somewhere which is growing intensive cereals and there’s land in the South West which has probably been in barley and wheat virtually continually for 30 years, and you’ll struggle to find an earthworm. The soil is in a pretty desperate state with very low organic matter. It’s bad for the soil.

But how can we feed ourselves when we’re so dependent on it? We need to develop perennial growing crops. It’s a bit of a bugbear of mine, but wheat, barley, maize, maybe rice, originally they’re all derived from progenitors which would have been perennial plants. Maize certainly comes from perennial ancestry. We’ve bred them to be annuals and to produce big seeds that are easily harvested, which will all ripen at the same time, which is great for farmers and great for seed companies because we go to seed companies and buy the seed every year. What we need is a grain crop that you can harvest and let it recover without cultivation, and go back and harvest it again the next year. If we were harvesting grass seed, when you are harvesting grass seed that’s what you do.

I’m sure if a fraction of the money that’s gone into developing GM crops had gone into perennialising some of our major crops, we would have perennial crops now. You’d be sequestering carbon in the soil because you wouldn’t be cultivating it. You wouldn’t be using fossil fuels to cultivate the soil. We wouldn’t have the run-off problems. The benefits would be just huge, and I’m sure it would be much better for wildlife and I think even potentially it could be more productive. If you think that the soil in this country, from July, August, September, October, so a third of the year, even into October, November, December, there’s no ground cover so for half the year the ground is not photosynthesising, not producing anything. If you can have a crop that is photosynthesising all the year, I’d have thought there’d be the potential for it to be a lot more productive.

But there’s no incentive in our current capitalist system for anyone to develop a perennial seed for anything, because you’d only sell it once. I would like to see some. Maybe Bill Gates would do it, put some money, not looking for a return, into perennialising some of those crops?

That’s my current bugbear. It’s quite interesting in Uganda where I’ve just been. Their main starch source in bananas, which is a perennial crop. It just keeps coming back over and over again and you see them growing mixed up with other fruit crops; mangos, papayas, jackfruits, all major food sources. They tend to be grown in a mixture with the bananas, sometimes with coffee underneath. All perennials. It’s a very healthy system. You get very few pest problems because it is all mixed up.

At Riverford over the last 10 years or so, as the pattern of more changing weather and extreme weather has become more pronounced, how have you adapted?  From outside Riverford one of the things you notice is the number of polytunnels that you have has increased exponentially. How else have you adapted?

The overall policy is to mitigate and avoid risk. One way that we’ve done that is to put up polytunnels, which have been very successful financially and in terms of our customers, they like the products that come out of them. It means we have to import less and have interesting salads throughout the year. Another thing is that I spent 15 years pushing into what we call the shoulders of the season.  It’s easy to produce a lettuce from the end of May to mid-September. With the use of fleeces and early planting you can be producing them the first week in May and can carry on producing them into November and even up to Christmas by using different varieties and going into growing escaroles and radicchios and whatever.

We’re just retreating from all that because those are the ones that tend to fail more often. Indeed all the growers we work with are doing the same. We’re not growing strawberries at all any more. I used to be very dogmatic that I wanted to grow my strawberries outside, that it was unjustifiable to put up polytunnels to grow a crop which historically had been grown perfectly successfully outside and I carried on for 10 years being dogmatic about it and consistently losing money, letting our customers down, frustrating them saying they were going to get strawberries this week, then it rained and we couldn’t pick them. Then we just had to pick them all off because they had botrytis by then, throw them away and hope they’d be better next year.

We were losing money and pissing our customers off. In the cropping year of 2012 we lost half a million pounds growing vegetables, which I would have thought was hardly possible. It was an absolutely staggering sum of money. It was absolutely diabolical, we lost all the strawberries, all the onions, lettuce. All the early crops failed, spinach etc. It did get a little bit better towards the end of the season, but then I think the winter was pretty ghastly as well. We just can’t afford to lose that amount of money, so we just drew back from anything that carried risk, so strawberries have gone and quite a few other crops.

Is there any way, as a farm business, that one can build in resilience to a summer like that?

(laughs) You’re not going to like what I say! Polytunnels, just growing what grows comfortably at this time, and importing, actually. Economically and environmentally I would like to have some research done on this. Is it better to grow something in the South of France and get a full yield fairly reliably, and possibly use lower inputs because wherever you’re trying to grow a crop outside it’s a climatically suitable range. You inevitably end up using higher inputs. For a conventional farmer that would be pesticides to try and fight off disease, because crops that aren’t comfortable are vulnerable to disease. For us it might be finding ground covers or spending more on weed control.

The biggest risk is just not getting the yield at the end. Crop failure or having a reduced crop, or having reduced quality. I suspect there are quite a few instances where it would certainly be economically better and quite conceivably environmentally better just to grow it 200 miles further south or 500 miles further south. It would be quite interesting to do a carbon footprinting exercise on that. Perhaps we need an environmental studies student to do that for us.

Cultivating land is an environmentally expensive.  Anything that goes with cultivation is actually bad for the environment, the energy used in doing it, the CO2 that’s given out as a result of cultivating the land. If you square the equation with what it costs to import it, I don’t know.  Of course, one might argue that people should eat just what grows in season…

I saw you were in that local food roots film that came out, and said the main thing we need to do towards a local economy is learn to love eating cabbage.

Well that is true. I have been at it for nearly 30 years now. I was having an argument with one of my managers yesterday about the virtues of kale compared to spinach. We can be producing kale, even now going into March and April, and just have it there for when we’re short of greens. We’re desperately short of greens this year because it was so warm earlier in the winter, and now we have very little left. We’re even using Spanish cabbage which is embarrassing and a lot of Spanish spinach. You can’t grow spinach in this country at this time of year.


People, on the whole, would much rather eat spinach than cabbage. It takes a lot of persuasion. Personally, I would rather eat cabbage and kale, but that does require quite a lot of cajoling. Geetie Singh’s pub in London is absolutely hard line UK only produce, most of that local to London and they do produce bloody good food consistently, but it does require a skilled chef and quite a committed team to do that. It is about skills, largely. I think we could eat a 90%, maybe even 95% UK diet without any significant loss of utility in the kitchen, as an economist might call it, but we could still eat bloody well and have varied, good food.  But to do that does require quite a lot of skill and commitment.

I can say after 30 years of trying to persuade people to eat seasonally, you can only go so far. If we put out boxes with just cauliflowers, cabbage, onions, swedes, potatoes, parsnips, throughout the winter, especially when you get into February, March, April where you get this first whiff of spring and certainly go off those vegetables, I wouldn’t be in business.

What’s your sense of the impacts, psychologically, of living with climate change? Of that added degree of uncertainty it has brought to our lives. How does it impact on you and the team around you, trying to design a business into the future when it’s so uncertain?

If I go back to 2012-13, you were going into February and March with an expectation that the Spring is going to arrive and the sun is going to come out and the birds are going to start singing, just like if you’re lying in bed and wake up before dawn, there’s an expectation that dawn will arrive. I’d start losing confidence that that would ever happen. It’s just so much part of our culture, the seasons. I suppose there was a good deal of anxiety and depression that went on with that.  I guess we’ve had similar this winter although it hasn’t gone on for anything like as long. We’ve had 10 weeks at what is normally a pretty bleak time of year anyway, so I don’t think it’s been anything like as bad.

But it is psychologically pretty disturbing. Farming is part of culture. All our agriculture is based on an assumption of weather patterns. That’s what it’s all based around. My whole experience of growing vegetables has changed.  I used to log planting dates and harvesting dates and record temperatures and so on, and I had a whole spreadsheet developed on the assumed harvest. A day in June was worth 14 days in December, and I worked out various things, but it’s all just gone completely out the window.

Trying to plan things has become very, very difficult. It’s made it bloody difficult to run a sensible business, and it has made it particularly difficult to source locally actually. If we agree with a farmer that he’s going to plant a crop and we’re going to sell it, everything is very carefully planned that it will be sold in those weeks. Then when it comes earlier or later or doesn’t come at all, that does throw our plans onto total disarray.

As I mentioned earlier, all the greens, it was a very mild autumn this year. Prior to it starting raining in early December, it was actually a fantastic autumn. We had plenty of sunshine, it was warm. All the crops romped away and came very early.  Then we had an absolute deluge of green crops through the early winter and now we have virtually none. That’s been quite difficult to cope with.

If you look forward 10, 15, 20 years, what’s your sense of where you’ll be as a business, where farming will need to be?

I’d be very surprised if fossil fuels weren’t a damn sight more expensive. They might possibly quadruple in price. It would take something like that sort of increase in price to radically change transport patterns. Were they to double in price, I think you’d see air freighting of food drop out fairly quickly. You’d see heating of greenhouses drop out fairly quickly. Neither of which we do anyway because they’re complete insanity.

I think probably if you go up to something like 4 times, trucking and shipping would start to become prohibitively expensive. At that point you will see … I have become rather cynical I’m afraid. Most people are pretty damn selfish and what they eat and how they behave is largely dictated by their own selfish thinking.  Maybe they just feel powerless, but when things become more expensive people consume less of them. There’s no doubt about that. If we want people to consume environmentally less damaging food and support their local economies we want imported food to be more expensive and hothouse food to be more expensive. An increase in fuel prices is what will bring that about, and I see very little doubt that that’s going to happen.

Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary recently said that climate change “is something we can adapt to over time and we are very good as a race at adapting”. There’s this sense with climate change that we can just adapt. For yourself and smaller farmers, to what extent can farming adapt?

To some degree I do absolutely loathe Paterson with a passion, but he does have a point. I do think capitalism does unleash a creativity that planned economies just cannot access. I’m very reluctant to admit to that, but it does seem to be true. People will adapt, and they will adapt surprisingly quickly. They will find different ways of doing things.

But there is a whole infrastructure which I think will take quite a lot of time to change. We’re relying on a capitalist, Adam Smith model, a laissez-faire market based approach to agriculture. So many of the costs of agriculture are actually externalised. You mentioned the wash of the run-off and the flooding. The flooding we’ve just experienced, I’m sure a good part of it could have been avoided with different agricultural practice.


If you go and look at a grass field, a field of permanent pasture this winter, there would have been virtually no run-off this winter, and any run-off would have had virtually no soil in it. If you compare that to a field of late-sown barley, sown in November. It’s the field of barley that’s caused the flooding. Most run-off, a bit of it has come off roads and so on, but most of it’s come off land. That’s where it’s come from. So there’s the effect of growing those crops which has an impact further down the line but which farmers aren’t paying for. You might say that those who are growing the grasses aren’t being rewarded either.

That’s the problem with the Owen Paterson approach, and I think you could apply the same thing to wildlife, landscape, pollution of water. There is no reward for the value of good agricultural practice and virtually no penalty – under Owen Paterson’s regime they had talked about giving penalties, people not getting single farm payments if they didn’t follow good agricultural practice, but I think that’s been largely abandoned. So that’s the problem with leaving things to the open market.

Things like perennialising crops will require a government or an NGO to take the lead, because you’re not going to get that from the free market, and I do see that as very important. I’ve argued for 20 years that if you want to nudge people in the right direction, just put a bloody great tax on fossil fuels. Forget about all your carbon trading and everything which has just been totally ineffective.

But it’s just politically unacceptable isn’t it? Every government that’s tried to do that has even backed down from the relatively modest attempts to.  What it would do is nudge you towards a state that we’re going to have to get to anyway, and probably develop technologies which we would possibly be leading in. Technologies which are going to be needed in 5 or 10 years’ time. Oil price has just stabilised at just over 100 dollars a barrel, but I would be very surprised if the world economy picked up a little bit if that didn’t shoot up to 150 fairly quickly

Or if Russia turns the taps off?

Well that would be interesting, wouldn’t it…