Climate change in the South West: Ticking the Organic Veg Box

Posted in: Environment

Posted on: 10.06.2021

Good Energy is collaborating with award-winning environmental photographer Toby Smith to produce a series of photo-essays visualising climate change in the UK. Toby will be focussing on the changes and challenges of land-use but also cultural and technology innovations in sustainability around the South West of England.  

Ticking the Organic Veg Box - A case study with Riverford Organic Farmers

Food choices are an immediate and significant way that anyone can change their carbon footprint. Personal decisions around meat or dairy consumption, vegetarian or vegan preferences interact with factors of quality, price, value and packaging. With further decisions around localism or food miles, ethical standards of animal husbandry and business, organic or other certifications can be a minefield at odds with our evolving tastes and limited budgets. 

As a case-study of these challenges, I spent the day at Riverford Organic Farmers.  Founded over 30 years ago it has grown into one of the UK’s most successful ‘farm to fork’ vegetable and grocery box companies. 

Wash Farm is the epicentre of vegetable production, office space and the main distribution hub with an impressive solar panel covered roof.  It is hidden in the Devon hills but connected to partner farms across Europe and our doorsteps via a constant stream of tractors and refrigerated trucks.

Ed Scott, the farm manager for 18 years, explains why Devon is so perfect for growing with its warm and mild, wet and humid climate and fantastic soils.

The well structured clay with flint is the true beneficiary and priceless investment of an organic farming system. Careful rotational management with a local dairy herd builds soil quality, structure, nutrients and biotic life. 

There is also a focus on local biodiversity to increase natural pollinators, predators and pest control by beneficial insects.  Relinquishing marginal fields to over 825 tree saplings locks in carbon and slows surface drainage.

Ed has successfully increased the amount of ‘crops under cover’ to focus on the sensitive but higher yielding and lucrative crops like tomatoes and cucumbers.  These polytunnels are open ended - to allow lacewings, hoverflies and lady birds to come in and eat damaging aphids. Rainwater drums loudly on the roof before running into a nearby pond ready for future irrigation.

Climate Change hasn’t noticeably affected the average annual weather statistics here but brings damaging and unpredictable extremes of temperature, drought or heavy rain. The polytunnels are a great defence but at a significant material cost with their flimsy plastic roofs. 

Organic vegetables are much more labour intensive than their chemically treated cousins. Planting, weeding and thinning is done by hand in all weathers.  Growing in naturally variable soil, without fertilizer makes for a tricky harvest.  Cabbage heads reach maturity at different rates so fields must be ‘picked over’ for several months. 

Organic farming methods also negate chemical counter-measures to explosions of disease or insect pests. Thin sheets help to suppress weeds and horticultural fleeces protect from frost, extend the growing season and help prevent insect damage. 

Out in the fields, acres of Pak Choi are almost at full size, with covers rolled back ready. This imminent harvest will mark the end of the UK ‘hunger-gap’ and a reduction in vegetables being trucked in from Europe.

Guy Singh Watson is Riverford’s enigmatic and vocal founder. Despite selling the business back to his employees - he and his values remain - including an expensive attack on plastic packaging.

A new £300,000 machine uses an innovative, compostable material to preserve the humidity of fragile peppers and salads. The machine is running at minimum speed, as although it's more eco-friendly, biodegradable polymer frequently jams and snags in comparison to a stronger, cheaper, oil based plastic film. 

Efficiency and low temperatures are the preserve of a successful distribution hub.  Re-usable Plastic Containers (RPCs) on pallets are expensive but keep food in better condition than disposable cardboard boxes in the supply chain. 

Riverford’s home delivery ‘final-mile’ boxes are made of sturdy folding cardboard and can be returned and reused up to 10 times.  Echoing the dilemma of choosing plastic over pesticides in the field - Riverford’s customer base expects a reduction in disposble packaging but manages to return only 7 out of 10 boxes to its drivers.

Toby Smith

Toby Smith is an award winning environmental photographer, based in Stroud. We're collaborating with him to produce a series of photo-essays visualising climate change impacts and solutions in the UK. 

Read more stories by Toby Smith

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