A plucky band of ZCH supporters braved soaring late afternoon temperatures on Tuesday 26 June to make the journey to Riverford's Home Farm near Thirsk and find out first hand the challenges that a farm faces in these days of climate disruption.
Land that had been so wet in spring it was impossible to sow (remember that?) was now so dry not even the weeds were growing, making the next successional planting impossible. However we were delighted by the number of house martins and swallows thriving in a pesticide-free environment, and even more so by the presence of the now rare corn bunting.
Greg Penn of Riverford very kindly gave us more than two hours of his time to show us around and answer our many questions. We learned about the background to Home Farm owner Peter Richardson's involvement with Riverford and about the ethos underpinning the whole venture. Running a modern sustainable business while trying to “do the right thing” is full of challenges. Issues such as the plastic v paper packaging debate are continually being addressed by the company, which employs staff specifically for this purpose, and works with researchers at Exeter University to find the best way forward.
Similarly Exeter University has been involved in looking at carbon issues in Riverford's food supply at a time when the modern consumer has lost sight of seasonality, seeking items such as tomatoes year round. For the sake of its business Riverford has to compromise, working with organic partner farms in Europe to supply this demand. Tomatoes can be bought out of season but, because of the carbon demands, are never grown in heated greenhouses or air freighted in. Personally I was surprised to learn that some farmers heat the soil of their asparagus beds to get an earlier crop – another carbon hungry practice which Riverford eschews. There is a Riverford belief that food tastes better where and when it wants to grow, and spinach obviously likes the land around Home Farm as they are the main supplier. As the photos we will attest we saw a lot of spinach!
One of the things we were interested to see at Home Farm was the anaerobic digester, which supplies all the energy requirements of the farm and feeds the surplus (thought to be enough energy for around 200 homes) into the National Grid. The digester “eats” all the unavoidable plant waste from the veg supply as well as from the crop rotation process. It produces methane for the energy supply as well as an organic liquid slurry which is a much more efficient fertiliser for the fields than conventional manure. The heat harnessed from the process is used for drying off produce such as garlic or grains. This is an area of the farm which is a work in progress, having potential to be developed even more to reduce the carbon footprint and be used to aid efficiency. It is a hungry beast, requiring constant feeding 365 days a year, but with surprisingly little smell, given the heat of the day, and the resulting slurry smell-free.
We would like to thank Greg for his time, as well as the hospitality of cooling drinks and fruit, most welcome on such a hot day.