Local Food for Cardigan: Glebelands’ Tough Challenge
The paradox of wealth flowing to the least important activities, like casino banking and professional sport, while the people who produce our food are largely disregarded and often poor, has long struck me as iniquitous. Our civilisation has become so detached from reality that even now, amidst environmental degradation and resource pillaging, the question ‘how are we going to feed ourselves?’ floats away on the stormy winds of climate change and is lost.
Farmers and growers who persist amidst public and political apathy almost never earn their living easily. It is often a story of working around the clock and trying to overcome new problems, day after day. A study tour of three vegetable growers in West Wales showed just how tough and resilient growers need to be.
Rupert Dunn, of the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, organised the tour to Glebelands Market Garden, Cardigan; Troed y Rhiw Farm near New Quay; and Blaencamel Farm, near Aberaeron. We met at Glebelands on the wet morning of August 19th 2012.
Glebelands Market Garden
Glebelands is a gently sloping north-facing 6.3-acre field on the road from Cardigan to St Dogmaels. The location is suburban, and would have been familiar to the market gardeners of the first half of the 20th century, who grew near to their markets. Cheap and plentiful oil changed the cost calculations, allowing long-haul transport of produce from regions with climates better suited than West Wales to the production of fruit and vegetables. Oil is finite, though, and in addition burning it accelerates atmospheric pollution and thus climate change.
Experienced growers Adam York and Lesley Bryson, previously in Manchester, bought the grassland field in 2010, for a considerable premium above the then-average cost of pastureland in Wales of £5,500 per acre,* and struggled to convince Ceredigion County Council’s planners that market gardening would be a suitable use of the site. Eventually, at the end of May 2012, they received temporary permission, for five years, for up to three polytunnels and a storage shed.**
They have set up a shop, easily visible from the road, and made a parking area for half a dozen cars. Each customer spends, typically, between £5 and £10 and they have five or six customers an hour. As yet there is not enough income to warrant employing as assistant in the shop, so when it’s open either Adam or Lesley or a volunteer helper has to be working nearby, so that customers do not have to wait while someone treks over from the far side of the field!
Lesley and Adam grow organically, i.e. without synthetic herbicides or crop protection products, and have organic certification from the Soil Association. Organic production always needs more labour than on farms where chemicals are used, and in 2012 they have been hit by warm wet, very wet, weather creating weed heaven. Crop failures include six hundred squash plants which could not cope with the hostile conditions.
There is no house on the site, so they live seven minutes’ walk away and have a heated propagator indoors, and a 20-foot polytunnel in the back garden, containing a heated bench. They are using a commercial polytunnel five-and-a-half miles away, to supply a wider range of crops to the shop than would have been possible to grow in the open.
They grow enough crops to give any cook freedom to range over the recipe books: lots of brassicas such as purple sprouting broccoli, calabrese, cauliflowers, kales, cabbages and Brussels sprouts; lettuces and many different salad leaves; spinach, spinach beet, beetroot and chard; broad, French and runner beans; leeks, onions, spring onions; and in the borrowed polytunnel some peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, courgettes and squashes. Watercress is grown in a low tunnel.
To extend the range in the shop they buy in potatoes and maincrop carrots, asparagus and garlic, and fruit – although they have their own strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants and rhubarb.
Most of the field grows green manure crops such as chicory and clover to improve fertility. The soil has been dosed with lime twice, to reduce acidity, and Lesley and Adam make their own compost but need more. They have found a local supplier of horse manure, which will raise levels of organic matter in the soil.
The low tunnels are improvised from alkathene piping made into hoops and braced with irrigation pipe, covered with extra-fine mesh to protect against flea beetle, and in summer with green net for shade. All the brassica crops are covered with polyethylene Wondermesh to protect against insects. As yet irrigation is simply by hose and lance from the mains supply. In future Adam and Lesley would like to store water on the site, but this would require a new planning application.
Many local people supported Adam and Lesley when the planning officers wanted to reject their market garden proposal, and helped to sway the councillors on the planning committee to grant temporary approval. “Now a big challenge is to attract a wider range of customers,” said Adam. “Most people buy their vegetables in supermarkets, and in Cardigan we are competing against Aldi and, principally, Tesco.”
A Sainsbury’s superstore was due to have opened on the fringe of Cardigan in summer 2012, but the development, along with a medical centre, has been delayed because of fears that the land at the site is unstable.*** Another supermarket competitor, perhaps using fruit and vegetables as loss leaders, would be an additional challenge for Lesley and Adam, as they tackle the tough task of generating enough revenue to consistently cover their production costs and earn enough to live on. Their exceptionally hard work transforming a pasture into a productive market garden, increasing the availability of fresh local food, so deserves to succeed.
Pat Dodd Racher, August 21st 2012
* Value from Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, quoted in ‘Farmland prices in Wales reach all-time high’, http://www.walesonline.co.uk, February 24th 2011.
** ‘OK for polytunnels’, Tivy-Side Advertiser, May 29th 2012.
*** ‘Concern grows over Bath-house site’, Tivy-Side Advertiser, August 14th 2012.