west*wales*news*review

West Wales News Review — analysis with a sustainability slant

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

Adam York (right) and Lesley Bryson (in yellow waterproof) explain their choices of low-cost, light  and adapted machinery, including the seed drill in the foreground.

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.**

The Glebelands field slopes down to the Cardigan to St Dogmaels Road. The shop is beyond the parked cars, at the field entrance.  The frame for the first polytunnel is upper left, and the heaps of compost in preparation are  at the foot of the field, by the hedge boundary with the road.

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.

Customers in the shop, which is open Thursday to Saturday 10am to 5.30pm, and on Sundays from 11am to 3pm.

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.

Wondermesh sections 100 feet by 35 feet provide crop protection.

 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.

Easy parking attracts customers.

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.

Glebelands’ website is http://www.glebelandsmarketgarden.co.uk. The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens is on http://www.farmgarden.org.uk.

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8 thoughts on “Local Food for Cardigan: Glebelands’ Tough Challenge

  1. Nice piece Pat.Conditions since your visit have improved considerably ie less torrential rain!

    Our quest in Cardigan(beyond making a living) is to follow our pioneering work in Manchester in retail and urban production, with a model viable in market town catchments. The economics hinge on cutting crops adjacent to the selling point for relatively immediate sale at a competitive price.

    • Thank you Adam. Would you agree that a major barrier is the price of land? Currently I’m in Ireland where the land premium seems even larger than in the UK. There is a 43-acre block of hilly, partly improved grazing near where we are staying in West Cork on sale for the equivalent of £7,442 an acre — bare land, no buildings, no house. I think that, as in the UK, land and farms in Ireland are sold principally as investments and lifestyle choices.

      • Hi Pat.There are certainly big problems with finding suitable sites/farms.Local authority tenancies(a traditional entrants point) are shrinking and most land with buildings are valued higher than the rate of return possible through horticulture at current prices. Coming to a view on the future value of the land and food prices to come does however put any land price into a wider perspective.

        Immediate shortage of land is however not as great a problem as the fertility required to produce the crops. Clover based rotations are great but illustrate the land needed when the Haber Bosch factory is not an option.

      • Re. land fertility, the privatisation of ADAS in 1997 has, I think, tied advice to current commercial imperatives — there is no incentive for research into organic and permaculture approaches. Also you have to be quite affluent to afford the advice now that it has been transformed into a market commodity.

  2. Pingback: Compost, Covered Crops and Cardiff: Three Essentials for Blaencamel Farm « west*wales*news*review

  3. Pingback: Troed y Rhiw Incubates Relocalisation Skills « west*wales*news*review

  4. Thank you. When we were driving up towards the next farm (tomorrow’s post, hopefully) we noticed that Tesco’s car park was jam-packed. It seems that the government is considering making permanent the longer Sunday trading hours in place for the Olympics. If so, life will be even tougher for small retailers, who cannot out-advertise the major multiples.

  5. Y Cneifiwr on said:

    Beautifully written and very interesting. Just as with the local producers’ market at Pwllhai in Cardigan, Glebelands needs to raise its profile. I was amazed earlier this year talking to a group of people who all live and/or work in Cardigan that some had never heard of the Pwllhai market, and of those who had, very few had actually paid it a visit.

    The quality of so much of the fruit and veg in the supermarkets is often really poor – there at least the small producers have an advantage to build on.

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