Troed y Rhiw Incubates Relocalisation Skills
by Pat Dodd Racher, August 22 2012
Troed y Rhiw from the air is different from the pasture land surrounding it. You can make out polytunnels, plastic crop-protection sheeting, and neat rows of crops, all somewhat out of the ordinary nowadays near the Ceredigion coast. Troed y Rhiw, Llwyndafydd, is a small farm, 23½ acres, some of it very steep, but there is enough level land, in sheltered enclosures, to produce fruit and vegetables.
This is a conviction farm, where Nathan Detroit Richards and Alicia Miller work from the conviction that farming must be more sustainable, more holistic, more diverse — and more local, producing fresh food for the communities living nearby. They took over the farm in 2008 and in that time have made rapid progress despite hard conditions.
Troed y Rhiw is half way between Llangrannog and New Quay, remote from the large markets of England, but cultivable land outside England’s cities is unaffordable for new entrants to farming (unless they are millionaires many times over). Nathan spoke about pony paddocks in the New Forest, near Southampton and Bournemouth, selling for £50,000: the amenity value of land – even land with virtually no hope of planning permission for development — is far in excess of the financial worth of any crops that can be grown on it.
Land near the Ceredigion coast is more affordable than in densely-settled parts of England and Wales, but a long way from large markets. Poor transport links accentuate the distance: there is no railway in Ceredigion south of Aberystwyth, no motorway, only twisting single-carriageway roads. Yet the re-localisation of our food supplies has to start somewhere, and like Adam York and Lesley Bryson at Glebelands in Cardigan, Nathan and Alicia set out to provide fresh produce to nearby rural and small urban communities.
Nathan came to farming in his own right after a career in the film business and then five years working on a large vegetable farm in Hampshire (where the climate is a lot more favourable). There is huge expertise in his extended family, because (I read on Newport Area Environment Group’s website) one of the UK’s best-known organic farmers, Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association between 1995 and his retirement in 2010, is his uncle.
Between 2008 and 2011 Nathan and Alicia cleared overgrown land, put up fences, used a mole plough and thereby found and started to clear neglected land drains. By 2011 there were seven acres of vegetables and five polytunnels, which had survived a heavy snowfall only because Nathan stayed up through the night and cleared the snow off as it fell. The Welsh Assembly gave a grant for restoration of a derelict stone cow byre, which is now two striking cottages. “We want to use them to accommodate people attending our courses,” said Nathan, “but it’s early days and bookings are quite slow to build up.”
The courses are in beekeeping – there are 15 beehives in the recently-planted orchard — as well as in foraging for wild food, and organic growing.
Organic farmers are in competition with the weather, wildlife, and weeds. Much more labour is needed than on farms where agro-pharmaceuticals are used, but the revenues from farming are too small to fund a large labour force. Alicia and Nathan have an apprentice, Nick, who is on a two-year programme organised by the Soil Association. Many organic farms rely on ‘WWOOFERS’, volunteers in the ‘World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms’ programme, but Nathan thinks it important, and better for the local economy, to pay wages for work done.
Our farm visit on August 19th, organised by Rupert Dunn of the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, was on a day typical of the 2012 summer: grey and wet. We assembled in the barn, alongside the machinery and the packing area. Nathan told us that he tends to buy second-hand machines from East Anglia, principally from Brian Coleman of Terrington St Clement neat King’s Lynn in Norfolk: the UK’s principal vegetable growing region is nearby, on the Fens of South Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire.
Alicia and Nathan invested in machinery which they hoped would save labour, but during most of 2012 the machines have stayed in the barn because the land has been too wet. Fertile soil is the cornerstone of organic farming, but heavy machines compact the soil and damage its structure. The Bürtschi brush weeder, on long-term loan from another grower, remained under cover while outside the weeds exploded in a green riot.
Weeds, blight, slugs, rabbits: this year the struggle to protect outdoor crops has been never-ending. Most consumers do not worry, believing that farmers are not indispensable, that substitute produce can be found elsewhere in the world, and that food security is not an issue they need bother with. I am convinced that these are mistaken opinions, and that we ought to do far more to support farmers, especially those who are improving the soil and striving for ecological balance. In Nathan’s view, farming “starts with the microbial worlds within our soil and encompasses everything from habitat protection and creation, to the role that the farm has within the local community”.
The five polytunnels should eventually expand to nine, giving Alicia and Nathan the opportunity to increase the number of crops in their repertoire, and at the very least enabling them to have more plants under cover when conditions outside are unfavourable.
The local distribution includes produce for guests in the holiday cottages; about two dozen regular customers for produce boxes, in three sizes at £10, £15 and £20; local restaurants; and produce markets including St Dogmaels, and Newport over the county boundary in Pembrokeshire. A farm shop, next to the barn, is on the agenda.
Troed y Rhiw seems an ideal place to learn more about farming for today and tomorrow. Can it be coincidence that the far fringe of West Wales has become such a centre for developing more sustainable ways of life? The Centre for Alternative Technology is at Machynlleth, just north of Ceredigion in Powys, the Lammas low-impact eco-living project is south in Pembrokeshire. It may be partly that land costs less than in urbanised England, but the magnetic effect also comes into play, as each pioneering farmer, each innovative venture, inspire others.