west*wales*news*review

West Wales News Review — analysis with a sustainability slant

Compost, Covered Crops and Cardiff: Three Essentials for Blaencamel Farm

by Pat Dodd Racher, August 23 2012

It’s a shame that so much school education takes place in classrooms. If all children had to learn to grow food for their families, they would also understand a great deal more about risk, the unpredictable forces of nature, and the sheer hard work required to produce the food in their kitchen cupboards. I can’t help feeling that schools’ ‘health and safety’ anxieties, limiting what children do outside classrooms, have become over-dominant in the UK, because we cannot legislate risk out of existence, and by trying to do so, we restrict children’s participation in the real world they must eventually fit into.

Visits to organic farms in the difficult summer of 2012 are a forceful reminder that we must not take our food for granted. I have a book by J M Stratton and Jack Houghton Brown called Agricultural Records A.D. 220-1977.* The records apply to Britain, and are full of references to famines. In 1125, there was “A year of famine. It began with intense cold in the winter, followed by excessive rain and floods during harvest. “ (p.19) Most years, the chroniclers of the time recorded weather events out of the ordinary, which calls into question the whole concepts of ‘average’ and ‘typical’. In the early 14th century there was “a grievous famine during several years about this time. Perpetual rains and cold weather not only destroyed the harvest, but bred a mortality among the cattle, and raised every kind of food to an enormous price.” (p.27)

There is a modern illusion of agriculture as largely immune from weather, as just another production line, but the illusion depends increasingly on  theft of resources from future generations, theft of soil, water, oil, gas, minerals, and habitats like rain forests. We have monocultures depleting soil nutrients, gas consumed to make nitrogenous fertiliser, agrochemicals dependent on the petrochemical industry, irrigation sucking up water from aquifers faster than it can be replaced.

Organic farmers try to do the opposite, to increase soil fertility year on year, to do without fossil-fuel-dependent synthetic fertilisers and agro-pharmaceuticals, and to collect and re-use as much water as possible.

Blaencamel Farm

Peter Segger explains the composting process to the group organised by the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens.

Peter Segger OBE has farmed organically since 1974. He and Anne Evans run the 50 or so acres of Blaencamel Farm at Cilcennin, south of Aberaeron in Ceredigion. The landscape in the little valley of the Nant Camel, a tributary of the Aeron river, is wooded and secluded. The fields are small, enclosed with belts of shrubs and trees providing varied habitats for wildlife. Vegetables are grown on about 15 acres annually, and in addition there are polytunnels on one acre. The Prince of Wales visited recently, such is the reputation that Peter and Anne have built.

The compost preparation yard is next to the polytunnels. The ingredients are green manure crops grown on the farm, chipped hedge cuttings and waste from the polytunnels, and stable manure obtained locally. The compost, mixed by machine, is a key reason why levels of organic matter in the soil continue to rise, making it more fertile. Compost making is a scientific process and is managed as such.

Our visit on August 19th, organised by Rupert Dunn of the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, followed walks around Glebelands Nursery and Troed y Rhiw Farm, reported in the posts ‘Local Food for Cardigan: Glebelands’ Tough Challenge’ and ‘Troed y Rhiw Incubates Relocalisation Skills’. Blaencamel is by far the longest established of the three farms, and Peter and Anne have become gurus of organic production.

Compost in neat lines, albeit wetter than ideal because of recent heavy rains.

Anne Evans in the seeding house, a polytunnel insulated with bubble-wrap.

The year 2012 has called on all their powers of guru-ship, as potatoes succumbed to blight, about two-thirds of the carrots failed and the squash crop was a write-off. Peter and Anne can use space in the polytunnels for emergency late plantings of crops that did not make it outside. In normal years it would not be economic to grow relatively low-value outdoor crops in a polytunnel, but 2012 is not a normal year (whatever that is!).

Weeds have invaded outside crops, and the usual mechanised weeding, with tractor-mounted brush and flame weeders, has been restricted because machines damage the sodden soils. Inside, the tomatoes are among the most impressive crops in the polytunnels, tumbling cascades of red, orange and green. The tomato plants are strung annually by a long-serving member of staff who is over 80. “We use white strings and white plastic pathways on the ground, to maximise the amount of light,” said Peter. “This can improve yields by up to 25%.” The tunnel-grown strawberries are also a sparkling crop, clean and heavy-yielding. The multispan polytunnels, heavy-duty versions of tunnels that collapsed previously under the weight of heavy snow, allow in lots of light as well as protecting the crops, and are at the heart of production at Blaencamel.

Tomatoes of numerous varieties, expertly strung. The white paths reflect the light.

The aim is to produce at least 20 different crops all year round, for sale within Wales. “About a quarter of sales are through the farm shop,” said Peter.  “We used to leave it open all the time and rely on people’s honesty, but that had to stop after thieves took everything.” The serve-yourself philosophy prevails, but the shop, next to the polytunnels, is monitored and is locked after opening hours. Produce is bundled and priced, so there is no guesswork for shoppers.

Strawberries in a multispan polytunnel.

Anne’s son Tom (see here for a profile) sells Blaencamel produce in Wales’s largest city, Cardiff. On Sundays and Mondays he delivers boxes of vegetables in Cardiff and Penarth. The box scheme began in 2007, and there are two sizes, costing £12 for one to two people and £16.50 for two to four people. Customers can order online, and receive about eight different crops. A weekly online newsletter keeps them up-to-date with events on the farm. With vegetables as with other farm produce now, provenance is of great importance. More people want to know where their food originates, how it is produced – and by whom.

Tom also sells at Riverside and Roath produce markets in the Cardiff area, and at Cowbridge in the Vale of Glamorgan. Blaencamel crops are sold in other, nearer markets too, such as Aberystwyth and Haverfordwest.

The lower sides of the polytunnels are straight, maximising internal growing space.

Preserves, here in the farm shop, are a new line.

The family invested in a small commercial kitchen and have diversified into organic preserves, with a range of cherry tomato passatas, sweet chili dipping sauce, hot chili sauce, pickled beetroot and some jams and jellies. The jars augment the range in the shop and, like the farm itself, look deceptively simple.

The business supports three people who work full-time, one who is part-time, plus Anne and Peter. Growing and selling such a wide range of crops, from aubergines to wild rocket and including traditional staples like potatoes and parsnips as well as slightly more exotic ones such as rainbow chard and Red Russian kale, make heavy demands on organisational expertise in addition to growing skills. It’s never an easy life, but how much harder it would be without the home-made compost, the polytunnels covering sensitive crops, and distribution in Wales’s capital city and biggest population centre, Cardiff.

* Agricultural Records A.D. 220-1977 was published by John Baker, second edition 1978, and was edited by Ralph Whitlock.

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