West Wales News Review

Economy, environment, sustainability

Archive for the tag “rural economy”

National Park Support for Calon Cymru’s Ambitious Regeneration Plans

Have you heard of Calon Cymru Network?

Maybe not  – yet.

Calon Cymru is a group aiming to spark regeneration in West and Mid Wales, along the Heart of Wales railway corridor, the rural section between Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire via Llandovery and Llandrindod Wells to Craven Arms, over the border in Shropshire. Not just any regeneration, but development which has a positive impact, and never a big negative impact, on our natural resources.

I declare an interest because I am a member, and have seen the Network, which is a community interest company, grow over six years, from its founding nucleus of architects concerned about unsustainable lifestyles, to a collaboration of professionals from planning, transport, agriculture, energy and forestry, with the common aim of breathing new life into rural Wales.

Thanks to funding from the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority, Calon Cymru is about to appoint an administrator to co-ordinate the next phase of the project.

The team includes half a dozen architects, all enthusiasts for building with local, renewable materials such as timber and straw. The architects are Calon Cymru founders Martin Golder, Ken Pearce and Wilf Burton, and Richard Biddulph, Nick Dummer, Mark Waghorn, and his architectural assistant Lewys Jones. Planners Bob Eaton and Steve Packer, transport expert Professor Paul Salveson, Heart of Wales Line Forum development officers David Edwards and Gill Wright, sustainable food and nutrition specialist Amber Wheeler, sustainable farming adviser Tony Little, and One Planet Council patrons James Shorten and David Thorpe, are all on board.

The One Planet Council – of which Jane Davidson, former environment, sustainability and housing minister in the Welsh Government, is also a patron – promotes the ‘One Planet’ planning policies of the Welsh Government, which allows people to settle in the countryside and earn a living from it, as long as they abide by stringent regulations and steadily reduce their demand on the Earth’s resources. The ultimate aim is to use only those resources which Earth can replenish – and not three or four planets’ worth, as in the UK today.

James Shorten is the planner who wrote the technical guidance for Wales’ One Planet policy, and now runs Geo & Co Ltd, a consultancy for sustainable rural strategy. David Thorpe specialises in renewable energy technologies and is the author of several books, including ‘The One Planet Life’.

“It has taken quite a while to put the right group together,” said Martin Golder, one of the founders, who lives in Powys, “but now we have the chance to convince the Welsh Government of the strategic importance of rural Wales in general, and the Heart of Wales corridor in particular. We have all been worried about the lack of jobs, the exodus of young people and the withdrawal of public services, and as well as bringing empty properties back into use, we want to work with landowners to create new settlement which harmonises with and energises rural communities.

Currently, Calon Cymru is preparing a bid to the Arwain programme in Powys County Council for European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development money to help develop the vision into practical projects  – such as timber, food and drink enterprises, renewable energy, and engineering research and development.

“The lack of a stable, viable regional economy is probably the main problem for mid Wales. Tourism and public sector employment are not enough. We reckon that the Heart of Wales corridor, and its railway, could do much more than at present to feed Wales with vegetables and fruit as well as livestock products,” said Martin. “Expanded woodlands, too, will be of increasing importance in construction and small-scale manufacturing, according to our analysis. These are the activities that would provide an economic backbone”

“Wales now has the Future Generations Act, outlawing any development or policy which prejudices the life chances of future inhabitants of the nation, and our plans are wholly in tune with this.”

If you would like to become a Friend of Calon Cymru and keep in touch with progress, please email Sue Wakefield, sue@caloncymru.org. The website is here and Facebook page here.



Neighbours’ Antagonism Holds Up Carmarthenshire’s First ‘One Planet’ Development

“A large majority of constituents are totally against this,” declared Cllr Roy Llewellyn, voicing his opposition to Carmarthenshire’s first ‘One Planet’ development, proposed for Rhiw Las, Abbey Road, Whitland, on a site 3.1 miles north of the town and 1.4 miles south of the village of Llanboidy. For Cllr Llewellyn (Plaid Cymru, Llanboidy) the plans for four smallholdings on 21.5 acres would spoil the tranquil landscape and, in addition, would be economic failures. If farmers could not make a living from full-sized farms, he asked, how could the applicants be self-sufficient on five acres or so each?

Today, planning officer Richard Jones had advised Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning committee to approve the plan, submitted by Dr Erica Thompson for Rhiw Las Ltd, but the committee disagreed and rejected it.

The reasons they gave appeared to have more to do with their personal stance than with valid objections under the One Planet policy as such. For Cllr Llewellyn, apart from a perceived lack of economic justification, the local roads are not wide enough and the site is in open countryside. If the application were allowed  “we would have opened the doors to every Tom, Dick and Harry”, he insisted.

Cllr Tyssul Evans (Plaid Cymru, Llangyndeyrn) said he did not think the venture could be sustainable. For Cllr Joy Williams (Plaid Cymru, Pontyberem) the site was too far from a village, and Cllr Joseph Davies (Independent, Manordeilo and Salem) could not understand why the applicants would need to live on the site – surely they could commute from a town or village? “Do these people have to be on site 24 hours a day? I doubt it,” he declared, adding that if the committee granted the application, it would be doing an injustice to farmers’ children whose own applications had been refused.

They were not the only opponents of the application, submitted under the One Planet policy which was introduced by the Welsh Government in 2009 as a key measure to cut carbon emissions and to aid Wales’ transition to a sustainable nation using only the resources of a single Earth, instead of the clearly unsustainable three Earths of the present day. One Planet developments have to abide by a management plan detailing how the applicants will cut their use of non-renewable resources, and this means a different way of life: more self-sufficient, much less polluting, less materialistic. Basic needs have to come from the land, mechanised travel is kept to a minimum, and homes should be constructed of local materials and have maximum energy efficiency.

Cllr Peter Cooper (Labour, Saron) said he could not support the proposal. Cllr Tom Theophilus (Independent, Cilycwm) challenged the viability of the management plan which the applicants had prepared, and predicted that the proposals would “come to nothing”.

An undercurrent of resentment swirled about the council chamber, the resentment expressed by Cllr Joseph Davies that farmers had been refused permission to build homes for the next generation, and from this perspective it might seem odd that a planning officer should recommend them to allow a scheme for ‘Toms, Dicks and Harrys’ who come from outside the local farming community. Yet we have to remember that there is nothing to stop farmers’ children from making their own One Planet applications. Unfortunately, far from all members of the planning committee seemed to have a good grasp of the purpose of the policy, or of the requirements for its implementation.

Exceptions included the former council leader, Cllr Kevin Madge (Labour, Garnant), who wanted the applicants to be given a chance to make their plan work. He reminded members that performance against the management plan would be assessed annually, and if the venture was failing to provide the required food and energy and other basic needs of the residents, planning permission could be withdrawn. Also, said Cllr Madge, if the committee refused the application, he would expect the Welsh Government to grant it on appeal.  Cllr Kim Thomas (Labour, Llannon) liked the proposal too, and said it would be “fantastic if they can achieve it”.

Disappointing, to say the least, that no Plaid Cymru or Independent councillors spoke in favour. Plaid Cymru nationally has a deep sustainability agenda which was absent from the planning committee’s deliberations.

Planning officer Richard Jones had explained the proposal in detail, explaining how it matched the requirements of the policy and its accompanying practice guidance. He had related that new traffic movements should be 225 per person per year, less than a quarter of the Wales average of 967. He described the four zero-carbon dwellings which the applicants would build, and outlined the range of commercial activities – bee-keeping and orchards on holding one, cheese-making and herbal remedies on holding two, forest education and Celtic harp making on the third, and organic vegetables for a box scheme on the fourth holding.

The planning application documents include letters of support from Mr Brian Bowman of the Cowpots ice cream business at Ciffig near Whitland, and from Whitland Memorial Hall, both saying they would welcome produce from Rhiw Las, milk for the ice cream and fresh produce for the memorial hall’s local food market.

Letters of opposition were from a resident who had been refused permission for a home for a family member, and from Hayston Developments & Planning Ltd as agents for Llanboidy Community Council.

Members of the community council were antagonistic. Again, a sense of resentment that people they knew had been refused planning permission to build homes for family members. Lyn Davies, representing the community council, told the planning committee that the management plan underestimated the likely traffic flows, that the land was incapable of supporting four households, that the ‘developers’ were not being required to make a contribution to new ‘affordable housing’, and that the designs for the four homes were “rather luxurious and far from frugal” and therefore quite out of keeping for what would be, in the opinion of the community council, no more than an attempt at subsistence farming.

Erica Thompson, who would live and work on smallholding one, explained how the plan met the demands of the One Planet policy, and how planning permission could be revoked if the plan was not achieved. Dr Thompson said that hedges and trees would create effective screens, that additional traffic would be limited, and that the existing highway access could be improved to benefit road safety. Julian Edwards, the council’s development management manager, urged the committee to concentrate on the application before them, not to refer back to past refusals, because this was the first One Planet application in Carmarthenshire and, he reminded them, the policy came with enforcement powers.

Yet the committee voted to refuse the proposal.

End of chapter one, but the rest of the book has yet to be written.


The documents relating to the application, reference number W/31160, are on Carmarthenshire County Council’s website. The One Wales One Planet policy is here.  The practice guidance is here


Blow, Blow, Blow, the Regime Wobbles but Doesn’t Fall Down

Looking ahead to 2015 and beyond

What if President John F Kennedy had not been assassinated? How different would our world be? This may seem an odd start for a blog about West Wales, but the malign repercussions of organised political assassinations last for generations. History is written by the winners, as they say, and when the winners have devious intent, the history they write is woven of fabrications.

This is not a plea for absolute truth, because we best we can hope for is an approximation. We are all likely to interpret the same ‘facts’ in different ways because of the unique resources we each bring to analysis, shaped by our different histories. When we cannot rely on the veracity of the ‘facts’ themselves, it is tempting to retreat into our own bubbles and hope that nothing nasty comes along to puncture them.

Staring out through the holes of punctured bubbles in West Wales this year, I saw:

  • The frailties of our confrontational legal system, in which technicalities seem more important than ethics, and in which the prospects of success appear proportional to the ability to pay. One consequence is that a blogger, who at the time was learning the skill, stands to be dispossessed of her share of the family home for — if I remember correctly — writing three words: ‘Pinocchio’, and ‘slush fund’, the latter two chiming in essence with criticism from no less than the Wales Audit Office.
  • A dearth of imagination, especially within Carmarthenshire County Council, where a fear of being sued by moneyed companies appears to prevent planners and councillors from challenging the ridiculous forecasts of demand for new estate-built homes, and where ‘supermarkets’ and ‘jobs’ are still linked like horses and carriages, although any ‘new’ jobs are balanced and often exceeded by job losses in shops that are forced out of business.
  • Acceptance, by the majority of the said council’s officers and members, that ‘rural’ is a dying concept and that the future will be CITIES.

Rural north Carmarthenshire is replete with more businesses for sale than buyers coming forward. Our village school was emptied of pupils in July, and stands silent while the children are bussed and taxied elsewhere. The nearest shop and filling station closed yesterday. Yet the planning authority shies away from allowing job creation in what they call ‘open countryside’. People would start land-based businesses, if they could afford the land, but land is a financial asset and its value is out of all proportion to its productive capacity. Ideas buzzing about in the political group Gwyrddion dros y Blaid, Greens for Plaid, include a national Land Bank for Wales, to acquire land and make it available at modest cost to new and small businesses, particularly those which will contribute to the Welsh Government’s stated aim of the nation using no more than its fair share of planetary resources within a generation.

What fate awaits Ysgol Gynradd Llansawel, an   under-occupied Welsh-medium primary where scarcely any children speak Welsh at home.

Closed: our village school shut its doors in July

As for local government, I have the impression that in Pembrokeshire it is waking after years of deep slumber, thanks to the unceasing efforts of a handful of truth-seeking councillors who weather the insults flung in their direction. Carmarthenshire is still trailing in the wake of its westerly neighbour, one reason being that the alertest, most questioning councillors – there are some — do not receive enough support from the others.


Do we want our rural areas to look like this? Edwinsford, a grade II* listed building, has fallen down. Photo by Paul White, http://www.welshruins.co.uk

There is change, not enough yet to shake the foundations of local politics, but a wind blowing with greater force as our next local government reorganisation looms, and with it a great opportunity for local government to help create a Wales which uses no more than its fair share of global resources, a One Planet Wales. If the opportunity passes, it may not come again. Future generations won’t thank us for fudging, even contradicting the evidence – but that is a hard habit to break.


The Middleton Legacy: revitalised for the 21st century

Plants at the National Botanic Gardens, Llanarthne, are vital sources of foods, medicines and materials in our resource-challenged future, explained Simon Goodenough, curator of horticulture at the gardens, to members of Transition Town Llandeilo at their annual meeting on March 12th.

Plans for the 560-acre Middleton estate include recreating a lake of one and a quarter square miles and using it for fish farming. First, 360,000 cubic metres of silt would have to be removed, and kept on the estate as taking it away would be prohibited.

Planting ‘woodlands of the world’, with tree species from around the world including Wales, is another venture, adding to the over 8,000 plant varieties already in the gardens. The woodlands, currently extending to nearly 55 acres, would be coppiced, and a farmhouse on the estate could become a centre for woodland management courses. The woodland planting programme is funded until 2018-19, and has the potential to create jobs in woodland management. A charcoal burning project using hornbeam is planned, and funds permitting, a water mill will be rebuilt for generation of electricity using water power, and also to power a sawmill.

A trial planting of long-strawed wheat for thatching is involving the gardens in agriculture, and several ventures relevant to horticulture include bee-keeping, planting for pollination, and a new orchard to comprise local varieties of apple, pear and plum. “There are 43 Welsh varieties of apple tree that we know of,” said Mr Goodenough, “many of them growing cider apples”. So far 38 of these varieties are in the gardens.

“Economic botany” is how Mr Goodenough describes the many enterprises taking shape on the estate, which is its heyday in the 18th and early 19th centuries was an important local employer. In the 21st century, the expertise gained from the trials has the potential to spread internationally and certainly all over Wales.

The one-year-old ‘Growing the Future / Tyfu’r Dyfodol’ project, led by Andrea Powell, is part of the ‘Economic Botany’ stream of activities. “The idea is to help people grow their own food,” Ms Powell told Transition Town Llandeilo members. “We have plans to build two classrooms, and have use of a one-acre field, where we have planted a forest garden and a fruit hedge. We are developing links with groups all over Wales, and hopefully will be training more people able to visit groups and give food-growing advice.”

Transition Town Llandeilo are now the guardians of an apple tree native to Wales, kindly given by Ms Powell and Mr Goodenough –perhaps the start of a cider apple orchard!

by Pat Dodd Racher

Charcoal burners win planning appeal

by Pat Dodd Racher

Llandovery charcoal burners Paul and Kate Hooper have won their appeal to keep a temporary dwelling in their woodland at Allt Cefn Crug.

Carmarthenshire’s planners had told Mr and Mrs Hooper to demolish their wooden dwelling immediately, but planning inspector Tim Belcher decided that, contrary to the opinion of the planning authority, the Hoopers needed to be on the spot for their charcoal burning, which is a long process requiring frequent checks. The drums containing charcoal have to be switched over as each reaches the end of the burn, and in addition a skilled worker needs to be on hand in case one of the drums overheats.

The inspector’s decision, to allow a three-year permission for the small wooden dwelling, means that the Hoopers have time to develop their business, which also produces biochar soil conditioner, logs, sawn timber and woodland honey.

The Welsh Assembly Government’s Technical Advice Note 6, ‘Planning for Sustainable Rural Communities’, allows isolated dwellings in the countryside if they are absolutely necessary for the occupants’ work – for example if they are looking after commercial livestock or have a forestry enterprise. The enterprise has to provide a sufficient income, and this creates difficulties for new businesses which lack proof of income over time.

For the Hoopers, the permission means they have three years to build up their business and to prove that it can support them financially. As inspector Tim Belcher said, “TAN 6 explains that where a case for a dwelling for a rural enterprise worker is not completely proven, permission should not be granted for it. However, it may be appropriate to test the evidence by granting permission for temporary accommodation for a limited period. Three years would normally be appropriate to ensure that the circumstances are fully assessed.”

Barrister James Corbet Burcher represented Mr and Mrs Hooper, and additional support for the enterprise came from LATRA, Llandovery Area Tenants and Residents Association; Transition Town Llandeilo; and Calon Cymru Network, a community interest company working to regenerate the rural economy along the Heart of Wales railway corridor.

Report also published by the South Wales Guardian 

Charcoal burning venture inflames planners

by Pat Dodd Racher

Paul and Kate Hooper’s charcoal burning in a wood near Llandovery caused some hot collars in Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning department. The Hoopers constructed a simple temporary wooden dwelling in their 36-acre wood, Allt Cefn Crug. They say that charcoal burning requires them to be on site during the whole process in case of overheating, also to switch over the drums containing charcoal as each reaches the end of the production process. The planners, though, ordered the demolition of the structure, claiming that the Hoopers had no need to be on site throughout charcoal burning, and that they should live somewhere else.

Planning inspector Tim Belcher last week (February 5th 2013) heard the Hoopers’ appeal, held at Dinefwr Farm, Llandeilo, into the planners’ refusal to allow them to live in their wood, where they produce and sell charcoal, biochar as soil conditioner, firewood and woodland honey. Barrister James Corbet Burcher represented Mr and Mrs Hooper, and additional support for the enterprise came from LATRA, Llandovery Area Tenants and Residents Association; Transition Town Llandeilo; and Calon Cymru Network. Calon Cymru is a community interest company working to regenerate the rural economy along the Heart of Wales railway corridor.

Paul Hooper explained why charcoal production using a retort requires frequent checking, and why it would be impractical to live off the site, in Llandovery for example. The inspector was told of Swansea University’s interest in the history of charcoal production in the wood, and of the potential for educational courses and public access. He was told that the Hoopers’ decision to live without mains electricity, and with natural water supply and drainage, accorded with the Welsh Assembly Government’s aims for ‘One Planet Development’, a style of living which uses far less energy and fewer resources than at present, and so can be sustainable far into the future.

Kevin Phillips, development management officer with Carmarthenshire County Council, told the inspector that he was “not convinced” that charcoal production needed to be undertaken all year round, and he did not think the Hoopers needed to live on the site. He felt the Hoopers could work on the site in alternate shifts, keeping in touch by “walkie talkie” with an arrangement for the person not on site to phone the emergency services if the other, on the site, could not be contacted. The situation was “similar to a farmer requiring a field shelter at lambing time”, said Mr Phillips. “I am not convinced that a permanent shelter is required.”

The inspector’s decision should be available within a few weeks.

Report also published in the South Wales Guardian, February 13th 2013.


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.

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.

Fresh produce at Troed y Rhiw.

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.

Nathan Detroit Richards in a sheltered field planted with soft fruit, much of it covered with protective netting. The field also has recently planted fruit trees, and bee hives.

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.

The polytunnel field, with five in use in and one awaiting its cover.

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.

Machinery is all very well, but cannot be used on wet land without damaging the soil. This Bürtschi brush weeder, for example, has stayed in the barn for most of 2012.

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”.

Fine mesh protects the outdoor crops from insects and other wildlife.

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 holiday cottages, created from a derelict building with support from the Welsh Assembly Government.

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.

Cucumber plants in one of the polytunnels, with low-growing salads along the edge, where tall plants cannot be grown because in this design the sides slope inwards.

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.

How to Save Family Farms for the Future: COCA Shows the Way

Caerhys Organic Community Agriculture (COCA): members have this spectacular view of the Pembrokeshire coast from the vegetable field.

CSA? Community Supported Agriculture? What does it mean exactly? I have a much clearer idea after attending Wales’s first ‘Community Supported Agriculture Gathering’ in St Davids, Pembrokeshire, and the most important message for me was the importance of having an experienced farmer at the heart of a CSA project.

In the case of St Davids, they are the Miles family, notably farmer Gerald and his wife Ann, and their son Caz, at Caerhys just half a mile from the North Pembrokeshire coast at Berea.

The Miles family at Caerhys have diversified into beef, pigs, B&B, liveries, and now vegetables.

In the upside-down world we live in, where people who kick balls into nets and tap balls into holes in the ground can receive annual incomes with five or six noughts after the £ sign, family farm businesses are near the bottom of the scale and are fortunate if they make a living from their land. But while we can live without golf or soccer tournaments, without food we can’t do anything. The Miles family farm is 160 acres and used to produce milk, but falling milk prices led to the sale of the dairy herd in 2003. The farm had become organic in 1998, and the Mileses diversified into a Welsh Black beef suckler herd, Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, horse and pony liveries, and bed and breakfast.

Despite these ventures, the farm income was not sufficient to support Caz, although for Gerald and Ann their aim is to pass the farm from one generation to the next. This continuity strengthens rural communities and helps to maintain the social fabric.

A shelter fence encloses a seedling area — and the scarecrow’s hood doubles as a pocket for the weekly ‘to do’ list for the plot.

And then along came COCA, Caerhys Organic Community Agriculture. COCA dates from March 2010, when a small group of local people came up with a plan to bring more business to the farm and at the same time to supply local households with fresh vegetables.

The first crops were planted in June 2010, on two acres in a gently sloping field facing the ocean. By 2012, 40 households were receiving vegetables weekly. The target is for 70 member households by the end of 2012. This number, says COCA, should be enough for financial sustainability, including a regular wage for Caz.

The core group of 12, including Gerald and Caz, could not have made as much progress without grants from several organisations, more than £12,000 between June 2010 and March 2012, as follows:

  • £1,000 to launch the project, from St Davids Eco City, June 2010.
  • £500 for seeds, from Co-operative Bank, October 2010.
  • £2,100 for a polytunnel, Pembrokeshire Association of Voluntary Services, February 2011.
  • £2,500 to pay a membership recruitment officer, one day a week for six months, from TYF Adventure’s 1% Fund, March 2011.
  • £995 for a muck spreader and roller, Co-operative Bank, April 2011.
  • £1,000 for wages for a professional grower, St Davids Eco City, May 2011.
  • £500 for a caravan to accommodate a volunteer worker, St Davids Eco City, December 2011.
  • £3,424 for tools, Pembrokeshire Association of Voluntary Services, March 2012.

Grant-funded polytunnel, growing tomatoes and cucumbers. COCA hopes to add two more.

In addition, Pembrokeshire Local Action Network for Enterprise and Development (PLANED), Organic Centre Wales, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority, and the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens have all backed COCA with help and advice. The scheme members have dug into their own pockets, and work as volunteers, in addition to paying an annual subscription, £24 for 2012, and £40 a month by standing order for a full share of vegetables, for a family, or £20 for a half share, suitable for one or two people. A family buying a full share would spend £504 for the year, which works out at £9.69 a week.

This sturdy farm building is COCA’s ‘share shed’, where the produce is distributed.

The quantities, as well as the range, vary according to weather and season. The cold wet ‘summer’ of 2012 has delayed plant growth and made harvesting difficult.

This was a full share for the week starting May 4th, before the Jet Stream shifted south and abolished summer.

  • 2kg potatoes
  • 2 onions
  • 560g carrots
  • 170g radishes
  • 2 leeks
  • 40g stir-fry mustard greens
  • 110g purple sprouting broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Bag of lettuce
  • Bag of rocket
  • Beetroot
  • Spinach

The heavy toll from the dreadful weather is clear from the much smaller share on July 6th:

  • 1kg potatoes
  • 600g carrots (bought in)
  • 150g carrots (home grown)
  • 500g onions (bought in)
  • Mangetout

By paying the same amount every month, members are providing COCA with a stable income, which is essential to meet the continuing costs of production.

Raspberries by the polytunnel. As well as soft fruit like this, COCA is planting fruit trees.

Organic produce is more ‘expensive’ than produce grown with synthetic fertilisers and other agrochemicals including pesticides, because the chemical products are artificially cheap — they do not factor in the cost of using irreplaceable fossil fuels, or of poisoning  the environment. The synthetics replace human skill (in using crop rotations to build soil fertility, for example) and effort (hours of weeding!).

COCA still faces challenges – to gather a minimum of another 30 members, to engage new members in volunteering on the farm, to raise funds for two more polytunnels, and to maintain enthusiasm over the long term — but in the less than two-and-a-half years since the idea was floated, a huge amount has been achieved. I don’t think the COCA model can be copied exactly, because every location and every community are different, but reckon COCA shows the value of the community working with one or more family farms, and not in competition against them. The farmers bring machinery, buildings, years of experience and detailed knowledge of the land. The community can create a stronger local market, resulting in an income stream that can protect the farm business.

Gill Lewis, of the COCA core group, with newly lifted garlic which is drying under cover. Another core group member, Rupert Dunn, organised the Community Supported Agriculture Gathering, held on July 14th 2012. 

It was quite a coincidence, but in The Archers today, on Radio 4, farmer David Archer ended the episode saying “I remember dad saying to me once…. ‘It’s family farms that make a nation strong’…. It’s worth fighting for, isn’t it?”

Patricia Dodd Racher, July 16th 2012

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