By Pamela Mason
It’s a pity it’s so hard to generate an income from growing vegetables. Grown organically, they are amongst the healthiest foods on the planet. But you have only got to see the sore hands and, often, painful backs and stiff joints of those who have worked hard in the fields for a long time, to realize just how tough it is to produce these healthiest of foods and get them to market.
This is, in part, what the people who have bought Ashfield Community Enterprise, near Llandrindod Wells in mid-Wales, are learning and struggling with. They do much more than grow vegetables, as a group of us on a recent Federation of City Farms and Gardens (FCFCG) Tyfu Fyny study day discovered, and that is partly about creating a diverse enterprise but also about the sheer hard work of making money out of vegetables alone. But with just six months of experience in growing tomatoes and chillis in the one of the centre’s polytunnels, grower nickm – as he is known – is up to the task and has bottled a glorious rainbow of differently coloured chillis in glass jars for the Christmas market in Llandrindod.
Herbs are a winner too, he says, in that people are very willing to pay £2.50 for a pot of hyssop or oregano. He’s grown a variety of parsleys, corianders and basils, including one I hadn’t come across before – cinnamon basil, which I believe is great mixed with garlic and olive oil for pesto.
Fliss, the project co-ordinator, told us that Ashfield is a seven-acre piece of land which locals came together to buy for the whole community. Purchased in 2010 with the Village SOS Big Lottery Fund, it had been used by people with learning difficulties. Ashfield has allotments, one of which is used by a local primary school, five polytunnels, an orchard, greenhouses, training rooms for hire and an office. There is also a 4 star kitchen from which our group enjoyed a lovely lunch of vegetable curry and damson fool in the community long room.
Volunteers come and help to grow for veg boxes and market, learn gardening, cooking, healthy eating, beekeeping and composting. Fliss explained that they have referrals from local organisations for volunteers to benefit from the therapeutic space and the activities. Three micro businesses – including an aquaponics project – have been set up here by young people. There is a Local Roots Forest School for children, and a Men in Sheds group.
A beautiful dry stone walled sensory garden had been recently completed on the day we visited. Sensory gardens are particularly beneficial to people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, helping to keep them calm and interested. Funding for the garden was obtained from the Tesco Bags of Help initiative which uses revenue raised from its 5p carrier bag charge to help community projects and projects.
Rhian leads on gardening activities. She is employed 12 hours a week and gives 12 hours a week of her time for free. Vegetables are sold on Llandrindod market on a Friday and also to local pubs. A burger bar in Builth Wells buys some of the salad vegetables. Veg boxes are available for collection on site or at a newsagent in Llandrindod.
In March this year, Ashfield was successful in acquiring funding from ARWAIN (the LEADER programme in Powys) to run a three year feasibility project to establish a community facility for people of all ages and abilities to develop skills in growing, cooking, preserving and reducing food waste.
Ashfield runs all these activities with just four and a half staff and a lot of volunteer time. Last year, this equated to 2000 volunteer hours and this year 82 different people have volunteered. Overall income is around £45,000, a third of which comes from renting out two flats on site.
Fliss told us she is in two minds about whether to apply for more funding in 2018 as, understandably, she wants Ashfield to stand on its own feet financially. Without the impressive bunch of people we met, it would be very much harder than it is. And nickm, who had no experience growing tomatoes and chillis before this year, is already planning for next year. He has learned a lot in 6 months and most impressively he told us that he had recorded everything he had learned within the greenhouse in a notebook. Armed with this knowledge, making passata, chilli sauce, pickled cucumbers and sun-dried tomatoes are on his to-do list for 2018. These added value products should hopefully bring in more revenue and reward for this, to my mind at least, the hardest of jobs that produces the healthiest of foods.
Pamela Mason is a nutritionist and author, see sustainablediets.co.uk.