By Jane Powell
Bees hover over marigolds, cornflowers and yarrow in full bloom around the edges of a field of beans which stand blackened and dry, ready for harvest. Beyond, the land slopes down to the valley bottom, where small herds of South Devon cattle are grazing the species-rich wetland meadows. Hedgerows abundant with blackberries, hawthorn and guelder rose divide Guilcagh farm up into small parcels, where Jo Crellin also grows wheat for milling and hay for the horses of the nearby riding school. This is the Isle of Man, where the sunny low-lying northern tip, in the rain shadow of Snaefell, is well suited to cereal cultivation.
We’re on a walk organized by the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, and the co-existence of food production and nature is certainly a strong theme of the discussion. There is also a historical dimension: archaeological evidence suggests that people were growing wheat here almost 6000 years ago. But it’s not just about a timeless rural idyll. Back at the farm, Paul Fletcher, owner of the cows we admired earlier and the new Chair of the Island’s Agricultural Marketing Society, explains his vision for a food chain that connects people to the land not just through the food they eat, but also through knowledge and understanding.
“We want to see personal connections up and down the food chain,” Paul says. “Retailers, food businesses and farmers need to meet so that they understand each other’s work and build trust in the food system. When you buy produce from Manx farms you become part of a unity of people and nature, and we want to make that easier for people to understand.”
It’s a familiar theme: the public has become disconnected from the land, and food has become a mere commodity to be traded like any other. Telling the story of food, by making the food chain visible and personal, doesn’t just secure the livelihoods of farmers and enrich the tourist experience; it can also help to reinvigorate a sense of community, place and belonging. This is a quality which it can be difficult to articulate, let alone assign a monetary value to, but which is readily conveyed in the context of farmers markets, school visits to farms and farm walks such as this.
Every society has its own take on the story of its homegrown food. The Isle of Man has some defining characteristics which are unique to a small self-governing island with its own quirky fauna (it lacks badgers, foxes, moles and toads, but has a population of feral wallabies), and yet are instructive to us in Wales and beyond. At 32 miles long and 14 miles wide – which is one-third the size of Ceredigion, which it resembles with its rolling hills and fishing villages, but with a slightly bigger population – it corresponds roughly to the area covered by a market town and its hinterland, which is what many of us have in mind when we talk about ‘local’ food.
At the same time it has a national government with powers that Wales is still dreaming of, and it’s outside the EU, although in practice very tied to it by trading arrangements. That means for instance that it finances its own farming subsidies out of domestic taxation, it has fixed the retail price of home-produced milk at 60p a pint and it owns all the land over 200m. Meanwhile the obstacle of the Irish Sea, which is reckoned to add 20% to the cost of goods that are ferried across, is a powerful stimulus to local food production and contributes to the island’s diversified farming system, which supports a creamery, an abattoir and a flour mill, besides supplying eggs and vegetables.
It’s also been designated a UNESCO World Biosphere region, which is simultaneously an accreditation for the Manx balance between human activity and the natural world, and a stimulus to develop new approaches to sustainable development. As such, it is part of an international partnership of reserves which includes such iconic sites as Ayers Rock and Yellowstone National Park – and in Wales, the Dyfi Biosphere centred around Machynlleth – with a remit for educational exchanges and research.
The Dyfi Biosphere, which spans three local authorities (Ceredigion, Gwynedd and Powys), is dominated by beef and sheep and has few opportunities so far for creating branded products for export, but the cultural conditions are not so different. Both Biospheres have a Celtic language and rich cultural history, both have strong farming traditions, and both have a strong sense of place and family roots. Both also benefit from a dynamic population of incomers who are attracted to the natural beauty and atmosphere of the western margins and ready to envision a bright future.
As we in Wales face the uncertainties of leaving the European Union we have an opportunity to ask ourselves what future we want for our food system, and we have much to gain by talking to others who are grappling with the same challenges. It’s a time for building new partnerships, and the Isle of Man and the network of Biosphere reserves can offer Wales a new perspective on the relationship between land and people. It’s worth further exploration, as we transcend our local identities to find the universal values of place-based development.
Jane Powell is a freelance educator and writer active in local food matters in Aberystwyth. She writes here and on her own site, www.foodsociety.wales