How small-scale horticulture can help with food security, health and rural regeneration

By Alicia Miller

When my husband, Nathan Richards, and I started our farm, Troed y Rhiw in West Wales, growing a wide range of organic vegetables and soft fruit, many of our local farming neighbours were surprised and even openly sceptical. Were we mad growing horticulture crops on what was thought of as livestock land, with 6–8” of poorly drained topsoil? The farm was not in good heart to start with, having been neglected for more than 30 years – the challenge to bring the land back to health perhaps seemed foolhardy to them. The east of the UK was much better for vegetable production – why should we bother way out here in the west to grow food?

Remarkably, just .08% of agricultural land in Wales is currently used for horticulture production and the sector is in long term decline in terms of land use. While this figure is slowly rising – climbing 300ha from 2010 to 2015 – horticulture is far from the mainstay of Welsh agricultural production. Some 80% of the country has been classified as a ‘Less Favoured Area (LFA)’ – albeit part of this figure are the country’s mountains and hills. Horticulture, particularly on a larger-scale, for both conventional and organic producers, has also been hampered by a lack of infrastructure and processing facilities which are also largely based in the east of England. According to researcher Amber Wheeler, Welsh fruit and veg production contributes to a mere 3% of Wales’ fruit and vegetable 5-a-day requirement (and even less of the updated 7-a-day recommended in the 2016 Eatwell Guide2016 Eatwell Guide from Public Health England).

Such a statistic points out the significant need for more regional horticulture production. Local food has an extremely important role to play in the food security of Wales, bolstering local economies, providing local jobs and feeding a local populace fresh, healthy produce. It is small-scale, often organic and sustainable, farming and horticulture that largely devotes itself to local markets – and local markets with local food could become increasingly important to local communities in a destabilised world. It’s something that we may have forgotten in the seeming glory of the global commodities market.

In our experience as growers, however, routes to market have been difficult, requiring innovation and activism on the part of producers to garner better access – despite national Government support for local food initiatives. Established farmers markets, such as Aberystwyth Farmers’ Market, are tightly controlled for competition, making it difficult for new producers to gain entry – in part because there isn’t the public support for bigger markets. Proposals for new Farmers’ or Producers’ Markets need the support of local councils to secure sites and support infrastructure and this isn’t always forthcoming. But most importantly, there needs to be stronger messaging about why local food is important and what value it brings to the communities it serves.

Kohl Rabi smallFurther, the importance of local sustainable food in schools, hospitals and other institutional settings must be negotiated to allow producers the opportunity to sell produce into central purchasing, possibly as cooperatives if not as individual businesses. With the introduction of a radical new school curriculum that takes a holistic approach to education, foregrounding ‘Health and Wellbeing’ as one of four key purposes to be delivered across all subjects, it is really imperative that children and young people have access to and are taught about the value of sustainable local food and regional diets. It’s very difficult, however, to teach this with the generational loss of knowledge in respect to vegetable production and the broader devaluing of fresh food against the ease of processed products.

Horticulture is also challenged by the amount of labour required, far greater than in arable or livestock production. This is dramatically increased for organic and sustainable horticulture which eschews the use of nitrogen fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides and is much less mechanised. There is little acknowledgement of the role of sustainable small-scale farming and growing and the potentially significant contribution this can make to sustainable regional diets. This is a problem that cannot, nor should be, overcome by the organic premium –  the increased cost of local, sustainable fruit and vegetable, that the premium represents, will ultimately only serve to erode food justice. Better, more ecologically sound, farming practice should produce more affordable food, if the various externalities of the food system are costed out.

The sector struggles financially, as does much of agriculture, to keep in the black in an economy that refuses to acknowledge an accurate accounting of the true cost of food. While the Welsh Government has been encouraging in the value given to the organic subsidy via the Common Agricultural Policy, this is arguably undermined by the exclusion of producers working under 5ha. All local food producers should be recognised, no matter the size of the enterprise.

A new initiative launched this year with funding from the Welsh Government, Tyfu Cymru: Growing Wales, promises more support for commercial horticulture in Wales, including the development of a horticulture action plan, which is a heartening step forward for growers across the country. It aims to make the sector more profitable and more sustainable. But it is important to remember that sustainability is linked to scale – sustainability, inevitably, erodes as scale expands and markets move away from the local context. It is small- and medium-scale producers who most need support.

Small-scale horticulture has an important role to play in creating a more equitable and sustainable food system in Wales, but its potential power and promise needs to be supported by the public and promoted by government as a real and viable alternatively to the global food market.

Alicia Miller and Nathan Richards are organic growers based near New Quay in west Wales. They have run Troed y Rhiw for nearly ten years using organic and mixed farming practices. Alicia is the Web Editor for the Sustainable Food Trust in Bristol and writes regularly on sustainable food and farming issues.

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