By Jane Powell
The west Wales market town of Llandysul has lost a lot in the last ten years or so. The mart has gone, and so have all the banks and the Post Office. The new bypass means fewer people stop there, and the main schools are now out of town too. Meanwhile, the introduction of parking charges by the county council diverts shoppers away from the family shops on the high street, towards the new supermarket with its free parking.
But all is not lost. The town has a strong community, and many groups – covering interests such as youth, elderly people, the arts and the Welsh language – have come together to set up a community garden on the outskirts of town. Yr Ardd, as it is known, will be about bringing people together, beginning with gardening but including cookery classes, arts and creative activities, and education.
“We want to see enterprises running at the garden, growing food and running courses. Ultimately we want to be self-sufficient, we don’t want to be dependent on grants,” says founder-member Andrea Sanders, who is inspired by the work of Mach Maethlon, the Machynlleth project that has engaged the public through edible gardens, gardening courses and cookery sessions, as well as finding a market for local produce. During lockdown, it gave rise to a local growing initiative that saw a ‘land army’ growing food on nearby farms.
Tom Cowcher, who has an organic farm near Llandysul and is also a town councillor, is optimistic about the town’s future too, seeing a new interest in local food and the countryside. Llandysul is part of the Welsh Government’s Transforming Towns initiative and he thinks they could soon have market stalls selling local produce once again.
”I do envisage a green revolution in local supply. The tide is about to turn in rural Wales, there’s a tremendous opportunity coming,” he says, noting the demand for the small proportion of his own meat that he is able to sell locally through catering for events. However, there is an urgent need for more small abattoirs to service meat supply chains, and he is concerned that the public does not appreciate the environmental and nutritional qualities of red meat reared in Wales. More attention should perhaps be paid to the impacts of agrochemicals on crops.
Local food growing meets an important social need for connection, which is an important driver for Yr Ardd. They can engage people in rewarding volunteer work, build community, improve nutrition and share food skills. They can also reach into the countryside, for instance buying direct from farmers. But as Katie Hastings of Mach Maethlon notes, it can be difficult to marry up the social and commercial aspects.
“Mach Maethlon set up as a group of people who wanted to be able to make a livelihood growing vegetables,” she says, “but it quickly became apparent that that is nigh-on impossible. So then we moved into community activity and that’s been brilliant, but I’d love to see more veg being produced and sold into the local economy.” Low prices, difficulties accessing land and lack of investment in infrastructure are just a few of the problems they face.
There are some encouraging signs. Welsh Government has expressed strong support for community growing, as Lucie Taylor of the Community Land Advisory Service points out, and a recent change in government regulations gives more freedom to community gardens to develop their sites. In the countryside, One Planet Development has brought new possibilities. The government could do more to developing infrastructure by bringing together its support for farming on the one hand, and the food industry on the other – and community groups could be the catalyst for that.
And of course the Well-Being of Future Generations Act requires local authorities and other public bodies to work with businesses and community groups to create better futures locally – and what better way to do this than through food democracy. Local marketing initiatives such as food hubs, many of them powered by the Open Food Network, can help to create a vibrant food culture that naturally draws people in and empowers them to become change agents. Meanwhile organizations such as Slow Food Cymru Wales and the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference make this movement visible, while the Food Policy Alliance Cymru is lobbying government.
But all this ‘food from the ground up’ needs to be met with national support if it is to transform Wales. It is government that can properly assess the value of a good food system to human health, the environment, the economy and well-being, not just now but in the future, and direct public finance towards this vital goal. This is where public procurement – the purchase of food for schools, hospitals, day centres and so on – comes in. It can create stronger demand for Welsh produce and overcome the challenges of distribution, as well as raising the profile of local food and shifting public perceptions.
Carmarthenshire County Council is running just such a project, with support from Welsh Government under the Foundational Economy programme, and taking inspiration from the English South West Food Hub and a Copenhagen food project. The challenge is to quantify the benefits of local procurement, making the case for greater investment in good food, and to see how supply and demand can be matched in the area.
“I consider myself a food activist,” says Alex Cook, who owns his own food business and is a supply adviser to the project. ”The us-and-them mentality needs to change and we need to work together, from the community level to large businesses. It has to be collaboration not competition.”
The lessons from the Carmarthenshire project, which is led by its Public Services Board (PSB) – the mechanism by which the Future Generations Act stimulates place-based collaboration – will serve as a template for the rest of Wales. As local capacity builds, thanks to projects like Mach Maethlon and Yr Ardd, as well as Our Food Crickhowell, Food Cardiff and others linked to the Sustainable Food Places project, so on the other hand PSBs will be able to follow Carmarthenshire’s lead.
Getting food right is much more than a lifestyle choice about how we eat or where we shop. It is about health, and the quality of the food we grow, down to its nutritional composition and the trace elements it contains. It is about how Wales trades across the globe. It has to do with how farmers use their land here in Wales, whether for mixed farming that feeds local communities, or the specialized commodity farming encouraged by the CAP.
Brexit has changed the rules for procurement and farm support, Covid has shaken up our assumptions about how things are done, and climate change is forcing us to make deep changes. We have an opportunity to do things differently, if we are prepared to seize it.
This article is based on Food from the Ground Up #3, an event organized by Renew Wales on 17th February 2021. View recording.
Jane Powell is a freelance education consultant and Renew Wales coordinator, and writes at http://www.foodsociety.wales.