We must empower rural communities to integrate food production and the environment

By Richard Kipling

This summer, drought severely affected Welsh farming. When the grass doesn’t grow, farmers are forced to buy in expensive feed, and to use up supplies put aside for the winter months. Animals need more water just as it is least available and wildfires are a constant risk. The full impacts of the drought are described in a recent report by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB). Our reliance on the environment for our food could not be more starkly highlighted.

Evidence is growing that global warming is, and will continue to, increase the severity and frequency of events such as droughts and flooding. Recent research suggests change might be more rapid than expected, as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions push us towards environmental tipping points. Up to now, for livestock farmers, climate change has been something that they can help tackle by cutting emissions from farms. Extreme events like those of this summer demonstrate that it is also a growing threat to their livelihoods. Reducing GHG emissions and ensuring farming systems are resilient to climatic extremes becomes a focus for urgent change.

With growing climatic volatility and threats to ecosystem services and natural resources,  change is needed. Through the Environment Act Wales, The Well-being of Future Generations Act and the Cymru Wales Brand, Welsh Government have demonstrated commitment to reducing GHG emissions, and to developing policies based on sustainability and resilience, specifically associating food production with the unique Welsh landscape and culture. In this context, the current ‘Brexit and Our Land’ consultation document  incorporates many positive elements. But it could go further.

Firstly, it must be recognised that the old opposition between maximising production and protecting the environment is false. Increasing production at the expense of resilience does not sacrifice fluffy idylls of nature to meet the practical need for food and the economic needs of farmers. Instead, taking more today comes at the expense of our ability to feed ourselves and make profits in the longer term.

Support for farm economic resilience and for the delivery of public goods needs to be integrated, because in the long-term the first is not possible without the second.

Agricultural production is dependent on healthy soils, good water and nutrient management, and biodiversity. Practices like improving soil management, adding hedgerows and trees to agricultural landscapes and nurturing mixed-species grasslands rather than turning to monocultures reduce the impact of extreme conditions on production, increase the long-term resilience of agricultural systems, reduce GHG emissions, and sequester more carbon. Farmer-led projects like Pontbren show that such approaches can work in Wales. So why isn’t everyone adopting these practices?

Many barriers hinder the implementation of climate-friendly or ‘public good’ farming.  Recent work in the Climate Smart Agriculture Wales project asked stakeholders about the challenges to change. Some are practical: many climate-friendly approaches bring long-term rewards but require short-term investment of money and time. These issues exist alongside knowledge limitations – how much farmers know about available options, how to implement them and what the risks and benefits are. Sometimes, the impacts of change are not fully understood or quantified by researchers.

Farmers also have their own interests to consider – like supporting family, surviving short-term economic challenges, reducing the burden of the business as they get older, and maintaining traditional practices. They manage complex systems, deal with multiple targets and regulations, and process and evaluate information and advice that might not always be independently given. This can be hugely challenging. It can make it hard to follow their own interests effectively, and reduce their ability to consider long-term strategies and problems amid the deluge of immediate challenges.

Considering solutions to these challenges, brings us to the second point that Welsh agricultural policy needs to incorporate. Top-down regulations are often appropriate tools for change, and payments are vital in providing the economic security farmers need to safeguard long-term productivity and ecosystem services. But we need to understand when they are effective and when they are not.

Truly sustainable change can only occur when rural communities, farmers, policymakers and other stakeholders are empowered to act together at the local level to develop shared goals and shared solutions to the challenges we face. This means bottom-up solutions giving ownership of change to all groups involved in the countryside. This type of power can be framed by top-down rules and incentives at some level; it’s not a case of ‘either-or’.

Outcome-driven payment schemes are a good example of this kind of rebalancing. Take the Burren Programme in Ireland, through which farmers agree to the goals they’ll deliver to secure funding. It’s up to them how to achieve those goals, and they receive local support to help them find the best strategies. Positively, this type of approach is included in ‘Brexit and our Land’. We need to go further, empowering farmers – working with other stakeholders – to both determine and drive change. But will farmers be interested in thinking about anything other than profit?

Recently, I heard a farm advisor speak about his experiences implementing climate-friendly practices in agriculture in Uruguay. Using videos and in workshops with different stakeholders, he shows farmers the impacts of climate change and poor agricultural practice on other groups in society. He finds they respond positively and make changes. Farmers need to make money, but that doesn’t mean they’re not open to change, once they realise their own role in the problems facing others, and in the solutions to them. When we add the growing impact of climate change on farm businesses, demonstrated by this summer’s drought, we find there are strong motivations to work differently, beyond the basic need to make a profit.

Richard Kipling is an inter-disciplinary researcher at Aberystwyth University, with experience in a range of fields including ecology, livestock agriculture, conservation, politics and economics. For the last five years, his research has focussed on issues relating to climate change and farming in Welsh and European contexts.

Image: Richard Kipling

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Soup and success: how food gives young people skills for the future

By Jane Powell

It’s mid-morning at the Llandrindod Pupil Referral Unit. A sleepy-faced teenager shuffles through the main classroom, calling over her shoulder that she’s “off to water the plants”. We follow her outside, where a trough of parsley, basil, coriander and oregano stands against a sunny wall, together with neatly aligned pots of strawberries and some pea plants that are bearing their first pods. She picks one and tastes it.

“Every day they go out there, they water those plants, they care for them,” says Linda Gutierrez, one of the teachers at the Unit. She explains that the produce finds its way into the meals that staff and students share at the centre, but it’s clear that the benefits of gardening and cooking go far beyond producing a few herbs. It is about nurturing young people who are falling through the cracks and drawing them back into shared activity with others.

ladling soup

Food is an important part of life at the PRU, which takes young people who are not able to study in mainstream education because of emotional and behavioural problems. “Some of these children have never sat at a table to eat properly – they don’t have that interaction with their family,” says Linda, who works hard to improve their social skills. “They’re not very good at joining in, so we eat together, we cook together, so they’re getting that social interaction. You learn a lot about a person by having those sitting-down chats over a meal, and they learn a lot about you.”

Linda’s affection for her charges, and her pride in them, shines through as she shares stories of their quirks and breakthroughs. Life at the PRU however is not just about providing a substitute family life for vulnerable young people. Like anybody else, they need an education and preparation for employment. The staff therefore build on the role that food already plays in the Unit and teach a Food Technology GCSE. They also have their learners take part in a Welsh Baccalaureate Enterprise and Employability Challenge from LEAF Education, which involves developing and marketing a food product suitable for sale in a farm shop.

Linda explains the process. Working as a team – numbers fluctuate at the PRU, but for this challenge there were just three of them – they visited Penpont farm shop, Llandrindod Market and other places to research ingredients and choose recipes. They came up with Flash Soups – ‘a flash of energy’ – and designed a logo, packaging, a sell-by date, allergen information and an (imaginary) social media campaign. They held taste tests, tweaked the recipes and the shared the final results at a Young Carers’ social evening.

She shows me the videos they made as part of their Welsh Baccalaureate accreditation. One girl reflects on the tasting sessions, explaining with teenage clarity her rejection of all blended soups and weighing up the relationship between appearance and taste. Another has a more commercial eye, and is interested in how the team worked together: “The one thing that stood out doing this project was that if people were absent from a meeting we had to delay making important decisions…The business world is not as easy as I thought”.

As an add-on to the soup challenge, Linda arranged for them to take an online Food Hygiene certificate. This gave them extra confidence – it’s a qualification that not many teenagers have – and it even enabled some of them to find part-time work in local cafes. And of course, they learned a lot about nutrition and how to cook healthy food for themselves, the life skills which Linda and her team instill “by stealth”.

The plan is now to build on the challenge for next year by growing their own vegetables at their other site in Brecon. Through a skype link we talk to her colleague Terry Holmes, who takes us on a virtual tour of the new garden. Raised beds are planted with tomatoes, savoy cabbages, courgettes, snap peas, carrots, beetroot, radish, red onions and chives, and there’s a compost heap waiting for the peelings. The plants are still small and full of promise in the freshness of mid-June.

Here we meet a third student who has been working on a planting plan. He speaks in monosyllables but it’s clear how much he cares about the garden; he’s been googling to find out what’s in season and has his eye on some giant pumpkin seed, which Linda promises to help him find.

courgetteThe PRU’s food activities also give it links with the wider community. Staff and pupils have visited various gardens in the Social Farms and Gardens network, including Ashfield Community Enterprise near Llandrindod, to learn new skills. Linda has also signed the garden up for the RHS school gardening scheme, which provides information sheets, teaching ideas and advice.

As she says, “That’s what’s so nice about working in a PRU. We can be really creative, because school doesn’t work for these children. We still have to educate them, but we can find other ways to get their interest”.

Terry sums it up, referring to the youngster we just met: “We said to him only this morning, ‘How does it feel when you’ve grown something from a seed?’ And he said, ‘it’s a nice feeling, to nurture something and keep watering it every day, to see something grow’ – and you can’t believe how much the courgettes have grown!”. The same could be said for the young people themselves.

Jane Powell is a freelance writer and education consultant based near Aberystwyth. She writes at www.foodsociety.wales.

 

 

 

Local food: reinventing the village shop

By Jane Powell

At the chill cabinet of a small shop in mid Wales, a customer reaches for a bottle of wine then does a double take. “Wine from Wales?” she exclaims, reading the label that announces it is from a vineyard near Aberaeron. “Is it OK to take to a party?” She puts it back.

cletwr cafe staffShe might have picked up many other items of locally produced food at the Cletwr Shop, which is a social enterprise on the busy A487 between Aberystwyth and Machynlleth. They sell vegetables from local smallholdings, seasonal surpluses from people’s gardens and their own jams and chutneys made on the premises, besides the usual branded products. There’s even a choice of Welsh gins: Da Mhile from the Teifi Valley, or one from the Dyfi Distillery near Corris.

But Cletwr is not just a delicatessen for the tourist trail. Here you will also find baked beans, white sliced bread and ready meals, because for many people this is their local shop, and that’s what they expect to find. The vegan cheese substitutes in the fridge rub shoulders with their dairy counterparts, and if you’re looking for a toothbrush you can choose between the wooden eco version or the usual plastic.

“We want this to be a shop for everybody, so we cater for all tastes,” explains Nigel Callaghan, Chair of Cwmni Cymunedol Cletwr, the community business which opened its doors in 2013, a couple of years after the original family-owned garage and village shop closed. “At the same time, we’re working as part of a wide group of retailers, producers and suppliers in the Dyfi Biosphere (and beyond) to promote local produce, and through that to develop and strengthen the local economy.”

The shop, which recently moved to purpose-built new premises thanks to grants from the Big Lottery, Welsh Government, the EU and others, does much more than sell food. There’s a busy café and a programme of events, from Welsh classes and ‘knit and natter’ to talks from the RSPB and sessions on local history. They host a fuel syndicate and they organize volunteer litter-picking sessions.

It’s run by a mixture of 18 paid staff (mostly part-time) and around 50 volunteers, and it’s constantly responding to new opportunities. A charging point for electric cars is to be installed soon, they’re planting a garden in the grounds, they’re about to join a toilet-twinning scheme – sponsoring a toilet in a developing country – and they’re looking into further services that they could deliver to the local community.

What Nigel is perhaps proudest of, though, is the opportunities the business provides for young people. “We invite school pupils to volunteer here for a while, and then we employ them. We put about £15k a year into the local economy that way. And we teach them the soft skills of employability, things like turning up to work on time and taking responsibility.”

Cletwr is introducing a new generation of youngsters to volunteering. “We have a lively group of volunteers here, young and old working together,” says Nigel. “Our board has renewed itself completely over the last three or four years as new people have been attracted to it, so we think we have got a good model that will last.”

It’s one of a number of community projects that have sprung up in Wales in recent years. Others are Siop y Parc, a community-owned shop in Blaenplwyf, Ceredigion and Llety Arall, a social enterprise that is building holiday accommodation in Caernarfon.

“We’ve seen the benefits that this shop has brought to the local community,” says Nigel. “We’d encourage others to do the same. All you need is a few keen people and you can bring a community back to life. There’s help and advice available – we talked to the Plunkett Foundation, the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and others – and the rewards are huge.”

View the second draft of the Wales Food Manifesto and send us your comments: Food Manifesto Wales Second Draft Apr 2018. And sign up to our newsletter.

Jane Powell is an independent education consultant who is working as a volunteer with the Food Manifesto Wales. She writes at www.foodsociety.wales

Photos by Ant Jarrett

Calbee UK: a food business that lives its values

by Jane Powell (also published on Food Grads

When a production worker at savoury snack factory Calbee UK in Deeside, north Wales, heard that a café serving supermarket surplus food was opening in nearby Buckley, she was keen to get involved. But she didn’t just sign up as a volunteer. She told her employer about it, and now they are one of the café’s regular supporters, donating their own products and releasing staff to volunteer at the café in the company’s time. It’s just one example of their commitment to “make a positive and lasting difference to local people”.

“When we get involved with a local project we don’t just give money and walk away,” explains Mags Kerns, Human Resources Manager and Community Champion at Calbee. “We want to offer personal support, to get under the skin of a project. The café is great because they are making such a contribution to the community, bringing people together and relieving loneliness, as well as serving meals on a Pay As You Feel basis so everyone can afford to eat there. We’re glad to be part of that.”

Values are very important to Calbee UK, which was set up two years ago as a subsidiary of a Japanese company. Calbee Inc was founded in 1949 with the aim of tackling the malnutrition that was afflicting post-war Hiroshima. It was a particular emphasis on calcium and Vitamin B which gave the company its name. The Deeside factory supplies vegetable-based snacks under the brand name Yushoi to most of the main supermarkets, as well as Marks and Spencer’s Eatwell range. The bulk of its ingredients, especially peas, are sourced from the UK, although some such as rice are imported.

“Deeside was a perfect location for us,” says Managing Director Richard Robinson, “and we’re really excited about our growth plans here. The Japanese and Chinese are really investing in food businesses in the UK and Calbee is a great sign of how global the food industry now is.” He also acknowledges generous support from the Welsh Government, who helped them to source their premises and set up an apprenticeship scheme, besides investing in the facility which began production in 2015. Calbee, which now employs 50 people and is still only at about 25% of its capacity, is on course to turn over £65m by the end of 2020, and wants to become “one of the UK’s best savoury snack suppliers”.

Clearly, performance and success are important to the company, but their vision is much broader than that; they also want to have “a leading role in supporting the industry voice on health and well-being” and it’s clear that they see money as being in service to people, rather than the other way around. “Values run through all we do,” says Mags. “We’re proud of our low-fat, high-protein products that are not just tasty but healthy too. And it’s really important to us to be a responsible employer, as well as contributing to the community.”

Sometimes this attitude shows up in small ways that make a big difference. All staff are known as ‘colleagues’ rather than ‘employees’, which reflects the company’s flat structure and helps to create a sense of collaboration in the workplace. When a colleague is rewarded for exceptional performance they are given a day off – that is, time to spend with their families and friends – rather than a cash bonus, neatly demonstrating the company’s priorities. They are also encouraged to volunteer for the local community in company time. “Our colleagues and their families are partners in our business,” as their values statement has it. And they pay well too, as an accredited Living Wage Employer, another reason they have no problems recruiting staff and absenteeism is minimal.

“People knock on our door with their CV,” says Mags. “Of course, they don’t always have the skills we need, but working with Coleg Cambria we are able to offer apprenticeships that lead to a qualification in Food Manufacturing Excellence. In fact, all our staff take it, right up to management level, because it’s important we have a shared understanding of what the factory is about. And we’re glad to be supporting the development of food skills in Wales generally.”

Calbee could have some encouraging lessons for the food industry in Wales. As it takes a stand for shared values centring on human dignity while also achieving healthy growth and profitability, it shows how business can be a force for good. “Together we laugh, learn and love what we do,” they say on their website. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a workplace like that?

Jane Powell writes at www.foodsociety.wales

 

A food hub on the Heart of Wales railway line

By Pamela Mason

Drive into Llandeilo Station and you could be mistaken for thinking you’d spotted a goods wagon: the sort of wagon that used to transport some of our food around Britain before the loss of much of our railway infrastructure more than half a century ago. Given that this wooden building stays put, its link with food and transportation of food might not cross your mind. Unless you happened to know it is the home of the Black Mountain Food Hub.

The Black Mountain Food Hub was the first to book space in the building when it opened in 2016 for local social enterprises and businesses. Set up as a Community Interest Company (CIC), the Black Mountain Food Hub has four directors: Joanna Dornan, James Scrivens, Ella Gibbs and Sara Tommerup. Joanna has lots of experience with the Dean Forest Food Hub which has been established for four years and the Black Mountain Food Hub is run along the same lines, that is, as an online farmers market using the Open Food Network platform. “We know this works,” says Joanna.

The idea is that customers can order online anytime from Wednesday to Tuesday midnight and then collect their order from the Station Hub on the following Friday. Alternatively, the hub offers delivery between Llandeilo and Llandovery every Friday afternoon. The hub currently has 17 local producers and the number of weekly customers is about the same. Next year the aim is to grow the regular customer base to 30. People are also encouraged to support the food hub by becoming seed group members, which involves committing to spending £20 a month for a year. The aim with this is to help the food hub get better established and grow. It’s a struggle as it’s hard to change mindsets and habits around food shopping.black mountain logo

Whilst much of the work depends on volunteers, the hub also employs a part-time co-ordinator, Candace Browne, who has extensive experience in supporting and advising farmers so is well placed to work with the hub’s producers. Candace explains that to help maintain customer support the hub also makes available wholefood grocery items such as flour, rice, beans and pulses.

When the hub started there was no vegetable producer in the locality. Organic vegetables were delivered by train to Llandeilo from a grower on Gower. This year, Joanna tells me, they have developed a Fferm Glytwaith or Patchwork Farm which involves the co-ordination of a number of local experienced growers committed to growing good quality fruit and vegetables organically. Each grower takes on two or three varieties each season. In winter, the hub buys in organic vegetables, again to help retain customers throughout the year.

Another aim of the food hub is to reach out more to households on low incomes. Work is beginning with schools to promote the hub and thinking is taking place about the possibility of using the Healthy Start scheme to facilitate access to fresh, local food for people on low incomes.

The need for systemic change in the food system is well recognised by the food hub and an application for LEADER funding, which has successfully got through to the second round, has been made to develop a sustainable food network in the Towy Valley with the aim of shortening supply chains, getting more money to producers and building a thriving local system within the area. The project intends to use an approach called Adaptive Co-Management, which is designed to facilitate leadership, sense of ownership and knowledge sharing with the adaptive capacity to withstand uncertainties. Joanna says it’s an agile approach, which has been shown to be effective in complex environments in that it enables decisions to made quickly and effectively.

If the bid for funding is successful, the group will be looking for local people with the drive to make a difference to the local food economy in the Towy Valley. They will need to be open to learning new ways of working, gaining new skills and thinking in a new paradigm. It sounds very exciting. Local people in the Towy Valley with an interest in food – watch this space.

Pamela Mason is a nutritionist and author based in Monmouthshire. See sustainablediets.co.uk

Rethinking food in Wales: reconnecting through values

The National Assembly for Wales (that is, our politicians, as distinct from the civil servants in Welsh Government) has recently announced a new consultation called ‘rethinking food in Wales’. Its scope is very broad: they want to know what we can do to ‘enhance the food and drink sector and our relationship with the food we eat’. What is our vision, and how can we get there? They suggest that we might like to see a healthy local food culture, a thriving food industry, food produced to high environmental and animal welfare standards and an international destination for food lovers, but they invite other ideas too.

Our Food Manifesto and proposed Food Network Wales have exactly this aim of rethinking food in Wales, so this is a great opportunity to work with the Assembly and get everyone’s voices heard. We invite all our readers not only to respond to the consultation but to reference the Food Manifesto and send us a summary of their key points so that we can publish them here and share our thinking. To start us off, here is the response from the Food Values team.

Background

The Food Values project ran a series of events and seminars in 2015 and 2016 to explore how an approach based on values, as put forward by Common Cause, could help people understand and shape the food system. This starts from the premise that people are not rational actors and we need to consider the role of people’s beliefs, identity and emotions if we are truly going to change our food system. As part of the project we launched a Food Manifesto for Wales which is an ongoing project from which a new Food Network Wales is emerging. We are no longer funded, but we continue to work together informally to develop the approach.

Our vision for the food system in Wales

Our work, summarized in our 2015 report Food Values, showed how people respond to food as an important means through which to connect to each other in our families and communities. Our project worked with diverse groups, including refugees seeking asylum and isolated older people in rural areas. Food was seen to offer a focal point to come together and look beyond difference. We all eat and thus food has enormous potential as a social equaliser. Linked to this, there was an overwhelming concern was that everyone should have enough to eat, and that food should be of high quality; premium produce should not be a niche commodity for the more affluent.

Exploring people’s motivation to tackle food waste and poverty reaffirmed the benefits of reconnecting with values to communicate and consolidate progressive action. People also wanted to know where food comes from, and valued traditional food skills such as gardening and cooking. Whilst there are clear challenges to enhancing this in our current social and food system, there was an appetite to re-connect. These findings have been confirmed in wider studies by the Food Standards Agency.

Through our project we saw a contrast between a ‘community’ approach to food, which sought to address the issues raised above, and corporate framings of food as a commodity and a source of income and jobs. We found that there was a tendency to alternate between these two approaches to food in government policy (see our analysis here). The current action plan Towards Sustainable Growth for instance has a strong business focus, while the earlier Food for Wales, food from Wales placed more emphasis on community. At the same time, there is general agreement that both viewpoints are valid and that what is needed is to bring them together more closely so that each serves the other. There are of course many other points of disconnection in the food system; this is just one example.

How to get there

Joining up the dots of the Welsh food system will mean working across sectors, which is as challenging as it is potentially productive. We offer the values approach as a means to dig deep beneath cultural differences and find common ground. There are many ways in which it could be used, including video communications, events and especially shared meals that bring different groups together in an enquiry, as well as case studies of good practice. We are interested in exploring these further.

Jane Powell, independent consultant; Dr Sophie Wynne-Jones, Bangor University; Sam Packer, independent commentator; Rosa Robinson,Work With Meaning.