In Monmouthshire and the Brecon Beacons, we have started to build a new local food economy. The undertaking is vast but the best way to achieve it is to start. Launched on 30 March this year, local community benefit society Our Food 1200 / Ein Bwyd 1200 is searching for 1200 acres of land for local small-scale regenerative horticulture; 1200 acres would be enough to feed every household in the region with seasonal vegetables.
An appeal went out to landowners to make land available for horticulture. In the first week, 21 offers of land were received. Once all these are assessed and profiled online, the search for growers can begin. All over the UK, skilled growers are looking for land to grow on and we would like them to come here. Working with the local regenerative horticulture training course at Black Mountains College, we will also nurture a new generation of growers from among young people raised here.
The aim is, over 10 years, to rebuild a vibrant local economy, serving additionally the nearby towns and cities of Cardiff, Newport, Bristol and Hereford, so that all local farmers can access new markets that pay better prices and offer them and buyers more security. And keeping local ownership of the supply chain, means profits are kept ‘near the roots’. Local trading builds community.
Some 75 people attended the online launch event, including representatives from Public Health Wales, Monmouthshire County Council, Powys County Council, Brecon Beacons National Park Authority, Tyfu Cymru, Black Mountains College and the National Trust.
Speakers included landowners who have already leased land to successful horticulture enterprises, such as John Morris in Crickhowell. John leased land to Katherine and David Langton to create the farm pictured above. Speaking about his experience, he said: “It’s not a new concept: farmers have always rented out their land. But renting land for horticulture is a bigger commitment because of the infrastructure change that’s required with polytunnels and so on.”
Local land agent, Stewart Waters of DJ&P Newland Rennie, said “most farmers have that small parcel of land – 2-5 acres – that’s not entirely suited to the rest of their farming system. I can see that a young and enthusiastic grower could bring a completely different dynamic to a farmer’s life. And of course it’s providing what is these days a very scarce opportunity for young farmers and new entrants to get a start.”
Catherine Mealing-Jones, CEO of the Brecon Beacons National Park, pledged support. “We’ve got huge potential in this area and in surrounding communities to feed ourselves and others with the best-quality, local seasonal produce. But we’ve got to start doing something quite fundamentally different. We are expected to offer the Brecon Beacons National Park as a test bed for the thinking that will shape future policy. And I really believe that if we work together, we can make the changes that we want to see.”
For more on this project, watch the discussion at the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference last November, where Duncan spoken in a panel with Prof Tim Lang, Monmouthshire RDP Manager Michael Powell and farmer Peter Greig.
Duncan lives in the Brecon Beacons and is leading the Our Food 1200 project with Sue Holbrook. He is a campaigner for sustainability and also, with another hat on, for child welfare.
Sheep have been grazing the salt marsh landscape of the Gower Peninsula in Wales since medieval times. Today around 3,500 lambs and ewes feed there, where a diet of naturally growing samphire and sorrel gives their meat a unique flavour.
Gower lamb, which is available to buy and eat between June and December, matures more slowly and lives longer than intensively reared lamb, which further adds to the characteristic taste.
That flavour has now been given protected status, providing the farmers of those lambs with membership of an exclusive club. Fellow members include producers of Cornish clotted cream, Melton Mowbray pork pies and champagne, which have long been part of a European scheme which means certain food and drink can only be made in certain places.
Since Brexit, the UK has established its own geographical indication scheme, which closely resembles the EU version. Gower salt marsh lamb is the first product to be added to the new British scheme and must be born, raised and slaughtered within the 19 electoral constituency boundaries that make up the Gower Peninsular. It joins 16 other Welsh products already protected including Anglesey sea salt, Welsh laverbread and Conwy mussels.
My ongoing research is looking into the the contribution to that sector of local food production which is sustainable – environmentally, socially and economically. My colleagues and I are so far finding that locally produced food contributes significantly to making sure rural areas are viable communities. And evidence shows officially recognising and protecting the links between a food product and the area it comes can have significant benefits for that community.
In a competitive market, this protection really counts. The food and drink sector is worth £29bn to the UK economy, so standing out from the crowd has never been more important.
The protected designation of origin (PDO) awarded to Gower salt marsh lamb is reserved for products with the strongest links to the place in which they are made. There is strong evidence that such protections mean better prices for producers. For example, prices of French cheeses with a PDO are higher by an average of 11.5%.
PDOs also help to preserve traditional methods from being driven out by intensive agricultural systems by stipulating a number of requirements on the methods of production. In the Gower’s case this includes recognising the shepherding skills and knowledge of the salt marsh tidal ranges to protect the animals from dangerous rising tides. These are skills which have been developed and passed on through generations.
But it could potentially have a damaging effect on the sale of Welsh lamb from other regions, which is itself protected by a similar but less specific classification, known as a protected geographical indication (PGI).
Again, this is designed to emphasise the relationship between the specific geographic region and the name of the product. The PDO will likely be seen by consumers as a mark that Gower salt marsh lamb ranks even more highly for quality and taste against other Welsh Lamb, which could be a blow for many of Wales’ other sheep farmers currently boosted by their PGI status. At the moment there is a lack of research on the differing perceptions of PDO and PGI categorisation, so we will have to wait and see if this turns out to have any significant impact.
That issue aside, geographical indicators generally work well in protecting consumers against food fraud, through an official process of audit and authentication. They are designed to avoid things like the 2013 scandal in which a number of beef products from across the EU were found to contain varying levels of horse meat.
Products with geographical indicators are subjected to extra auditing to ensure authentic products for consumers, with controls conducted by local authority trading standards.
Compliance is monitored, and suspicion of counterfeit products can be reported directly to the enforcement body who have the power to impose fines or imprisonment under various consumer protection laws.
By supporting low impact practices GIs provide greater stability for those working in the industry, protecting traditional skills and maintaining viable rural livelihoods by placing requirements on production processes
Asked about the importance of designation for its Anglesey Sea Salt (protected by a PDO since 2014) Halen Mon director Alison Wilson told me it was one of the company’s “proudest achievments”. She added: “It gives protection when it’s needed, and status and proof of the particular qualities of our hand-harvested sea salt. It means that we are the only British sea salt to be audited and proved 100% authentic, in a world full of food fraud.”
As dietary habits continue to change, many people are looking to reduce the impact of their diet on the environment. The new status for Gower salt marsh lamb will hopefully give consumers reassurance that they are eating a high welfare, pasture fed animal, which has had a minimal environmental impact over its life. A protected product can help protect the planet.
Luke Prosser is a PhD researcher at Bangor University with a specialism in Food and Drink Geographies and Rural Communities, focusing primarily on Food and Drink supply chains and procurement.
The ongoing debate around the sustainable production of food and the inextricable links with the climate and nature crises is vitally important, but there is an extra element which is often overlooked. In a country like Wales blessed with our wonderful rivers, lakes and abundant (occasionally too abundant) rain, it seems odd to worry about the quality and availability of drinking water sources. However, there are a number of challenges that we need to respond to, so that we can ensure we protect our drinking water supplies for current and future generations.
The cluster of drinking water catchments across the Brecon Beacons supply almost half of the drinking water Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water provides to customers every day – that’s more than 400 million litres of water, equivalent to 160 Olympic-sized swimming pools. But it’s not just water that make the Beacons extraordinary. Communities, biodiversity, agriculture, forestry and tourism all play a part in making it such an iconic landscape that provides so much for so many.
As a water company, we need to treat water to remove a range of contaminants to ensure we serve our customers safe, wholesome drinking water.
For example, pesticides enter our water ways from a variety of sources including our gardens and allotments, parks and sports grounds and from farms. Our routine water monitoring programme has detected increasing traces of pesticides in areas we have never seen them before, and therefore more treatment is needed.
Sediment, which has to be filtered out, enters water courses from a number of sources including landslips and cultivation, and that sediment can carry pathogens, nutrients and agricultural chemicals, all of which need to be removed as they can impact the safety and enjoyment of our drinking water.
And these are just some of the water quality risks we deal with daily. As a result of climate change, we can expect to see more erratic floods and droughts, and we may even see different animal and plant diseases that we have not encountered before in the UK. This could mean more erosion of soils, new pathogens or veterinary medicines finding their way into drinking water catchments. We may start to see changes in food production trends – for example more home-grown fodder and horticulture expansion could mean detecting more pesticides being used in areas where we aren’t used to dealing with them.
While we already work hard to respond to these changes, we believe there is a huge benefit to be gained from trying to get ahead of the risks. That is why we are shifting our emphasis from reactive treatment of water to proactive measures to reduce or prevent water quality issues before they happen. We will, of course, treat water to make it safe and wholesome to drink, but we believe that by focusing on the management of water within the wider environment we can reduce the chemicals and energy needed in the treatment process – which is better for everyone.
Considering some of these issues in the context of drinking water may help clarify why it is important to adapt certain practices. However, we don’t want to implement more actions for overstretched farmers to juggle, because many of the actions needed to improve water quality are the same actions being discussed in relation to sustainable food production – improved soil husbandry, proactive animal health planning and caring for our precious habitats – including restoring them where needed.
The Brecon Beacons Mega Catchment (BBMC) is a Welsh Water-led initiative, and we’re now getting underway with an active programme of collaborative land management and engagement trials. We want to explore new ways of working – on the land and with each other.
We are a growing partnership of individuals and organisations representing farming, forestry, community, tourism, academia and ecology. This is a network we want to expand further to encompass other elements, but the most valuable partnerships we have are with the farmers and community members at a grass roots level who can bring their experience and ideas to bear, helping us develop and trial these new ways of working. Collaboration has recently become another fashionable term to use in land management discussions. But we believe the value of coordinating our expertise and resources with others, means that we can achieve far more together than we can achieve individually. We are not a major landowner in these drinking water catchments, so we must work in partnership with others if we are to have a positive impact.
For example, inspired by a knowledge exchange with our friends working in the Catskills catchment which supplies New York (widely recognised as one of the most successful catchment management examples globally) we are trialling a new approach to smarter nutrient applications with the Beacons Water Group – a farmer led group in the heart of the Beacons. Here, we will be using data on drainage patterns across individual fields and whole farms to identify ‘spread / no spread’ zones to reduce nutrient run off to water courses and make more efficient use of manures.
We’re also scoping out the restoration of damaged areas of peatbog to reduce water quality risks of sediment and colour compounds from eroding peat. In addition, this restoration should prevent further carbon emissions and regulate peak water flow. But again, we will need to work with a range of partners to deliver this. There are many peat restoration activities taking place across the country, but importantly, we will be working closely with local graziers to explore how best to share information on the importance and ambitions of peatbog management, and how to monitor the success of the project and make more locally based management decisions that are right for the conditions and the season.
We are also exploring opportunities for working with groups of farmers to develop more integrated livestock health planning, biosecurity and quarantine that will support livestock health as well as reducing pathogens and medicines lost to water.
We will be trialling these initiatives in the Brecon Beacons with a view to rolling these new ways of working out in the drinking water catchments throughout Wales. These results cannot be achieved over night and our ambition is to deliver long term sustainable solutions to safeguard our environment and drinking water for generations to come. We are keen to hear from any new partners who would be interested in working with us to deliver these ambitions.
Earlier this year the Welsh Government announced it would make the whole of Wales a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ). This is a European mechanism that requires farmers to follow stringent rules to reduce nitrate pollution. It was greeted with fury by the farming unions, who had favoured a voluntary approach. At the root of this is the view that nitrate pollution, as a by-product of food production, is the responsibility of wider society. It should therefore be managed by negotiation, as has been proposed in Pembrokeshire, not by draconian measures imposed from above. Additionally, regulations that are not widely supported tend to be less effective, which might be why a 2009 study found that many NVZs in England showed no significant benefits even after 15 years.
What this controversy proves, negatively, is how important it is to have good regulation. We all want clean rivers and waterways, and farmers need clear rules about what they can and cannot do, so that the playing field is level and the quality of their goods is recognised. But regulation must be fair if it is to be effective, and it must be supported by a network of trust and communication as well as credible enforcement. This applies all along the food chain, from environmental protection to nutrition, food safety and trade.
So how is Wales doing? A recent report from Unchecked UK, Safeguarding standards in Wales: Why Wales should lead the way commends the Welsh Government for its generally positive approach, and for the notable Well-being of Future Generations Act, and contrasts it favourably with the policy of deregulation that it sees in Westminster. Unfortunately, though, the UK Government’s austerity policy has weakened the regulatory agencies in Wales, and most of the report is a chronicle of the damage that has been done.
First on the list is environmental protection. Their research shows that the main environmental regulator, Natural Resources Wales (NRW), has lost 35% of its funding from 2013 to 2020, while prosecutions of environmental offences fell by 61% in the period from 2014-20. This is cause for concern. But what the report does not cover is the positive ways in which NRW could uphold standards, for instance by working alongside farmers and businesses to help them to do better, and by maintaining conversations with countryside groups and organisations.
This is important because the Well-being of Future Generations Act, as part of its Five Ways of Working, requires public bodies to focus on prevention rather than the cure, and to be collaborative and to involve their stakeholders – with the punishment of offenders as a backstop. Consultation takes up staff time. But NRW, the report says, has 53 fewer staff than it had six years ago and so it is likely that this function has also been weakened. Meanwhile, local authority spending on environmental services fell by 13% during 2009-20, adding to the problem.
“This has had far-reaching effects on local authorities’ ability to carry out their duties,” the report notes. “As a result, frontline staff tend to work reactively rather than proactively, at which point the damage – be it fraud, health and safety violations, or food safety breaches – has often been done.”
When councils lose staff, they also lose expertise. It isn’t just that local health and safety inspections in Wales fell by 45% during 2015-20 – a whole culture of cooperation and local knowledge has been weakened. Again, the principles of collaboration and involvement that are so key to the Future Generations Act are threatened, as the public realm is hollowed out. Opportunities for local food democracy will be lost.
Wales does not act in isolation, of course. It has been subject to regulation by both the EU and the UK government, and both of those relationships have changed since Brexit. The Welsh government has pledged to retain EU standards of environmental protection, using the Well-being of Future Generations and Environment Acts. However, it will no longer be able to call on the European Court of Justice to hold public bodies to account, and we have already seen how NRW has been weakened by staff cuts. Meanwhile the UK government’s Internal Market Act, intended to secure frictionless trade within the UK, threatens the rights of devolved administrations to set their own (higher) standards and has caused alarm in Wales.
Unchecked UK has conducted a survey which finds support across all political persuasions for strong regulation in Wales. Over two-thirds of people in Wales, for instance, would like to see legally binding targets for wildlife restoration. There is also strong support for maintaining quality and sustainability standards for food, and fair workplace practices. Their campaign video calls on the Welsh public to keep up the pressure on our politicians, and “protect the things that make Wales the country we all love.”
Good enforcement of regulations is certainly essential, and government has a vital role to play. But equally, we need public understanding and support to build consensus around the regulations that are put in place. That requires joined up thinking. The consumers who want higher food standards are also the taxpayers who support farmers, who in turn have a huge influence on wildlife and water quality. They are also the citizens who have been empowered to create a better world for future generations. We need to bring all that together.
It is telling that the report commends the forthcoming Agriculture Bill for strengthening food safety and environmental and animal welfare standards. What the Bill fails to do however is to consider the contribution that farming makes to food production itself, because that is held to be a market good, not a public one. But a thriving local food economy, to which farming is central, is about much more than food security or the viability of farms. It is about the sense of place that creates social as well as economic bonds, and this is ultimately the basis of regulation in its truest sense – a set of agreements arising from a shared intention. Regulation must be bottom-up as well as top-down.
With so much change taking place in the world around us – with Brexit and Covid-19 challenging the status quo – we have the opportunity to shape and transform the way we live and in some places changes are already underway. I wanted to offer my experience of using Food Manifesto Wales as a framework to consider our local and national food system.
I was drawn to Food Manifesto Wales because the invitation to contribute and join the process of creating a ‘food manifesto’ felt genuinely open. Also, because it provides a starting point for talking about food with different people. I like the inclusive and cooperative values of Food Manifesto Wales, and I’ve used it as the basis for discussions with various groups. From people who are deeply invested in the food system, growing, producing and selling food in Wales to people who are interested in the food they buy and eat and to those who don’t give much thought to these things.
I think a national food manifesto is a good idea for all citizens, for our communities and all those directly involved in the food system – to determine with intention the guiding principles for the complex food system we are all part of. I like the simplicity of Food Manifesto Wales’ main point, ‘Everyone in Wales has access to high-quality, nutritious and safe food’. There are nine accompanying action points in support of this, included to cover the wide reach of food in our society now and into the future – considering environmental and economic impacts as well as social aspects from farmers, food workers and animal welfare to education and the enjoyment of food.
Using Food Manifesto Wales as a starting point, what follows are some activities for facilitating conversations about food in Wales. Participants may be drawn together in numerous and intersecting ways – they may be citizens with a shared cause, a community group or an organisation or business. These activities may be delivered as standalone, one-off exercises or you may choose to use some, or all, of them to delve deeper. The order can be varied to suit the group needs. Once the10 points of the Manifesto have been introduced, you will have a good framework and common language to work with.
The more of us working towards the aim of everyone in Wales having access to high-quality, nutritious and safe food, the more likely we will be to achieve it! We are really interested to hear how you’ve used Food Manifesto Wales, so please feedback by e-mail to email@example.com. .
Mapping is to identify what is already happening in your local geographical area. Although you may already know, taking the time to review your knowledge can be helpful – possibly before planning further actions or activities, or to identify partners and allies, or to identify current or best practice. The detailed discussion usually works best completed by a small group or a large group divided into smaller groups which report back to the large group.
Consider the 10 points of the Food Manifesto and choose those most relevant for your group – you may choose them all! You may consider the points of the Manifesto together, however, to cover points in depth, I suggest discussing 1-2 points in small groups or (if already a small group) consider 1-2 points over different group sessions. For each point you choose:
Based on the Food Manifesto Wales points that you have chosen, identify what is available or already happening in your local area or organisation or business. This may be as simple as discussing it or you could look at a map, take an enquiry walk around the area and talk in small groups about what you encounter.
Document your discussion: If discussing in situ you could draw/write on a map, mindmap ideas on post-it notes, or nominate a note taker. If walking around the area you could, take photos, record audio/video/written notes.
Next steps: consider what (if anything) you will do with the ideas and information you’ve gathered.
I’ve found it helpful to consider with groups how the 10 points of the Food Manifesto intersect (do some points rely on or support other points?), and/or to identify the priority points for the group. It may be a stand-alone activity or used before/following another activity. In small groups:
Discuss the 10 points and consider if you can/want to arrange them in an order of priority and/or identify those most relevant to the group. You may also discuss intersections between the points. Remember, there is no correct or incorrect answer. The aim is to promote discussion and to encourage all participants to contribute – multiple perspectives will enrich the discussion and everyone’s understanding.
If doing further work, it is helpful to document your discussion and/or priorities via photographs, notes, audio/video recording.
If small groups are part of a larger group, it can be useful to share a summary of the smaller group discussions with everyone else and see if there is any commonality with action points the group consider most important, this can help to identify the groups’ priorities.
Next steps: the priority and/or intersection discussion can be used to inform planning any subsequent actions.
Before starting a new project or action it helps to consider what all involved envision. Following this comes agreement on what you want to achieve collectively, your shared vision. This activity is useful before planning actions/activities to set the intention and aim. It follows on well from the Mapping Activity.
Identifying and discussing different perspectives to create a shared vision can help everyone feel heard and more likely to invest their time, energy and support. It can also help maintain motivation to ultimately achieve the ambition of the shared vision.
In small groups choose one or two of the 10 points to focus on. As before, you may consider more, however, to cover points in depth I suggest discussing 1-2 points in small groups or (if already a small group) consider 1-2 points over different group sessions. For each point you choose:
Encourage everyone to share their vision with no limits to the ambition of these dreams and ideas – there are no ‘wrong’ ideas! It’s important not to shut any ideas down, yours or anyone else’s. You may choose to do this individually to begin with and then share your visions in the group, or, begin visioning together.
Document your visioning in whatever way feels appropriate. Creativity can help here, such as creating a collage from magazines, newspapers, pictures or texts; drawing or painting; free-writing; recording your idea with audio or video; or more traditional ways such as putting ideas on post-it notes or note-taking from discussion.
Next steps: share and/or display your vision and use it as the basis for your next step (if you’re taking one). Refer back to your shared vision whenever you need to, as inspiration to help keep on track and aid motivation.
This activity is useful to identify potential ways of making connections and/or when collaborating with others. For example, connections/collaborations may be with one or more of the following: citizens coming together; established community groups; local authorities and services (incl. public service boards); organisations; businesses; Welsh Government. It may be used instead of or with other activities here, following ‘Mapping’ or in conjunction with ‘Prioritising’.
Recognising that the food system in Wales is complex with numerous intersections, making connections and collaborative working is vital for long-term and sustainable change. However, there may be other forces at play in terms of competition for resources and sensitivities around sharing business or sector knowledge. A shared agreement to establish trust may be helpful (such as The Courtauld Agreement).
Each participant/specific group identifies which of the 10 points they are most focused on, interested in or have influence/involvement with. Take notes/document and share with others – this could be a simple aide memoire or a more formal presentation.
Each participant/group shares their specific area of focus, interest and/or influence/involvement. Take notes/document this for future reference.
Next steps: all participants/groups encouraged to identify how they would like to connect or collaborate with others. This could be used to take further joint action and/or to support each other. A shared aim will help, such as ‘To work towards realising the common purpose of, “Everyone in Wales has access to high-quality, nutritious and safe food”.’
Please have a look at the toolkit that Sustainable Food Places has produced – it’s a great resource for just this type of work.
Corinne Cariad is a freelance consultant, coach and writer specialising in food education, structural organisation and event facilitation. She is an experienced food teacher and has taught in mainstream schools, the secure estate, as well as family and adult education.
You may well have heard of the Summit to Sea project, read the articles and spotted the signs – ‘Conservation Yes, Rewilding No’ – along the road between Machynlleth and Aberystwyth. The project has had a challenging and difficult history. But over the last 12 months, through some small steps and some larger leaps of faith, things have started to develop more positively. This has involved a lot of listening, reflecting and learning. After the departure of Rewilding Britain from the partnership in October 2019 the project has been re-setting and is in the middle of a new and exciting development phase. We are now concentrating entirely on co-designing a future, asking what the land and sea will look like in a Mid Wales where nature and people thrive.
One of the key criticisms that the project evaluators made of the first phase was the ‘lack of appreciation of the wider context of farming and land use in the area’. They also noted, however, that the controversy had the effect of galvanizing the farming community and bringing people together, as well as creating a much deeper understanding of the challenges that face farmers in particular.
Since June 2020 the project has been hosted by RSPB Cymru whilst a locally based partnership is developed, depending on the outcomes of the design stage. The project is currently exploring how to support healthy and biodiverse ecosystems that deliver economic, ecological and social benefits, through a connected land and sea, appropriate to the local place and culture. It’s about developing collaborative management for wildlife, across ownership boundaries. This will need a shared, agreed, and inspiring approach.
Co-designing a project
We’re working with the local community and key stakeholder groups and organizations to co-design this locally appropriate project. What do we mean by co-design? We’re not using this term to describe ‘engagement’. We are going beyond traditional consultation by building and deepening equal collaboration between people affected by, or attempting to, resolve a challenge. One of the main principles of co-design is that people are ‘experts’ of their own experience, and so central to the design process. We’ve been ensuring involvement in the project is accessible for all, and reaches the broad communities of this rural and semi urban area.
Although Covid-19 restrictions have forced the project to adapt, it has still been possible to continue Following a large number of one to one conversations with people, organizations and businesses in the area, the project held several online workshops in 2020. These have been well attended with more than 70 people coming together across these to imagine what the future of land and sea use could look like in the area. Building on the excellent examples of some local people’s assemblies, these workshops have been supported by a number of local volunteers as facilitators to help make sure that the small group discussions in breakout rooms ran smoothly, and everyone had a chance to contribute and share. The notes of these workshops have been shared on the projects website and we’ve created a Google Drive for anyone involved in the project to find and contribute to documents.
At the moment, the key areas of focus which have been identified during these workshops are:
A nature-rich and sustainable production system
Connectivity between wildlife rich habitats for greater collective benefit
Re-connecting people to nature
Re-connecting the economy to nature
Within the themes we’ve begun to hear specific ideas for how they might be delivered. We’ll now be focusing on exploring a whole range of ideas, inviting more ideas, and discussing these in detail over the coming months.
As the project moves into a more detailed stage, where these themes which have been identified from workshops and conversations lead to the potential interventions, we hope to build a wider design team drawn partly from the recent workshops. We’ll be recruiting ‘community facilitators’ who will hold their own conversations within their communities.
One of the biggest challenges and opportunities is that such a high proportion of the population of this part of Wales are dependent on natural resources for their income. For example, we have a high number of farmers and fishers, but also landscape photographers, outdoor pursuits providers, mountain bike centres, bee-keepers and tourism providers. This demonstrates the importance of getting the management of natural resources right, to ensure the same opportunities for future generations to live and work in the area.
Nothing can really replace a paned and piece of bara brith face to face, but we’re hoping that while we’re still unable to do this, we make the most of the situation and use other methods. Sometimes this can work in our favour, when people are able to join an online workshop without needing to drive half an hour, or while making dinner. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it can be more accessible and inclusive for many. An important principle for people working on a co-design project, is to go to where people are instead of expecting them to come to you. Until we can safely meet in local cafes, markets and village halls there’s nowhere closer than on a screen in everyone’s home!
What excites me most about this project is that we’re giving it the time and space needed to build a conversation between varied groups of people. Through building this conversation and listening to each other’s experiences, concerns and hopes we hope to build mutual trust and the possibility of working together to achieve impact at scale for nature. It is only through working across boundaries, real or imagined, that we’ll be able to tackle the threats our future generations face, but I strongly believe it’s possible to paint a positive picture of our futures together.
Sian Stacey is the Project Development Officer for the Summit to Sea project and lives in Aberystwyth. She has previously worked for Menter a Busnes in the Cywain team, working with food and drink producers, and before this was the Warden/Island Manager on Bardsey Island for three years. Sian is now Chair of the Bardsey Island Trust and is also involved in the People’s Practice in Aberystwyth.
Main image: Ben Porter. Other images: Sian Stacey.
Aberystwyth resident Tom Thomas leans on his hoe and remembers how he got involved with the Penparcau Planting Project back in the spring. “It was soon after lockdown started, and I was just popping out to get a paper,” he says, “then I noticed that someone had been clearing the ground around the community hub, so I stopped for a chat. Jon, the caretaker, asked me if I wanted to help which of course I did, and now I do two mornings a week. I love it – it’s great to be outside and doing something for the local area.”
Tom has taken over the wildlife garden near the entrance, which is now a mass of flowers feeding bees and other pollinators. A former farmworker who worked for many years as a groundsman at Aberystwyth University until his retirement last year, he is happy to share his skills. “We couldn’t have achieved half of what we have, without Tom,” says Clare Jackson, Local Conversation Officer at the Hub, which is run by Penparcau Community Forum and includes a café and an outreach programme. “He is so experienced, and he turns up regular as clockwork, whatever the weather. He has an amazing work ethic and a cracking sense of humour that always brightens our day. You can tell when Tom is in the garden as people keep stopping to talk to him. Just meeting him has been one of the highlights for us. Jon, Tom and I are like the ‘Three Musketeers’ of the Penparcau Planting Project.’’
Clare, who was brand new to gardening, has transformed the site. She and caretaker Jon Evans have also cleared another large area on the other side of the entrance, where they are growing vegetables in pots around a large lawn. Tomatoes, lettuces and herbs have been the main crops this summer, with a few peas and beans, and she has been giving produce away to local people who have been intrigued by the developments, which are clearly visible from the road.
She is full of plans for expanding the project. Thanks to various funding applications she is confident of a greenhouse to extend the food growing season – and for Tom to raise more flowers – and hopes by next year to be serving homegrown food in the Hub’s café. “It’s all going to be chemical-free and no-dig,” says Clare, who has also been inspired by national networks such as Social Farms and Gardens. She also wants to encourage local families, many of whom live in food poverty, to eat well. “Before lockdown we were working on a programme to teach families how to cook from scratch on a budget, and how to use leftovers to make delicious meals. With the planting project we can do both these things and actually have the families grow the food they are going to cook.”
Plans are also afoot to start a community composting project which will collect kitchen waste from participating households, to set up a growing area at the Football Club, and to extend existing activities with the local primary school. “Community growing does so much,” says Clare. “It means more control over our food, healthier diets, and more social interaction. People just drop in now because the garden is so welcoming, and it does them good. We have the older generation like Tom, who have gardening skills, and young people wanting to learn. We can start to be more self-reliant, bartering and recycling for instance, and that is so important in the response to climate change.”
The Penparcau Community Forum is part of larger network of food projects in the town, which are all sharing ideas, as well as food and plants. Many of the vegetable plants this year came from a seedling swap that was organized in the spring by Renew Wales supported groups, Aber Food Surplus and Penglais Community Garden, with local residents. This year also saw the start of the Aberystwyth Seed Library which will encourage local residents to save and swap seeds, building up a repertoire of varieties that are adapted to the local area and saving money too. A heritage apple orchard just outside the town is also getting involved.
Aber Food Surplus, which began a few years ago as a student volunteer project to distribute supermarket surplus food and is now a social enterprise with Lottery funding, is a leader in the town. Director Heather McClure has a radical vision of how community food projects can drive social change. “It’s not a simple story of food waste going to poor people,” she explains. “Food waste is just not a reliable way of feeding people, and there’s no dignity in it. But what we can do is use surplus food to engage volunteers in creative projects, such as catering for community meals, which brings people together in a new conversation. Through working with people in this way we get to see where the cracks are in our food system, and we can come up with long term solutions, rather than emergency food.”
Over the summer, Aber Food Surplus used part of a Welsh Government food poverty grant which came through Ceredigion County Council to supply 59 households around Aberystwyth with growing kits, consisting of paper cups, compost, salad and herb seeds and compost. They are keen to partner more closely with the Council and one of their plans is to set up a Food Council for the town, which would engage local residents with food growing, cooking and eating, and give them a voice into local government.
The embryonic Food Council includes Penglais Community Garden, Borth Family Centre (another group supported by Renew Wales), the Council’s Youth Justice team and a farmer who is raising meat and eggs for sale locally. This follows the example of Food Cardiff, a partnership of voluntary organizations, businesses and individuals which has adopted a Food Charter and is coordinating food activities across the city. Local food plans are just one way to tap into the enthusiasm that emerged during lockdown and are a means by which communities can partner with their local authorities to drive change. A recent Renew Wales seminar brought together inspiring examples from around Wales and found strong interest in changing our food system ‘from the ground up’.
Community food projects have tremendous potential to change people’s lives for the better, and also to drive national change. Food unites policy areas such as health, climate change, mental health, education and the economy, not to mention cultural and spiritual concerns.
Penparcau Hub’s Brwydr y Bwgan Brain display, organized with support from Welsh language promoters Cered, won ‘Best in Wales’ and brought a lot of smiles, community engagement and pride in the village. That, and the forthcoming Halloween celebrations, show how gardens can be the setting for drawing in hearts and minds.
Everyone should be able to join in a community garden,” says Tom. “It brings people together and cheers everyone up. It’s great to bring some beauty into people’s lives.”
Jane Powell is a coordinator with Renew Wales, a practitioner led programme which helps communities in Wales reduce their carbon footprint, adapt to the impacts of climate change and live more sustainably. She also writes at www.foodsociety.wales.
One evening in late June, two months into lockdown, 156 people logged on to Zoom to talk about food and farming in Ceredigion. It was no ordinary discussion. After hearing from a range of farmers, community organizers and environmentalists, they had spent time in small groups sharing their personal responses to the crisis that is Covid, Brexit, climate change, globalization and much else. Guided by a facilitator, they listened carefully to each other, looking for common ground and tentatively suggesting solutions.
At the end of the two-hour meeting, when the note-takers had reported back, it was clear that the event had achieved a remarkable level of shared inspiration. There was a strong call for the relocalizing of food, self-determination for communities and support for young people to enter the food and farming sector, among other things. It had demonstrated the hunger that there is for change in the county, and the richness of knowledge and expertise present.
As one retired farmer put it: “It was quite amazing to have such a breadth of participation…to have a platform where parties involved in farming, land management, horticulture, nature reserves all on large and small scales being represented was so very worthwhile.” Another commented that he had no idea so many people cared about farming. For many, it was an emotional experience to find such warmth and compassion between hitherto opposing sectors.
The event itself came out of a somewhat unlikely collaboration between the Cardigan branch of climate protest group Extinction Rebellion (XR) and local Member of Senedd and former agriculture minister Elin Jones, with support from the farming unions and environmental groups. Ben Lake MP also spoke. As Vicky Moller, one of the organizers, said: “Elin Jones’ decision to co-host with the local Extinction Rebellion branch was in the spirit of the event. Everyone feared hostility or ding dong argument. It didn’t happen.”
This was many people’s first experience of a People’s Assembly, one of a series of five that have so far been organized in west and mid Wales since Covid. The first was held in Pembrokeshire in late April, and it came about from work that organizers Vicky Moller and Anna Monro had been doing to support community groups during lockdown. “At our meetings people discussed the future, and it was clear that they did not want to return to the old normal,” says Vicky. “The leading area where they wanted to see change was food and farming, and so we decided to look at that in detail.”
The format of the People’s Assembly is widely used in XR, which is perhaps best known for its high-profile protests in London, Cardiff and other cities last year. “They are a taster of a growing global alternative to our adversarial model of democracy – where rival parties slug it out and we choose between them every few years, often motivated by fear of those we oppose,” says Vicky. “It’s officially known as deliberative democracy, and in Wales we are calling it ‘trafodwn’, which means ‘let’s discuss’.”
Central to all Assemblies is the work of the facilitators, who are trained in the three pillars of the method: radical inclusion (hearing all voices), active listening (dropping your own agenda to give your full attention to the speaker); and trusting the process (allowing the wisdom of the hive to generate new thinking).
“Thankfully, there is a growing number of trained facilitators available,” says Angie Polkey, one of the organizers of the Ceredigion event and herself a trainer. “We are all helping to satisfy people’s thirst to have they say, be heard and, most vitally, be part of the change that many of us know is needed for a more sustainable and just world.”
Angie explains how important it is that the Assemblies have an impact. One of the five events stimulated local action groups to form, but as she says, “the significance of the others lies as much in the inspiration they created, which will shape future relationships, as well as the feedback that has been shared with elected representatives and local Council.” It is a fundamental tenet that the participants know why the Assembly has been called and what will happen to the findings, because otherwise “people will feel disillusioned and that their time has been for nothing”.
Deliberative democracy for Wales
The People’s Assemblies described here were citizen-led and unfunded, but the principle is also used when Citizens’ Assemblies are commissioned by governments who want to make difficult ethical decisions with public buy-in, such as the abortion laws in Ireland. They use an approach similar to the recruitment of jurors to ensure that the groups are representative, and they typically run over several days or weeks with professional facilitation. A recent OECD study reviewed about 300 government-commissioned events on five continents, and a good practice guide is also available.
Wales held its first Citizens’ Assembly at Newtown in July 2019, to discuss how citizens could engage with the National Assembly for Wales (now the Senedd), and since then there have been calls for Wales to make more use of them in the recovery from Covid. The ground-breaking Well-being of Future Generations Act already sets out a process whereby public bodies are required to collaborate with the public in creating an ecologically sustainable Wales, but it is not enough on its own, as David Thorpe explains in a recent blog for the One Planet Centre.
He calls for Citizens’ Assemblies to work with the Public Services Boards of every local authority, and for the Boards to be held accountable to them. That would raise awareness of the Act and tap into the energy and expertise of community groups, which has been so much in evidence during the coronavirus pandemic. Professor Laura McAllister of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre made a similar point in the Western Mail recently:
“We have a chance to reverse normal political relationships, for the public to be in the driving seat via something like a more expansive citizens’ assembly…If a consensus was reached, we could then hand over our blueprint to the parties and test their genuine appetite for change.”
“Trafodwn is a good term for this newer version of deliberative democracy,” says Vicky. “It is organised from the ground up, with both sides of the divide wanting to meet and sort things out. Something is stirring.”
The idea of creating food hubs appeared in numerous different contexts at the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference in Aberystwyth last year. I hope to share a few thoughts on why I find food hubs an exciting way of working towards a more sustainable food system.
The word ‘hub’ implies bringing people together, and a ‘food hub’ suggests that people come together because of food. Driven by progressive organisations working towards more social and environmentally minded enterprises, food hubs have been gaining popularity in the UK over the last 10 years. This shows that people are inspired to work together, and that there is a desire for change towards a more sustainable food system.
But what is a food hub, and what can it do? At the Conference, people suggested many roles. All were presented as part of a solution and part of an opportunity for different aspects of our food system to flourish and become more sustainable.
Here is a summary of the different type of food hubs I heard being discussed:
‘Producer Hubs’ – Supporting local smaller scale food producers to reach a market.
‘Procurement Hubs’ – A focus on bringing in food to sell in quantity to institutions, offices, schools or hospitals.
‘Redistribution / Food Surplus Hubs’ – there are lots of these popping up around the UK to deal with the environmental issue of supermarket and business food waste
‘Waste Recovery / Value Hubs’ – A similar idea to a food surplus hub, but perhaps more focused on innovation and large-scale waste, to be used for creating a more ‘closed loop’ and circular food system. This could involve a focus on secondary products or by-products.
‘Seed Hubs/ libraries’ – Challenging the ownership of seeds, building a more genetically diverse and resilient local seed base.
‘Skill sharing hubs’ – small scale caterers or producers of manufactured foods can share the infrastructure and kitchen resources to operate self-employed businesses. These spaces can also be used for upskilling people in cooking.
This wide range of issues highlights what people want from our food system. Food hubs can enable more local decision-making powers surrounding food trade, and where our food comes from – an integral aspect of a healthy food system, where citizens have affordable access to food produced in balance with nature.
Furthermore, using these hubs, food does not go through the same valuing / de-valuing processes that it goes through in retail chains or institutional processes. Its worth is informed by people closer to where it is grown and eaten. Perhaps the food hub model of a food system could reflect the truer value of food? Where bringing people together within a transparent food system could showcase the enormous unaccounted value and power of food and food production, and produce a more circular and participatory food system.
The ECO Food Sharing Hub, Aberystwyth
In Aberystwyth, we have had an ECO Food Sharing Hub since March 2019. It is based in a former greengrocer’s shop on a busy shopping street, and was developed jointly by the community and the Aber Food Surplus project. Aber Food Surplus is a food waste redistribution project that started from conversations involving supermarkets, churches, community gardens, bakers, farmers, food banks, students, and charities who could see the community value that sharing food could foster. It was an idea designed in a ‘best fit approach’ to make food ‘waste’ available to the community – where it was ultimately intended to be all along – not in landfill bins!
Aber Food Surplus was founded in 2016, and the project continually highlights a strong desire for change in both our food system and our local area. There is a core team of three staff members and 35 volunteers that collect and redistribute the surplus food. This means the hub is always bustling. There is a kitchen where surplus food can be cooked up for community events, and a community fridge where food surplus is shared. The hub space aims to support knowledge sharing, entrepreneurialism, sustainability, and conversations about our food system. It also hosts the Aber Food Coop, which provides a weekly box of fresh produce to its members.
The ECO Food Sharing Hub is stimulating conversations about what else can be achieved by working together, and how else we can become closer to our food and food producers – a fundamental part of the community here in rural Wales. Through the conversations at our food hub we are evolving every day to become a town that has more knowledge and control over its food supply.
Food hubs have the potential to make change! If you want to be part of this conversation please get in touch. And if you are a grower or producer local to Aberystwyth looking to shorten your food supply chain please get in touch– our Aber Food Coop would be keen to meet you, visit your farm, advertise you, and sell your produce on a weekly basis!
Heather McClure is a director of Aber Food Surplus. She is passionate about the role of food in connecting us to nature, and hopes to see Aberystwyth growing more food and become a wonderful example of a zero food waste town in the near future. This year she is particularly excited to see how aubergines grow.
As supermarket shelves empty and local communities rediscover the value of self-reliance, the coronovirus pandemic has brought with it a surge in demand for local produce. The food chains we had taken for granted for so long now look less reliable under strain, and as we rush to grow our own and stocks of seeds and compost dwindle, we are having to think our food supply afresh.
Everyone is affected. West Wales-based market gardeners Alicia Miller and Nathan Richards knew something had changed when their phone “began to ring and ring and ring with people wanting to join our box scheme”, leading to a doubling of their numbers in one week, while national box schemes Riverfood and Abel & Cole are closed to new orders. “We need to invest in edible horticulture and grow far, far more than we do,” says Alicia, pointing out that only 56% of UK vegetables are grown here.
In Machynlleth meanwhile, the overlap of a new coronavirus support group with an existing food growing project, Mach Maethlon (Edible Mach), has led to an explosion of community activity. Organizer Katie Hastings describes how she was inundated with offers and requests – “people of Machynlleth were incredibly concerned about their food supply” – and within days, thanks to Zoom videoconferencing, they had a plan. Individuals and groups are now tackling the challenge on all fronts: finding land, providing online support to farmers who want to grow field scale crops, setting up a volunteer Land Army, making up seed and information packs for home growers, and coordinating cropping plans, distribution and resources.
This activity hasn’t come out of nowhere. Mach Maethlon has been growing vegetables in the area for eight years, with a box scheme, edible food beds around the town and a training programme for new growers, Pathways to Farming (shared with Cultivate in Newtown). They have built up knowledge, credibility and a strong network. As Katie says of the current push, “It’s all the things that we always thought needed to happen, but there wasn’t the energy to do them – and then suddenly in response to the crisis, all these people were like ‘well I’m not working any more, I’ll do that right now!’ ” Their new website, Planna Fwyd/Plant Food, went live this week.
Machynlleth was one of the first towns to declare a climate emergency last year, and they are used to pulling together. Another high-powered town at the other end of Powys that is accelerating its food production plans is Crickhowell, home of the Our Food project. Coordinator Duncan Fisher explains how they are now planning to fund a new agroecological farming project in the area. “We are calling for Welsh Government and other big funders to create a fund to support new agroecological production,” says Duncan. “We are backing this up with action by creating a £30k fund with our own money. The first project is a polytunnel for Langtons farm.”
David Langton, who with his partner Katherine Robinson set up a project last year to supply microgreens to local restaurants, is starting a year-round box scheme at their new 3.5 acre farm. Construction begins soon on up to 200 vegetable beds, each 15 m long and run using the no-dig system. “We are applying for organic certification,” says David, “but more than that, we are committed to regenerative farming, which builds topsoil at the same time as producing food. Later we plan to introduce poultry which will help this along, as well as giving us eggs and meat.”
Our Food has support from Monmouthshire County Council, who are mapping local food production as part of the Monmouthshire Food Resilience project. Individual gardeners are a part of this, too. “The hobby grower is a vital part of the local food supply,” says Garden Organic trustee and local resident Adam Alexander, “so we are engaging gardeners and allotmenters through plant and seed exchanges, as well as providing guidance to those with no experience of growing their own veg.”
Meanwhile community gardens across Wales are facing the challenge of keeping communities gardening while maintaining social distance. Some are reinventing themselves as hubs that can organize seed swaps and provide planting material for new gardeners. Others are planning to make video tutorials. From Porthmadog to Pembroke Dock to Edible Cardiff, new ways of tapping into public demand for support with gardening are springing up.
It isn’t just that growing food is likely to become a practical necessity as supply chains are weakened by Covid-19. Connecting with other people, and with the natural world, is as vital to our health in the long term as avoiding the virus is in the short term. Growing vegetables at home, at school and in the community brings people together. Buying from local farms helps regenerate rural economies and connects town and countryside. As we reel from the impacts of a global pandemic, we are finding new significance in the places where we live.