Land, food and people: lessons from the Isle of Man

By Jane Powell

Bees hover over marigolds, cornflowers and yarrow in full bloom around the edges of a field of beans which stand blackened and dry, ready for harvest. Beyond, the land slopes down to the valley bottom, where small herds of South Devon cattle are grazing the species-rich wetland meadows. Hedgerows abundant with blackberries, hawthorn and guelder rose divide Guilcagh farm up into small parcels, where Jo Crellin also grows wheat for milling and hay for the horses of the nearby riding school. This is the Isle of Man, where the sunny low-lying northern tip, in the rain shadow of Snaefell, is well suited to cereal cultivation.

We’re on a walk organized by the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, and the co-existence of food production and nature is certainly a strong theme of the discussion. There is also a historical dimension: archaeological evidence suggests that people were growing wheat here  almost 6000 years ago. But it’s not just about a timeless rural idyll. Back at the farm, Paul Fletcher, owner of the cows we admired earlier and the new Chair of the Island’s Agricultural Marketing Society, explains his vision for a food chain that connects people to the land not just through the food they eat, but also through knowledge and understanding.

“We want to see personal connections up and down the food chain,” Paul says. “Retailers, food businesses and farmers need to meet so that they understand each other’s work and build trust in the food system. When you buy produce from Manx farms you become part of a unity of people and nature, and we want to make that easier for people to understand.”

It’s a familiar theme: the public has become disconnected from the land, and food has become a mere commodity to be traded like any other. Telling the story of food, by making the food chain visible and personal, doesn’t just secure the livelihoods of farmers and enrich the tourist experience; it can also help to reinvigorate a sense of community, place and belonging. This is a quality which it can be difficult to articulate, let alone assign a monetary value to, but which is readily conveyed in the context of farmers markets, school visits to farms and farm walks such as this.

genuine IoM meatEvery society has its own take on the story of its homegrown food. The Isle of Man has some defining characteristics which are unique to a small self-governing island with its own quirky fauna (it lacks badgers, foxes, moles and toads, but has a population of feral wallabies), and yet are instructive to us in Wales and beyond. At 32 miles long and 14 miles wide – which is one-third the size of Ceredigion, which it resembles with its rolling hills and fishing villages, but with a slightly bigger population – it corresponds roughly to the area covered by a market town and its hinterland, which is what many of us have in mind when we talk about ‘local’ food.

At the same time it has a national government with powers that Wales is still dreaming of, and it’s outside the EU, although in practice very tied to it by trading arrangements. That means for instance that it finances its own farming subsidies out of domestic taxation, it has fixed the retail price of home-produced milk at 60p a pint and it owns all the land over 200m. Meanwhile the obstacle of the Irish Sea, which is reckoned to add 20% to the cost of goods that are ferried across, is a powerful stimulus to local food production and contributes to the island’s diversified farming system, which supports a creamery, an abattoir and a flour mill, besides supplying eggs and vegetables.

It’s also been designated a UNESCO World Biosphere region, which is simultaneously an accreditation for the Manx balance between human activity and the natural world, and a stimulus to develop new approaches to sustainable development. As such, it is part of an international partnership of reserves which includes such iconic sites as Ayers Rock and Yellowstone National Park – and in Wales, the Dyfi Biosphere centred around Machynlleth – with a remit for educational exchanges and research.

The Dyfi Biosphere, which spans three local authorities (Ceredigion, Gwynedd and Powys), is dominated by beef and sheep and has few opportunities so far for creating branded products for export, but the cultural conditions are not so different. Both Biospheres have a Celtic language and rich cultural history, both have strong farming traditions, and both have a strong sense of place and family roots. Both also benefit from a dynamic population of incomers who are attracted to the natural beauty and atmosphere of the western margins and ready to envision a bright future.

As we in Wales face the uncertainties of leaving the European Union we have an opportunity to ask ourselves what future we want for our food system, and we have much to gain by talking to others who are grappling with the same challenges. It’s a time for building new partnerships, and the Isle of Man and the network of Biosphere reserves can offer Wales a new perspective on the relationship between land and people.  It’s worth further exploration, as we transcend our local identities to find the universal values of place-based development.

Jane Powell is a freelance educator and writer active in local food matters in Aberystwyth.   She writes here and on her own site, www.foodsociety.wales

Advertisements

Big retailer milk with a local face

By Pamela Mason

Can milk sold in a supermarket be local? The answer is both yes and no. Hardwick Farm near Abergavenny in Monmouthshire, which I visited in the spring, produces milk for Tesco. So when people in Monmouthshire buy milk from Tesco labelled with a Welsh dragon, some – an unknown, and anonymous – portion of the milk could have come from Hardwick Farm or one of the 80 other dairy farms in Monmouthshire that have a Tesco contract.

Hardwick Farm is a family-run dairy farm about a mile from Abergavenny. Farmer David Jones has 150 milking cows – so not a large herd by modern standards – that produce a total of 4000 litres of milk a day. He milks with robots which allows the cow to decide her own milking time and interval, rather than being milked as part of a group at set milking times. The milking unit consists of a milking machine, a teat position sensor, a robotic arm for automatic teat-cup application and removal, and a gate system for controlling cow traffic. The cows are milked for 10 months a year during which time they are housed in a barn where the robotic milking machine is located.  When the cow decides to enter the milking unit, a cow ID sensor reads an identification tag on the cow and passes the cow ID to the control system. The cow’s teats are automatically cleaned, the milk cup is applied to the teat which is followed by milking and finally teat spraying.

This system removes the need for manual labour in milking and the cows are milked up to four times a day. This method of milking has become increasingly popular and the price of a robotic unit is currently about £100,000. The cows at the Hardwick are fed a silage mix of 50:50 grass and maize, all of which is grown on the 500-acre farm. The ratio of feed consumed to milk produced is similar to that with a traditional milking parlour, with increased efficiency lying in the reduced labour. The only addition to the feed is a 3 per cent protein concentrate. The farm also grows wheat and rape seed for sale off the farm.

The milk is collected from the farm by the dairy processor, Muller, then taken for processing and packaging at the Muller depot in Bridgewater, Somerset, some 74 miles away. Milk prices paid to farmers have fluctuated during recent years from around 38 to 18p per litre, reflecting the investment put in to the industry when prices were high, the consequent increase in production, followed by a fall in prices. Tesco bases its payment to farmers, which is currently [April] 28.7 pence per litre, on the cost of production, which includes feed, fertiliser, fuel, veterinary costs and depreciation. Tesco updates the prices every three months and farmers submit invoices to an independent consultancy to allow an average price for milk to be calculated.

Tesco, like many milk purchasers, is starting to ask questions about antibiotic use. Antibiotic resistance is increasing and farmers have a contribution to make in tackling this issue, particularly by reducing the use of antibiotics critical in human medicine. At Hardwick Farm sand is used as bedding. Sand does not support the growth of bacteria such as E. coli and Strep uberis that cause mastitis, thus reducing the need for antibiotics.

David thinks that Brexit could provide an opportunity for dairy farmers. The UK has the second largest net dairy deficit in the world, behind China. This trade deficit is largely driven by cheese imports, which made up around half of the value of the UK’s total dairy imports in 2015. The UK also imports significant quantities of infant formula, butter, yoghurts and buttermilk while exporting milk and cream. This deficit could possibly be reduced by making available more of the British milk supply for home consumption at the expense of imports, but this is dependent to some extent on milk prices. David thinks Brexit will not cause a problem for dairy farmers in the short term. In the longer term, however, if farm payments are retained in Europe but not in Britain this would make it difficult to maintain standards of animal welfare. For now, he seems happy with his Tesco contract.

During the recent BBC TV Milk Man series of programmes, Gareth Wyn Jones also discussed Welsh dairy farmers who have contracts with Tesco http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08dzwzc.

Pamela Mason is the author, with Tim Lang, of Sustainable Diets and is active in food projects in Monmouthshire.

 

Food Network Wales – working for a better food system

school kitchen counter

By Pamela Mason

Working for a better food system in Wales is something that few would argue with. We know the issues linked with food, from obesity to climate change, from poor remuneration for farmers to the demand for food banks. Many people and organisations across Wales including civil society groups, the private and public sectors and Welsh government are working on these things. Yet, despite Wales being a small country where people make good connections with one another, many people whose work is linked to food work don’t always know what others are doing. When that happens, we miss the opportunity to gain from each other’s knowledge and experience, and progress towards the better food system we all want to see is very slow.

With this in mind, during the past 12 months or so, a small group of us who live in Wales and are strongly engaged with food in academia, business, civil society, the public sector or as health professionals, have come together to discuss how we can help to make the food connections across Wales work better. To that end, we have developed the concept for a new network, Food Network Wales, in which we hope to work together with as many people and organisations as possible. We have produced a consultation document which summarises our thinking to date and how we, by joining together with what we hope will be a wide variety of civil society groups, farming and food businesses, academics, health professionals and public sector bodies, hope we can create a space for networking, thinking, knowledge exchange and research towards this better food system we want.

The problems linked with food are well known. In Wales almost a quarter of adults are obese and less than a third are eating their five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Climate change, associated with a greater risk of flooding, is already having an impact on food production. Poverty has increased in Wales during recent years making it difficult for people on low incomes to access a good healthy diet. Food bank use has increased. Small family farms, which make such a vital contribution to Welsh culture and Welsh language, as well as being producers of some of Wales’ best food, continue to decrease in number. Brexit could have a devastating effect on family farms and severely affect food resilience and food poverty.

The Well-Being of Future Generations Act creates a huge opportunity to focus on the improvement of the food system from increasing the availability of healthy, affordable food for all the people of Wales, reducing carbon emissions and biodiversity loss to supporting farmers in the strengthening of shorter supply chains and improving social cohesion around community food initiatives. The Act offers a particular opportunity to help children and young people learn more about food, how to grow it and how to cook it.

Food Network Wales wants to get people together who are concerned about the food system and want to work to improve things. We see Food Network Wales as being a dynamic, progressive organisation acting a hub for engagement and debate across a broad range of stakeholders in food and farming. We think that strengthening short supply chains and getting more local food on to the public plate will be key interests for many who join this network. We also think this new organisation will play an active role in raising awareness around food, sharing information with a wide range of people and collaborating on research. We are also developing a Food Manifesto for Wales, which we hope will be recognised by the general public and adopted by Welsh governmental and non-governmental organisations, businesses and health professionals.

We aim to provide an ‘umbrella’ under which everyone with an interest in the food system in Wales – farmers, growers, processors, retailers and consumers, as well as academics and healthcare professionals – can gather for the benefit of all. We hope you will share our vision, not to mention excitement, for the potential that Food Network Wales offers to make for a better food system in Wales today, tomorrow and for future generations of Wales. Let’s do this together.

You can download a short introduction here in Welsh and English. We’d love to hear your views and you can do this by responding to our on-line survey:

Cwblhewch yr arolwn yn y Gymraeg

Complete the survey in English

Pamela Mason is the author, with Tim Lang, of Sustainable Diets and is active in food projects in Monmouthshire. 

The future of farming will depend on what the public asks for

This article by Jane Powell was first published in the Cambrian News 

When NFU Cymru Livestock Board chairman Wyn Evans was growing up, his grandparents’ upland farm near Aberystwyth was a model of self-sufficiency. They grew grain, hay and green fodder for their animals, just buying in a little extra feed for a milking herd of 20-25 cows, and sent their small flock of sheep up the hill to graze in the summer. The land supported four people working full-time on a wide variety of tasks and produced milk, beef, lamb and potatoes for local consumption.

Wyn Evans

Wyn Evans on his farm

It’s a way of farming that has vanished. Speaking at February’s Let’s Talk About Food event in Aberystwyth, Wyn described how he and his wife combined that farm with other land they bought and now keep sheep and beef cattle on 230 acres, sending lambs to the abattoir in Llanidloes and on to Sainsbury’s, while the calves go to other farmers for fattening. He employs only a little part-time labour.

“The main change has been the grip of the retailers,” he explains. “We love to do our shopping in one place, and so we go to supermarkets. But that way, beef and sheep farmers get on average less than the cost of production, and depend on subsidies.” With Brexit, Welsh farming is at a crossroads: it will either move to very large-scale farming to stay competitive, or with government support, strong domestic sales and access to the EU market, family farms might stay in business.

All this might be seen as simply a problem for farmers to sort out, but the public are involved too. The countryside, its wildlife, its soils, its amenities and of course its capacity to produce food are of concern to all of us. Now is a crucial time for food producers and the public to come together and ask what food system we want to see, and that was the bigger question at February’s event, organized by the Aberystwyth Food Forum with support from Ceredigion Council’s Cynnal y Cardi programme.

LOOKING FOR LOCAL ALTERNATIVES

The Forum was set up last year to see how everything to do with food in our area can be developed and celebrated for the good of all. Members include Aber Food Surplus, who redistribute supermarket surplus to charities, and Penglais Community Garden, and it holds regular Pay-As-You-Feel meals in cafes and community centres in town, bringing people together for discussion.

We want to ask questions about where our food comes from. The supermarkets are not the only show in town. The Treehouse buys direct from many local organic and low-input producers, selling vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy in its shop and café, and there are several excellent family butchers selling local meat. The twice-monthly farmers’ market is thriving, and many eateries boast local produce on their menus.

Perhaps Brexit is an opportunity. “I would support any outlet for agricultural produce,” said Wyn. “Let’s educate people – they don’t have to go to the supermarkets. There are other choices.”

Jane Powell is a freelance educator and writer active in local food matters in Aberystwyth.   She writes here and on her own site, www.foodsociety.wales

Cutout hen and wellies

Teaching children where their food comes from

By Jane Powell

“What’s good about being a farmer?” Potato grower Walter Simon is taking questions from a class of seven-year-olds at Narberth Primary School in Pembrokeshire, and this question comes up five or six times. Each child gets a fresh answer: Because I love being outside. Because growing potatoes is an exciting challenge. Because every day is different. Because I am my own boss. Because I’m producing food which people need, so I’m doing something useful and that feels good.

Without thinking about it, he is giving the children a lesson in values. For him, a good job doesn’t mean high pay, long holidays or prestige, nor is it about comfort and security. He shares his sense of enjoyment, adventure and the satisfaction of serving others and belonging to your local community, and the children are enthralled. They are meeting someone whose job it is to grow their food, and they are waking up to an important fact of life – our dependence on a complex food supply chain which starts with farmers and other primary producers, and eventually reaches their plates. They begin to see their own place in the world, and it inspires a certain wonder and respect, from which curiosity flows, and a desire to learn more.

This is why the charity Farming and Countryside Education (FACE) and community development organization Planed, in partnership with a range of farming and education partners including the NFU, the Healthy Schools Scheme and the National Park, are running a pilot project to reconnect Pembrokeshire children with the food chain. Children are engaging in an enquiry into the local food system, starting with food mapping workshops in the classroom and then taking them out into their local community to  survey food shops, interview shopkeepers and visit farms. They are also looking backwards and learning about a time when people didn’t get their food from large supermarkets, farms were mixed and people ate seasonally. That leads to a discussion about what the food chain of the future might look like – small-scale local production, large-scale intensive farms, or a mixture? What would they choose?

The potential of food education is huge. Farm visits, gardening, cookery, community meals, egg-hatching projects and so on give children an instant and powerful connection with the world outside the classroom and help them move outside the confines of a modern lifestyle which cuts them off from the natural world. Alongside all the science and geography that they learn in the context of exploring the food chain, they gain practical skills which bring confidence and self-respect, and which will serve them well in later life. They also meet people they otherwise wouldn’t, whether it’s a local retired person who comes in to help out with the garden or a business owner who has come to trade at a schoolyard farmers’ market.

The fundamental importance of food to our lives is hard to overstate, and yet all too often education about food and farming falls to the bottom of the list. When there is literacy and numeracy to fit into the school day besides all the usual demands of the academic curriculum, plus the Eisteddfod and a dozen other excitements on offer, it can be hard to persuade a school to cram yet another activity to into a crowded schedule. One way to do this is to show how so many curriculum requirements can be taught through food and farming, from art and global citizenship to geography and business. Another is to show the benefits of the outdoor classroom in engaging learners who might struggle in conventional settings, whether because they find it hard to sit still in a classroom, or because the natural environment opens up more sensory channels for learning.

It’s time for a more strategic approach. In England, the well regarded Food for Life scheme draws together home cooking in the kitchen, gardening, farm visits and community links into a single programme which runs across the whole school under the guidance of the school cook and the head teacher. It has been shown to  deliver many benefits, including increasing vegetable consumption for parents as well as children,  boosting the local economy through purchasing policies and starting to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged children. Originally Lottery-funded, the programme is now being commissioned by local authorities and even individual schools.

Could Wales do something like this? The Food and Fun programme developed by Food Cardiff and now extended to the rest of the country, where free school meals are provided over the summer holidays and linked to food education and physical activities, shows that there is a will to invest in children’s food. But it needs to go further, permeating the curriculum and the term-time ethos, and really engaging the younger generation in creating a better food system for the future, in partnership with their communities and business. It’s a particularly good time to do this now, as Wales is embarking on a major reform to the school curriculum, and has the new collaborative ethos of the Well-being of Future Generations Act.

Our Food Values project showed how deeply felt is the public concern for ‘teaching children where their food comes from’ and passing on the values and skills that will ensure a fair and healthy society. Food is ultimately not a commodity but an essential of life, connecting us to each other and the natural world. Let’s give children a thorough grounding in the interdependence of humans and nature, starting with the meals they eat three times a day.

A dairy farm doesn’t have to be big to work well

meadfarm

By Pamela Mason

‘Established in 1861’ is a shop sign that I grew up with. It was one of the things that distinguished our family business in the market street of the East Manchester town near where I grew up. But what I love to see these days are businesses established in recent years. So when I paid a recent visit to a dairy farm in Monmouthshire, I smiled when I saw the delivery van in the farm yard saying ‘Mead Farm Foods Established in 2016’.

The dairy farm itself is not quite as new as that and is run by sixth-generation farmers Lawrence and Izabela Hembrow who, three years ago, moved from the family farm in Somerset to Mead Farm on the Gwent Levels in Redwick, near Caldicot. They have a herd of 200 Holstein Friesian cattle – not large by modern standards – producing  5000 litres of milk each day. During the first three years all of the milk was distributed through the Arla Dairy Co-operative which has about 3000 dairy farmer members in the UK.

Lawrence told me that worked well for them and he says he has never been one to grumble about milk prices as they simply go and up and down with the market. “When prices went up to 34p a litre a few years ago, many people invested, and milk production escalated with the result that prices dropped to 17p per litre. It was hardly surprising and a reflection too of the global market place. But we’re now up to 24p per litre and happy enough with that.”

Mead Farm Foods is a new arm of the dairy farm business which Lawrence and Izabela developed not so much in response to the ups and downs of milk prices but because they wanted their milk “to tell a story” and “to share that story with their neighbours across the county”. At the heart of this new business is a pasteurization and bottling plant situated on the farm for which they were fortunate to obtain grant funding from the European Union Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.

The business ‘established in 2016’ is very much a family business in which the young Hembrow children, William and Abigail, play a part. When I went into the shop in the farm yard I was professionally served by young William to a 2 litre bottle of milk and some butter, all home made on the farm. The most important outlets for the dairy produce, however, are the 60 doorstep deliveries, which are made three times a week, and in keeping with the farm’s environmental credentials, using electric vehicles.

They also sell through nearby village shops and the day I visited Lawrence and Izabela were in Penhow shop answering customers’ questions about the milk and telling the story of what they do. Penhow shop sells no other milk now and sales are increasing, despite the price of a 2 litre bottle of milk being £1.90. But as one customer told me: “It means a lot to buy local milk that comes with real values – you know where it’s from and who produces it. I don’t know any of that if I go to a big retailer, and I’m happy to pay more,” she added.

Lawrence tells me they are distributing 400 litres of milk locally through Mead Farm Foods. That is one per cent of the milk their herd produces, but given they have been in business only three months, Lawrence is very happy with progress. His aim is to shift larger volumes through the new business and he is working with the Food Industry Centre at Cardiff Metropolitan University to be able to market his produce more effectively. Being located next to the city of Newport which is home to 146,000 people is something he views as good potential.

During the recent BBC TV Milk Man series of programmes, Gareth Wyn Jones explored the crisis facing the Welsh dairy industry. In the last of the three programmes, Gareth showed some Welsh dairy farms which are choosing to add value to their milk on the farm. And the Hembrow family, like those on the Milk Man, show that it can be done, with a business ‘established in 2016′.

Picture: cows and people at Mead Farm, see https://meadfarmfoods.co.uk.