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

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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

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.

Reducing food waste

truck dumping foodWhen an estimated one-third of the food produced on farms around the world never reaches the table, and people are going to bed hungry even in the UK, something must be wrong. How come our food supply chains are so leaky and what are we going to do about it? In a globalized economy, some of the explanation is well out of the reach of local communities, but the loss from supermarkets and households is something we can all get to grips with.

At the WRAP Cymru/FareShare Surplus Food Summit last week, an invited audience got to work on the question: How to redistribute supermarket food surplus to best effect, not simply diverting it from landfill to stomachs, but also getting the best social and environmental benefits in the process?

During the course of the morning, some fascinating facts emerged. Food banks often have a waiting list of volunteers keen to help. Whether supermarkets are willing to give their food waste to community groups depends on the attitude of the manager, their head office, and even just the staff who happen to be on duty on a given day. Only 2% of the 10 million tonnes of food thrown away in the UK each year is from retailers; much more, 70%, is from households, as we buy too much and leave things at the back of the fridge.

The sheer complexity of the problem was evident. This is a challenge to be tackled on many levels, not least IT, as the FareShare FoodCloud partnership with Tesco shows. Environmental health regulations, storage facilities, transport and training come into it too. The task of sorting out working relationships between supermarkets, community groups, local government and volunteers is probably the biggest though, and it is one in which values have a part to play.

How is the enthusiasm of many supermarket store managers and individual staff to be translated into company policy, to be reinforced by training and facilities? What motivates volunteers to help out, and how can they be made more effective? How can we remove the stigma of surplus food being for poor people and see it simply as food, for which we all have a responsibility and which we can all enjoy? How to fit food redistribution into the bigger picture of fair food for all, linking it for instance to the local food movement?

These are all questions we will be asking in our next Food Values event, in Aberystwyth. We’ll be working with an existing student initiative that links supermarkets to charities and asking how we could take it to the next level. What might that look like – a food waste café, vans, a website, a warehouse perhaps – and who could help it happen? It will mean forging new partnerships between people with very different interests, and these will be much more effective if people think in terms of the greater good, as well as what’s in it for them. It will mean people coming together on a human level, because they are members of the communities in which they live, and coming up with something new.

To do that we’ll be hearing from the inspirational food waste café at Fishguard, which saves an estimated 21 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually by diverting food from landfill, and is an important social hub. We’ll also hear from some of the supermarkets and charities already working with surplus food in Aberystwyth, and by sharing the stories of individuals involved, we’ll find out what’s important to them and see where there is common ground.

The result will be much more than an action plan for food waste redistribution in Aberystwyth. It will include an insight into what makes a community tick, and how to bring together business, community and government in order to serve their local area. It will, we hope, be another example of the way in which food, touching as it does so many aspects of our lives, is also a powerful force for individual, social and environmental transformation.