Homegrown food makes a comeback as the pandemic changes everything

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.

We can all do something. Find your local community garden, sign the Landworkers Alliance petition to protect local food supplies, write to your Assembly Member and MP and ask what they are doing about food security,  set up a virtual farmers market in your area with the Open Farm Network, watch how-to videos at Huw’s Nursery, and put some seeds in the soil. It’s time to start preparing the ground for a new harvest.

Jane Powell is a volunteer coordinator of the Food Manifesto and the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference. She is an independent education consultant and writes at www.foodsociety.wales.

Featured image: tomato seedlings, by Jane Powell.

Working co-operatively for sustainable and just food systems

By Poppy Nicol and Alice Taherzadeh

Getting a veg box can be great way to get fresh, locally produced organic food. There’s also a high chance that you will be supporting a co-operative business or co-operative ways of working. Many local and sustainable food businesses are based on principles of co-operation rather than the culture of competition that we see in much of the food system.

Take Cae Tan for example. They are a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project which distribute a weekly bag of vegetables every week to their members around Gower, Swansea via their veg hub. Being a member of the scheme, though, doesn’t just mean you get a weekly supply of fresh food. It is also about meeting people. There are opportunities to volunteer and an annual Harvest Supper where members can get to know each other and celebrate the harvest. As the head gardener of another CSA, Banc Organics in the Gwendraeth Valley explains, CSAs are all about cooperative principles, that is:

“owning our means of production and the workers having a stake in things, having democratic control over things and basing them on things other than the market.”

Co-operative ways of working in the food system

In our new report Working Co-operatively for Sustainable and Just Food Systems in Wales we investigate the scope for co-ops in Wales to help us move to food systems which are based on both sustainability and food justice. The work was commissioned by the Wales Co-operative Party and members of the Co-operative Group in the National Assembly for Wales because they believe that sustainability and food justice should, and can, go hand in hand.

We spoke to twelve people from projects all over Wales, including the Wales Co-operative Centre, fruit and veg CSAs, a bakers’ co-operative, dairy co-operatives and a red meat co-operative. We were inspired by their commitment to co-operative principles, particularly within the sustainable food movement, and their desire to promote social change and food justice through their projects.

We also found out that there used to be far more co-operatives across Wales which enabled small producers and business to work together to share resources and bring local food to people’s plates.

Opportunities for working co-operatively

Currently there are very few co-operatives in the Welsh food sector. However, there is great potential to encourage many more with the right support and infrastructure. We found that when businesses and individuals act together through co-operative ways of working, they have more collective bargaining power, better access to resources and potentially more resilience in the face of change. The co-operative values of equity, equality, solidarity, self-help, self-responsibility and democracy are also more likely to promote food justice as they place people at the centre of the food system.

The challenges facing co-operative ways of working

But we also discovered that cooperative projects face a lot of difficulties.

  • Education, training and advice: Currently, there isn’t enough support for co-operatives working within the Welsh food system. The opportunities for training in sustainable food production are also lacking or more difficult to access because of short-term funding. There is further identified need for improving public information on the co-operative economy.
  • Infrastructure for local food economies: In all sectors producers often have to transport food costly distances (often to England) to get it processed or to get it to retailers as there isn’t the infrastructure to support local food networks here in Wales.
  • The real cost of food: The challenge of competing in a food system dominated by industrial production of cheap food. In this system the real cost of food is not recognised and food is produced at the expense of future generations being able to feed themselves and fair livelihoods for those working in the food system.

What can we do?

There is a lot of potential for Wales to make the big policy changes needed to achieve a food system which is both sustainable and just. Based on what we found in the research we think there are four key areas to strengthen the role of co-operation in our food system:

  1. More co-ops! Support community-led food co-operatives to get set up at all levels and scales to increase the number of food co-operatives and size of the co-operative economy in Wales.
  2. Co-operative processing and distributing Promote co-operative approaches to food processing and distribution such as food hubs which would help smaller producers share resources and reduce the environmental impact of transportation by keeping things local.
  3. Networks of training and education Connect up the training landscape in Wales so that there are strong networks for training in sustainable food production as well as linking food and farming into schools and universities.
  4. More veg! Increase small-scale horticultural and arable production by providing better access to land and training for new entrants and business advice for producers in the meat and dairy sectors who want to diversify.

Bringing everyone together: Co-operative Roundtable

After the report was published in December 2019, we were invited to participate in an expert-led roundtable event on January 14th 2020 at the National Assembly hosted by the Wales Co-operative Party and the Assembly Members who funded the project. The event brought together growers, politicians, charities, community organisations, and researchers all working at different levels of the Welsh food system. This included the CSA Wales Network, Food Manifesto Wales, Food Sense Wales, Land Workers Alliance Cymru, Open Food Network, RSPB Cymru, Social Farms and Gardens Wales, Sustain, Trussell Trust, WWF Cymru.

There was a lot of enthusiasm for a more connected and co-operative food system in Wales that makes better links between food production, environmental sustainability, public health and the education system. After we presented our report, Tom O’Kane, grower at Cae Tan one of the largest CSAs in Wales spoke to everyone about the opportunities and challenges CSAs face – including training opportunities, planning constraints and access to land.  Nick Weir from Open Food Network also explained the potential for community food distribution online via platform co-operatives.

The Cardiff round table

Several attendees argued passionately for the importance of wildlife-friendly, regenerative and ecological farming and local food economies in achieving a more sustainable and just food future. They also highlighted the need to scale out (increasing in number as distributed networks) rather than scale up (increase in size). There were many people who emphasised the multiple barriers that are faced by those wanting to create a sustainable and just food system within the current unjust and unsustainable food system and they called for more ambitious and transformative change from government policy to challenge this. It was also pointed out that future meetings need to include the main farming unions as well as educational institutions and conservation groups, bringing the various sectors working within the food system into conversation with one another so that we can develop food policy which is good for people and the land at every level.

Conclusion:

The roundtable was a really valuable opportunity to bring together a range of people working across the food system and a much needed first step to create wider co-operation on the issue. However, there was also a strong sense that we need to move towards concrete action rather than just continued conversations. The roundtable presents the potential to launch a sustainable and just food network or another platform for co-operation across the food system to better inform policy. We are now in the next stages of this and exploring how we can bring together this network to achieve transformative policy action. We’ll keep you posted!

If you want further information or to get involved, then please get in touch.

Poppy Nicol: I am a research associate at the Sustainable Places Research Institute and a gardener. My research interests are in the connections between people and place. I am particularly interested in the relationships between biological and cultural diversity that come alive through agriculture. NicolP@cardiff.ac.uk

Alice Taherzadeh: I am a PhD researcher at the Sustainable Places Research Institute, an activist and a community organiser. My research interests lie in exploring how people learn in order to transform our food system. I am particularly interested in farmer to farmer models of learning and social movements. TaherzadehA@cardiff.ac.uk

Gwersi o’r gorffennol, mewn torth o fara

Gan Jane Powell [read article in English]

Os byddwch yn lwcus y gaeaf yma, gallwch brynu torth arbennig iawn ym Marchnad Machynlleth ar ddydd Mercher. Gyda dim ond chwech o dorthau’n cael eu pobi bob wythnos gan bopty Penegoes Rye and Roses, gwneir y bara o wenith a dyfir ychydig filltiroedd i lawr y lôn yng Nglandyfi a’i falu â maen a phŵer dŵr yn y ffordd draddodiadol yn y Felin Ganol, Llanrhystud. Mae’n amser maith er pan dyfid gwenith ar raddfa fawr i wneud bara yn y rhan yma o Gymru a dyma ganlyniad arbrawf gan griw o unigolion brwd o’r enw Tyfwyr Grawn Dyfi. Mae’r grŵp hefyd yn tyfu ceirch.

Un ohonynt yw Katie Hastings, sydd hefyd yn gweithio i Mach Maethlon ac yn tyfu llysiau ers sawl blwyddyn. “Mae gen i wir ddiddordeb mewn bwydo’r gymuned leol a dechreuais i feddwl a fyddai’n bosibl tyfu ein bara a’n huwd ein hunain yma yn Nyffryn Dyfi? A ches i wybod bod gwahanol fathau o rawn yn arfer cael eu tyfu drwy’r dyffryn ar ei hyd 50, 60, 70 o flynyddoedd yn ôl. Arferai pobl dyfu grawn ar ddarnau o dir sydd bellach, yn ôl rhai, yn anaddas i gynhyrchu bwyd, ond nid felly oedd hi o gwbl yn y gorffennol pan fyddai’r amrywogaethau Cymreig hyn yn cael eu tyfu”.

Tyfu gwenith yn Nyffryn Dyfi, 2019. Llun drwy garedigrwydd Katie Hastings.

Dechreuodd Katie a’i chydweithwyr ar arbrawf hirfaith, gan ddysgu sut i aredig, hau, cynaeafu a dyrnu’r grawn. Buont yn ei gynaeafu â llaw ac yn hytrach na defnyddio combein, cawsant fenthyg peiriant dyrnu o Glwb Hen Dractorau Meirionnydd. “Wrth i ni dorri’r grawn a gwneud cocynnau yn y cae, roedd pobl yn dod i lawr o’r bryniau i weld beth roedden ni’n ei wneud ac yn awyddus i helpu,” medd Katie. “Roedd defnyddio’r hen injan ddyrnu wir yn gadael i fi ymgysylltu â ffermwyr o’r hen do oherwydd bod ganddyn nhw y peiriant yma roedd ei angen arnon ni a’u bod am ein gweld yn ei ddefnyddio eto. Fydden ni ddim wedi gallu ei wneud o heb y ffermwyr hŷn yma’n dangos y ffordd i ni.”

Un o’r rhain yw Alun Lewis o Benegoes sy’n cofio ei dad yn tyfu gwenith, haidd, ceirch a thatws ar fferm y teulu ac yn bwyta bara, caws, cig a llysiau wedi’u cynhyrchu gartref yn ystod cyfnod pan fyddai Dyffryn Dyfi’n tyfu cyfran uwch o lawer o’i fwyd ei hun nag sy’n digwydd heddiw. Yn nes ymlaen, treuliodd 27 o flynyddoedd fel contractwr yn mynd â’i beiriannau dyrnu o fferm i fferm. Yn wahanol i gombein, mae injan ddyrnu’n sefyll yn ei hunfan a rhaid i bobl fwydo ysgubau gwenith neu geirch i’w chrombil er mwyn gwahanu’r grawn o’r gwellt a’r us.

Peiriant dyrnu. Llun drwy garedigrwydd Amgueddfa Ceredigion

“Ar ôl y rhyfel, oedd pob ffarm yn gorfod tyfu ŷd a tatws, er mwyn ffidio pobl,” medd Alun gan gyfeirio at y Pwyllgorau Gwaith Amaethyddiaeth Rhyfel lleol (neu’r War Ag) a sefydlwyd ym 1939 gyda phwerau i hawlio tir gan ffermwyr nad oeddent yn cydymffurfio. “Mae’r llyfrau ’ma yn dangos bo ni yn dyrnu bron yn bob ffarm yn Benegoes ’ma, amser ’ny, ac ym mhob ardal arall, Talybont, ffor’ na i gyd, pob ffarm un ar ôl y llall.” Gan nad oedd gan Alun a’i dad ond tri pheiriant dyrnu a’u bod yn gweithio dros ardal cyn belled i’r de â Llan-non, roedd yna dipyn o bwysau i gwblhau’r gwaith. Yn ffodus, gallent fenthyca peiriant ychwanegol gan y War Ag ac roedd yna help gan garcharorion rhyfel a genod Byddin y Tir.

Mae Alun wedi bod yn rhannu ei atgofion gyda phrosiect o’r enw ‘Ffermio cymysg – hanesion a’r dyfodol’ sy’n ymchwilio i arferion ffermio dros y ddwy ganrif ddiwethaf. Ynghyd â hanesion llafar gan drigolion hŷn dan ofal y partner arweiniol ecodyfi, mae’r prosiect yn edrych ar fapiau degwm o’r 1840au, lluniau o’r 1940au a dynnwyd o’r awyr gan yr RAF, ffilm o archifau’r BBC a dogfennau eraill. Mae System Gwybodaeth Ddaearyddol yn cael ei defnyddio i ddwyn yr holl ddata yma at ei gilydd gan fwrw golwg fesul cae ar sut y byddai’r tir yn cael ei ddefnyddio.

Ymysg y data hanesyddol ceir cyfres o fapiau o’r 1930au a luniwyd ar deithiau maes gan blant ysgol a’u hathrawon. Ei gyhoeddi fel yr ymchwiliad cyntaf i ddefnydd tir yn y DU ers Llyfr Domesday, mae’n adnabod saith categori, gan gynnwys coetir, dŵr ac ardaloedd adeiledig ac yn dangos faint mwy o ffermio âr oedd yn digwydd yn ardal Machynlleth yr adeg honno. Trefnwyd yr arolwg gan y daearyddwr o Lundain Syr Dudley Stamp, a’i gwelodd yn rhannol fel ymarferiad mewn dinasyddiaeth i bobl ifainc, ond aeth y mapiau yn eu blaenau i wneud cyfraniad go iawn i ddiogelwch bwyd yn ystod y Rhyfel.

Defnydd tir yn ardal Machynlleth yn y 1930au. Brown tywyll = tir âr a gerddi marchnad, porffor = gerddi, perllannoedd a rhandiroedd. Seilir y gwaith yma ar ddata a ddarparwyd drwy http://www.VisionofBritain.org.uk gan ddefnyddio deunydd map hanesyddol o’r Arolwg Defnydd Tir sydd o dan hawlfraint Arolwg Defnydd Tir Prydain Fawr, 1933-49, hawlfraint Audrey N. Clark

Yn adleisio hyn, un o nodau’r prosiect Ffermio Cymysg sydd â Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, Prifysgol Aberystwyth ac Environment Systems Cyf. ymhlith ei bartneriaid, yw cyfrannu i drafodaeth gyhoeddus am ddyfodol ffermio yn yr ardal.

“Amserau cythryblus i ffermwyr yw’r rhain ac mae’n helpu i edrych ymhell i’r dyfodol. Mae ffermio wedi newid yn aruthrol dros y ganrif ddiwethaf mewn ymateb i newidiadau economaidd a chymdeithasol ac mae’n gallu newid eto. Rydyn ni am sicrhau bod gwybodaeth ac adnoddau ar gael i ffermwyr a darparu data’n sail i’r drafodaeth gyhoeddus,” medd Chris Higgins, rheolwr y prosiect.

Gwenith Hen Gymro. Llun drwy garedigrwydd IBERS, Aberystwyth

Nid mapiau ac atgofion yn unig sy’n ein cysylltu â’r gorffennol. Ym Mhrifysgol Aberystwyth, mae Dr Fiona Corke yn esbonio sut maent yn meithrin gwenith traddodiadol o’r enw Hen Gymro. “Fe’i casglwyd o ffermydd yng Nghymru ym 1919 gan Syr George Stapledon, cyfarwyddwr cyntaf Bridfa Blanhigion Cymru, ac mae’n cael ei adnabod fel landrace nid amrywogaeth oherwydd mai cymysgedd o fathau oedd o, wedi ymaddasu i’r lleoliad lle’r oedd yn cael ei dyfu,” meddai. “Mae gwellt hir i’r hen fathau o wenith a ddefnyddid at doi ac mae pwysau’r cnydau’n is na phwysau gwenithau modern. Fodd bynnag, roeddent yn ddibynadwy ac mae diddordeb ynddynt eto erbyn hyn, yn arbennig gan dyfwyr organig oherwydd nad oes angen fawr o wrtaith arnynt”.

Wrth gefn adfywio grawn traddodiadol mae Fforwm Grawn Cymru, sef rhwydwaith o felinwyr, pobwyr, towyr, bragwyr a distyllwyr sy’n ymrwymedig i adfer economi rawn genedlaethol. Yn allweddol i hyn mae creu diwylliant bwyd sy’n croesawu amrywiaeth ranbarthol, wrth i rawn esblygu i weddu i wahanol amodau. Chwedl Katie, “Rydyn ni am i bobl brofi’r blas sy’n deillio o gymysgedd o wenith sy’n wahanol iawn i’r blawd rydych chi’n ei brynu oddi ar y silff. Mae blas Dyffryn Dyfi ar y dorth yma, gan adlewyrchu’r pridd a’r hinsawdd lle cafodd ei thyfu.”

Ariennir y prosiect Ffermio Cymysg yn rhannol gan Sefydliad y Teulu Ashley ac yn rhannol gan yr Undeb Ewropeaidd drwy Weinidogion Llywodraeth Cymru. Cafwyd cyllid gan Gronfa Amaethyddol Ewrop ar gyfer Datblygu Gwledig drwy Lywodraeth Cymru, Cyngor Sir Powys a’r tri Grŵp Gweithredu Lleol sydd ar waith yn ardal Biosffer Dyfi: Arwain, Cynnal y Cardi ac Arloesi Gwynedd.

Mae’r prosiect yn rhedeg tan hydref 2020 gan groesawu cyfraniad gan bobl sydd â diddordeb yn hanes amaethyddiaeth yn yr ardal a dewisiadau arallgyfeirio o ran cynhyrchu bwyd yn gynaliadwy. Cysylltwch ag ecodyfi i gael gwybod mwy.

Mae Jane Powell yn ymghorydd addysg sy’n ysgrifennu am fwyd yn www.foodsociety.wales

Lessons from the past, in a loaf of bread

By Jane Powell [darllen erthygl yn Gymraeg]

If you’re lucky this winter, you can buy a very special loaf at Machynlleth’s Wednesday market. Baked in a limited edition of six a week by Penegoes bakery Rye and Roses, it’s made from wheat grown a few miles down the road at Glandyfi, and milled the traditional stoneground, water-powered way at Felin Ganol, Llanrhystud. It’s many years since wheat was last grown at any scale to make bread in this part of Wales, and it’s the result of an experiment by a group of enthusiasts called the Dyfi Grain Growers. The group is also growing oats.

One of them is Katie Hastings, who also works for Mach Maethlon and has been growing vegetables for many years. “I have a real interest in feeding the local community, and I started thinking, would it be possible to grow our own bread and our own porridge here in the Dyfi Valley? And I found out that grains used to be grown all over the valley 50, 60, 70 years ago. People used to grow cereals on areas of land which people now say are unsuitable for food production, but really weren’t in the past when these native Welsh varieties were grown”.

Growing wheat in the Dyfi Valley, 2019. Image courtesy of Katie Hastings.

Katie and her colleagues embarked on a long experiment, learning how to plough, sow, harvest and thresh the grain. They harvested it by hand, and rather than use a combine harvester they borrowed a threshing machine from Meirionnydd Vintage Club. “When we were cutting the grain and making stooks in the field, people were coming down from the hills to see what we were doing, and keen to help,” she says. “Using the old threshing machine really allowed me to connect with the older farmers, because they had this machine that we needed, and they wanted to see us using it again. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without these older farmers showing us how.”

One of these is Alun Lewis of Penegoes, who remembers his father growing wheat, barley, oats and potatoes on the family farm, and eating home-produced bread, cheese, meat and vegetables, in an era when the Dyfi Valley grew a much higher proportion of its own food than it does now. Later he spent 27 years as a contractor, taking his threshing machines from farm to farm. Unlike a modern combine harvester, a threshing machine is static, and requires people to feed sheaves of wheat or oats into it, in order to separate the grain from the straw and chaff.

A threshing machine, courtesy of Ceredigion Museum.

“After the War every farm had to grow wheat and potatoes to feed people,” he says, referring to the local War Agriculture Executive Committees, or War Ags, set up in 1939 with powers to requisition land from farmers who did not comply. “Our records show that we were threshing on nearly every farm here in Penegoes then, and everywhere else, Tal-y-bont, all down that way, one farm after another.” As Alun and his father only had three threshing machines and they covered an area as far south as Llanon, there was a lot of pressure to get the work done. Fortunately, they were able to borrow an extra machine from the War Ag, and there was help from prisoners of war and the Land Girls.  

Alun has been sharing his memories with a project called ‘Mixed farming – histories and futures’, which is researching farming practices over the past two centuries. Together with oral histories from older residents organized by the lead partner ecodyfi, the project is looking at tithe maps from the 1840s, RAF aerial photographs from the 1940s, archive footage from the BBC and other documents. A Geographic Information System is being used to draw all this data together and provide a field-by-field overview of how land was used.

Among the historic data is a set of maps from the 1930s which were compiled on field trips by schoolchildren and their teachers. Hailed as the first investigation into land use in the UK since the Domesday Book, it identifies seven categories, including woodland, water and built-up areas, and shows how much more arable farming there was in the Machynlleth area in those days. The survey was organized by London geographer Sir Dudley Stamp, who saw it partly as an exercise in citizenship for young people, but the maps went on to make a real contribution to food security in the War.

Land use in the Machynlleth area in the 1930s. Dark brown = arable and market gardens, purple = gardens, orchards and allotments. This work is based on data provided through http://www.VisionofBritain.org.uk and uses historical Land Utilisation Survey map material which is copyright of The Land Utilisation Survey of Great Britain, 1933-49, copyright Audrey N. Clark.

Echoing this, one of the aims of the Mixed Farming project, whose partners include the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth University and Environment Systems Ltd, is to contribute to a public discussion about the future of farming in the area.

“These are turbulent times for farmers, and it helps to take a long view. Farming has changed enormously over the past century in response to economic and social changes, and it can change again. We want to make information and resources available to farmers and help inform the public debate,” says Chris Higgins, project manager.

Hen Gymro wheat, courtesy of IBERS, Aberstwyth

 It’s not just maps and memories that link us with the past. At Aberystwyth University, Dr Fiona Corke explains how they are maintaining a traditional wheat called Hen Gymro. “It was collected from Welsh farms in 1919 by Sir George Stapledon, first director of the Welsh Plant Breeding Station, and it’s known as a landrace not a variety, because it was a mixture of types adapted to the locality where it was grown,” she says. “The old wheats all have long straw, which was used for thatching, and they are low yielding compared to modern wheats. However, they were reliable, and now there is interest in them again, particularly from organic growers because they don’t need a lot of fertiliser”.

Backing the revival of traditional cereals is the Welsh Grain Forum, which is a network of millers, bakers, thatchers, maltsters, distillers and brewers committed to restoring a national grain economy. Key to this is creating a food culture that embraces regional variation, as grains evolve to suit different conditions. As Katie puts it, “We want people to taste the flavour you get from a mixed population of wheat, which is very different from flour you buy off the shelf. This loaf has the flavour of the Dyfi Valley, reflecting the soil and climate where it was grown.”

The Mixed Farming project is funded partly by the Ashley Family Foundation and partly by the European Union through Welsh Ministers. The European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development has been made available through the Welsh Government, Powys County Council and the three Local Action Groups operating in the Dyfi Biosphere area: Arwain, Cynnal y Cardi and Arloesi Gwynedd.

The project runs until autumn 2020 and welcomes involvement from people interested in the history of agriculture in the area and sustainable food production diversification options. Please contact Ecodyfi to find out more.

Jane Powell is an education consultant who writes about food at www.foodsociety.wales.

Food from the ground up: The potential of citizen food initiatives

By Jane Powell

Ask people what they would like to change about food, and very often they say they like to be able to buy it locally, and to know where it comes from. Relocalizing the food system is important as a contribution to food security and a vital part of building a healthy food culture. Key to this is bringing together government policy with citizen food initiatives.

The Welsh Government put out two food policy documents for consultation in the summer, with October closing dates, and both have a bearing on this. One was about how to support farmers after Brexit puts an end to EU farming subsidies, and the other was about the future of the food and drink industry. Both are relevant to local food.

Farming and food businesses

First, farming. Sustainable Farming and our Land proposes a single support scheme with two main aims. One is to reward farmers for delivering environmental benefits such as biodiversity, clean water, flood protection and carbon sequestration. The other is to support them to produce and market their products – including food – more effectively.

This raises questions about the relationship between farming and food production. Is growing food merely an income-generating activity for farmers, one that they might replace with glamping or forestry if the conditions are right, or is it a public service to the nation? Farmers lean towards the second aspect, as the NFU’s #proudtoproduce posters proclaim, but as they know better than anyone, they need to make money too.

Then, the consultation on the future of the food and drink sector, which was drawn up jointly by the Welsh Government and the Food and Drink Wales Industry Board. It had three aims. The first was to develop Welsh food businesses, the third was to promote Wales as a food nation, and sandwiched between those two came this one: ‘benefiting our people and society’. The idea here is that businesses who receive government support will ‘provide wider benefits through fair work, developing skills and using resources sustainably’.

Economy or people?

It was good to see this nod to the social aspect of food, as thegovernment’s current action plan Towards Sustainable Growth has been criticized for its heavy emphasis on jobs and exports. This had been a disappointment, given that the underlying strategy document Food from Wales, Food for Wales 2010-2020 took a much broader view, as its title suggests. It attempted to integrate food business development with health, education, community development and food security.

In fact neither policy document has much to say about the value of a thriving local food economy. Instead, they bow to the political imperatives of keeping farmers in business and boosting food industry jobs and exports. Given that farming relies heavily on producing red meat for export while the biggest part of the food sector by value is drinks – notably bottled water and gin – it’s not easy to join the two up.

Nevertheless, where there is an opportunity we must take it, and so at a meeting of community food initatives organized by Renew Wales at Machynlleth, both consultations were given an airing. What could these projects contribute to food policy? Eight speakers shared insights from their projects, and a further 25 or so participants from all over Wales took part in discussions.

two men sorting potatoes
Sorting potatoes at Clynfyw Care Farm

Some of the projects that were represented are working directly on local food supply chains, such as Riverside Community Market Association, Aber Food Surplus and Mach Maethlon’s Pathways to Farming project. Others, such as Borth Family Centre, have a primary focus on people, but use food as an activity to bring them in, and also do their bit to support healthy eating and reduce food waste. Clynfyw Care Farm artfully combines food production with social care, Incredible Edible Porthmadog has a focus on public education, and the Denbigh Plum is all about our food heritage. The Machynlleth Climate Emergency Food Group is researching a food plan for the area.

What was clear is how creative such initiatives are, and how little heed they pay to the boundaries between government policy areas. They draw people together, they prototype new food products and supply chains, they perserve food skills, they enrich our lives through the arts, and they generally change the communities of which they are part. They unlock enthusiasm and dedication from both staff and volunteers, and they care for people who are left behind by austerity and a competitive, materialistic culture.

Significantly, a few farmers attended the event too. As Brexit threatens big changes to their livelihoods, they spoke about their need for closer connection with their local communities and for their work to be appreciated. For them, the opportunity to sell food locally at a good price was a much better option than dependency on subsidies.

So what is the message to the Welsh Government?

Joining up policy

First, there is a strong case for using both areas of policy to support local food systems, and the community food sector with its adaptability and drive is well placed to support that.

The farming consultation already proposes improvements to local infrastructure in some cases, but this must be stepped up as it is central to rebuilding local food economies. Cold storage, distribution hubs, food processing and packing facilities – all of which could be made available to community food initiatives as well as larger food producers – would make local trade much easier.

This could be combined with a drive on public procurement, using the purchasing power of schools and hospitals to prime the pump of local production. The case for this has been made repeatedly, and the Assembly’s Rethinking Food in Wales project recently produced a document with some clear calls for action, available here. Just this month, the Welsh Government has allocated £100,000 to Carmarthenshire Public Services Board to improve local food procurement as part of the £4.5 million Foundational Economy Challenge Fund.

Meanwhile, food businesses also have a key role to play, one which goes beyond job creation and export earnings. It is in everyone’s interests to have a vibrant food culture, with a mix of businesses from the artisan to the large-scale, and a strong story about food and place. The food industry also needs to attract young people, who care not just about pay and conditions, but also about the environmental and social performance of businesses. They want to work for companies that do good, and the food industry has great capacity for that.

Again, community projects are crucial here, connecting people and telling the story of food. Businesses could be doing more to support them, by making their facilities and expertise available, in exchange for a genuine connection with the public. The support they already give to their communities – from snacks for schools sports days, up to grants for capital improvements – could be better coordinated, too. At present it’s haphazard and sets groups up to compete when they could collaborate.

Local food strategies

A clear local food strategy which businesses, community groups, local health boards and others decided together, would be a start. Cardiff just published theirs and it includes community food growing spaces, limiting fast food outlets near schools and a revamp of Cardiff Market. Other areas of Wales could take a lead from them. Government could play a role in bringing people together, as part of its delivery of the Future Generations Act (and incidentally, the Future Generations office is collecting ideas from the public here).

Citizen food initiatives are numerically small, but they are powerful. As Olivier de Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food argues in this video, they draw people together, building trust and creating spaces for new ideas to emerge. By creating alliances with politicians, local businesses and the public, they can amplify their effects, creating real force for change.

We need more of that in Wales. Community initiatives can do what government and business can’t, and they deserve to have more influence. Meanwhile, please sign the petition for more local food in Wales here: www.localfoodpetition.cymru.

Jane Powell is an independent writer and consultant, and a volunteer coordinator of the Food Manifesto. She is also a coordinator for Renew Wales. See www.foodsociety.wales.

Image: Clynfyw Care Farm.

Our Food: rebuilding the local food economy

By Duncan Fisher

Our Food is a new initiative in Wales to rebuild the local food economy. The project has just launched in the Brecon Beacons around Crickhowell and is the beginning of a long process in the local area.our food blackboard - web

The need to rebuild local food economies – which have been decimated by the global food system that drives the export of most of what is produced in a region and the import of most of what is consumed in the same place – is driven by three imperatives: climate change, a feeling of lost local mandate and depopulation.

Building local food economies is a core part of the response to the climate crisis. The global food system, according to this year’s IPCC report, Climate Change and Land, accounts for between 21% and 37% of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity. This is driven by the massive global industrialisation of food. The report calls for “enhancing local and community collective action”.

Meanwhile, enhancing local economic activity is a vital response to the deep sense of loss of  control felt in Wales and across the UK over the things that shape our daily lives. This is driving an unprecedented political crisis.

And finally, building local economies in rural areas is a means of challenging depopulation, creating meaningful jobs at the local level.

Where to start rebuilding a local food economy?

Work starts from a very low base – low demand for local food (nearly everyone goes to supermarkets), low supply (so many small producers have been put out of business by global food chains) and low skills (young people leave to find work elsewhere). Where to start to reverse this long spiral downwards? We believe the first step is driving up demand, through marketing of what local food there is and through raising consumer awareness about the true consequences of buying food in supermarkets that could be produced locally. Demand must exceed supply for businesses to start producing more – customers clamouring for more are better than businesses without markets!

We also believe the process must be driven by businesses. Local government and consumers have a vital role as the purchasers of products, but businesses have the skills and incentive to market products and drive up demand, and only they have the means of responding to increasing demand.

Our inspiration: Schwäbisch Hall, Germany

The inspiration for the Our Food approach is the food project in Schwäbisch Hall in Germany, one of the most successful initiatives to rebuild a local food economy in the world.

This project started with a handful of farmers in 1988 and has grown enormously, with over 1500 businesses participating. The farmers tackled the problem of supermarkets by building their own chain, attached to really nice food halls. The association now owns and runs a large meat processing factory producing a wide range of processed meats from pork raised by local farmers. The farmers set up a charitable foundation that bought the region’s castle, now run as a hotel and conference centre. The organisation heavily emphasises organic production, works to get a fair price for all products, builds marketing capacity, works to improve farm incomes and promotes regional development.

The founder of this project, Rudolf Bühler, is coming to Wales for the Real Food and Farming Conference, and will present the work there in plenary session. The day after, 13 November, we are continuing the discussion with Rudolf in Crickhowell. You are warmly invited!

Our Food across Wales?

As the Our Food approach starts to drive up demand for local produce, we want it to spread. So we have structured the website to be able to be used by other places. The Crickhowell site is our-food.org/crickhowell, so another place could be our-food.org/anotherplace. We will start by inviting other towns around the Brecon Beacons and working to raise funds with them.

Please join in signing a joint letter to Welsh Government!

We are also lobbying Welsh Government to provide more support for rebuilding food economies. We have drafted a letter recommending strong attention to locality and to climate change in the new Welsh Food & Drink Strategy. We are collecting signatures for this: please do sign!

Duncan Fisher is a campaigner on children’s issues and on climate change. With global food systems producing 21-37% of greenhouse emissions, local food systems are something big that Wales can do. www.linkedin.com/in/duncanfisher

Images: Tim Jones, As You See It Media.

 

Global reforestation and sustainable farming – 200 million trees for Wales?

By Rob Squires

Scottish agroforestry

Agroforestry (main species silvopastoral system) at Bolfracks Estate, Upper Farrochil, by Aberfeldy. Forestry Grant Scheme. Photographer – Matt Cartney. Crown Copyright.

A recent Guardian article covered a report proposing the planting of one trillion trees over the next 50-100 years, to mop up two-thirds of global carbon emissions. The Global Tree Restoration Potential excludes arable and urban areas from its calculations, but includes grazing land, on which the researchers say trees can benefit sheep and cattle. As the most effective projects cost as little as 30 US cents a tree, the total price could be £240bn.

This may sound like a lot of money, but on the same day as the Guardian article came out I received a petition from Positive Money (who campaign for monetary reform) demanding the Bank of England divest from fossil fuels. It stated: “Since 2009 the Bank of England has created £445bn of new money, in the process termed ‘quantitative easing’.” Reading this put the situation into sharp context for me. If the banks are “too big to fail”, such that £445bn can be whipped up using the government’s “magic money tree”,  then surely the planet is big enough to merit a mere £240bn to put the brakes on the climate crisis? What is more, this would be £240bn globally, so Wales’ share of this would be a drop in the ocean, compared with the bill for bailing out the bankers.

I recently attended a meeting about the Sustainable Farming and our Land, the Welsh Government’s consultation on support to farmers after Brexit. This got me thinking about the one trillion trees and what it would take for Wales to play its part in this, and I was prompted to do some back-of-an-envelope number crunching.

Let us assume 200 million trees[i] would need planting in Wales, for us to achieve our share of one trillion. Using the same planting densities as the report, this will require around 285,000 hectares (ha). Wales actually contains about 1,500,000 ha of grazing land, which is roughly three-quarters of the total land mass of the country. If most of the trees were planted on this land, it would take up about 20% of it. The average holding size in Wales is about 48 ha, and on that basis an average of 6,720 trees will need planting per holding, at a rate of 140 trees per ha.

If planting 200m trees sounds like a tall order, then serendipitously, in the few days I have been writing this blog, Ethiopia has broken a world record by planting an incredible 350m trees in just one day! Their plan is to plant four billion to counter deforestation, and climate change. The surface area of Ethiopia is 53 times greater than that of Wales, so this target equates to pretty much the same amount of additional trees per hectare as Wales.

Tree planting on this scale will have a dramatic impact, both on the natural world and on the livelihoods of farmers and smallholders. For the environment the benefits of reforestation are obvious, providing habitat, increased biodiversity and ecological resilience. The challenge however, is to develop ways in which the rural economy can adapt to such changes, building food security and ensuring financial benefits.

One important aspect of the government’s proposed Sustainable Farming Scheme is that it plans to reward farmers with subsidies for environmental outcomes, such as biodiversity, air quality, and water quality, all of which tree planting can contribute to. Since currently an average of 80% of Welsh farmers’ income comes from the direct payments they receive through the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, the new environmental rewards are going to be crucial to prevent many farmers from going out of business after Brexit. Tree planting offers much more potential for farmers though, than simply obtaining a replacement subsidy.

The Soil Association’s new Agroforestry Handbook explains the potential of different types of tree farming systems, with advice on implementation, case studies, and market opportunities. The economic case for agroforestry can be considered in three main ways: enhanced ecosystem services; enhanced agricultural outputs; and direct tree outputs.

  • The enhanced ecosystem services that can be achieved are perfect for the Sustainable Farming Scheme, and include carbon capture, biodiversity, rain water retention and soil improvement.
  • A good case study for enhanced agricultural outputs is Welsh sheep and beef farmer Jonathan Francis, who was unable to turn stock into some fields because of rainfall and lack of shelter. With support from Coed Cadw (the Woodland Trust in Wales) he planted 15,000 trees on his 113 ha farm. He is creating shelter for his stock, and reducing water logging and erosion of the soil, thus reclaiming the land and enhancing his conventional outputs. Meanwhile Pembrokeshire farmer Alex Heffron who has written about silvopasture (the grazing of livestock amongst trees) is applying for funding from Coed Cadw to plant tens of thousands of trees on his land.
  • In terms of direct tree outputs, the Agroforestry Handbook lists a range of potential market opportunities, including timber, fuel, food, leisure, and carbon markets. As well as the direct sales, farmers could choose to reduce costs by utilising their own timber for things like fencing, farm buildings, and fuel.

Within the Sustainable Farming Scheme, in addition to a regular income stream from environmental rewards, farmers will be able to access a wider range of business support such as advice, capital investment and skills development. With such a framework in place, it is feasible that land use can be reformed such that Wales makes a fair contribution to global reforestation, whilst supporting land managers to release themselves from the worst of global market forces, moving  away from a heavily subsidised and precarious place, to a new position of much improved community resilience.

Rob Squires is a web developer and food activist in Aberystwyth.

Both images: agroforestry in Scotland, by Matt Cartney, under a Creative Commons licence

[i]. Global population is currently about 7.72bn (growing by over 200,000 / day!), and the population of Wales is around 3.2m, or 0.041%. Based on this percentage, Wales would be required to plant around 410m trees in order to meet its commitment to 1tn trees. This however, is a lot of trees for a relatively small country.

Another way to break it down might be by surface area. The land mass of the entire world is 149 million km², whist the area of Wales is 20,735 km², which is about 0.014%. Based on this percentage, Wales would be required to plant about 140m trees in order to fulfil it’s commitment, which seems more do-able.

There are other ways of thinking about this, such as basing the size of Wales’ commitment on the country’s GDP, or on its carbon footprint. If either of these measures were used, then the Welsh commitment to 1tn trees would no doubt be a lot higher than either of the two figures above. To keep things simple though I have chosen a figure of 200m trees, somewhere in between the estimates formed from population and land mass.