After the unseasonal irrigating of some crops in mid-October normal service resumes with Autumnal damp mildness all around. Light levels around the estuary however remain relatively good and French Beans Fennel and Courgettes have made into November, just. So what do we conclude from several months selling onsite to the public?
Firstly that public response and support has been good, with instinctive feeling that buying veg you can see growing must be a good idea, but also that people will make a conscious effort to come along because they want the venture to succeed. This has been heartening.
Secondly that our plant raising and growing skills remain intact, with some great looking and tasting crops produced. Thirdly what is technically and climatically possible in our mild region is some way from the crops grown and traded currently. While this is not a complete surprise we have to grapple with supplying sufficient range to meet public expectation while trying to meet the seasonal realities of a northerly latitude country.
So how to deal with this? We are trying to carry the above support while at the same time encouraging other growers to meet crop gaps, and anticipate imminent market gaps, eg as air freighted crops diminish. We are also attempting to grow a wider range of crops on one site than is ideal but which will help to satisfy demand for local Welsh veg.
Now that we hope we have convinced the local community we are not property speculators (!) we have to make the case for some polytunnel erection, both to the immediate neighbours and to the planning system. However energy efficient 'tunnels can be (very, by removing wind chill), their use for large fruit farms can arouse concern over visual impact.
While glasshouse blocks were once much more common (eg at Croft near Cardigan) producing Cucumbers, Tomatoes and Winter Lettuce, much of this trade has transfered to the Spain of unregulated cheap labour, as well as more sun. The cheap fuel that facilitated this is ending and the Welsh Assembly has recognised the need for more indigenous production. Newer popular crops such as Sweet Peppers and Chillis are very possible, as well as more ingenious leafy cropping eg Salad Leaves in January rather than Spanish Icebergs, Welsh Parsley rather than Israeli.
Other growers in West Wales have varied views on the market for organic and Welsh production but dominance by supermarkets has left most growers with no route to the public. We hope that by providing some steady sales in St.Dogmaels we can build confidence for future plantings and that the region can start to widen the range of crops grown here, particularly in the Winter months.
We remain impressed with the work being done in Fife since 2008, where many people have been eating a regional diet and subsequently expanding the market for producers in the area. Bright spots in our region might include the newish CSA scheme with Gerald Miles and others at St.Davids, Ritec's box scheme in S. Pembs, Blaen Camel and Troed-y-Rhiw appearing at Farmers Markets all over, the 4CG project in Cardigan, and the University of Aberystwyth's bread wheat project's second harvest. Rick Coleman is starting a Ceredigion loaf with the latter that tastes pretty good.
In the rest of the UK and wider world concerns about inequality and resource shortages won't go away although material comforts in the west seem to mean that most people are not as alarmed as they might be. Stirrings such as the "Occupy" movement have got a mixed response but have effectively shown the hypocrisy of many in the Church of England and larger UK institutions. We might draw some inspiration from Wangari Maathi, Kenya's recently deceased superwoman. She never ceased to point out the need to maintain and enhance our environment as being inseparable from providing work and food for its inhabitants. Unsustainable activities merely rob others of their means of existence
Aug 2011: Farmstand Opens - opening leaflet
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We finally got our new field entrance completed after a lengthy planning process and can now safely access our own land. The whole field we mowed before neighbour Bill did some very neat ploughing in of the surface material.
The very dry conditions have meant a quick start to cultivating a tilth or fine surface. We are working on an initial one acre block of mixed vegetable crops as well as a small nursery bed area.The remainder of the site will go under a green manure mix until at least next Spring, locking up existing nutrients, adding some more and breaking up the subsoil below.
Small areas allow for machinery storage, composting and a shady triangle at the top of the site. This gives a refreshing view of the waves crashing on to Poppit Sands where the Teifi meets the sea.
Much remains to be done before crops go on sale in late July, but the whole area feels full of Spring life.Our hedgerows are particularly full of Blackthorn blossom and busy small birds.
We have limed to counteract the essentially acidic soil typical of north Pembrokeshire and we also expect the increasingly biologically active conditions to aid a higher pH. Most vegetable plants are happier north of pH 6.
Our Plan A fertility source for this year, from the local horse sanctuary, has proved two things, firstly their horses are well bedded but secondly we may have more straw than shit. A longer term plan of composting wood chips and green material in windrows may hinge on being able to afford a compost turner, still a machine rare on farm sites in the UK. We would certainly like to be able to aquire or rent more land nearby for cultivation as well as tree planting.
Our intent remains the same as several years ago, namely producing crops matched to local conditions but also selling and showcasing ni due course other crops and foodstuffs from the region - in this case SW Wales or the old area of Dyfed.
The climatic range of Pembrokeshire particularly makes the potential of a Fife Diet approach significant. Reasonable soils and some relatively dry coastal areas also help.The image of wet West Wales is particularly misleading for visitors to the seaside (Cardigan has around 35'' of rain per year, while parts of coastal S.Pembs are below 30'').
Our area is dominated by a Tesco store selling perhaps 90% of groceries consumed. Both it and an Aldi nearby have fruit and vegetable offers full of lines from South Spain and S.Lincolnshire. The former is notorious now for use of very cheap labour with EU regulation losing its slight hold under the weight of desperate migrants, while the area around the Wash is highly mechanised but very dependent on oil based inputs.Both regions are a long way from the sustainable approach of Organic farming. A simple definition of sustainable might be "do we end a season's cropping with more or less soil than we started with?".
The need to earn a living, as well as having a social agenda, keeps us focused. While some hefty lottery origins monies have made their way to "local food projects" in England, results seem very patchy and a question asked by Jenny Hall at a presentation several years ago seems pertinent: namely was the amount of extra food produced to be measured in any way? One might also include any social benefits provided.
One can hope that among the current crop of new CSA schemes, some go on to impact on their catchment permanently, but grant aid seems a very double edged sword. Policy measures seem far more important and remain largely unfavourable to horticulture,even in Wales.
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Life on the Pembrokeshire/Ceredigion border continues its steady pace. Several people warned us that SW Wales would impose its own timescale upon us but manic Manchester is still amidst us, so far.If Shaun Ryder (sounding chipper of late) can go round the block again then we definitely can. Our grasp of Cymraeg (Welsh) is edging along although which language the teenagers of the area dream in is a question. Renovation works on our house continue to consume lots of time but much of the work looks great. Being miserly has inevitably increased the time element but has preserved funds for horticultural kit in due course. We await a decision on our planning application to create a new safe field entrance and continue to dodge the traffic zooming past the existing one!
We have, as time allows, stayed in touch with regional growers new and old and the potential capacity for crop production of SW Wales remains clear to us. The official recognition is there in Wales to a large extent with Welsh Assembly Reports, Strategies and some funding on the table. While this is much better than the continuing laissez-faire in England, policy measures remain less promising. Eg Single Farm Payments remain available only to larger holdings while many horticultural ones are intensive small acreage, planning policy remains poor at protecting cropping land.
Two other big issues also loom large. Firstly land ownership is concentrating after a period of relatively cheap land prices, a trend bound to continue as food costs rise relative to other aspects of life.Innovations such as post-WWII state smallholdings, incentives for longer term tenancies and serious soil management seem nowhere on the horizon. Those thinking historically will note the correlation between countries with diverse land ownership, stability and food in the shops and less happy tales. It is not an issue taken seriously by many.
Secondly food retail in Wales is concentrating as elsewhere with multiple supermarkets continuing to overpower other traders, local politicians and planners. Options for growers to sell to in the immediate remains a concern. Horticulture does not lend itself to rapid changes in output or overnight training miracles.
More positively the Scottish Parliament bared its teeth (albeit under desperation for cash) and put a Business Rate levy on edge of town supermarkets in their recent budget. The last minute measure had the unintended effect of wrongfooting the big four, in contrast to the disgraceful lobbying used against the sober alcohol measures proposed during 2010. Perhaps John Gummer's efforts earlier to run them out of town are not forgotten. Whether proposed new powers for the Welsh Assembly might include this option we shall see.
A great local example of action has seen the allegedly mean (maybe prudent would be fairer) Cardis buy a substancial central site for locally owned food trading and shoring up the town centre shops. With a planning application by Tesco to effectively take over much of Cardigan's non-food trade awaiting a decision this may be timely.400 shareholders (including us) raising £200,000 is a tremendous achievement in a town of 5000 people.There is some parallel to the Unicorn site purchase in 2001 made possible by customer loanstock buying of a similar sum. Similar public backing must be possible in many areas of the UK with collective control of the resulting assets.While this mirrors historical action such as Building Societies the challenge is to manage such a site well and find commercial users. Food retail skills seem scarce when one looks at the rump greengrocery trade or the all too randomised ranges found in most farm shops.
Guy Watson from Riverford Farm sensibly pointed out this month that rising fuel costs are in all our interests and recent nudging of the $100/barrel for oil similarly nudged the Glebelands Optimistometer. Timescales as ever remain hard to call but $150-200 soon wouldn't be such a surprise. The effects continue to be difficult to model with continuing effort by technoheads to promote GM plants as providing bigger yields (from the same land) while largely ignoring all the fuel (the nitrate fertiliser not the diesel!) such a triffid would need to consume.
Amidst a number of issues a lot of effort on carbon usage of late has pointed up the farm machinery as underestimated as a cost.This means the dearer energy inherent in specialist metals has some potential for significant cost increase.This might well be a trend pushing farm scale down in due course.What state global soils will soon be in is of course debatable, only dearer oil seems to have the muscle to stop erosive practices and depletion of organic matter levels to "dustbowl" levels.Let's hope the Organic Trade Board remember to put it in the ads.....