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County farms: time for a rethink?

Leechpool historical images

As part of our strategy to make small-scale regenerative vegetable farming the bedrock of a vibrant new local food economy, we’re calling on Powys and Monmouthshire County Councils to rethink how they use their County farms.

Powys has already stepped forward and offered one of their farms, near Montgomery, for a feasibility study funded through the Welsh Government Rural Development Programme 2014-2020*. So over the next two months we’ll be looking at how this farm could be converted into a multi-enterprise hub, with small farms available for rent by young farmers growing regeneratively for local markets.

Under this model, each autonomous enterprise would have a separate parcel of land – typically 3-10 acres – with a c.10-year lease, basic infrastructure, a low-carbon home and access to shared work facilities.

This is very different to the current situation, whereby large areas of publicly owned farmland are being used to house and provide a living for just a handful of people. In Monmouthshire, for example, there are 3,000 acres of County farmland, managed by just 26 tenant farmers.

Small farms, big benefits

Our model would provide a valuable route into farming for many more new entrants than the current one-farm-one-family arrangement and prepare them for a more viable future in farming, using far less land than in the past – and more productively.

In addition, this model has the potential to:

  • produce high-quality food for the local community
  • increase food security
  • create jobs
  • provide training and wellbeing opportunities in rural communities
  • reduce carbon emissions from food and drink consumption
  • increase biodiversity
  • reduce the environmental impact of farming, including pollution
  • conserve heritage varieties, and experiment with growing crops adapted to climate change
  • provide a testing ground for small-scale renewable technologies
  • generate more rental income for Councils.

Learning lessons from the past

The idea is not entirely new. Back in the 1930s, the Welsh Land Settlement Society established several farms on similar lines. The Society’s aim was to tackle some of the pressing social problems of the time, including a lack of jobs and affordable housing, the need for training, and provision of healthy, nutritious food.

One of these was Leechpool Farm near Chepstow, a 329-acre estate owned by Monmouthshire County Council and run as 40 small tenant farms.** These ranged in size from 6-10 acres, with the council providing homes, piggeries and heated glasshouses on site, as well as a small acreage used as a central farm. Produce was collected daily and prepared, graded and marketed through the central farm. By 1938 the settlement had 40 men in training and was home to 26 families.

Spurred on by the wartime policy of maximising vegetable production, these small-scale farmers made decent profits, with records showing that 6-10 acres of good land plus a 65ft x 15ft heated glasshouse could provide a decent living for an industrious grower. But by the end of the 1940s outputs had dropped: 10 years of intensive cropping had left the soil exhausted, and to make matters worse, the price farmers were getting for their veg was failing to keep pace with the rising costs of production and marketing. At the same time animal feed costs started to climb, making the poorer land at the heart of the settlement less viable for pigs and poultry.

A major reorganisation in 1951 saw 20 of the holdings amalgamated to create larger plots, providing the remaining farmers with enough land to rear pigs and poultry, grow feedstuff and lay some land down to grass in a bid to restore fertility.

The settlement carried on in this way until 1957, but by then the push was on for industrial- scale farming, and supermarkets, centralised distribution and the rise of convenience food were all contributing to the collapse of local supply chains.

So why should something that’s failed in the past work now?

  • There’s growing recognition that global food supply chains are fragile and are contributing massively to climate change through deforestation, carbon emissions and waste. To ensure food security and meet our climate targets, we must relocalise at least some of our food supply.
  • Modern small-scale regenerative growing is skilled work – highly efficient, and highly productive, which means more food can be grown on less land.
  • By creating the hubs as clusters of autonomous enterprises with shared work facilities, we encourage entrepreneurship and innovation, along with a sense of community and support – vital at a time when farmers are facing unprecedented challenges.
  • These new farmers will have access to the network Our Food 1200 is building, based on collaborative marketing and low-carbon sales logistics, and connecting them to a system that can rapidly transfer food across the region according to demand.
  • And finally, regenerative growing actively restores and builds soil health with each crop cycle. So the overriding problem the Leechpool farmers faced – depleted soil – should never be an issue.

* This support has been provided through the Co-operation and Supply Chain Development Scheme – CSCDS Innovative Approaches and Collaborative Growing.

** Source: Roland Ward: “A History of the Welsh Land Settlement Society”, pp54-57.

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