Britain Farming Food Geographical Sustainability

A Welsh food and farming revolution

From Wicked Leeks

Tucked down a backstreet in central Cardiff, staff at Bacareto are serving delicious house wine alongside fresh, seasonal cicchetti (Italian for tapas). There’s seaweed and chickpea tapenade, pumpkin topped with parmesan, smooshed celeriac and cod with juicy caper berries, all served on fresh bread and a very far cry from the sports bar burgers you tend to associate with Cardiff’s food scene.

That’s not to say the city isn’t set up for sport – and it’s certainly front of mind as the national football team make their way home from their first World Cup in over 60 years. But they aren’t the only ones making waves. Quietly, but steadily, there is a food and farming revolution underway across the country.

People still talk of Jay Rayner’s 2016 visit to the city where he claimed to have found nowhere good to eat in the centre, but things are changing (and even Rayner has since retracted).

Aside from Bacareto – a Community Interest Company that also owns a skatepark and café in a deprived area of the city – there’s a growing list of other independents, including Nighthawks, serving late night sourdough cheese toasties and natural wine, sustainable and circular economy restaurant Kindle and Waterloo Tea and Wyndham Cafeteria cafes, buying from local suppliers and paying the Living Wage.

But what’s happening in food in Cardiff isn’t a coincidence, or the result of just one or two well-minded business owners. It’s a result of long-term funding and hard work by a small team working at Food Sense Wales and the Sustainable Food Places scheme, Food Cardiff, where pioneering food partnerships have helped combine hyper-local interest in food with national lobbying.

“There’s been a huge shift,” says Pearl Costello, coordinator of Food Cardiff. “It isn’t very measurable, but the vibe and atmosphere is very different in the city.

“In terms of businesses, we’ve seen a massive shift in terms of independent businesses doing things around sustainability and health. Or they’re also looking at things like social goals, like pay as-you-feel, or local sourcing.”

Cardiff currently holds silver in the national Sustainable Food Places scheme, which helps towns and cities across the UK build their own good food and farming movements and economies. And buoyed by its success across the city, it’s now going for gold.

Key to this success, according to Costello, is a shift in how much interest there is at a community level.

“That’s the thing that’s really transformed,” she says. “Four to five years ago people were doing little projects in their community. Having the food partnerships meant we could bring people together. It gives a sense of empowerment but also scale.

“People feel quite strong connections to their very local areas – you can do very hyper local work, but also build it into a bigger picture.

Speak to anyone working in food and farming in Wales and they accept there’s a new momentum, but many are also waiting for a joined-up vision.

There’s anticipation that this could be provided by a new Food (Wales) Bill going through the Welsh Senedd this week, which could, in theory, connect policies across health, food, farming and planning.

Wales and Scotland both have such bills going through parliament, while England’s equivalent, Henry Dimbleby’s highly praised National Food Strategy document, seems to have been totally ignored by the government in Westminster.

Another unique aspect of Welsh law that is perhaps powering some of this forward thinking is The Well-being of Future Generations Act, which requires all laws to be tested against its long-term sustainability, though this has yet to incorporate food.

Despite the potential for more collaboration, it’s hard to see the success of Wales in getting Universal Free School meals to all primary age children as anything other than a win. In England, the same policy is again faced with reluctance, despite its potential to help deprived children through the cost-of-living crisis.

“Over the last 12 months there have been some really significant things that have happened,” concedes Katie Palmer, programme manager at Food Sense Wales, who says she now wants to connect school meals with local sourcing. Her team is also focusing on where to spend the £2.5m set aside for food partnerships across Wales, and promoting the inclusion of food systems across the government.

Costello is also starting to look outside of the city, with an event recently on how to increase agroecological farming on the fringes of Cardiff, to strengthen sustainable local supply routes.

For decades there have been two different groups: the traditional rural, rooted Welsh-speaking farming communities, and this ‘back to the land’ community.Carwyn Graves, author of Welsh Food Traditions.

And out in the countryside, there’s a growing movement of its own.

“There’s definitely a momentum. There does seem to be a coalescing of things at the moment,” says Carwyn Graves, author of Welsh Food Stories and an expert on the country’s food and farming cultures.

“For decades there have been two different groups: the traditional rural, rooted Welsh-speaking farming communities, and this ‘back to the land’ community, many of whom were doing really good things in cheese or local veg,” he explains, mentioning places like the Lammas eco village and sustainable farmers like Patrick Holden and Peter Seger. “It’s been a case of ‘never the twain shall meet’,” he says.

Added to this, he continues, is the fact the traditional Welsh-speaking farming industry haven’t previously seen “the salience of their traditions and the relevance to big global questions”.

The traditions in question might be things like the indigenous Welsh small black oat, known for resilience and suited to local conditions. The global issues? The dominance of monoculture arable crops, like wheat, which rely on global trade that is fracturing in real time. There’s a growing awareness of traditions offering solutions, says Graves.

“Now, I hear it time and time again,” he continues. “I was on a Snowdonia hill farm the other day, as rooted and stubborn as you can get, talking to him about the future of farming. He was saying that whoever takes on the farm after him will have to farm like his grandfather. Things like cattle on the hills, and milking sheep – the farming community all know it.”

Along with the rest of the UK, Wales’ farming sector is undergoing the transformation of a lifetime, as devolved governments grapple with how to financially support farmers following Brexit and the end of the CAP subsidies. The new Agriculture (Wales) Bill is out for consultation but seems to have been mired in fewer delays and negative headlines than its equivalent over the border – surely in part down to government stability.

In Wales, Labour has held the Senedd for decades, in a working and, by all accounts, fairly effective cooperative agreement with Plaid Cymru. It doesn’t take much to see the value of longer-term continuity, especially in sectors based entirely on longevity, like farming.

Graves talks of a “cautious welcome” to paying farmers for environmental outcomes, even among the most conservative of Welsh farming unions, and has also noticed some positive details around persuading farmers to grow more fruit.

“There is a history of orchards and cider in Wales, but I used to see statements that said ‘Wales has never produced much fruit’. It’s absolute codswallop – there were orchards everywhere. They were grubbed up because of a change in farmer subsidies,” says Graves, calling it an “absolute travesty”.

“The latest iteration of the [farming Bill] now finally includes orchard trees. It’s long overdue, but it’s now there. That sort of detail does enable someone to go out and plant fruit trees.

“I don’t want to overstate it, but there is a lot of cautious welcome,” he adds.

“Cautious optimism” is something echoed by mixed farmer Will Evans, near Wrexham, who says it’s exciting to see the long-term sustainable decisions being taken by the Welsh government.

But tree planting for Evans isn’t quite so easy. As one of Wales’ many tenant farmers, he would need the permission of the landlord to plant and capitalise on any tree planting payments. “We’ve been looking at agroforestry but my biggest stumbling block is I’m on a rented farm; most land in Wales is rented,” he says. “Landlords with the best will in the world don’t understand the changes farming is going through.”

He is having more luck with hedges, working with Coed Cadw, the Welsh woodland trust, which he sees as a positive example of farmers and NGOs working together.

It’s why food writer and newly appointed professor of practice at the University of Wales, Simon Wright, along with Palmer at Food Sense Wales, believes an over-arching plan is absolutely vital. Partly because of sharp lessons in recent Welsh history.

“You can see what happens when you don’t manage the transition – look at coal 50 years’ ago,” says Wright. “If there’s a flaw at the moment, it’s the lack of joined up thinking. The problem is that issues become even more divisive,” he says.

“I’m calling for much more collaboration. Tree planting is a key example of what happens if you don’t have a strategic approach. Yes, planting trees is good. But how do we counter that with food production, rural livelihoods, and not offsetting?”

Offsetting is indeed a bitter topic, says Graves, who says rural communities often use the phrase ‘colonisation’ to describe wealthy, often London-based corporations buying up good farmland in Wales to counter their environmental footprint. “The new bill could possibly help them turn down those offers. But for that to happen we’re going to need to join the dots and do more storytelling,” he says.

My kids are now being taught Welsh history in school. There is certainly growing momentum, partly helped by the national football team.Will Evans, mixed farmer in Wrexham.

In any case, it does seem as though the lessons of the past are indeed being relearnt, and the inspiration is coming from an unusual source.

“My kids are now being taught Welsh history in school. There is certainly growing momentum, partly helped by the national football team,” says Evans, who says he would vote for independence “tomorrow”.

“Would independence be good for Welsh farming? There was a panel debate on this at the winter fair, and the fact that debate is even happening is quite something.”

Whether or not Wales is independent, it feels as though its long cultural history of national pride is being funnelled into positive action. Graves, too, mentions football in context of food and farming – an unlikely juxtaposition that just shows the cultural crossroads that the country could be at.

“There is less animosity towards language and culture, which has come from the football,” he says. “All of this put together means there’s people in the room together and more of a shared sense of direction.”

Nevertheless, despite this sea change in cultural attitudes, there are some cold, hard barriers facing all farmers, not just those trying to farm with a lower impact.

There is less animosity towards language and culture, which has come from the football. All of this put together means there’s people in the room together and more of a shared sense of direction.Carwyn Graves, author of Welsh Food Traditions.

Evans, who sees the impact of the Ukraine war and rising costs on the ground every day, says: “Where we are is a working-class farming area, not particularly affluent. I would say the majority of my friends and neighbours are concerned and questioning their future in farming. Cashflow is a worry.”

Alma Joensen, a grower at St David’s-based organic farm and veg box scheme COCA, says the financial situation means growers are often underpaid and reliant on both volunteers and grants.

“You’ve got to be good at so many things, not just growing, but also fund applications – it’s a job in itself,” says Joensen, who also works at Caeriad, a market garden in its second growing season.

“What I see is our food system is pretty broken. Because of the way we’ve been farming, [industrial] food doesn’t cost anything.

COCA needs new machinery, a new polytunnel, and it wants to improve wages, says Joensen. But without financial help or the support of a sympathetic landowner, sustainable growers like her simply can’t make ends meet.

“What I would love to see is the council or government supporting food schemes. For example, we could be paid for 10 boxes a week, and then we could give them out for free to those who can’t afford it,” she suggests.

“I don’t know how but I do know we need a third path. We need to take the pressure off growers for all these funding applications. We’re really in times of big change, and food is such a basis of it.”

It’s clear that, while there are some strong headwinds of change that are already propelling Wales towards a future of potential food security and prosperity, on the ground, a rising tide of costs remains the biggest barrier.

Back in Cardiff, businesses like Bacareto and community initiatives run by Food Cardiff are harnessing a huge social movement and public desire for good food and good farming. They will need all the collaboration and support available to take this to the next level.

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