The first six months of working as the Wales Coordinator for the UK and Ireland Seed Sovereignty Programme have had me travelling around the country meeting a wonderful mix of farmers and growers. I’ve been to brand new sustainable small holdings working under the ground-breaking Welsh planning law One Planet Development. I’ve hung out with turkeys on a Welsh small holding specialising in heritage livestock. I’ve eaten kale curry in the caravan of a Permaculture Market Garden. The common thread linking all these farms to our programme has been their desire to produce open pollinated seed and build a stronger movement of ecological seed producers.
One of the first things the growers told me is that despite knowing a great deal about land management and vegetable production, many of them didn’t have the skills to produce seed. The art of completing the growing cycle on farm by producing the seed for the next crop is somehow being lost, and the growers I was meeting wanted to change that.
I started by working with the inspirational seed company Real Seeds. Kate, Ben and their team have been producing high quality open pollinated seed for sale for over 20 years. Their passion for seed sovereignty has informed the way they run their business and has led them to encourage their customers to save their own seed. But what has been striking is the discovery that they cannot produce enough seed in their fields in Newport to satisfy demand. The Real Seeds shopping carts have overflowed numerous times as they process orders for a growing appetite for ecological seed.
With a strong market for Welsh grown seed and a burst of energy from growers keen to learn, my work has been centred on bringing these two worlds together. Following farm visits and lots of discussions, we held our first Seed Producers Training with Real Seeds. The barn was full to capacity with 22 growers learning about producing seed for sale and discussing the economic viability of seed production. We mapped the seed already being produced in Wales and discussed the future of this fledging new ‘hub’ of seed producers. This first training has been a catalyst for more trainings over the summer and closer mentoring for some growers as they begin producing seed on their farms.
My first six months with the Seed Sovereignty Programme have also seen me jump head first into the world of Welsh ‘heritage’ grains. Sitting at the wooden table tops of the Bara Menyn Bakery in Cardigan, I met grain producers from the Welsh Grain Forum to talk about how I could work with them to increase the growing of heritage grains in Wales while also finding new markets by promoting their use. The forum works holistically, with growers, millers and bakers looking to the entire supply chain. Of particular importance is the low seed stocks of some of the older wheat varieties falling out of production. An example is the Welsh land race wheat Hen Gymro, which was grown out by grain expert Andy Forbes in 2011 from very limited genebank stocks. This land race wheat has now been entrusted to the collective control of the Welsh Grain Forum who are in the process of getting Hen Gymro listed for cultivation under “conservation status”.
Meeting farmers who were telling me of their lack of seed stocks of many rarer grains led me to start mapping where these grains are and looking at how to get them grown by more people to ensure their long term existence. We are now mapping Black Oats and other rare grains.
The next steps with Welsh grain are to work together across networks to look at how to overcome barriers to large scale farming of grains such as the need for machinery and storage space. No problem is insurmountable and ideas are already forming for shared equipment and networks of contractors who can undertake some stages of production on farms without the equipment. We even have some small scale growers interested in harvesting grain by hand using sickles and looking at the varieties best suited to this.
When looking at promoting diversity in the Welsh landscape, I have been having some inspiring conversations about historical land records which show fields of oats, barley, spelt and long stalk wheat across Wales. I have spoken to researchers at IBERS plant breeding centre who working on new oat varieties and promoting bringing oats back into wider cultivation in the Welsh fields. I have also connected with an inspiring new entrant to grain growing who is conducting his own trials on pasture sown spelt and the potential to bring spelt into rotation with that classic Welsh crop, the sheep.
Moving forward we are looking to run grain events in the autumn and winter. We are connecting with farmers interesting in trialling grains, focusing on things like which grains grow well on a small scale as well as which grains perform better when grown organically.
To find out more and get involved contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org, fb: Welsh Seed Sovereignty, tweet: @WalesSeedSov
Real Seeds: http://www.realseeds.co.uk/
Welsh Grain Forum: http://welshgrainforum.co.uk/