The Welsh landscape is well known for sheep. What is often forgotten is that less than 100 years ago this landscape also supported a patchwork of arable and vegetable crops. The seed stores in genebanks tell a story of hundreds of oat, wheat and barley varieties once grown here, with descriptive names such as ‘ceirch llwyd bach’ (small grey oat) and names specific to places across the country such as ‘Bardsey’ and ‘Menai’.
We are working with a small group of agroecological farmers who want to bring grains back into their fields. Joining together under the name ‘Llafyr Ni’ (Our Cereals) the group aims to work cooperatively to share machinery, seed and knowledge. With support from our Seed Sovereignty programme, shared databases have been created and training events planned for 2019 to include visits to arable farms and specific workshops on small scale machinery. The group is open to all and specifically welcomes those new to grain growing for peer to peer support.
What is noticeable is the lack of diversity of grain seed available to farmers. Gerald Miles, an organic farmer from St Davids, is growing a black oat grown on his farm for many years. “I can’t find a single farmer who still has this seed but me” he says. Without Gerald’s crop, it’s possible this black oat would no longer exist in Wales.
Following enthusiasm from the farmers of Llafyr Ni to trial new varieties and strengthen seed resilience, a plan for a Welsh Oat Circle has been hatched. This year 10 rare oat varieties, some of them Welsh landraces, will be taken out of the genebanks and grown by the group on Gerald’s farm. The group will monitor how the oats perform over the year and share the bulked up seed to be taken home to their farms for growing in future years, step by step they hope to bring some of these rare oat varieties back into their soils.
At the same time our Welsh Seed Hub is also working cooperatively to increase seed diversity. This group is made up of market gardeners and vegetable farmers working to increase their skills in seed production and share locally adapted vegetable seed amongst their Welsh network. Following the success of the seed production trainings we ran in 2018, a more in depth programme of support and mentoring has been developed for this year. Working closely with the Real Seeds Catalogue and Sue Stickland (author of Back Garden Seed Saving), professional growers can take part in this training to learn the crucial skills for bringing seed production back into their farming cycles.
Understanding that seed production can also bring an additional income stream to a land based business has been key for some small scale farmers. While agroecological farmers might produce a lot of food, they are often doing so on small areas of land not eligible for farming subsidies and therefore struggling to make a livelihood. Working in partnership with Real Seeds we are able to offer farmers in Wales an opportunity to sell seed through their popular online catalogue and earn a much needed additional income stream. Following our training programme in 2018, eight new growers have moved on to be contracted to grow open pollinated seed for Real Seeds in 2019. Not only does this increase the amount of seed being produced in Wales, it also increases the quantities of ecologically grown seed available to the public.
Ann Owen is a Market Gardener in Mid Wales, she says “The seed training has given me the necessary confidence and skills to save seeds of brassicas, tomatoes, lettuce and more, saving me money and allowing me to nurture strains of kale adapted to the poor conditions on our land, including some club root resistance. I hope that in the future I will be able to sell these seeds as another way of gaining some income, making our small market garden more viable”.
Applications are still open for professional growers wanting to take part in the 2019 training programme and produce seed for sale through the Real Seeds catalogue. The activities of the Welsh Oat Circle are also open to anyone wanting to get involved. Please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more and get involved.