pathways to farming

Oct 13, 2018

Katie Hastings, one of WWOOF UK’s trustees has sent us this inspiring news.

I have been part of a cooperative of people running a community food organisation in Mid Wales for the last six years. We have done a lot to try to boost our local food system – setting up a cooperatively run veg box scheme in which different producers can work together to sell their produce, growing edible crops all around our town for anyone to pick and negotiating new landshares on which people with no land can grow food. Everything we have done has been motivated by our desire to strengthen our local food economy and our vision of a self-sufficient town.

But over the years what has become apparent to us that there are some really big barriers in the way of our dream to have a town full of food producers. What seems like a simple concept – to have food grown and eaten in the Dyfi Valley – is not as simple as it seems.

Only 1% of land in the UK is used for vegetable and fruit production1. The researcher Amber Wheeler has looked at how much fruit and veg we would need to grow in Wales to meet the Welsh Governments new recommendations of 7-a-day and the final figure she has come up with is shocking – we are at a 5.7 billion ton fruit and veg deficit! Yet there is a clear market for locally grown food. In a recent Food Foundation report, 76% of consumers thought it was important to support British Farmers. So why aren’t more people growing fruit and veg to sell?

The Land Workers Alliance shines a light on the barriers that small-scale producers face. With land prices rising, many young new entrants cannot even afford to get onto the land. If they do manage to start farming, growers using under 5 hectares are not eligible for the subsidies which prop up large-scale farms. Despite being efficient and producing a large quantity of food per hectare, horticultural food producers are not considered ‘real farmers’ in a world which values scale over quality. With food prices so comparatively cheap compared to the other costs of living (in the 1970s we spent 25% of our income on food, this is now down to under 10%), is it any wonder that small-scale vegetable and fruit farms are struggling?

We at Mach Maethlon have designed a new project to try to address these barriers. It’s a tall order and we are focusing on a small geographical area in North Powys. The Pathways to Farming (Llwybrau Ffermio) project will create a five step pathway for new entrants into horticultural food production in our area. The first step is awareness raising events. The second step is volunteering opportunities on local farms. The third step will see the development of new ‘microfarm’ plots for people to train in food production on. These plots are hobby sized, but will offer specific training and mentoring designed to bolster the growers’ skills and help them to move on and scale-up. Acting as incubators, these microfarm sites will offer a stepping stone into commercial production.

The fourth step is a vocational training programme in horticultural food production. We are recruiting a trainer as I write who will be tasked with creating an accredited course. The final step is perhaps the most crucial – the creation of new markets for locally grown food.

Without tangible places for our growers to sell their produce there is really no point in training them to do so. While many businesses say they like the idea of stocking local food, they are not always willing to pay the higher prices that quality hand grown produce is worth. We want to work with cafes and restaurants in our locality to help them see how one high value ‘signature’ local ingredient can add huge value to their menu. We are also looking to set up markets where producers can sell direct to consumers and get the full retail price needed to help those books balance. Food Hubs like the Food Assembly2 offer a platform which could be used to reach rural communities in Mid Wales where there is no local shop.

We are delighted to have our project funded for two and a half years by the Welsh Government’s Rural Development Programme. Despite the many cries of ‘horticultural food production can never be a viable career’ we are heartened by the determination of those already running market gardens across the UK and feeding their communities with high quality sustainable food. We can only hope that offering our five step pathway can help to overcome some of the barriers new entrants face.

With horticultural food production producing an average of 18 tons of food per hectare (compared with 3.2 tons for wheat and 0.25 tons for lamb) it’s clear that this highly efficient way of using land to produce crops is the route to a more sustainable food landscape. Not to mention the other multiple benefits that small-scale farming creates such as increased biodiversity, greater job satisfaction, higher employment rates and happier communities!

Click for more info on Pathways to Farming or

 photos: from the Mach Maethlon website,

1 Fruit and Veg Alliance, 2018.

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