by Emma Maxwell
We are a 5-acre market garden, based in beautiful, rural Mid Wales. Myself Emma (Elm) and my husband Dave-Ash purchased our land in 2011, after many years of growing for ourselves and others in Mid Wales, after years of dreaming about owning our 5 acres of freedom. I have a background in organic horticulture and work as a tutor and advisor, Dave-Ash has a background in social care, language, and music.
We previously rented an acre of land further down the valley and so we spent a year studying the land and designing the layout to fit in all the ideas we had and then spent the next 10 years playing out our vision. Over the years we have kept animals, poultry, bees, pigs, but have now come back around to our roots as vegetarians and that is horticulture.
We grow a wide range of crops; veg, flowers, nuts, fruit. We like to grow something of everything to be self-sufficient in our own food. On a small scale it is difficult to grow bulk carbohydrate crops, such as grains, although we have trialled wheat for making bread and feeding the poultry. We prefer to concentrate on growing protein, with a wide variety of beans and peas, many for drying to store over winter. Dave-Ash my husband grows nuts, primarily hazel cob nuts, trialling different varieties for taste and productivity. We have also planted many walnuts for future generations to enjoy.
Mushroom inoculation: introducing the live Shiitake spawn into the logs
Anna who works with us is a very knowledgeable mushroom forager, she has brought her enthusiasm for fungi on to the land and we are now cultivating a wide range of mushrooms on logs and mulch beds. Our passion for growing stemmed from foraging and the need to feed our growing family, however, over the years the companion planting of flowers and herbs has developed into a passion for feeding our spirit and soul with the joy that flowers bring. Cut flowers are now half of our business, with a constant supply of fresh and dried flowers throughout the year. Delivering flowers to the local market on an E-cargo bike each Saturday, posting flowers around the UK direct to people’s homes, arranging wedding flowers and providing local florists wholesale flowers.
Freshly cut flowers on the E-cargo bike ready for delivery to a shop in Llanidloes
Our off-grid site offers a learning experience to visitors not only in how to live lightly on the planet, but also how to appreciate the delicate balance of natural interactions.
We have been hosting WWOOFers for over 15 years, it has been lovely to get to know so many people and enable them to experience a different way of being. As a horticultural tutor I can’t stop myself from explaining how and why we do each task, so everyone working or visiting the site has an opportunity to gain an in-depth knowledge of the science of gardening. Since purchasing our 5 acres of land in 2011, WWOOFers have enabled us to get big projects done, as well as working the land, planting trees, making dead hedges and live ones, we have built a barn, sheds, polytunnels, greenhouses, irrigation systems and much more to create a diverse agro-ecological haven of interactions and productivity. We couldn’t have achieved so much, so soon without all the willing volunteers that have helped.
WWOOFers getting involved with planting out.
This fell apart during the Covid lock downs and more recently with Brexit. We found ourselves with no help during the first lock down and we experienced 6 weeks without a drop of rain, and this fell during a sudden rise in demand for local food. We had 20,000 litres of rainwater collection at the time, but this was barely enough to water the polytunnels and nursery for 2-3 weeks. The field crops died, and we worked ourselves to exhaustion trying to keep plants alive and feed the demand for fresh food. We needed to re-think what we were doing…
The Ash & Elm veg bags ready for collection
We installed a borehole, and over the last 2 years have dug in irrigation pipes across the site to provide water where we need it for crops. We are now up to 5K of solar electricity, enabling us to run water pumps (so we can automate the irrigation). We have fridges, so that we can prolong the life of the harvest and sell direct from the land. Anna has now joined Ash & Elm as permanent staff to manage the veg growing; allowing me to concentrate on the flowers and teaching; and Dave-Ash to concentrate on the tree crops. We also have seasonal staff to work in the nursery and on maintenance. This has meant that we have had to become much more business driven to pay the wages bill. We now run a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) veg bag scheme, this gives us more direct sales and a guaranteed market for our produce for 6 months from June to December. It is a lot of admin work; marketing, juggling members and drop-off places etc, but it gives us 100% of the retail price (as opposed to shops taking 30-40%) this enables us to give customers a better price and pay some of the workers.
This was needed; as since Brexit, volunteers from abroad are now expected to pay for a work visa to come and volunteer, leading to a decline in WWOOF applications. Although we are getting less foreign volunteers, we are getting more from the UK (which we didn’t previously). As well as the residential volunteers, we have a regular Tuesday drop-in session, we provide lunch, community and knowledge sharing.
We are increasingly preferring volunteers to stay for 3-6 months, so they have time to experience the whole growing season and really learn from the experience. Most travellers want to come for the summer months, but most of the work and horticultural learning is from March to the end of June, during the active growing season. During the summer months it is all about harvest or new construction projects, such as a new polytunnel or field shelter.
If you are interested in a horticultural volunteer position for next growing season do get in touch.
Contact Emma via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
We’d like to give a big thank you to Emma Maxwell for writing this inspiring article and for permission to use the photos.