What are the challenges faced by local food producers, and how can we get more local food onto local plates? Here’s what our panellists at the Swansea Conference had to say.
The third panel discussion at the Swansea Conference on March 29 focused on food production in the Swansea area, exploring how local producers can become more sustainable and how local people can support them, making Wales more self-sufficient in terms of food production while cutting food miles and fighting the cost-of-living crisis.
The panel discussion also saw the launch of Swansea Food Charter and the announcement of grant funding to help connect people with local food production.
The first topic on the agenda was the challenges faced by local farmers. Panellist Louisa Harry-Thomas from Paviland Farm on Gower highlighted how dramatically the farming techniques on her farm have changed as it moves to more sustainable production.
“When I came back to the family farm 10, 15 years ago, we inherited an industrial farming unit,” she said. “In the time that I’ve been there, things have changed dramatically, but we’ve still got a long way to go. We’ll always be looking at other ways we can improve. We’re not totally organic, but we want to be and we’re heading in that direction.”
She added that farms need support as they work to switch to organic production.
“It can take 5, 10 or 15 years to make that conversion – it’s not an overnight thing. To make that happen, we need people outside the farm to help us, and the two obvious ones are government and local people,” she said.
She also emphasised the importance of encouraging people to buy locally farmed food.
“The Sustainable Food Trust did a study last year where they mapped land use across the UK, and they showed that if we as a nation grew more fruits and vegetables, more pulses, and ate more vegetables and pasture fed meat we could have a nation that was much more self-sufficient – whereas at present we grow only about 12 percent of our fruit and 40 percent of our vegetables,” she said.
On the subject of supporting local producers, Lucy Hole, a director of The Secret Hospitality Group which owns several restaurants in Swansea, expressed her commitment to growing her restaurants’ list of local suppliers. She also identified a need to tell customers about their local sourcing.
“We’ve got local companies that we’ve been with from the very beginning, but we don’t shout about it enough,” she said.
The discussion also covered the need to get more young people interested in growing and farming. Sathia Lackhmanan, part of the Graft community garden project at Swansea’s Waterfront Museum, highlighted the need for schools to embrace gardening projects.
“They could have more raised beds in schools – that will encourage students to have more interest and encourage them to eat the vegetables,” he said.
Jack Joseph, part of Swansea Council’s Economic Development Team, reported on a recent feasibility study that sought to map out the local food business landscape. While it highlighted how much people care about local food production, it also found an urgent need to establish connections between producers and to link producers to consumers.
“We want to help facilitate getting those people together,” he said. He added that some people have stopped trading during the cost-of-living crisis but that there have been, and will be, grant funding to help support businesses facing difficulty.
“Equally I think there is an onus on people to actually shop local, and, in restaurants, to ask where the food comes from,” he said.
Dawn Lyle, chair of Bwyd Abertawe, the sustainable food partnership and network for Swansea, added: “We’ve all become so addicted to convenience, and the supermarkets are able to make shopping easy and affordable to some extent – so there’s a real behaviour change challenge, and it’s a question of how we bring people along with us and make sure it’s not just a few of us trying to support local producers and paying that premium, but that it’s a mainstream issue, and that people really understand the power of their pounds within local businesses.”
Joseph added that rising energy costs have high small scale businesses, putting impossible pressure on already small profit margins, and that selling to the hospitality sector can be difficult in terms of administration and logistics when competing with wholesalers who make it easy to order and receive everything in one go.
“Our mapping and feasibility study found that there might be a way to get small scale producers working together, for example on delivery and marketing,” he added.
Responding to a question from a fellow farmer about the importance of sheep and cattle in her farm’s process of becoming more sustainable, Harry-Thomas described the crop rotation, minimum tillage and other initiatives that have supported the move towards more sustainable practices, and helped to reduce the need for fertiliser.
“Having animals as part of that mix is really important for us to move our sustainability,” she said. “One thing I would like to see is for everybody to start mapping how sustainable hey are – I know there’s there are systems out there, and I think lots of people on the outside are a bit dubious about how sustainable a farm really is. I think we need to respond by shouting about what we’re doing more.
“If we can have sustainability monitoring and be able to demonstrate that we are sustainable on all these counts, plus that we’re employing local people, having local volunteers on the farm, working with local schools, you could benchmark the farms and see how to improve next year to become more sustainable.”
Lyle added that rising energy costs could actually help accelerate the move to more sustainable food production.
“There was a great anecdote from a small food producer who, in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, was able to say that their costs hadn’t risen, because they were using circular economy approaches on their own farm,” she said. “They were generating their own energy, capturing their own water and all sorts of other amazing things that meant that they had stability over their costs.”
Discussing ways to engage schools around food production, farm open days and cookery demos were raised as realistic possibilities. Lyle said that 4theRegion has been receiving enquiries from schools wanting to get pupils involved.
“There is huge demand from primary schools across Swansea that really want to engage kids in growing and cooking – through projects like the Cae Tan initiative, which goes into primary schools and helps them how to help them to grow the ingredients to make the pizza and helps them to cook that pizza together in class,” she said. “I think there’s huge demand for that as part of the new curriculum, and teachers want support to deliver this sort of education.”
She added that Bwyd Abertawe has a food project grant available for initiatives that want to connect people with their food system.
The whole panel emphasised the importance of education around food production. Harry-Thomas said:
“I think it’s vital that we all learn more about cooking and growing because it is such a sick nation now, we need to be eating more vegetables. We need to be more pulses, we need to eat what’s seasonal and local, and education is crucial to that – both for adult chefs, and for kids as well.”
Looking to the future, Lackhmanan predicted that more community gardens will spring up.
“I think the cost-of-living crisis is going to be a big barrier, but if we can grow the network so we can exchange our knowledge and exchange seeds, that will be great,” he said.
Harry-Thomas said that she feels Wales is better placed than much of the UK to promote local, seasonal eating because we live closer to land, and Wales has the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.
“Part of the Act is about having healthy foods for our citizens,” she said. “I think Wales is great at coming up with big ideas, and what we need to do now is actually make that happen, with the help of leadership that puts the right policies in place and gets rid of some of the red tape that makes it so difficult for us to make things happen on the ground.”
Hole added that she intends to intensify her restaurant group’s commitment to local produce.
“We have a duty and a platform, we need to reach out and I think that’s all we’re going to do now for the next 18 months,” she said.
Joseph also saw reasons to be optimistic.
“People want to get back to the land and to get their families growing food again,” he said. “I think you know, with the internet and with some of the education efforts, people are realising that supermarket food isn’t as nutritious, doesn’t taste as good and has higher food miles.
“With the cost-of-living crisis, in some cases eggs in the supermarket are more expensive than from a farm shop, and people are starting to realise that going down to the farm shop isn’t as expensive as they think.
“I think the next stage will be people asking where food comes from. There’s definitely a positive way forward.”
Discussing Bwyd Abertawe’s Swansea food charter, Lyle concluded: “It’s a way for us to all collaborate and work together to be a strong voice for Swansea food, to connect the dots of all the good things that are happening and figure out between us how we can scale that and how we can grow the demands and the capacity for local food.
“It’s encouraging that Welsh Government seems to recognise the importance of local food partnerships in this space, and Bwyd Abertawe in partnership with the council has secured some funding from Welsh Government purely for building networks, building the movements around local and sustainable food. It’s great to have that acknowledgement from Welsh Government that local collaboration is important.”