The first project on the land we acquired in 2014 was to convert it to organic. The second project was to grow grain. We had a vision that we could grow the grain and harvest it, the local watermill would mill it, and then we take it into our bakery to make into wonderful bread.
Click here for more information on how the grain is getting on, and more information about the trials and tribulations of being a small-scale grain grower.
One of the things that first attracted us to the land at Llangeitho was the number and different ages of the various woodland blocks. Although the scale is still very small there are a number of plantings that have been made at different times over the past thirty years. What we have inherited then is a real mix of different species at different locations over the property. As we lay more hedges around the farm, we are tidying up the small woodland blocks that attach to them. As we thin, the brash is collected and left piled at the base of a few select trees. This keeps the woodland floor open but also provides a lovely habitat for wildlife. In the west facing oak block that looks down on the river though there is work to be done to contain that lovely wildlife. As the trees have been left to fend for themselves, and because of quite dense planting, the upper canopy of branches are all interconnected. This has made it very easy for squirrels to run across from tree to tree. In the process they have stripped many branches of a lot of their bark. We have thinned the block, selecting the better trees and those that have not been killed by the squirrels. The hope is that not only do we put our faith in the best specimens but we make it harder for the squirrels to jump from tree to tree. Hopefully this means they will look for a home elsewhere – somewhere easier!
But part of this thinning process does lead to the next enterprise for the farm - the beginnings of our own firewood production. As we thin the woodland, as we lay hedges, and as we look to raise the crowns of some of the bigger beech trees that surround the fields we grow the grain in (to improve light levels) – we have started to gather a significant amount of hardwood to offer in the shop. Initially cut to cord lengths, this year we will process into the lengths suitable for home burning and after another years drying we should be offering firewood for sale in the shop and online.
Like many though it is not all rosy. We have seen the first signs of ash die back throughout many of the young ash whips that have self-seeded. Although incredibly worrying it is fascinating to see how some trees are affected by it and others, mere metres away, are completely healthy.
Managing fertility is one of the biggest challenges facing an organic growing operation. In biodynamic agriculture one of the central tenets is of the farm as a self-contained organism. If the farm is to provide for us we must maintain it. We need to manage and balance what we put into the farm and what we take from it. When we eat the lamb that comes from our fields or consume the bread produced from grain grown on our land, we are taking from the fields. If we take we must replenish if the farm is to provide long term. Part of the long term sustainability of what we are doing relies on us making compost. The foundation of our compost is cow manure. Without cows of our own we bring fresh cow manure on to the farm from an organic neighbour. Here, Holden Farm Dairy, where they make Hafod cheese, provides us with a mixture of cow manure and straw from the bedding of their young stock shed. Once a year about twenty tonnes of this appears with us in Llangeitho. Assembled into a long triangular shape the manure is covered and left to rot and to undergo its transformation over the winter into compost.
2016 saw the first time we produced our own hay in Llangeitho. The challenge with having animals is matching their feed requirements with what the land can provide. The natural cycle of the seasons means that during periods of colder weather and low light levels the speed at which the grass grows reduces dramatically. As the days warm and lengthen, that growth increases exponentially. The lush growth that we see in the summer is more than the animals can eat. So we cut and conserve the grass to feed the animals in winter. To conserve grass we have two options – we can produce silage (a fermented product) or hay (a dry one). Silage is increasingly popular simply because it is less likely to fail. The moment we cut the grass, if it rains, we can potentially get stuck. To produce silage you might need to only wait two days in the sun. For hay you might need four days. And the chances of four days sun in west wales is a gamble for certain! But in 2016 we managed to pull it off. Cut late in the afternoon, when the sugars in the grasses were at their highest point from a day’s sun, the grass was then left to dry. Using the hay-bob (a purchase at the beginning of the year) we first shake the grass out. This spreads the grass thinly so it dries faster. We then spin again, and again, over subsequent days, Until finally we rake it up. And then in with the baler. For us that means small bales. Without fancy equipment we are at the mercy of our friendly neighbourhood contractor Andrew. But true to form when we needed him most he was there. With over 350 bales we were chuffed to bits. After a long night hauling them back to the shed we slept very well that night.
For me a defining characteristic of the British countryside is the existence of hedges. Living in south-west France it took me some time to realise what was so different about the perspective as you drove around. Seeing straight into fields, with no hedges at all, was both a wonderful and a saddening sight. Working on a farm in northern Canada, where not only did they not have hedges, but they didn’t really have many trees, I yearned for the very British enclosure that is the hedge. Like becoming a new parent, once you open the door to this world, there is so much to learn. Here in Llangeitho it is a long term project.
As a traditional Welsh holding in the past all the hedges were routinely laid. None of our hedges had been laid for over ten years before we started two winters ago. We need to work in the winter when the trees are dormant if we are to move them around like this! By laying the hedges we move from having the bulk of the material at the top of the hedge to along the bottom of the hedge. This means that not only do we have a physical barrier to keep the animals where they are meant to be but we also have a thick wind break. With our animals out for the majority of the winter this protection is very important. And finally the hedge, as opposed to a row of trees, provides lots of habitat for wildlife.
The process of laying a hedge involves removing a lot of bulk first. The ‘trees’ are then cut so they can be pushed and bent over. Normally they are cut as low as possible to ensure that when you bend the hedge over, it is as thick as possible as close to the ground as possible. Benjamin jokes that the last person to lay this hedge must have had a bad back since the folds where about 12 inches off the ground! With many of our stretches, the hedge is predominantly slow growing, prickly blackthorn. This very classic hedging material is fantastic as it provides such great cover for birds. We will however lay all sorts of varieties of hedging plants to provide diversity throughout the year. This includes ash, birch, holly and beech.