They want to collaborate rather than compete with other growers
Alice Sidwell and Jonny Watler, of Orchard Acre Market Garden, want more than simply to grow good food; they’re hoping to nurture a culture of community-supported agriculture where customers can invest in the future of local food production.
Alice and Jonny, with the help of their daughter Lyra, are cultivating an acre of land at Alice’s family home in Llanfapley, near Abergavenny. The couple plan to grow vegetables in 60 permanent beds and polytunnels and sell their produce through a veg-box scheme starting in June 2021.
The community surrounding their fledgling market garden are being invited to pay for a whole season of veg boxes up front (or in instalments if they can’t afford it), offering the couple an element of financial stability and the customer a regular supply of locally grown food. Alice and Jonny plan to offer a diverse range of vegetables to replace supermarket-bought veg in an affordable way and are even planning to subsidise some veg boxes for people on lower incomes.
“Looking around, there’s just not great access to fresh food here, and we’re facing so many big picture challenges now as a culture. Simple, good food and connecting to that has got to be part of the healing and the change we need to happen right now,” Alice said.
The recent Covid-19 lockdowns have given the couple more time to work on their land and highlighted the advantages for farms like theirs. “That whole sense of community that bubbled up around lockdown gave us confidence that people wanted to support local initiatives. The shock of people seeing how fragile our food supply is because there were shortages in the supermarkets, which is something many people haven’t lived through in the UK and putting that into perspective a bit more for people,” Jonny said.
Farming runs in Alice’s blood: her grandfather was an organic dairy farmer and was involved at the beginning of the UK’s organic movement. Her uncle was an inspector for the Soil Association and farmed organically in West Wales. Her parents have owned the land on which they live since she was a baby, which was previously a small holding with livestock and a vegetable patch.
However, moving into farming full-time wasn’t on the cards until she and Jonny moved back to her family home: “I haven’t chosen to go into growing before because some of it doesn’t suit me, but actually us working together as a team, I think it’s going to work. We bring quite different skills and interests to it.”
The couple have collaborated with Langtons farm in Crickhowell, another small, organic start-up, to share knowledge and take inspiration from their friends’ success: “It’s good to see that they’ve made a success of it and that there’s demand in this area,” said Jonny.
Both couples have taken courses by organic farming expert Conor Crickmore of Neversink Farm in the US. They hope to share their buying and marketing power to mutual benefit without worrying about competition. Jonny said: “We don’t feel like we’re competing with them at all and I think the feeling is mutual. There are enough people and enough capacity that there can be a lot of small farms serving the communities that are immediately around them, and we can all learn off each other. It’s capacity building to have more small-scale growers rather than everyone trying to outcompete each other.”
Alice and Jonny plan to serve their four local villages and customers in Abergavenny but remain within a 10-mile radius of Orchard Acre. And they think that area could shrink as time goes on and they gain more customers nearby.
“Because we’re supplying our local community then we’re not competing with people that are 10 or 20 miles down the road. We’re hopefully all going to be able to find our space, find our niche, and work together,” Jonny said.
But what if another small, organic farm opens up just down the road? “Hopefully we can find ways of working together,” Jonny said, “that’s what’s been born out of what’s happened with the Langtons and us. It feels like positive collaborations rather than negative competition at the moment.”
“It feels like there’s a lot of solidarity amongst small-scale growers; there’s lots of great organisations in the UK like the Landworkers’ Alliance, the Organic Growers’ Alliance, regional growing groups all over the UK that have been fostering that sense that people are willing to share their expertise and knowledge for free.”
Jonny has a background in organic, biodynamic farming, having trained at the Ruskin Mill Trust college in Gloucestershire. The couple is hoping to share the Langtons’ success and farm full-time, supplementing their income during the winter months with Jonny gardening and Alice practising massage therapy. Both of them have experience working with young people in outdoor settings and they hope to bring these skills to their plans for community projects such as educational outreach, farming training, and food justice projects with local food banks and community groups.
“We want to provide a space where people can connect to where their food grows,” said Jonny, “we’re providing something that’s more than just the produce, we’re fostering a sense of community. People want to know where their food’s coming from now more and more, and we can provide that. Organic vegetables in the supermarket don’t offer that – hopefully, that’s to our advantage.”
Pictures and words by As You See It Media and Imogen Astley Jones.Categories: Getting started.