A model of 21st century sustainable farming in West Wales.
Nathan Richards and his partner, Alicia Miller, run Troed y Rhiw Organics, a 23-acre mixed organic farm on the West Wales coast. With a focus on horticulture, they sell hyper-local food to the surrounding communities through a box scheme, producers’ market, restaurants and shops.
Established in 2008, the farm’s ethos is built around a belief in the necessity of farming sustainably in the 21st century. The farm produces seasonal vegetables and fruit all year round and has a small herd of Highland cattle that provides meat, adds fertility and encourages biodiversity across the farm.
At 40, Nathan walked away from a 20-year career as a film director, to reconnect with dreams of farming that he had as a teenager. “Fresh out of school, what I really wanted to be was an organic farmer but as an unqualified school leaver from a city, I was told in no uncertain terms by a ‘career adviser’ this wasn’t an option. Almost accidentally I ended up in the film world making music videos with pop stars,” said Nathan, “It was a great life but as I matured, it began to feel rather hollow. I started thinking more about the environment and my place in it and realised how much I’d rather be farming.”
Part of Nathan’s interest in organic farming was driven by an enduring commitment to ecology. “In 1976 when I was about 13, I read a bumper sticker on the back of a Citroen Dyan, it read ‘Ecology Now’. I didn’t know what it meant and I went home and looked up ‘ecology’ in a dictionary – I’ve never stopped thinking about the meaning of that word.” That concern was something they both shared and eventually, “We decided to get off the fence and get involved,” said Alicia.
They’ve been at Troed y Rhiw for 10 years now and the couple has focused their practice down to a size that works. “The farm has to be manageable for the two of us,” says Alicia, “Labour is expensive and we need to ensure the farm is viable. Diversification has been essential to surviving as a small-scale farm.” Turning a 250-year-old stone barn into holiday cottages when they arrived at the farm brought another vital income stream into the business.
The farm is a hub of activity united by a common theme: encouraging people to care for the land and connect with sustainable food and farming. From the start, Alicia and Nathan have run courses on developing sustainable skills. They work closely with New Quay Honey Farm, running ‘Beekeeping Weekends’ and have run wild food foraging days with local forager Jade Mellor. Recently they’ve added a course, ‘Setting Up as a Sustainable Farmer, Grower and Smallholder’, which they teach based on their extensive knowledge and experience.
“You need to think creatively, diversification needn’t just be about tourism,” says Alicia, citing a Welsh beef farmer who also produces cow hides for premium leather products and a Dorset dairy farmer who has a side line in milk vodka. The generally perceived high cost of organic food can be a hurdle. “There is still a massive appetite for cheap food,” says Alicia, “Yet I’ve done supermarket cost comparisons with organic equivalents and we often come out as better value.” Eating habits provide another challenge. “People don’t eat enough vegetables,” laughs Alicia, “They stick to the same few products all year round rather than eat seasonal vegetables.”
Trading locally helps to bridge this gap. “We commit to weekly, rather than monthly markets,” says Alicia, “Being available to the customer on a regular basis each week is important.”
For those new to farming, Alicia says, “Know your finances and what you can afford. Ensure you know where your income streams are coming from and that you can manage what you take on. Farming Connect in Wales offers business training seminars for farmers, which was really helpful to us.” Alicia also recommends finding a sympathetic bank to work with, “We chose Triodos, an ethical bank that specialises in organic farming. They understand the issues that small-scale sustainable farmers face and that’s very valuable.”
Find out more at: www.troedyrhiwfarm.co.uk.