Blaencamel Organic Produce: Blazing a trail of strong business links between Cardiff and West Wales
Tom Frost of Blaencamel Organic Produce based in the Aeron Valley, Ceredigion, supplies many of Cardiff’s favourite eateries – as well as the brilliant Roath Farmers Market and Riverside Farmers Market. He’s also a lovely chap and agreed to chat with me about the importance of strengthening business links between South and West Wales – and why we need to know where our food comes from…
Hi Tom – can you give me a bit of history and info about Blaencamel farm?
Peter, my step dad, moved there in 1974 and converted it an organic farm shortly after. Like a lot of migrants in the 60s and 70s he was looking to return a simpler way of life growing food after years in a corporate environment. Blaencamel was the 4th ever farm certified organic by the Soil Association after it was restructured in the mid-70’s.
So who do you supply in Cardiff? For example it’s your produce in the recent organic box-by-bike ran by Penylan Pantry…
That’s right, we have started to work with Penylan Pantry – and we supply in Cardiff to Milgi, Holm House Hotel, Inner City Pickle, Lia’s Kitchen, Herbivore Supper Club, Meithrinfa Y Pelican, Real Frank Food, occasionally Arbennig Restaurant, The Parsnipship, Welsh Food Box Company and recently Penylan Pantry’s veg box.
We try to concentrate on the retail aspect of our trips to Cardiff though as on our vans is limited. Our aim for the farm is to make it as sustainable as possible, both financially and environmentally. For 15 plus years we supplied supermarkets, but we were keen to reduce food miles amongst other issues and decided to just sell our produce within Wales. This is why we decided to sell direct at Farmers markets and West Wales is sparsely populated so we do need to travel to major population centres like Cardiff. We like to think we do our bit at bringing urban comunities close to the rural comunities that produce their food. Which is important I think as there is often a bit of a disconnection to where food comes from and how it is produced.
Tell us about what makes the farm special…
It is 50 acres of mixed soil types. Also being in what was probably a glacial moraine- very, very stoney! Aprox 15 acres are ancient Welsh woodland, several acres of permanent pasture- unploughed meadows, wetland areas- all rich in all sorts of biodiversity. Hedges are kept throughout the farm and this again adds to the wealth of wildlife and has many practical used to. Approx 20-30 acres are farmed, but being organic, the land is in constant rotation so in any given year maybe between 12-18 acres are in veg production. The other fields will be in green manures or being grazed by our small flock of sheep. 1.5 acres are farmed in greenhouses which ( I think) makes Blaencamel the largest organic greenhouse space in Wales.
The farm is carbon neutral. A big factor in this is that we make the vast majority of the compost we use ourselves. Being organic we don’t use artificial fertilisers ( a by product of the petroleum industry) and have to rely on fertility from compost and green manures. We do an awful lot to build up the soil. Since we’ve been there, the top soil has increased in volume and depth, most conventional farms loose soil and soil quality at an alarming rate making them more reliant on artificial inputs. We think our soil quality is reflected in the crops we grow and we are proud of them because they have been grown this way.
Is Blaencamel Organic Boxes and the farm a real family affair?
People who work and are connected to the farm include my Mum, Anne, and Peter (owners). Tractor driver and main man is Gareth. All rounder and Mr. indispensable is Glen. Mike is a former chef at the Harbourmaster and does a lot of greenhouse work and is our face at many of our markets including Haverfordwest, Brecon and Aberystwyth. Malcomn works with our hedges/woods/gardens as well as farm work. He splits his time between us and the National Botanic gardens where he also teaches and works. Sarah is a newbie and works in the greenhouses. I handle the Cardiff farmers markets, vegboxes, restaurants and other projects. My brother Ceri is a composer who lives in Cardiff and helps me at the Roath and Riverside markets at the weekends. It get him out of the studio! Our sister Laura used to live in Cardiff as well, now works in London as a solicitor but has helped develop a new idea for the farm which is growing and selling seasonal organic cut flowers. This is the first year we have tried this and it has been a great success.
Worst day at the farm in recent times was after a deep freeze of 5 weeks, just before Christmas we had a freakishly heavy snowfall which crushed and destroyed all or greenhouses and the crops that were in them. It threw our future into doubt, but we manage to rebuild and carry on.
And because who doesn’t like a happy ending – Best Day?
Best day…. hard to choose. We are lucky to be able to do what we do and for me at least it feels like a way of life rather than an actual job as such. A crisp autumn harvest day for is the best for me, with maybe a bonus find of wild porccini mushrooms to take to a farmers market the following day. Anticipation is everything!.