Târ y donc a tori – Lessons on the Subversive Nature of Transmission, from a Stubborn Welshman

Veggies that grow facing the ocean, on the Pembrokeshire Welsh coast © Adèle Violette

Saving seeds and preserving genetic resources goes hand in hand with the crucial question of legacy – of what we pass on to those who, after us, will work the land and feed the people. But legacy does not stop at seeds, and in this article we move away from cultivated biodiversity as such to address the broader, but intrinsically linked, issue of passing on knowledge onto new generations. 

In March, Seeds4All had the opportunity to meet the perfect person to explore this central aspect of agricultural development and resilience; Welsh farmer, grain lover and peer educator Gerald Miles. Drawing on his experience, we’ve brought together some elements he sees as key for overcoming the ideological clashes we see tainting discussions around  the current farmers’ protest movement. Adèle Pautrat reports.

To the right, the house still occupied by Gerald and his wife, and to the left, the one now occupied by their son and his family © Adèle Violette

Transmission: It runs in the family 

The theme of generational transmission runs deep through Gerald’s farming life.

His parents (grandparents and great grandparents…) were tenants of the Caerhys farm located in the Pembrokeshire Welsh Coast, less than a mile away from the ocean cliffs. They took care of a herd of cows and around twenty hectares of potato crops. 

As a teenager, Gerald considered becoming an architect but, after returning to the farm one summer to help his father, he realised how attached he was both to the place and daily farming life. At 16 years old, he made the decision to quit school and succeed his parents. But this was also around the same time that the landlord decided to sell the farm.

While his father remained dejected by the news, his mother insisted  on the need to ensure security for their son. She took Gerald to the bank and signed the loan for him. “She was a woman of wisdom and persistence”, and she made it possible to pass the legacy onto Gerald, one that he has taken great pains to preserve ever since – although not without trouble.

Gerald’s fifty years as a farmer were rocked by the period of radical transformation in the peasant way of life and work that accelerated from the early 1960s. In 1985, the European potato market was disrupted by the development of hyper-competitive French exports. Price drops led Gerald into one of the darkest moments of his life. But it is from the collapse of what we take for granted that alternatives emerge – when we are brave enough to take the plunge.

Gerald on the farm. © Adèle Violette

“Being a farmer is to challenge yourself”

A few years after this ordeal Gerald began to experiment with new activities and to transition to organic. In 1998, the farm obtained the certification. In 2003 brought a historic crash of milk prices. But the farm was better prepared to cope with it, producing his own fodder and generating additional income from market gardening.

Still, he and his son decided to stop dairy production, which was no longer profitable enough for a farm with a small herd. They have since evolved into a very diversified business model, including:

  • Breeding Welsh bulls in what is known as a ‘circular herd’ approach which keeps the calves with their mother until they reach at least 10 months and are sold to another farm;
  • A market gardening on 5 hectares and 2 polytunnels supplying 60 families through the Community Supported Agriculture system;
  • Maintaining 30% of land in permanent pasture, for which they receive state subsidies;
  • The provision of boarding services and stables;
  • The development of agritourism activities;
  • And 8 to 10 hectares for the production of ancient grains – but we’ll come back to this later.
© Adèle Violette

Lessons learned

Asked about the lessons he has learned from the past, Gerald stresses the need for a farmer to constantly question and reinvent their agricultural activity. “Being a farmer is challenging and you sometimes have to make decisions which ethically you’re not happy with, but which are needed for keeping your farm alive,” he said.

One example was when he took the difficult decision to abandon the dairy cow herd. On this, his son took the lead, and Gerald knew that he had to make room for the decisions of the new generation.

During our discussions, it seemed to me that father and son made a good team. Asked whether Gerald would have left the farm to his son if they had not shared the same vision, I learned that Gerald’s son did go to agricultural school. “When you learn on the farm, you learn the system of the farm,” Gerald pointed out.

While this decision was not an ideological one (Gerald was actually surprised to realise that it had probably made the bequeathing issue easier), it raises a crucial question: that of globally entrusting the heart of the transmission role to structures outside the farming community, and not representative of its diversity.

Hence the beginning of my reflection on the subversive aspect of peer education.

Gerald checking his grains of ancient cereal varieties © Adèle Violette

Two passions, one quest

Before diving into Gerald’s life as a peer educator, let’s talk a bit about seeds. 

Gerald, like many of those reading us, is passionate about ancient grains, and this has, in my opinion, largely contributed to making him someone determined to pass on knowledge.

The story begins with an anecdote (as we love them) – a real quest in search of an old and rare variety of black oats: the Black Supreme. It took him 20 years to get his hands on it, and what is particularly lovely in his story is that it wouldn’t have had a happy ending without Gerald’s second passion; rugby.

Black Supreme was the first variety to be sown at Caerhys Farm in the early 1930s. Like many of its fellow landraces, it fell out of favour in the mid-twentieth century and eventually disappeared from Welsh fields. 

Gerald regularly placed advertisements in local and regional newspapers, but never heard back. One day, while on a rugby tour in Ireland, he mentioned black oats to a coach from Naas Rugby Club (Co. Kildare), who replied that he knew a farmer friend growing it. A few months later, when Naas Rugby Club came on tour to play Gerald’s team, they brought him 50kg as a gift by bus.

Please take a moment to appreciate the very goofy nature of this chance encounter under-the-radar delivery with regard to European legislation. Especially since Gerald’s discovery had the effect of a (seed) bomb: articles in the local and national press, including in the Guardian, and even the New York Times, who paid Gerald a visit. Meanwhile, a Scottish brewery and a Cardiff distillery immediately took an interest in his grains and started collaborating.

Hen Gymro, one of the four wheat varieties that Gerald is growing this year. © Adèle Violette

Defending farmers’ commitment to saving and exchanging seeds

This story tells us two things. 

First, that because of their unconventional nature, there is no effective way of obtaining concrete information about old varieties and the people still growing them, which contributes to their progressive disappearance. 

The second is that, without a doubt, hindering the exchange of seeds between farmers has had disastrous consequences for the preservation of agrobiodiversity. There are gene banks and seed collections, but it is on farms that the most beautiful treasures are often unearthed, bearing witness to the flourishing past when farmers were masters of their seeds.

Highly critical of legislation that prevent people from accessing and exchanging old grains, Gerald has committed to doing his bit. He has joined the Gaïa Foundation’s ‘Seed Sovereignty’ initiative to safeguard cereal varieties, while  as a seed grower he has always made sure to share these with other farmers. 

April Bearded, another wheat landrace Gerald is growing in 2024 © Adèle Violette

And this is a mindset which saved him from the heartbreak of losing the Black Supreme all over again. Last year, heavy rain destroyed his crops and made it impossible to reproduce the seeds. Gerald hadn’t kept any stocks in his farm, but a farmer to whom he gave the variety a few years ago was able to return some of his own.

The major obstacles Gerald sees in convincing other farmers to contribute to saving landraces are the lack of infrastructure and economic guarantees. To tackle this, he plans to create a local grain cooperative which would bring together farmers, millers, bakers, brewers and eaters. This would allow investment in the machinery needed for saving seed (harvesting, cleaning, drying, storing, etc.) and would constitute a supportive framework for farmers to engage without taking all the risks.

In 2024, Gerald will be growing the Black Supreme oat and four different wheat varieties; the April Bearded, the Hen Gymro, the Einkorn and the Emma. If you feel like going to discuss cereals with him, you might be tempted to attend the Harvest Party he organises every year in August, as a big celebration paying tribute to local peasant culture.

Comfy caravans are hidden all over the farm for volunteer workers © Adèle Violette

Alternative workforce for alternative agriculture

Gerald’s farm is an example of openness. As we said, he and his son offer agritourism activities (Bed & Breakfasts, camping, Harvest Party), and for about ten years now, have also been involved in programmes to welcome volunteer workers. At the time of my visit, a group of six English students had come to help maintain the vegetable garden and pastures. They only stayed a few days, but usually volunteers spend months on the farm. 

One of the reasons for taking part in such programmes is, of course, the need for a workforce. Gerald explains that in order to hire professional market gardeners, the number of annual members of their CSA would have to almost double. In addition, the profession today faces a lack of available humanpower. Long-term and motivated volunteers therefore are an interesting alternative.

When you meet Gerald and spend some time with him though, you realise that the economic argument is far from the core reason. For Gerald, the most important thing seems to be sharing.

He makes it a golden rule to not only welcome but also truly support volunteers who agree to work on his farm. For him, it is about helping to make vocations come true by turning his farm into a community learning space. It is about sharing land, knowledge and experience to foster a defence of diversified and independent agriculture.

View from a comfy caravan © Adèle Violette

Growing food, empowering people

The hardships that Gerald went through during his farming life made him a seasoned activist. At the beginning of the 2000s, he was already taking part in massive demonstrations by dairy producers in the streets of Brussels. Through this activism, he was given the opportunity to travel to Europe and to come into contact with a whole range of inspiring projects, which has made him determined to support the agroecological transition of food systems.

Activism nurtures Gerald’s desire to transmit. I was not surprised to learn that the typical profile of the people he receives is made up of young Europeans in their twenties, who have studied or worked in completely different sectors and  are on the hunt for new life projects. They generally do not come from peasant families. At the same time as they are confronted with the (many) problems of access to land and practical requirements to launch a business, they need practical experience and want to find meaning in the practices they learn. 

Making his farm available for the development of other people’s food and farming projects is what motivates Gerald in the first place, provided that the volunteers are keen to explore new horizons. This certainly represents a significant investment of time. Gerald, however, sees it as very beneficial, given the workload volunteers are able to take on after just two weeks of on-site training, and knowing that it inspires them to become part of the necessary commitment to sustainable agriculture.

In 10 years, around 200 people have been welcomed at Caerhys. Gerald has stayed in touch with a lot of them. He knows that they’ve actually become farmers or food producers, which he considers to be a marker of success of his approach. 

In return, he says he “gets a lot.” Not only does it help  beautify the spirit and soul of the farm he was committed to caring for, but also allows him to be welcomed today by friends all over Europe.

© Adèle Violette

To protect food sovereignty is to defend diversity

Gerald fears that the many reforms currently affecting the agricultural sector in the UK and Europe will radically reduce the number of farmers and increase the concentration of food production capacity in industrial hands. When opposing this tendency towards monopolisation, legacy is not about what you give, it’s about what you help build. It is about the long-lasting impacts of your choices and actions.

The subversive nature  of transmission we mentioned at the beginning of the article therefore lies, again and again, in the need to preserve diversity (of farms, practices, crops, etc.). To transmit is to empower – as many people as possible to be trained to become farmers; as many people as possible saving and adapting seeds to their own conditions. To transmit is to fight – against the growing phenomenon of land concentration; against the worrying standardisation of our seeds and our food.

The anger and despair expressed by farmers all over Europe, not for months but for years, have many roots. Isn’t one of them the result of the weakening of transmission and solidarity that used to be at the heart of farming communities? 

In that sense, there is a wind of hope to see farmers taking to the streets together to demand the recognition and respect of which they’ve been progressively deprived. So, let us blow harder on attempts at division and polarisation – and above all, as the Welsh proverb referenced in this article’s title teaches: let us keep campaigning endlessly for diversity, legacy and empathy. It’s bearing fruit.

© Adèle Violette

 

 
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About Adèle Pautrat 6 Articles

With a degree in political science and international cooperation, Adèle Pautrat has developed an expertise on agro-ecological transition and agrobiodiversity issues, while working as a coordinator for the Belgian NGO Artemisia. She is now in charge of the integration of the Seeds4all project in the scope of work of ARC2020, also providing iconography missions for the NGO. As a second activity, Adèle works as a freelance photographer.

Diplômée d'un double master en sciences politiques et coopération internationale, Adèle Pautrat a développé une expertise sur les questions de transition agro-écologique et d'agrobiodiversité en travaillant comme coordinatrice de l'association internationale sans but lucratif Artemisia. Elle est aujourd'hui coordinatrice du projet Seeds4all piloté par ARC2020 ; association pour laquelle elle assure en parallèle des missions de photographe, sa deuxième activité.