Farming In Wales

by James C. McCullagh

In the absorbing hills of South Wales rests the ten-acre organic farm ol Scdley Sweeny ami his wife—a picture book farm, complete with Black Welsh Mountain sheep, an array of horse-drawn farm equipment, and compost piles that steam. But this is not Welsh acreage populated by romantics if you want straight talk about the rigors of organic fanning on inhospitable land, Sweeny is the one to 50 10. He is uncompromising ;;; his advice; he minces no words.

Let the new farmer (or small holder, as he would be called in Wales) ponder the following advice from Sweeny: "hard, long hours are inescapable, particularly when building up the farm and acquiring the essential skills. The alternative is to accept third-rate results, which, I feel, are the certain paths to failure. One must learn to find recreation in the ever-changing work and the rhythm of the seasons. More leisure should be possible later when the project is running well and one has achieved full cooperation with like-minded neighbors."

Sweeny, an ex-officer in the British Royal Engineers, bemoans the fact that until approximately "a century ago, a peasant child grew up on the land and learned the skills by his father's side. By the age of twelve, the rhythm of the farm life was part o£ him, and by fifteen, he could tackle practically every job on the holding. He accepted the hardships and joys of subsistence husbandry because he had no option. Today, our would-be small-holder jumps in at the deep end with the soft option of the welfare state waiting to rescue him if he fails to swim."

And Sweeny does net tmdetestimate the skill farming demands. "Self-sufficiency farming," he notes, "probably requires more mental and manual skills than most other callings. In olden times, children learned their skills at their parents' knees. But now we have a whole new generation of young people divorced from the land and its traditional crafts. They have to learn from scratch; just like tackling a foreign language, one cannot expect fluency to come quickly to an older person."

Sweeny and friend.

While advocating the discipline of self-sufficiency, Sweeny does not romanticize the challenge. "A growing number of people," he remarked, "are opting out of our industrial-economic society in the hope of finding a new and true life of self-sufficiency on the land. The failure rate is high, almost always a result of inexperience and lack of the very considerable skills needed to produce, with certainty, a wide range of products necessary for survival. Our people have become soft and are daunted by the hardship that their grandparents accepted as normal."

Strong words, indeed, but Sweeny practices wiiat he preaches. A center of farm activity is crop production. The three-year crop rotation is a variation of the traditional system used on mixed stock farms in upland Wales. Wheat and rye (one-quarter acre of each) for home milling are autumn-sown by fiddle direct on the inverted sward. Crops are cut by scythe., bound by hand, and placed immediately on tripods to dry and harden. If the crops are carted in time, Sweeny reports that he turns "the hens onto the stubbles for up to a fortnight before cultivating with spring tines. We then sow a crop of grazing oats or rye to provide an early spring bite for house cows."

Sweeny reports that the ground receives a liberal dressing of compost in February or March which is plowed in not more than four inches deep. The ground is then cultivated with spring tines and harrows until a good tilth is obtained. It is then ridged, using a single-furrow horse ridger. Three rows of main-crop potatoes and one-fourth acre of mangolds are sown on the ridge in early May. A single row of peas may also be sown. In late May, a double row of main-crop carrots and in early Julie, about one-fourth acre of seeds are sown."

According to Sweeny, the dredge corn crop is cut rather green using a scythe of a tractor mower. It is not bound, but put immediately onto a Tyrolean-type three-wire fence so it dries like hay. On i.he fence, it is quite safe until carted.

Approximately three acres of grass are made into hay. If sufficient material is available, the fields are composted, harrowed, and rolled in mid-April and laid up until cut in early July. The hay is cut with a tractor mower, turned with wooden ral -s, put onto tripods, and carted loose when ready.

The individual paddocks are grazed hard by cattle and sheep for five days and rested for up to three weeks, thereby improving the sward and reducing the incidence of intestinal worms in the stock.

Sweeny states that "all grassland is treated with calcinated seaweed, two hundredweight (cwt.) to the acre once every three years; it has also had one dressing of basic slag at ten cwt. in 1975 which has already caused a remarkable growth in white clover."

The Sweenys' one-quarter-acre vegetable garden, in which the crops are rotated on a four-year cycle (potatoes, pulses, cabbage family, roots, and onions), provides practically all-year-round fresh vegetables for the house plus a surplus for sale at the farm gate during the summer. And to extend his season, Sweeny uses an attached greenhouse for early seeding. In fact, he has discovered that he is able to grow tomatoes year-round in his greenhouse, which is quite a feat in Wales where light intensity and sunshine levels are low.

Contrary to how it may seem, Sweeny does not consider his farm a haven of self-sufficiency in a hostile world. He notes that "I am sure that a family could survive on its own in complete isolation, but this would be a rather uncomfortable and insecure subsistence. Three or four neighboring smallholders, working in harmony and pooling their individual skills could live far better. Add u bit of modern technology and life becomes easier, with more leisure time, less drudgery."

And communality is a central feature of the Sweeny experience. For example, his ilock of Black Welsh Mountain sheep, consisting of a ram and twelve ewes, graze the acreage on a hillside opposite the farm and are tended unofficially by Sweeny's neighbor. In fact, a spirit of operation seems tc pervade this Welsh farming community.

Sweeny acknowledges that when he has hay to cut, he simply has to call his friends. And when he has a sheep to shear, a building to construct, or any formidable task, he does the same thing, And his neighbors do likewise. He is presently equipping a forge, obtained complete from a smithy in the nearby village, which will serve as a communal workshop for him and his neighbors.

Not unlike some farmers in the United States, Sweeny spends some of his time visiting farm auctions, always on the lookout for good, used farai equipment which will serve his needs. This way he is building up an impressive array of horse-drawn equipment for the time when his farm will be plowed, cultivated, ami harrowed by horses which, according to Sweeny, "are part of the Welsh hill tradition."

Sweeny senses a genuine back-to-the-land movement it* Britain, something he doesn't necessarily greet with open arms. He firmly believes that people, if they are to be successful on the farm, must receive solid training for the job. Accordingly, he hopes to encouiagt some British agricultural schools to initiate a formal apprenticeship program for would-be farmers. A number of schools have shown considerable interest in this program.

For his part, Sweeny has an apprentice 011 his farm who is learning the ropes from the ground up. Sweeny emphasizes that "experience comes only with the time, and I would suggest an inexperienced youngster would be unwise to attempt subsistence farming until he spent two years working on a good, mixed farm."

Not everyone would agree with this approach to farm education. However, few, I think, would argue with Sweeny's success. And if you would like to learn more about this fascinating farm in Wales, write for a hooklet entitled "Self-Sufficient Small-Holding," which can be obtained from the Soil Association, Walnut Tree Manor, Haugley, Stowmarket, Suffolk, England. Price, $1.

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