GAIL SWAN”S wedding day contribution to the farm”s livestock was three horses, three dogs and three goldfish. But throughout her marriage she has worked side-by-side with her husband Clive, even while she”s been pregnant.
For this mother of two – the daughter of a chemical industry employee, hailing from Perthshire – the past 12 months have been remarkable.
She and Clive expanded their successful farm shop, she picked up a Lantra training award, and was invited to get involved in a scheme to encourage young entrepreneurs. But the highlight came shortly before Christmas when her peers in NFU Cymru acknowledged her contribution to the sustainability of Ffrith Farm at Treuddyn, and to the promotion of Welsh food.
The award made worthwhile the hard work of tending cattle and poultry, growing and harvesting vegetables, and baking innumerable meat pies and cakes for sale through the shop the couple built at the end of their farm lane two years ago.
Things had got so bad before they opened the retail outlet, they had decided that one or both of them would have to find work off the farm.
She spent some time working in a Tesco bakery, but had to quit after Clive led blockades of the company”s distribution centres in protest against low farmgate prices.
When burger chains were picketed for not buying British beef, Gail joined in, taking children Edward and Rebecca in their pushchairs.
The BSE crisis hit them hard. It was clear that they could not make a living from just using home grown grain to produce beef, providing wintering for tack sheep and growing potatoes.
“We looked at every option, and held many kitchen table discussions about ways of overcoming the squeeze that processors and retailers were putting on farmgate prices,” recalls Gail (pictured).
When selling direct to the public seemed a good option, they tried to buy a shop in the village, but were outbid. Instead, they built their own, doing much of the construction work themselves.
Then they completely changed their farming system. The number of beef cattle was slashed by two-thirds to 120, free-range egg and table poultry production was introduced, and land was switched to vegetable growing. They also forged links with neighbouring farmers for the supply of lambs and pigs.
The farm shop was an immediate success, and they soon realised that a small length of counter space could generate more profit than a large block of land. The meat preparation and retail area was expanded in time for the Christmas 2004 rush.
Ffrith Farm and neighbouring units now produce about 80% of the products sold in the shop, which in addition to Gail and Clive employs one full-time and five part-timers.
The principal selling point is freshness, and some customers are even invited to walk to a nearby field and pull some carrots, or cut a cabbage for Sunday lunch.
“People can see the source of much of the food we sell walking around or growing in our fields,” says Gail. Customers are also impressed to hear that animals used to provide the meat they buy travel only a few miles to slaughter.
The significance of food miles also forms part of the Welsh Development Agency Dynamo Project talks she gives to schoolchildren about developing businesses. To make her point, she takes along a talking globe. Using it she can demonstrate the distance involved when lamb travels from New Zealand to north Wales, or chicken is imported from Asia.
“Whether doing the talks or chatting to customers in the shop, I always try to promote the quality of home-produced foods,” she says. “We all have to eat, but I tell them that good food can make it an exhilarating experience.”
The judges of the NFU award said they were especially impressed by the way she continued to make a major contribution to running the farm in addition to adding value to what it produced.
“It seems that she has somehow managed to add quite a few extra hours to each day,” says Dai Davies, deputy president of NFU Cymru. “Gail is also a wonderful ambassador for Welsh farming and for food produced in Wales.”