8 June 2001

Charcoal and apple juice take the place of livestock

Diversification allows Daphne and Colin Gardiner to make a reasonable living on a small hill

farm without livestock. Robert Davies reports from Monmouthshire

IT IS easy to see why the couple bought Gellirhyd Farm when they sold their electrical appliance repair business in Abergavenny.

From the farmhouse the views looking north and west towards the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains are stunning, and the air is very different from that in the industrialised valleys to the south.

Originally they planned to use bed and breakfast to supplement a modest income from producing lambs and cattle, but they were warned that what was euphemistically described as "a farm in need of some improvement" could carry only 50 ewes and six suckler cows.

"To be honest the place was semi-derelict having been empty for some time," says Colin Gardiner. "Around 50 acres was covered in unmanaged, once-coppiced woodland, and what grassland there was had not been fertilised for a decade."

The partners were given conflicting advice. A farming specialist urged heavy fertiliser applications and reseeding, while the Countryside Council for Wales pressed them to protect what it described as an environmental gem. Moreover, the CCW was prepared to offer money if the important, and in some cases unique, habitats found at Gellirhyd were conserved.

&#42 Tir Gofal scheme

The Brecon Beacons National Park and the Forestry Commission also offered financial help, and more recently the farm has been accepted into the Tir Gofal agri-environment scheme.

It was clear that ultra-low input livestock production would never give a good base income, so Colin and Daphne investigated ways of exploiting the farms other assets. A check on local history revealed that the area once had many coppiced woodlands producing timber to make charcoal and clogs. Logs were also used to fuel small furnaces used by local iron works.

One contractor who was approached wanted to charge for felling and taking away timber from woods that had not been managed for a century, while another offered £2/t. Instead the couple decided to start turning it into charcoal. A blacksmith made them some kilns, and deals were struck to sell the brickettes through local garden centres.

About 4t of wood that buyers reckoned was worthless can now be converted into 1t of charcoal worth £1000. The way the farms woodland, which includes 10ha (24 acres) of new plantings, is now managed was acknowledged in May when the Gardiners won the environment category for South Wales in the Forestry Commissions Rural Care Awards.

Another type of tree is also making a big contribution to the economy of Gellirhyd. When the search was on for ways of boosting income Colin Gardiner took a long look at an orchard containing 100 trees. He knew nothing about apples, but thought they must be worth something. A cider maker offered him £55/ton if he delivered them to Hereford but, after one eventful trip when a wheel came off the trailer, Daphne suggested that they should make and sell their own cider.

&#42 Distinctive taste

They took a course and invested £10,000 in a building conversion and pressing equipment. However, when they tasted the juice of apples from different trees they realised that each one was distinctive, and that non-alcoholic apple juice made without additives was a very special product.

All thoughts of cider making vanished and they set out to identify what turned out to be 35 varieties of apple trees in the orchard. Apples are collected separately from each type, pressed and the juice put in individually labelled bottles.

Customers quickly learn the different flavours of varieties like Tom Putt, Catshead, King of Pippins, St Edmunds Russett and Court Penuplat, which arrived with the Roman legions.

The farm now has 600 apple trees, including 150 of the 2000 varieties of British apples listed by the National Apple Centre at Brogdale in Kent. As the trees mature and fruit, new juices will be added to the Gardiners list.

Around 15 dozen bottles a month are sold at the local branch of Safeway, but most of the 12,000 75cl bottles produced in an average year are sold through farmers markets and farm shops for £2.25 each.

To make fuller use of the equipment the partners are planning to start juicing vegetables such as carrots, celery and beetroot. What remains after pressing could, as the apple pumice is now, be composted, possibly for sale to gardeners.

&#42 Protecting landscape

"Many farmers resist the idea of taking payments for environmentally friendly land management, and say it will mean much lower incomes. We have found that we can make an acceptable living while still protecting wildlife and the landscape," says Colin.

"Some of our hay meadows have over 100 species of plants. It would be unforgivable to destroy these by banging on lime, fertiliser and large numbers of animals."

Colin and Daphne accept that few people who have to make their living from the land will go as far down the nature conservation road as they have, but they feel more people should be prepared to travel some of the way.

"A disaster like foot-and-mouth forces people to stop and take stock. I hope that some will, with help from the Government and Brussels, get involved in enterprises that improve rather than damage wildlife."