11 January 2002

Welsh co-op ready to fight for future

By Robert Davies

Wales correspondent

FARMERSbelonging to a new Welsh co-operative group claim they are determined to fight for their futures in the industry.

Members of the Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and farming union leaders who have visited the Pontbren Group, which has 10 farmers on its books, say it could be a blueprint for keeping family farms in business.

The group, which shortly becomes a company limited by guarantee, is committed to sustainable farming, and to the maintenance of the rural community in the Llanfair Caereinion area of north Powys. It has been funded by the local business development organisation Menter Powys and the power company MANWEB.

The National Assembly is paying to use part of the 1000ha (2500 acres) farmed by members for research into alleviating Severn Valley flooding by the creation of wet areas and woodland.

Grants have also been obtained to plant 100ha (250 acres) of new woods, which will increase the area under trees from 1.5 to 15% of the total. Some of the cost of planting or renovating 9.3 miles of hedgerows is also covered, though not fencing. The shelter provided will allow members to cut costs by lambing sheep outside.

Existing woodland is now being managed. The thinnings and mature trees removed from overgrown hedges are being turned into fencing materials and wood chip, which, after being used as bedding, is turned into peatless compost.

With help from Coed Cymru, the multi-agency one-stop shop for advice on farm woodlands, one member is using the compost to grow trees to cut the anticipated £40,000 bill for seedlings. Timber will also be air-dried for sale as flooring and garden furniture.

Between them the members spend £55,000 a year on bedding straw, much of which could be replaced by wood chips. Wood pellets made using a grass pelleting machine could soon be providing heat in many of their houses.

Members, who meet every Wednesday evening for a joint business and social event, have started direct marketing lamb and beef from the 7000 ewes and 500 suckler cows they run.

"We are taking things one step at a time and are determined to get it right," said founder member Roger Jukes during a Farmers Union of Wales visit to his 129ha (320-acre) Tyn y Bryn farm.

"In a way we have stepped back to the days when neighbouring farmers did many jobs together. We believe that the work we are carrying out could be copied in other parts for the mutual benefit of family farmers, the environment, the local community and the rural economy."

Bob Parry, FUW president, said that by sacrificing a little independence and showing forward thinking, members of the pioneering group were taking their futures in their own hands.

"The union has always been a strong supporter of family farms, which have been put under intolerable pressure. The group is showing how these units might survive by working in harmony with others. Politicians talk about co-operation, now it is time for them to provide real help so that innovative projects like this can flourish.

"As 2002 starts I hope farmers and policy makers will look at the Pontbren project and acknowledge that it is a wonderful idea that can keep our countryside in business and meet the aspirations of environmentalists." &#42