Permaculture in Wales: A community approach to growing food

March 2023

 

As I walked along the narrow, shaded trail that meanders through Bluebell Woods, I noticed aptly positioned rocks with words painted on them. The word ‘listen’ on one rock prompted me to stop and pay attention to the subtle sound of the nearby stream. Another had the words ‘I took a walk in the woods… and came out taller than the trees.’ In that moment, it resonated with me.

A visit to Bronhaul Farm in South Wales is a cathartic escape from the modern world and an irresistible chance to re-connect with nature. Set amidst the quintessential green fields of the Welsh landscape, delineated by the thick hedgerows and woodlands, the 25-acre farm is home to Glasbren, a non-profit social enterprise that strives to nurture a closer relationship with the land and the food we eat.

Founded in 2019 by thirty-three-year-old Abel Pearson, Glasbren – the Welsh word for ‘sapling’ – is a multi-faceted project based around the ethics of permaculture: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. Growing over 40 varieties of vegetables and around 50 fruit trees, Glasbren provides a weekly veg box to more than 50 households between the Taf and Tywi rivers in West Carmarthenshire, South Wales.

Beyond providing fresh, locally grown, seasonal and nutrient dense fruit and veg, the founding principles and vision of Glasbren are centered around the fundamental need to reconnect with where our food comes from. Their goal is to “transform food and eating from taking something off a shelf, taking it home and cooking it to something more exciting,” founding director Abel says. “If you’re foraging berries for example, it turns food into a whole activity and something that can bring a lot of joy, excitement and adventure into your life.”

As I wandered around through the flourishing gardens with Glasbren co-director Steffan Lemke-Elms, I became shamefully aware of my lack of knowledge of the plants growing all around me. With infectious enthusiasm, Steffan pointed out and picked various wildflowers and other plants that can be eaten raw, insisting I try them. Most were delicious, some less so, but all undeniably fresh and nutritious. Despite growing up in the countryside just a few miles from Bronhaul farm, it somehow felt a little odd to eat food directly as it was picked from the earth. This disconnect between our food and where it comes from is the driving force behind Glasbren. “I realized you have to start with developing people’s relationship with the land and help them learn to love the earth again,” says Abel. “We all know that if we love something we protect it.”

Rooted in a sustainable and regenerative approach to food production, Glasbren’s veg box scheme is part of a business model called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which seeks to foster a deeper relationship between consumers and farmers while building a sustainable source of food based on the principles of permaculture. “In growing (food), that means applying it to the way we design the garden to be a forever foodscape,” explains Abel.

Another core aspect of Glasbren is promoting personal wellbeing through its volunteer programme. Every Thursday, volunteers of all ages and diverse backgrounds come to the farm to help with tasks such as planting, watering, wheelbarrowing, weeding and prepping beds for new crops. It’s also an opportunity for volunteers to learn about gardening and growing, and to be outdoors with like-minded people while spending time in a green space, which is proven to improve physical and mental wellbeing.

On a glorious summer’s day last July, I personally experienced the benefit of spending time on the farm, not only in the beautiful gardens but also wandering the small paths that weave through the mystical woodlands and farmland. Words painted onto stones and bits of wood are thoughtfully placed along the paths giving directions as well as reminders to pause and listen to the sound of the bubbling stream, or the wind brushing through the trees. I left the farm feeling re-energized and reconnected to nature.

I was also moved by the atmosphere created by the Glasbren team; one of kindness, openness, acceptance and a palpable respect and appreciation for the land and the food it bears. “It’s a very welcoming, inclusive and safe space,” says Abel. “From the feedback we’ve received we know that everyone feels safe here, which is one of our greatest achievements. We’ve created a safe haven, an island of sanity amongst all the craziness. People feel free to be themselves here.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, membership of the Glasbren project grew. “Suddenly there was a lot of public engagement with it because people had more time and head space to engage with something like this, and to think a bit more about the environment and supporting local businesses – we all saw how we were a bit kinder to each other, helping each other out.”

When food bank use spiked during the pandemic, Abel and the Glasbren team decided to start fundraising to support them. “We were asking our members to give a few pounds extra each week and that would go towards giving veg to the food bank,” says Abel. However, donating fresh produce to the food banks highlighted issues around cooking skills, and some of the donated food was wasted. “For some people they just couldn’t engage with it,” he says. “It was too intimidating to know what to do with all the vegetables – cooking skills was a real issue… I think we also have to work at educating people.”

Teaching and communication is a fundamental feature of the Glasbren project. “We’re doing a lot of work around cooking skills, demos, and videos, trying to work at empowering people to feel like this is a really great thing for their lives, to feel excited about it” says Abel.

Glasbren offers a series of regular courses and workshops called Growing Roots of Resilience for Regeneration and Relationship to the Land, which are designed to help people learn how to grow, forage, cook and preserve their own food, while promoting a more sustainable, resilient and self-reliant way of life with a greater connection to the natural world. “All courses are framed around particular skills or knowledge bases,” says Abel, “but they’re also embedded in developing people’s relationship to nature and making sure we’re doing it from the spirit of relationship, rather than just putting plants in and taking them out, becoming something indigenous to the soil we’re taking from.”

Speaking with Abel, it was clear to me that the project has a spiritual element to it. “That’s why I do it, that’s why I grow food,” he told me. “To try and belong to the land and to have that indigenous connection to a place. I think I’ve developed a yearning for it over the years.”

As the country battles with many crises, from mental health, diet-related obesity, pandemic recovery, to a pervasive rise in cost of living, Abel believes that farming can play a role in helping improve people’s overall quality of life. “Working with volunteers we can teach people to grow their own food, so they’re going to feel better just by being here and being in nature,” he says. “They’re going to eat better because they’re getting nutrient-dense vegetables. The same for our members. And through our workshops we can give people the skills to feel a bit more like they can take action for their own wellbeing.”

In keeping with the permaculture principle of Fair Share, Glasbren offers its membership on a sliding scale, allowing people to pay what they are able to pay within a set range. “People who can afford more pay more and those who can’t pay a bit less, and that pretty much balances out,” explains Abel. “It’s a way to have a circular economy where the wealth is being spread out a little bit better.”

As is highlighted on the Glasbren website, their goal is to “weave our lives back into the tangle of nature, steward land for future generations and gather a resilient community around the table, or the smoking fire, once again.”

Glasbren founder Abel Pearson picks veg in one of the two tunnels at Bronhaul Farm.

The entrance to Bronhaul Farm, located near the village of Bancyfelin in South Wales.

The driveway leading to the main house at Bronhaul Farm.

The entrance to the Glasbren gardens.

The flourishing gardens at Glasbren. The method of growing at Glasbren is called no-dig, which means the soil isn’t turned or tilled, therefore maintaining its natural ecosystem. “We’re just adding fresh organic matter and compost,” Abel tells me. “It’s called agro-ecological, which is kind of beyond organic – it’s bringing life into soil-building, and habitat creation… As you can see it’s very diverse and mixed.”

Glasbren co-director Steffan Lemke-Elms harvests veg from the gardens.

One of the veg boxes is filled ready for distribution, together with a newsletter containing information and cooking tips.

Veg box manager Sophie Pope, 26, harvests veg from the Glasbren gardens. Before becoming an employee of Glasbren in 2021, Sophie was a volunteer for two years. “Coming here was life changing,” she says. “It was exactly what I needed at that point, I was very low and not very well. I had an office job before and I realized I couldn’t spend my life in front of a computer.” Sophie tells me that her favorite thing about working at Glasbren is the people and being part of the team.

Inside one of the wooden buildings at Glasbren.

A visit to Glasbren and Bronhaul Farm would not be complete without a walk through the mystical Bluebell Woods.

A leafy path weaves through Bluebell woods at Bronhaul Farm.

Steffan Lemke-Elms harvests beetroot from the Glasbren garden.

Co-director Stefan Lemke-Elms prepares lunch with fresh food picked from the gardens that morning.

A delicious and colorful lunch prepared by chef and co-director Steffan Lemke-Elms with veg grown in the gardens. All volunteers who come to Glasbren are offered a free lunch once a week at the farm, as well as a free veg box.

Tomatoes grow in a tunnel at Glasbren. “Tomatoes are my favourite for eating and growing,” says Abel. “The difference between a home grown tomato and a shop bought tomato is so huge. I think that’s probably what makes the biggest impact on people – the feedback is that the tomatoes are so sweet and so fresh, people are usually surprised that that’s what they can taste like.”

Hidden amongst the trees is the compost toilet at Glasbren, which has been carefully designed to collect ‘humaure’ into adapted bins so it can be stored safely for a period of time until it’s ready to be used to fertilize trees, far from any food or vegetable production.

All of the buildings at Glasbren are self-built using locally grown and milled timber, reclaimed, eco-friendly and recycled materials.

Painted on a beam of wood in one of the sheds at Glasbren is a quote by Robin Wall Kimmerer: “As we work to heal the Earth, the Earth heals us.”

The veg boxes are loaded in the van ready for distribution.