Llafur Ni: the search for lost welsh grains

Llafur Ni

Llafur Ni

The Gaia Foundation
A farmer's quest to rediscover a variety of Welsh black oats is reviving more than grain.

Rebuilding diversity together is more important than we can possibly realise.

For the past 20 years, Welsh organic farmer Gerald Miles has been on an epic quest to rediscover the rare black oats his grandfather once grew in Pembrokeshire fields overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

For a long time it looked like his search would be in vain, and that the black oats were gone for good.

Another sad but unsurprising casualty in the dramatic decline of global seed diversity caused by increasing corporate control in agriculture. 

Planet

Then, just when he was close to giving up hope, Gerald met Iwan Evans Coedfadre, a folk singer and perhaps the last farmer in Wales to have kept black oats alive into the 21st Century.

Llafur Ni - Our Grains, a new film from The Gaia Foundation and Andy Pilsbury, tells the story of how Gerald and Iwan came to meet through singer Owen Shires and the blossoming of a wider grain revival in Wales.

Released during the 4th annual UK & Ireland Seed Week, the film explores the significance of reviving seeds as part of a wider movement towards re-valuing and pass on the skills, languages and agri-cultures that have enabled farmers and rural communities in Wales and around the planet to thrive.

Paradise

Gerald Miles has been a farmer all his life. He inherited Caerhys Farm in Pembrokeshire, Wales, from his father and his grandfather before him.

Under Gerald's stewardship, the farm has become a thriving and much-loved focal point of the local community. It is home to Caerhys Organic Community Agriculture, a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) enterprise that provides vegetables to 45 local households every week. The farm also raises cattle and grows grains.

Gerald describes Caerhys as "paradise". But despite the obvious abundance of both nutritious diverse food and community spirit at his farm, for a long time, there was something missing - the Welsh black oats once grown by Gerald's forefathers, but now lost.

Lost Oats

"My grandfather grew black oats. That's the food they gave to the horses on their farms, before soy came to the world of farming.

"Black oats were everywhere in the area. They called them the 'Final Furlong' because they gave the animals so much energy. But now they've disappeared", says Gerald.

Gerald is keen to stress that reviving these black oats, and more generally the ability of farmers to grow their own fodder and animal feed, is an urgent environmental issue of importance to us all.

Feed crops like soy, grown abroad and imported to feed UK herds of a vast scale, are causing devastating damage in the Amazon and other climate-critical ecosystems.

"Farming needs to come back to using these seeds (e.g. black oats) instead of depending on getting protein, like soy, from other countries. A farm should grow its own cereals and create its own food to feed its own animals", says Gerald.

Rebuilding diversity together is more important than we can possibly realise.

Radical Seeds

Gerald is aware that reviving, saving and sharing seeds, once staple on-farm practices, is a radical political act these days. In fact, it's all part of the fun.

Gerald is well known for driving his tractor from Pembrokeshire to London and even Brussels to attend farmer demonstrations demanding a fairer and more just seed and food system.

Tractor odysseys a-side, though, we're in bad shape globally when it comes to the diversity and resilience of our food system.

Over the past century, corporate control has been growing in the global seed and food system. Today, just four corporations (Bayer, Corteva, ChemChina and BASF) control more than 60 percent of the global seed market. This increase in corporate control has led to a corresponding and dramatic decline in seed and agricultural biodiversity. 

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that 75 per cent of crop diversity was lost between 1900 and 2000. 

On dark days when it seemed like he would never rediscover the oats that once grew at Caerhys, the knowledge of this staggering loss, and the need to undo the damage, motivated Gerald to keep going in his search for the black oats.

He asked around neighbouring farms. He put articles in newspapers across Wales. He even managed to source some black oats from Ireland via a rugby tour. But the Welsh black oats of his childhood continued to elude him.

Ultimately, however, Gerald's is a story about persistence rewarded. There is a happy ending.

Folk

A few years ago, at a gathering of fellow farmers, growers and grain enthusiasts who would go on to form the new Llafur Ni (Our Grains) Network, Gerald met Welsh folk singer Owen Shiers.

"When I met Gerald Miles he struck me as an inspirational man, a man of vision. He told me the story of the search for these black oats and that he'd been searching for these oats for 20 years after they had disappeared from Wales," recalls Owen.

"At the time I was researching old folk songs from Ceredigion. In the course of that research I met a farmer called Iwan Evans Coedfadre who had been sharing a song or two with me. It turned out that Iwan was growing these oats- black oats!"

"It made complete sense to me that we should do something together and that these (seed saving) skills, which are so fragile, get passed on to the next generation", says Owen, who soon organised a meeting between Gerald and Iwan.

Oats

Iwan, perhaps one of the last, if not the last farmer growing Welsh black oats, remembers the oats from his childhood in Talgarreg, Ceredigion.

"I'd say the oat has been grown here since my Grandfather was here in 1920, so about a hundred years ago more or less", he says.

Since his youth the number of people growing black oats has dwindled due to changes in technology- the combine harvester - and attitude, according to Iwan. But despite these changes, Iwan, continued to plough his own furrow and grow black oats. 

"In the end, it turns out I'm the only one left", says Iwan.

Iwan is blasé about having kept the oats alive this long. But the national and global importance of his quiet, understated custodianship of the black oats was not lost on Gerald when the two first met and Iwan showed him the barrels of black oats in his polytunnel.

"It was like finding gold, finding these black oats", he says.

Comeback

Since their first meeting, Gerald and Iwan have become firm friends and begun sharing seeds and exchanging stories. Black oats have found their way back to Caerhys for the first time in many decades, and Gerald is now growing twenty acres of them above the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

This glimmer of a revival for Welsh black oats holds a broader significance for Welsh rural and farming culture beyond Caerhys and Talgarreg, says Owen.

"There is an obvious connection between the agricultural world and wider culture. Growing food is one of the activities where people come together, celebrating the harvest, for example, and it's these events which sustain culture, it's these events which sustain languages. I feel passionately that we need to make an effort to sustain what we have."

Llafur Ni

The next step for Gerald, Iwan, Owen and a growing group of farmers and growers is to grow Welsh black oats season-on-season, bulking out the small remaining supply of these seeds.

"We've now created the Llafur Ni Network, which means 'Our Cereals', with Katie Hastings who comes from The Gaia Foundation", says Gerald. "Katie has come across other farms in Wales who have old seed and brought us together to create Llafur Ni, pulling people together from all areas of farming."

Together, the members of the Llafur Ni Network are also reviving other heritage grain varieties. It's a process that is bringing back older, better ways of farming that are closer to the land, which Gerald says is just what we need in these troubled times.

"Coming up here, meeting Iwan, threshing together, and sharing what we know about cereals, it's been so important. It's brought the old language and the old way of thinking together and brought back respect to the old ways", says Gerald.

"I believe that these old ways are what is going to create food for us, keep us in food, in this world where we're experiencing disease and the weather is changing. Rebuilding diversity together is more important than we can possibly realise."

This Author

Hannibal Rhoades is Head of Communications for The Gaia Foundation. Watch Llafur Ni and see filmmaker Andy Pilsbury's beautiful accompanying photos online. For more information on Seed Sovereignty and the urgent need to bring diversity back to our food system, visit: www.seedsovereignty.info

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