Updated: Jan 7, 2021
You can't get much more remote than Blaencamel in the Aeron Valley near Lampeter, Ceredigion. Yet this 50-acre organic farm is home to a couple of quiet trailblazers. Peter Segger and his wife Anne shy away from praise. Still, it is no less deserved. What they have achieved with their year-round market produce is nothing short of miraculous abundance.
Even on a chilly December day, Blaencamel brims with immaculate varieties of beetroot, potatoes, carrots, spinach, lettuce, cabbages, kale, and chard. Not to mention the more exotic varieties, such as pak choi and Japanese white turnips. The couple put their success is down to two key factors: incredible compost, and almost 2 acres of polytunnels.
Peter and Anne were part of a dedicated band of gardening pioneers who moved to West Wales in the 1970s. Inspired to challenge the prevailing direction of industrialised farming, while others chased efficiency and economic gain before all else, they opted to go a down a different path. Innovating, experimenting and refining their organic methods instead. Forty five years on, it's astonishing to see what can be achieved sustainably, if done correctly. Even Peter admits he would have laughed off the suggestion, back in the early days, that so many vegetables could be grown out of season on his farm.
"We've stopped planting lettuces and spinach outside altogether now," he says.
"It's too difficult to control the leaf quality in this climate, but with the polytunnels you can do just that. They make up a tenth of our growing area, but they produce half of our income."
Rather surprisingly, Blaencamel's commitment to soil health does not extend to no dig, due to geology. Peter explains that glacial deposits of large rocks and stones are so heavy, it's almost impossible to get a good seed bed.
"Even undisturbed, they insist on re-surfacing," he says in his soft Scottish burr. "Because of this we do have to rotivate, but despite what the scientists say, the evidence we have suggests if you do this in a disciplined way, with careful rotation and composting, it is possible to maintain soil fertility. Cultivating doesn't have to mean losing carbon."
Thirty of the farm's fifty acres are dedicated to either growing produce or in a 6 year rotation cycle. The remainder being made up of woodland or in permanent pasture. Each field has 3 years of vegetable planting, followed by a further 3 years of green manure or grassland. With a typical pattern of succession in the yearly growing cycle being: Brassicas - (compost) potatoes - carrots - (compost) squash.
To help maintain the formidable powerhouse of this production, the farm's hedgerows are also put into a rotational cycle. One seventh are cut and chipped each year as a key ingredient for Peter's legendary compost. The Blaencamel recipe is no different to convention: one third green (green manure, grass, plant residues), one third brown (wood chipping etc) and one third muck. What is different is how fast he can make it. An eye-watering 6 weeks is all it takes, thanks to his aerobic method.
"Compost is about producing and farming microbes," Peter says. "That's the heart around which the health of the farm revolves. The trick is turning at the right time to get the perfect balance of microorganisms."
As he proudly scoops and sifts a handful of dark chocolate-brown matter, he waves his other hand to indicate the long caterpillar of compost from which it comes. The whole stretch is turned by machine twice a day during the first week, once a day for the second week, once only during the third week, and then once every two weeks to finish. While not officially a biodynamic farmer, Peter does swear by many of their methods.
"I don't know how it works, but it does," he laughs. "I would always recommend getting a compost starter or using biodynamic preparations for instance. You want to inculcate all the right organisms in your compost from the get go."
While the compost preparations and field vegetables are Peter's domain, it is Anne who resides over seed preparations and tends to the fleet of polytunnels (which are quite something to behold). There is barely a time when she is not germinating or propagating - from January with the first chilli seeds, through to Nov/Dec. Her bubble-wrapped seed tunnel is a warm, welcoming sight in deep winter.
"Having the extra space to allow the plants to grow before we plant them out is essential," she says proudly. "By the 6th of April the tomatoes are in the polytunnel, but they need warmth and protection from the cold until the end of May."
Darting into a separate row of interconnected polytunnels, she beckons us to follow. Inside, banks of green plants protrude from uniform gaps in a protective plastic layer, spanning a vast width. In between the metal pole struts I spy colourful sprays. Sweet peas and anemones. The effect is surprising and delightful.
As well as a rich layer of compost, Anne explains the plants benefit from the Mypex breathable plastic protection during their early stage, to eliminate weeds. While some crops are produced exclusively indoors, others are grown outside in the field, then over-winter inside. It seems there is no end to what Anne can grow here to help achieve Blaencamel's year-round targets. Many I do not recognise, and she patiently points and names them. There are several salad varieties, such as mizuna, pak choi, celery leaf, water cress, claytona (winter purslane) and Japanese white turnips - beloved by Italian cooks for their green leaves, known as 'rabe'.
"We try and rotate what we grow in the poly tunnel beds each year - especially the garlic, cucumbers and brassicas," she says. "But more than anything the challenge is to grow more and newer varieties."
"We're always pushing for that. It's not just about offering a sustainable alternative to the supermarket products with such high food miles. It's partly to give people a better, local, healthier choice, but it's also just fun. We've been doing this for nearly 50 years and we're still learning. It's one big experiment between the commercial and the culinary. That's what keeps me going. That's what I love!"