Page last updated at 06:42 GMT, Thursday, 15 April 2010 07:42 UK

Changing climate for exotic crops on Welsh farms

Planting time at Bryngwyn in Powys
Nigel and Sian Fromant produce 500,000 soft fruit cuttings a year at Bryngwyn in Powys. Photo courtesy of Farmers Union of Wales

By Neil Prior
BBC News

Twenty years ago, bio-diversity in Wales meant a farmer growing King Edwards instead of Maris Pipers, but today it's possible to find a range of crops stretching from David and Gill Butterworth's blueberry farm in Wrexham to Tony Malone's Pembrokeshire Tea Company.

Wine has been manufactured in Wales since Roman times and the Penarth Vineyard, established in Powys in 2003, is understood to be one of Wales' most northerly.

Similarly, when Sian Fromant started farming her land, 1,000ft above sea-level at Bryngwyn, in Powys, it was believed only to be suitable for grazing sheep.

Now a quarter of a century on, 30 acres of hillside annually yield half a million blackcurrant cuttings, which she supplies to growers for Ribena the length and breadth of the UK.

Sian Fromant
Land only fit for sheep when I was a child is now producing half a million organic cuttings a year
Sian Fromant

The reasons for this diversion from the traditional, native Welsh crops seem to be varied, complicated and far from clear-cut.

There is undoubtedly a financial imperative, with the relative weakness of the pound encouraging farmers to look for easily exportable produce.

Others say their choice of crop is influenced by increasingly green-conscious shoppers requiring a broader range of locally sourced goods.

However there is also a rising amount of anecdotal evidence from farmers suggesting that climate change is allowing a more exotic range of plants to grow, where previously only grass could flourish.

"Forty years ago my father was able to grow soft fruits on the hills, but only in sufficient quantities to feed our family and friends," said Mrs Fromant.

"In the 1980s we started to look into cultivating the plants for fruit growers on a commercial basis and since then we've noticed something very strange happening with the weather.

"The main rain-belt for this area seems to have moved west of us, the winters have been milder, and the summers sunnier.

"Whether that's coincidence, climate change, or something completely different I couldn't tell you - I'm not a scientist.

"All I can say is that land only fit for sheep when I was a child is now producing half a million organic cuttings a year."

Perkin Evans, NFU Cymru's head of arable farming, agrees that climate change is playing a part in the shifting face of Welsh farming, but not necessarily in the way we might think.

Blueberry growerr David Butterworth
David Butterworth has 12,000 blueberry bushes at his farm near Wrexham

"There are two driving forces affecting the food market at the moment.

"With the pound as weak as it is, it's murderously expensive for the supermarkets to import goods from abroad.

"That means that it now starts to be cost-effective for Welsh farmers to grow crops they hadn't really considered in the past, even if they can't produce them in the sorts of yields which are possible in warmer countries.

"The second factor is that consumers are eating just as varied a diet as they always have done, but they're more and more worried about trying to protect the environment by locally sourcing as much of their food as possible.

"That means that there's a market for virtually anything and everything which farmers are prepared to have a go at growing.

"Against this backdrop, we're constantly being told that the world's heating up, and we're all going to be eating home-grown oranges under palm trees in Borth - so farmers think, 'Why don't I give X or Y a crack in my fields?'.

"Whether we're heating up or not I don't know, but the point is it's virtually impossible to say whether we could have grown this variety of produce 20 or 30 years ago, because no-one was trying back then."

One of those crops no-one considered growing in Wales was tea.

However, according to the Pembrokeshire Tea Company's unique tea research facility in Pembroke Dock, west Wales has the best conditions in the world for nurturing the perfect cuppa.

Sian Fromant's Welsh Fruit Stocks farm
Sian Fromant's Welsh Fruit Stocks farm is 1,000ft up in the Powys hills.

"When you think of tea, the places which automatically come to mind are China, India and Sri Lanka, with all the associations they have with heat and sunshine," said Tony Malone, co-founder of the Pembrokeshire Tea Company.

"In actual fact the most important factor in tea cultivation is humidity, and too much heat is actually a very bad thing.

"So, with the mist-laden Atlantic breezes, mild winters and not too hot summers we get in Pembrokeshire, we are probably in the most perfect spot in the world for growing tea.

"I think force of habit and misconceptions have led to us traditionally growing a very narrow and prescriptive range of crops.

"With farming becoming increasingly scientific, I believe we'll be amazed with what Wales can produce in the future, regardless of climate change."

So the first bottle of all-Welsh extra virgin olive oil may be closer than we think.

But with the jury still out on whether we are feeling the effects of climate change, or just thinking with a sunnier disposition, will positive thought alone bring us that barbecue summer we've all been waiting for?

Print Sponsor

Woman's surprise over banana crop
02 Sep 08 |  Mid Wales

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific