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Green economy wales
4 April 2024

Veg Growers Use Farming Connect to Plug Gaps in Knowledge to Develop Business

It takes courage and vision to re-mortgage the family home to buy land to grow organic vegetables and flowers on a commercial scale, but Emma Maxwell and Dave Ashley made that bold decision and, by taking advantage of Farming Connect support along the way, their horticulture business is developing year on year.

They didn’t come to horticulture from a standing start when they established Ash&Elm Horticulture at Old Hall, Llanidloes, in 2011.

For 11 years they had rented a one-acre plot nearby, initially growing fresh produce to feed their family while selling excess to a local organic greengrocer.

They were dealt a blow when the owner ended the lease but turned that unexpected event into an opportunity by purchasing five acres from a local organic farmer.

At £10,000 an acre it was a significant investment, but with its south facing aspect and good soil it was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’’, says Emma.

“We decided to re-mortgage the house to buy it because land like that so close to our home wasn’t going to come up again,’’ she continued.

They set about planting out the site and establishing infrastructure such as polytunnels while Emma continued with her ‘day’ job, as a tutor in horticulture at a local college and in the community.

To help inform that process they attended Farming Connect events and training days, including a study visit to Langtons Farm in Monmouthshire, where they picked up tips on how to be productive by using time-saving small scale equipment.

Twelve years after they bought their land, Emma and Dave now supply 40 families with weekly veg boxes, sell produce at Machynlleth street market and supply retailers, wholesalers and restaurants.

Some of those sales are generated online – an aspect of the business where Farming Connect was again able to provide support with guidance on digital marketing.

“That was really beneficial because we had gone from playing around with growing vegetables to having a good commercial business, selling flowers, fruit and nuts too, and that meant we needed to learn a lot of things that we are not trained in like social media, marketing and administration,’’ says Emma.

“Accessing help from Farming Connect has really helped us to vocalise what we are thinking, every time we talk to someone else about an idea that we have it becomes slightly more real.’’

A Farming Connect funded business session was particularly useful, she adds,

“The speaker had a background in horticulture and he was also a business advisor, and one of the first questions he told us was to ask ourselves was how much we needed to earn from the business. Until then we had done everything on a shoestring but that session helped us to focus our minds on how we needed to take a more commercial-minded approach.’’

It gave them the confidence to look at things differently, such as expanding the veg box sales from a six-month offering to all-year-round, by securing supply from other local organic growers.

Not only does that mean extra income for those growers but Ash&Elm Horticulture has been able to provide employment too, including appointing Anna Ross as a permanent member of staff; she first joined them as a volunteer and then became an apprentice.

“After working solidly for a decade, we now aspire to be in a position where we have a team of six, giving us a resilient system where we can have days off,’’ says Emma.

The next venture is online sales of the flowers they are growing on their land.

The couple have grown flowers alongside the vegetables for 25 years and started sending flowers on a small scale during the pandemic, when people wanted to post flowers to family and friends. With support from Farming Connect on social media marketing they are now scaling that up with the launch of ‘Welsh Flower Barrow’.

As a tutor, Emma understands the value of continuous professional development (CPD) and urged other horticulturists to access this through Farming Connect services.

“For me, CPD has made me a better horticulturist. Methods change and by going on study visits or signing up to courses it has made me aware of the latest thinking and the equipment that can help us be better at what we do.’’

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