The daffodils Kevin Stephens grows on his farm in the Black Mountains are an integral part of pioneering Alzheimer’s research.
Emily Ashworth finds out more...
In what is supposed to be the beginning of spring, it is a slight surprise to pull up to Fedwlydan farm, Hay-On-Wye, Wales, and see the ground and hills of the Black Mountains blanketed in snow, especially given this farm’s main attraction is the eight hectares (20 acres) of daffodils that Welsh hill farmer Kevin Stephens has grown for the past 10 years.
After coming back to the farm in 1998 following a career working in IT services for the NFU, he was keen to diversify the traditional beef and sheep farm his father, David, had run since 1963, and make it a profitable and sustainable business for his own son, Mark, to take over.
Kevin says: “I thought I had to do something for Mark to make a living from the farm. He didn’t want an office job like his dad.”
But given their extremely remote location, the idea of running a bed and breakfast or opening a farm shop did not seem logical or financially viable and, for Kevin, he has found the perfect opportunity in the humble daffodil.
They are known as the happy flower that blossoms in spring and bring a little colour back to the world post-winter, but what is not widely known about daffodils is that if grown in the right conditions, they produce galanthamine, a chemical used to treat Alzheimer’s.
It was Prof Trevor Walker who had been researching the substantial effect of altitude on daffodil growth and its production of the chemical and, after a chance meeting, Kevin offered to set up trials on-farm to test this ‘Black Mountain effect’.
This led to the establishment of Agroceutical Products in 2012, in a bid to commercialise what had been more than eight years of research and the company now has a network of potential galanthamine growers all over the world.
“I said, let me know if you want a hand in getting the business set-up and 10 years later, here I am,” says Kevin.
“We are where we are now after a whole series of doing it wrong.
“We were ploughing hill pasture and planting a crop a bit like you would with potatoes.
“But we were pulling up red soil which wasn’t a good idea.
“Now we have come up with a method of planting daffodils in to existing hill pasture, so we don’t create any red soil or release any greenhouse gases and there’s no soil erosion.”
Kevin says they now effectively open the sward, drop the bulbs in and cover them up, this being beneficial for both daffodil and sheep, causing minimal disruption to soil.
He says: “The beauty of it is from a whole range of perspectives but the grass keeps the weeds down and the sheep keep the grass down.
“And from a farmer’s perspective, you have the chance of an additional income rather than an alternative.
“You can graze the field just like you would. For example, the daffodils are growing now but the sheep are in the shed lambing.”
He believes it takes advantage of that window from January to April when you are not doing anything with the field.
From what has always survived as a beef and sheep hill farm, it could have been seen as a crackpot idea to suggest growing daffodils. But, says Kevin, his father is very open.
“My dad is one of the most innovative people I know and he was all over it,” he says.
“I suspect he didn’t actually realise how big of a task it was and, although we knew all about the Black Mountain effect, the question was ‘how do we do this in reality’?
“Because, let’s be honest, technically I’m a shepherd, not a chemist or a biologist.
“I can tell you a Texel ewe from a Welsh Mountain ewe – that’s my skill set.”
The chemical is either sold to pharmaceutical companies or used for research at the moment, and Kevin has had to adapt over the years to refine the production process.
He says: “We’ve had to invent a planter especially for the daffodils. We’re currently on version three and working with Harper Adams on it.
“It needs to follow the contours and the ground and not require a big horsepower tractor.”
On average, his 8ha (20 acre) plot will produce about a kilo of galanthamine per hectare (0.4kg/acre).
The harvested tops are stored back in the field they were harvested from, so there are no contamination issues, and the first stage of process is brought to the field.
“It’s so I’m not hauling tonnes of biomass to somewhere else to only get a few kilos,” says Kevin.
“The liquid extract goes to a bio-refining lab which takes it through a series of steps, splitting up the elements to get to the point of extracting the pure galanthamine.
“The standard is 99.2 per cent purity, but we aim for 99.8 per cent.”
This will then effectively go in to drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s.
Today, there are more than 850,000 people in the UK with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis and 40 million worldwide. Sadly, this is predicted to increase to 130 million by 2050.
The problem is, though, says Kevin, while there is a synthetic form of galanthamine, the US Federal Drugs Agency has issued a warning connecting synthetic galanthamine with other health issues, such as heart problems.
He says: “Most is still synthetic as there is very little supply of natural galanthamine, because harvesting natural wild flowers is unreliable.
“We’ve done altitude tests across the UK and we know where it works and where it doesn’t, but how do we now scale this up?
“Ideally we’d like clusters of growers across the country within a tractor’s drive to each other.”
Daffodils require warm and wet soil conditions to thrive and Kevin believes this could be an opportunity for other hill farmers who posses the ideal location and climate.
“I believe Welsh hill farmers to be resourceful, independent and lateral thinkers,” he says.
“But when you say pharmaceutical crop, people immediately think it’s a huge money-maker and it isn’t.
“This could be an additional income to replace the Single Farm Payment – it’s not going to buy you a Caribbean island.”
And it is more than just numbers to Kevin, after investing so much time in the daffodils.
“I get a lot of letters,” he says.
“At least one every month, when someone is desperate for something that will help their mum or dad, wife or husband, and they’re consistently heart-breaking – especially because I can’t give them galanthamine as its prescription only in the UK.
“It feels like we have an option for farmers to win, Alzheimer’s patients to win and for the economy to win as the synthetic version is costly and difficult to make.
“Plus, there’s no environmental downside.
“The way we do it now, I can spend the morning lambing and think, it’s a bit quiet now, I will go and harvest a few daffodils.”
The beef and sheep are still an important strand of Fedwlydan farm, with Kevin’s son, Mark, focusing on the livestock at present.
Currently, they lamb 550 mixed Texel crosses across 121ha (300 acres), lambing from March to Easter.
All beef and sheep are sold to local markets.
Kevin says: “I have tried to keep the farm mainstream and the daffodils mine until it becomes completely viable.
“It’s just a normal hill farm apart from those yellow things out there.”