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Reflections from alongside the threshing machine

Last weekend I was at Embercombe, about 20 minutes drive from Totnes, for the West Country Storytelling Festival. Embercombe is a fascinating evolving project, describing itself as “a charity and social enterprise established to champion a way of living that celebrates the opportunities inherent in this challenging time and that inspires people to energetically contribute towards the emergence of a socially just, environmentally sustainable and spiritually fulfilling human presence on earth”. It is also a stunning place, a mix of woodlands and fields. Food production is becoming a key part of its work, and it now has a wonderful vegetable garden, orchards, field scale veg and, of particular interest to me, some small scale cereals production. The day I was there, they were threshing (or attempting to thresh) some of what they had grown, and I thought I would share some of the conversations that took place by the threshing machine. So, this year, the land team at Embercombe experimented with growing cereals, planting blocks of oats, rye, wheat and spelt. The previous year they had grown a traditional variety of wheat, which was a long-strawed type, but in the wet and windy summer we had much of it fell over (‘lodged’). This year’s wheat variety was a shorter stemmed one, and, like all the other grains grown, grew well. The field was rotavated with a tractor, and then the seeds were hand-broadcast. A few months later, they were harvested by hand, using scythes, and stacked up, waiting for the thresher.

The threshing machine that came is one of only a handful of such machines left in operation. Powered from a tractor, it is a beautiful piece of equipment, lovingly maintained by enthusiasts, and fascinating to observe in operation. The harvested crop is fed into the top of the machine, which separates the grain from the chaff, and both of those from the straw. Only the wheat and the spelt were going through the thresher, the oats and the rye were going to be dealt with differently.

Oats are tricky old things. When we buy porridge oats we think of them as an unprocessed, natural product, but actually to get from what you harvest in the field to something you can make porridge from takes a few different processes, dehusking, steaming, rolling… as friends in West Cork found out when they had harvested the West Cork CSA oats they had organised. Without access to machines that can get the husk off them, oats are really only usable as animal feed. At Embercombe, however, they are planning to try an imaginative alternative, rather than feeding their prcious crop to the chickens, they are going to experiment with making oat milk from them (currently bought from wholefood shops in tetrapacks…). I’ll be fascinated to hear how that goes….

I don’t remember the plans for the rye, but what was focusing minds when I was there was the difference between wheat and spelt. The wheat was going through the machine fine, coming out as clean grains, but the thresher was unable to take the husks off the spelt (see left for the picture, the top hand is the wheat, the bottom hand is the spelt). The guys working the machine adjusted the settings, tried various things, but every time the spelt emerged with its husks on.

Spelt is a fascinating crop. In this part of the UK, and as we head on down into Cornwall, less wheat is grown, as the soils become less and less suitable for the high gluten varieties that large bakeries favour. Spelt, however, grows well down here, and is a grain that can be eaten by people with an intolerance for gluten. Not much use though if no-one can get the husks off!

There is something fascinating to me about experiments such as those being conducted at Embercombe. The now seminal Hirsch Report argued that it would take at least 10 years, ideally 20, ahead of peak oil in order to be ready for it, to have successfully managed a ‘crash course’ of breaking our oil addiction. In terms of local food, it seems to me that the process of dismantling the infrastructure that local food production needs has been underway for some time. As I often say in talks, it was easy to turn Totnes’s last working flour mill (see right) into a Tourist Information Office, much harder to turn a Tourist Information Office back into a working mill again.

The conversations taking place as different grains spilled from the thresher were about rediscovering something just about still within reach, but only just. Even if you get the husks off, how do you store grain so it doesn’t go musty, how do you keep the rats away from it, how do you mill it… a whole chain of knowledge, sophisticated knowledge acquired over thousands of years, rendered obsolete by cheap energy and the “biggering and biggering” of agriculture. One of the nuggets I gleaned was that if you harvest wheat and just pile the crop in a heap, and it gets rained on, it is ruined. If you ’stook’ it, make it into bundles which stand up, you can leave them out in the rain and they are fine. At Embercombe they couldn’t find anyone who knew how to do that…

We often use the term ‘The Great Reskilling’. As I stood by the thresher at Embercombe, I realised that as well as the passing on of skills, we also need “The Great Practicing”, trying things out. We can learn a certain amount from books and from courses, but the best way to learn, the way that has you thinking around problems and solving them on the hoof, is by having a go. Even the small patches of grain that had been grown had been hugely instructive. It also gives you a sense of the infrastructure you need to create, the infrastructure that a local food economy needs. As Aldo Leopold put it, “who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering”. I found it very inspiring, in the sunshine, listening to whirring and clacking of the thresher, to watch some dedicated people who have picked up some of those seemingly useless parts and are trying to work out how to make them work again.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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