As we explored in The History of Wheat, most of the milling wheat widely grown in this country has been bred for a specific farming system and market; genetically homogeneous varieties produce high yields of grains that can be roller-milled and used to make industrialised bread, but are reliant on herbicides, fungicides and fertiliser in their production.

But these varieties don’t perform well in organic or low-input systems, and the wheat is ill-suited to stoneground flour and sourdough bread. So how do we move away from these wheats towards varieties that work better in sustainable farming? And what changes need to happen at a systems level to support the market for these grains?

Breeding in diversity

One approach is to reintroduce diversity back into our fields by creating what is known as a ‘population wheat’, a genetically diverse crop produced by breeding a number of different varieties of wheat together. The most well-known of these is the ORC Wakelyns Population (known as YQ), the brainchild of the late Martin Wolfe, a pioneer in agroforesty and low impact cereal growing. He took 20 varieties of modern wheat, selected either for yield or quality – hence the name YQ – cross-bred them and created a population from the resulting seeds. One of the major challenges Wolfe faced was a legal one; the genetic diversity at the heart of YQ contravenes EU legislation around seed conformity that requires the seeds that are sold to be both distinct and uniform. He fought hard for a dispensation to this regulation, and in 2017, was granted the right to sell this seed, ensuring the legacy of his work, which is now being grown by farmers across the country.

A different approach to breeding in diversity, is that taken by plant breeder Ed Dickin. He went back to the genebanks to cross traditional landrace varieties with modern wheats, aiming to capture the yield and short stature characteristics of the modern varieties with the flavour and low input requirements of the landraces. “Can we get the flavour and resilience of the landraces with the stronger straw and better yield, and stronger gluten of the modern wheats?” he asks. The result of his experiments, known as the Oak Farm Population, is made up of 14 different crosses and some of the landrace parents; “The overall aim would be to produce something that tastes very good and that can be grown with less inputs than modern wheats.”

Return to heritage

While there is undeniable benefit in creating diversity through breeding, the UK landscape once held thousands of different wheat varieties, each suited to the soil and climate of the local area. One of the people leading the movement to rediscover and reintroduce many of these grains is Andy Forbes, the grower, miller and baker behind Brockwell Bake. Inspired by the work of heritage grain pioneer John Letts, Andy soon found himself sourcing tiny samples of different grains from genebanks, growing them on his allotment, then finding farmers who would give a patch on their farm to grow them.

One of Andy’s projects has been the reintroduction of Hen Gymro, which translates as ‘Old Welshman’, a traditional Welsh landrace variety that was grown until the 1920s. Collecting seeds from multiple genebanks, Andy started growing the first line in 2011, and then a further two lines when seeds were brought back from a Russian seedbank in 2014. To take Hen Gymro back to Wales, Andy has teamed up with the Welsh Grain Forum, a group of farmers, millers, bakers, thatchers and more who are looking to increase production and the market for Welsh grains. “We’re trying to decide how to put the lines back together to try and get as close to the original landrace as possible,” he explains.

One such heritage product that has already reached the market is Scotland The Bread. Andy Forbes was once again key in the process of identifying traditional heritage varieties, tracking down samples of Rouge d’Ecosse, Golden Drop and Hunter’s, all originating in Scotland. “The British Isles was one of the first places to move away from landrace and tall wheats, so many of these wheats only survived because they were taken and used elsewhere,” he points out, explaining that these grains were lost in the UK, but he found Hunter’s in a New Zealand genebank, and Rouge d’Ecosse in France, countries that had continued growing these varieties much longer. The grain he found was then grown at four farms across Scotland, the seeds saved and multiplied up, and these heritage flours are now on sale.

The rise of the baker

In a commodity market where the price is set by traders, the lower yields of heritage varieties make little financial sense. But a new market is emerging through the artisan baking sector, where bakers are crying out for heritage flour. Kimberley Bell from Small Food Bakery in Nottingham began baking with YQ wheat a few years ago. “For me it’s part of a wider philosophy on food, and a belief in the importance of food sovereignty,” she explains. “I bake for people because I care…and the global grain economy and the way that farmers and farms have been commodified is so incongruous to that.”

She was also drawn to the flavour that these grains bring, but working with these flours requires adapting the way she bakes. “New flours bring new technical challenges, and we have to work in a way that is fluid and can adapt to the change in the technical properties of the flour. This means building flexibility into our processes at the bakery – not just the mixing of the dough, but the design of our products, the structure of our teams, the way we sell our products, our relationships to customers and, of course, most significantly, the way we act when buying our ingredients.”

Rebuilding the system

While the demand for the grain is increasing, the logistics of getting this grain to the customer remains a significant challenge. This was one of the key motivations behind the organising of the UK Grain Lab, an annual gathering that brings together not just farmers and bakers, but also millers, breeders, scientists and academics to learn from each other and create shorter and better supply chains.

In addition to her work at Small Food Bakery, Kimberley has been at the heart of organising the event. “If you want to work with more interesting grains, you need to take part in building the infrastructure to make them available,” she points out. “The main challenge is that we are having to re-build a localised grain economy pretty much from scratch. Trying to work differently and deal direct with smaller farms and mills makes you realise how much knowledge, skill and small-scale equipment we have lost in just a couple of generations.” The milling of YQ and other local heritage grains is currently being carried out by a few remaining small mills around the country. “For change to happen, we need to see small, community owned regional mills being established to better facilitate the storage and processing required to get the grain from the farm to the bakery,” Kimberley explains.

One of the new re-localised models being trialled is that of the South West Grain Network, a group of people who first met at the UK Grain Lab and came together to develop a solution in their region. Less than a year later, the network is made up of farmers who are growing the wheat, a local miller and a group of bakers who are committed to buying the flour. Working together collaboratively to consider the costs at each stage of the supply chain, select the wheat varieties that grow well on a low-input farm but are also easy to work with and taste good from the bakers perspective, it’s a model that they hope can be replicated in other areas. “The problem is the nature of the supply chain being big and without a human face,” explains Fred Price, the farmer at the heart of the network. “It’s about putting all the people…having these conversations together, looking at what the problems are and thinking about the solutions as a group.”

The future of wheat

At present, the movement to farm, distribute and bake with these grains is being spearheaded by a small group of passionate individuals. While this effort is beginning to reach a wider audience, change can’t always be hurried. “It’s important that we take care to do things right, not to rush, and to make sure that the power in these new economies is equitable,” Kimberley points out. “There is always the danger of re-building the old system and re-commodifying these precious seeds.”