Our daily bread was for centuries the product of a community-oriented and collaborative food system.
The Book of Exodus recounts the tale of the Hebrew slaves, who in their haste, fleeing for their lives from Pharoah’s Egypt, had no time for their bread to rise and so carried it upon their backs. Now, Jewish communities around the world remember that story, recalling their time in bondage, by eating unleavened bread during the Passover festival.
Bread is intrinsic to cultural knowledge for people the world over. In Britain, even relatively recently, bringing in the harvest would have been a community enterprise, different members of the village taking on roles from cutting or reaping to putting the sheaves into stooks to dry.
Bread can be so much more than a pillowy, processed loaf of sliced white, a vehicle for sandwich fillings. Fresh bread can be a revelation: richly satisfying, full of nutrition and bursting with flavour, inviting you to slather a slice with something at least as tasty. As part of a regenerative food network, it can speak volumes on cultural sharing, economic fairness and the joy of breaking bread together.
I’ve been involved in the Welsh Grain Forum with miller Anne Parry at Felin Ganol watermill for some years. We’re working with farmers, millers and bakers to help get good home-grown food into more Welsh kitchens. We’re seeing a move back to collaborative food systems with modern ecological approaches and on a more regional, and we believe, a more resilient, reliable and relatable scale.
Right up until World War II, Wales was covered in cereals. Grains were grown right across the country. Old reference maps show Wales pockmarked with many small arable fields (detailed in brown).
Anne says that in her village of Llanrhystud there would, at one time, have been four grain mills. Now, hers is the only one.
With two thirds of UK adults and around a third of our children now overweight or obese, we really must wake up to the costs we have all incurred along the road to the so-called ‘green revolution’.
In today’s economy, financial growth has for too long been heralded over environmental and societal health.
We have seen our connection to food, and how it is produced and prepared, so severely dislocated that now the ‘staff of life’ is treated as a throwaway commodity with a reported 44% of mass produced bread winding up in the bin.
New wheat breeding programmes have, until now, focused on yield, the ability to produce ever higher volumes of grain. And grain volume is the focal point for many farmers: they must earn enough money to keep a roof over their heads.
Some UK farmers are changing this pattern of high input/high output production that is now widely recognised as having negative consequences. An increasing reliance on expensive products promoted to hold yields up, from ammonium nitrate fertilisers to herbicides, fungicides and pesticides that can lead to degraded soils, poor ecological diversity and less environmental and economic resilience as a result.
Modern wheats tend to be much shorter than their older relatives. And these shorter wheats are not good at handling massive fluctuations in the weather – which is something that we are seeing more of with climate change. As an instance, between the autumn sowing in 2019 and the 2020 harvest, huge areas of Britain were flooded and then suffered prolonged drought. It is a pattern that is becoming alarmingly familiar.
Reviving British Grain
As food supply chains have come under the spotlight, due to the pandemic, we can no longer calmly ignore the precarity of our food system and those whose livelihoods and health depend on it. When most of the logistics and infrastructure in our food system is geared for large-scale, high input/output, how can farmers move to more sustainable systems of food production? What are the risks to their farm businesses, and who will support them in the changeover?
Solutions can be found in cooperation. That’s where small has advantages over big. People can speak directly to all of those involved: from farmers all the way along to millers, cooks and bakers. And they, in turn, have much deeper relationships with their customers. There is an opportunity here for people to get excited about food crops that have a more local identity.
The first person to switch me on to not just great grains, but also better bread, was Andrew Whitley at Bread Matters. He was working with heritage wheats and sourdough breads back in the seventies. Andrew’s deep knowledge on baking and gut health has informed a whole new generation of bakers and farmers.
And there are others who have joined the cause. For many years John Letts has been working on some of the very interesting cereal varieties he has discovered. Andrew Wilkinson at Gilchesters in Northumberland has been growing and testing both old and also very modern varieties with a lot of success, and as a farmer and miller Andrew is rather unique. And the Sellers family at Carr House farm and the Side Oven Bakery are part of a rare breed of farmer-bakers. Andy Forbes is the baker, at Brockwell Bake, and he has helped many people gain knowledge with his superb cataloguing of cereals from all over the world.
Both Andy and Andrew gave support and assistance in collecting and cataloguing older wheats, most notably, Hen Gymro, and The Welsh Grain Forum is proud to be stewards of this brilliant Welsh landrace, the oldest recorded Welsh wheat. It is in perhaps its most exciting year, with reasonable quantities of grain being produced after years of very low seed stocks.
Varieties of interesting wheats from post-war back to Hen Gymro (Old Welsh), are beginning to be adopted by farmers who are specialising in diverse cropping. Their aim is not bulk, but quality – of crop and food product, and also of trading relationships.
Polly Davies at Slade Farm Organics in the Vale of Glamorgan is building a successful farm business on the back of a mixed enterprise of cereals and livestock. Polly has a shop at Slade Farm and has set up an arrangement with Anne Parry where small loads of grain go to Felin Ganol, and some of the flour comes back to Polly’s farm shop, with Slade Farm Organics written on the packs.
Fred Price has a mixed farm enterprise at Gothelney in Somerset with Tamworth pigs, and he’s growing Hen Gymro as well as a number of other very good older, taller wheats and is working directly with a small network of butchers and bakers. And Mark Lea at Green Acres Farm has been bulking up seed stock of Hen Gymro for the Welsh Grain Forum. Mark’s growing all three known accessions of this tenacious landrace wheat this year which is a first in Hen Gymro’s recorded history which spans 101 years from when the Welsh Plant Breeding Centre at Aberystwyth began its collection.
Maris Widgeon is another wheat that is seeing a resurgence in artisan baking. It’s a post-war wheat that met its decline when the Chorleywood bread making process became the predominant baking method in the sixties. Fortunately, Maris Widgeon is regaining strength. Mark is growing it and says it grows well in an organic system. It combines well, mills well, bakes well, and critically important, it has survived both flood and drought conditions with no artificial crutches.
Can these varieties be crossed with other varieties, perhaps developed in regional networks? This is what people are slowly starting to investigate.
We have seen this with the crosses that Ed Dickin produces. Ed is a farmer and crops lecturer at Harper Adams University and also works with farmers, including Mark, and with award winning food business Hodmedods, to help find better varieties and better methods for their successful cultivation.
Another variety not on the regular Recommended List that the majority of farmers use to select seed, is the Organic Research Centre’s Wakelyns Population, also known as the YQ (Yield/Quality) which is a composite cross population of 20 wheat varieties.
This project, designed and developed by the late Professor Martin Wolfe of Wakelyns Agroforestry, was launched at the 2015 Organic Farmers & Growers National Organic Combinable Crops event in a session on diversity in plant breeding. Wolfe’s aim was to produce a food crop that was resilient to crop diseases, could compete with weeds and that enhanced the ecological landscape in which it was rooted.
It took Martin around two decades from the first crosses to the YQ harvest. It has worked brilliantly. It was Kimberley Bell of the Small Food Bakery in Nottingham who first managed to build a good recipe and approach to making a fine loaf of bread with the YQ. She told me Martin danced around the table when he received the news.
What I’ve learned from all of this, is that we cannot simply take the inputs out of either farming or food and hope we have something decent at the end of that process. We need a reset and a redesign.
People are working hard, on the ground, in fields, mill houses, bakeries and kitchens to build better systems, from seed stock all the way through to gut health, creating a regenerating, whole system design on a person-to-person scale.
Teaser photo credit: By User:Joopercoopers, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50841906