Since our hugely successful crowd funding campaign back in May, a dedicated team of four have been meeting on a weekly basis to take the project forward.
We are now working with two farmers, both organic; Tobias Gouldon who manages Lordswood Farm near Churchstow and Mike Rogers at Beeson. The harvest encountered a number of hurdles due to a combination of the weather and difficulties getting contractors out; presumably our couple of acres of oats was a less enticing proposition to a contractor than the large acreage offered by other farms. As a result the oats at Lordswood Farm were harvested so late that the weeds were nearly as tall as the grain, resulting in damp grain. All important lessons in our early years. Mike Rogers came to our rescue with some oats and barley that he had grown and combined using his own recently purchased, relatively small scale combine harvester. His purchase should ensure that in future years we are not at the mercy of contractors.
On 22nd October a film crew from Going for Green came from Bristol to my house to film me talking about the project whilst making flapjacks and oat scones to keep up the strength of the team of 8 volunteers who had offered to join us at the two farms bagging up the various grains. By the end of the bagging session Matthew's van was laden with nearly 2 tonnes of grain.
We had decided to take some of the grain to John Lett's near High Wycombe for processing. John has a wealth of experience in small-scale grain growing and processing and has a processing room with a range of appropriate sized machinery that we want to trial before purchasing any of our own equipment. On the morning of Wednesday 28th October Matthew picked me up from a service station outside Oxford en route to John's.
We spent the morning winnowing and dehulling the oats. In total we had taken up three different varieties of oat; the dehuller machine was not able to take off all the hulls of any of these varieties. We trialled many different ways. We put the oats through the dehuller several times and then through the winnower to blow away the removed husks but still some persisted. We then tried soaking a sample of the grain before putting it through the dehuller, lightly toasting another sample, we also tried milling the husk off but the grain just crumbled and the husk stubbornly clung on!
Having abandoned the oats we then concentrated our energies on milling. We had some Maris Widgeon wheat from Lordswood Farm, and the barley from Mike's. Barley requires a machine to pearl it which John didn't have, so we milled it into flour and then sieved out the outer particles through a very fine grade sieve. We polished, milled and sieved the wheat and John made a loaf of bread out of it. That night we ate oat risotto from the only Grown in Totnes oats, swilling out the husks between our teeth with a bottle or two of our very own Black Oat beer, made last year by the New Lion Brewery for the crowd funding campaign.
We learned a lot! I learned that though the farmers may merrily throw 35 kilo bags on their backs 15 kilos was a nicer limit for me, we learned how to recognise the different grains from each other, we learned how to tell a good grain from a musty grain - it's all in the nose! We learned about the need for quality grain that has been cleaned and dried to at least 16% moisture content and we made the decision that in future years we would grow naked oats and barley as they don't have an outer husk. Matthew and I both loved using the winnower; it was a gorgeous wooden contraption with a lovely rhythmic sound. You adjust the air flow with a wooden baffle and then a series of removable sieves separate out stones and seeds and different sized grains and at the same time blow out the light, loose chaff out the back. The other machines were noisy and milling is a dusty occupation requiring dust masks and ear defenders. It was important to see the lay out of the processing room and has got us mentally designing a logistical system that would reduce the amount of manual handling of relatively large quantities of grain.
We made it back to Totnes with nearly as much grain as we had departed with, but despite the Oat Project having a complete lack of oats I have returned excited about what we have learned and the potential for the project. We will make some enquiries to see if we can source other locally grown grains that we will then be able to process when we have our own processing equipment, hopefully early in the new year.
This year the harvest period has overlapped with the Autumn sowing period. Mike has sown some spelt already and I have just ordered a pallet load of interesting grains including Maslin, a blend of wheat and rye, ideal for sourdough bread making; also naked oats and various heritage wheat varieties. These will all go in the ground, as soon as it stops raining ...
The other interesting development is that we are working with four students from Schumacher's Holistic Science and Economics for Transition course and they are interested in running a hackathon – looking at open-source machinery and the marketing elements of the project. I'll report more on this as the plans unfold but do get in touch if you are interested in taking part.
Holly Tiffen - holly at transitiontowntotnes.org