A blog by Holly Tiffen
The UK Grain Lab Gathering took place in Nottingham earlier this month, an event for farmers, millers, bakers, cooks, plant breeders, scientists and academics. You might imagine this to be a somewhat exclusive gathering, however Totnes had a strong contingent present; Dan from the Almond Thief Bakery, Bob from the Apricot Centre, Andrew from Fresh Flour, and a little further afield Robin from the Gaia Foundation, Emily from Beachwood Bakery in Chagford and Emma from Emma’s Bread in Exeter. 250 people gathered coming from Australia, Lebanon, Denmark, Ireland, Canada and the US to chew over the common and differing aspects of small-scale milling, crop growing and baking using locally grown grains and legumes. The last time we gathered was in 2019, and then our numbers were about a quarter; a testament to the burgeoning growth of this movement.
In grain terminology a Population is a diverse mix of different varieties grown together. The lasting impression that I came home with is that the diversity of approaches being explored to promote the growing and eating of non-commodity grains, peas and beans is a Population of approaches. This is beautifully illustrated by The Sheffield Wheat Experiment.
Last year over 200 people collectively grew heritage wheat in their gardens, allotments or in pots. They came together regularly on zoom to compare and discuss the development of their micro-scale crop during the growing season. When it came to harvesting they cut their wheat, often by scissors, and walked through the city with their bundles to gather at a central location where they threshed the wheat, beating it in order to knock the wheat kernels off the plant, and then winnowed it using sieves and buckets and the natural blow of the wind to separate the wheat grains from the chaff, some of it was sorted by hand, grain by grain! They gathered a sum total of 130 Kg, much of the grain was saved for planting that autumn and the rest was milled and given back to the growers for them to bake a product and share images of their baked wares with the rest of the group.
I loved the concept of this project. You could question the point of growing on such a micro scale, but when we consider how removed the majority of us are from this, our staple food ingredient, it is an engaging way to create curiosity and pride, and to empower understanding into the complexities of grain production and processing, I can’t imagine any of those 200 participants look at a bag of flour in the same way as they did.
Maine Grains is a project on the other end of the scale, based in Showhegan in Maine. A town with a strong manufacturing industry history, now all but gone, and leaving in its wake poverty and deprivation. However, in recent years Maine Grain has established Skowhegan as one of the country’s emerging rural food hubs. They run a similar annual gathering to the UK Grain Alliance called the Kneading Conference. I was struck by some of the similarities in the early development of Maine Grains with those of Grown in Totnes. Both undertook historic research in order to gauge the appropriateness of grain production to the area by interviewing farmers and calling on their memories and family stories. A key difference is that Maine grew grain historically for human consumption, Devon only ever grew grain for animals. Members of the local community in Maine clocked the rising interest and demand for locally grown grains for bread baking and decided that a local grain economy required a local mill. Their vision is similar to that of Grown in Totnes; they aim to ensure that nutritious local grains are available and affordable to their local community, outside of commodity pricing and markets. Maine Grains works directly with each of its farmers to create transparent, sustainable, and economically feasible trade relationships. Farmers supplying Maine Grains pledge never to use chemical fertilisers or pesticides on their grain crops. In 2009 they bought a derelict four-storey jail building.
In 2012, after five years of research and business development, the facility opened to receive its first deliveries of Maine-grown grain. This was the year Grown in Totnes undertook its farmer interviews, and it was 5 years later that we opened our milling premises on the industrial estate, and there the similarities end. By 2019 Maine Grains had purchased over $1,000,000 worth of Maine grown grain. They sell beans, heritage grains, wheat, rye, oats and buckwheat. Most of their waste products are sold to pig farmers, their oat husks which are high in silica are in great demand as a mushroom growing medium, for dog bedding and to replace vermiculite in horticultural compost. A number of businesses have grown up that benefit from the opportunities that Maine Grain have brought to the area, these include a brewery, a pizza base company, a noodle manufacturer and an ‘ice-cream sandwich’ company! It is a fantastic example of a rich and diverse local food web.
Mark Lea is a farmer I have followed for a number of years, a young farmer by UK standards. He converted a mixed farm in Shropshire to organic. Unlike any of the farmers we worked with in Grown in Totnes, he has all of the infrastructure in place needed to look after his crops post-harvest, ensuring that they are stored at peak condition, are cleaned adequately for human consumption and are not contaminated by four-legged furry creatures. He has been supplying the wonderful UK pulse and grain company, Hodmedods, from their early days. He described the transition from growing commodity crops to growing crops directly to his wholesale customers. I was struck when he said that previously he never knew where his crops ended up but when he started selling direct, he was thanked for the first time. Prior to that he only had contact with the buyer if something wasn’t right. How did our food systems become so removed from humanity?
Mark has trialled combining soil building with cropping, these are normally separate activities in the farming calendar - crops are grown in rotation, one in every four years is unproductive in terms of crop yield, as it is put down to clover which replenish the soil’s nitrogen levels. After harvest Mark has planted clover and then allowed the sheep to graze it, their nibbling stimulates the growth of the clover and they add further nutrition to the soil. Then in autumn he direct drills his crop in to the clover – the clover provides an under-storey which helps supress the weeds, and is loved by bees. However, the competitiveness of the clover does reduce the crop’s yield.
Mark regularly opens up his farm to the public, but he was frustrated by the fact that no one, including himself, could eat a loaf of bread made from his crop. So to rectify this, Mark has recently bought himself a small mill and sells the flour at his open days, but only to those who go on one of his farm tours; he wants them to understand where their flour comes from and the processes it went through in order to get to that point, and now he can demonstrate the whole story from seed, to growing, to harvest, to milling.
I also presented at the gathering. You may recall that I developed the Grown in Totnes Toolkit, the completion of this tomb of work coincided with COVID lockdown. The UK Grain Lab Gathering was the first time that I was able to present the toolkit in person and reach the people it was intended to support. In the toolkit you will see a plethora of videos and photos from the Grown in Totnes project, plus information and resources to support the growth of those involved in the movement. Many thanks to TTT for supporting me to attend this event.