A Tale of Four Andy’s
When I started e5 in the spring of 2010 it was a given that all bread would be made with organic flour. This I felt was the biggest contribution that could be made to a more sustainable, bio-diverse countryside. Since then our consciousness has expanded; agro-ecological farming, to encompass farming methods which mimic the trophic systems in nature seem more resilient, and local seems as or more important than organic.
Unfortunately the amount of land certified organic in the UK has been declining, despite EU subsidy favouring this approach. The bulk of organic milling wheat needs to be imported, predominantly from Kazahkstan, Canada and Ukraine. Not only does this involve large food miles, and challenges to traceability, but it also creates a disconnect between grower and user which could be improved upon.
Before intensive agriculture kicked into gear, lets say a little over 100 years ago, all farming was by-and-large organic, and the varieties of wheat were abjectly suited to low input farming which didn’t rely on chemical pesticides, herbicides and fossil fuel derived fertilisers. In practice, this often meant that wheat grew taller, shading out weedy competition, had awns and spiky tendrils, which discouraged insect predators, and most importantly there were a great diversity of species meaning pathogens couldn’t spread from farm to farm. These days an organic farmer only has about 3 legal varieties to choose from, meaning that the risk of disease is high. These modern varieties have been bred for the intensive industry where short straw in an advantage.
Organic farmers in fact find that the tall, old varieties offer good shading, stopping those pesky weeds flourishing. Anorther point seems to be that the old varieties have not been expressly bred for gluten – is this why so many people are gluten intolerant? Therefore whilst a challenge for bakers like us, who are used to modern flours blended by millers with high protein imports, old varieties are likely more digestible. Eveidence also suggests they have the ability to develop symbiotic relationships with soil bacteria, whilst modern wheats have lost the ability. And finally, research is beginning to suggest that these old timers are higher in micro nutrients, whether that makes a big difference to our health, I don’t yet know.
What exactly constitutes a heritage grain is sill up for discussion, but it seems that if you’re called Andrew you have a higher than normal chance of being interested. Andrew Whitley, based in the Scottish Borders, author Bread Matters has been to the Vladivistock Institute in Russia selecting old Scottish varieties, and has started Scotland the Bread, with the intention of drawing on heritage to radically change Scotlands agro-food scene where currently all bread wheat is imported.
Andrew Wilkinson packed in a life in the British Forces, and went to agricultural college. Having bought a conventional farm he was struck by how hard it was to make a buck and decided to take the risk and convert to organic. Being an ambitious chap he also decided to do a PhD in wheat genetics and managed to create his own variety, drawing on these heritage traits and suitable for organic farming. He’s also installed a big stone mill at his farm so that he can add value to his harvest, and to close the loop has a herd of cows which happily munch the bran.
Andrew Cato got disillusioned DJ-ing to mega-crowds with Groove Armada and is farming heritage varieties in the South of France using horses, Amish principes, and is also milling and baking on site.
Finally, here in London and a mentor to me is Andy Forbes of Brockwell Bake who started growing heritage wheat on his allotment in Brockwell and has now collaborated with farmers around the country to grow heritage wheat.
Installing our own mill at e5 has provided an opportunity to work directly with farmers. Oscar of Duchess Farm in Hertfordshire is up for finding new business opportunities so jumped in and sowed 10 acres with a mixed, heritage population wheat we had received in a circuitous way from a German biodynamic institute. He has just harvested and we have 11 tonnes ready to mill. Oscar crunched the numbers with me earlier today. On his conventional wheat he had an average yield of 3.8T, ours was 1.1T/acre. But, because he didn’t spray with anything his costs were much lower, and because we are buying directly from him, it is financially beneficial to grow the wheat for us. He is planning to convert a portion of the farm to organic, so fingers crossed this is the start of something very good.
Ben Mackinnon – e5 Founder