“We have bred the quality out of our cereals, I have simply put them back in”
Bread, as with all the best days, was the order of the day. I was in Northumberland for the weekend, apart from being the birth place of one-hundred percent of our flat, it is a county synonymous with its Roman wall which stretches all the way from Humber to Edinburgh. The echoes of battles, of King Edwin, of revolts, of coal mines and of Robson Green, have now been quieted and a largely rural county remains. A quick phone call had arranged a visit to Gilchesters Organics flour mill and with Tilly and Rory dragged reluctantly from sleep we headed along another exceptionally straight road towards the farm. I had been baking bread for about a couple of years at this stage and I had been drawn in by the tactility of the making and the transformation of the baking. A successful loaf developed from one which was ‘just about edible’, to pretentious comments about a ‘perfect crumb’ or ‘nutty notes’. I still hadn’t really thought about the ingredient used to make it. Flour was white or wholegrain and hailed from a supermarket shelf and an anonymous source completely detached from its eventual home. Rory bore the brunt of my increasing enthusiasm, but you can get worse brunt than bread.
It was Sunday morning and we drove over to Gilchester’s organic farm and mill owned and run by Andrew and Billie Wilkinson. The mill, ignoring the usual considerations of a Sunday, was still in action. Rory drove the car bobbing his head along to Tribe Called Quest and Tilly napped, cat-like, in the backseat. I fulfilled my duty as the front seat passenger by staring out at the unfolding countryside framed by the window. It was a startlingly clear day, hot and blue. Blankets of heather and an absence of humans were illuminated by the sunlight. A rocky path led us to the farm. I didn’t really know what to expect from the mill or the miller and as we pulled in I was starting to feel nervous. Rory thought it was the right time to tell me that Andrew was ex-army and one of the most prominent thinkers about wheat and soil health in the country. A quick read of the website had revealed a good deal about the farm’s philosophy towards work and agriculture, "Quality is not a coincidence, it is the result of a considerable effort." I wasn’t sure what Andrew would make of an airy fairy, English Literature graduate who had developed a strong obsession with bread.
The barn was built from concrete and corrugated metal and was positioned next to a field with a crust of gold. I usually saw fields of grain from the window of a car, long monocultural, regimented fields which consume most our nation’s landscape, but this land was emphatically alive. It contained busy, informal hedgerows, which were wild and partnered with the mellifluous noises of its residents. Whilst Tilly and Rory sat on a fence enjoying the sun and the shifting colours, I noticed the wheat was not a carpet of flat beige, but was mountainous. I assumed it was wheat, but this was a farm full of diversity and complexity. It grows rye, spelt, emmer and einkorn and uses a complex rotation of crops, grazing animals and wildlife conservation. Living in a city had left me disconnected and torn from the rhythmic order of the natural world. A landscape is lived, not just seen and a fruiting tree, harvested field or blooming flower is not only a thing of beauty, an opportunity for an Instagram or some pretty nature writing, but a space of human toil, brutality and an example of nature’s capacity to sustain us. The Romantics’ natural world is full of wonder, delight and art, my natural impulse, but behind this was an age-old intimacy, culture and understanding between man and nature.
Daydream interrupted, Andrew walked out the door wearing white overalls, his hands were coated in flour and the textual hum of the working mill chuntered behind him. He offered us firm handshakes and a welcoming, but steady stare. He was not your typical depiction of an organic farmer, no beard, Birkenstocks or bare and hairy feet; instead Andrew has a fiercely scientific brain and an immensely disciplined protestant work ethic. I looked down at my ‘birkies’ and thought, I should have worn some sturdy shoes. After the ritual formalities and introductions, I asked ‘Where did all this begin?’
It turns out that in the early 1990s there was catastrophic agricultural recession, “There was no value in cereals, all the commodity traders were chasing the Chinese for copper, tin and zinc for making cabling and electronics. These soft commodities had no value. It was in an awful state.” Essentially, farmers like Andrew were simply not able to make enough money from the crops they were producing and so had to start farming differently in order to survive. He explained that even the “smallest margin of added value would make a difference and if I could get milling quality added to my cereals then that would make a huge difference.”
Essentially, the better the milling quality, the higher the price the farmer gets. Born out of necessity after the recession was the reality of starting what had been his long-term vision of converting to organic farming. Andrew opened the glass doors to the barn, the muffled hum of the mill become more precise, you could hear a coarse rattle of grains being dropped into a grinder. The milling machine was a beautiful piece of craftmanship, warm wood surrounded the stone grinder and contrasted the stainless-steel funnel steadily realising the grains. Willy-Wonka style contraptions sprouted out of the top and sides of the mill, spinning, shifting and rotating and next to it sat ginormous bags of flour bulging and stacked side by side. Andrew seemed almost part of the machinery. He talked and walked us through the barn. To maximise the farm’s potential and profit Andrew needed that milling quality, but achieving that this far north was considered almost impossible. The traditional thought is that “You grow grain for yield in the north and grain for quality in the south”.
Andrew stopped and showed us two pieces of wood nailed onto the wall, the wood had two dried wheat plants nailed onto them, like some mounted taxidermy. One tall and elegant, one stubby and truncated. The small plant, Andrew explained, was the wheat used in ‘conventional’ farming, a short-straw and the only wheat which was on offer for him to get the milling quality he wanted. “It didn’t add up with me,” his tone was considered and reflective. I listened intently whilst Rory played with the long-dried wheat plant, which slightly resembled himself, before knocking a kernel off. Andrew pointed to the second plank, upon which the tall plant sat grandly, “Before the second world war, almost everything was tall strawed, with a lot of winter varieties thrown in,” he paused, “so how come we had enough bread then, even with a restricted transportation system?”
So, he ambitiously challenged himself to find the right wheat for Northumberland, the right wheat for this soil, this land and this weather. After intense research, he discovered that there was a link between straw height and milling quality. The detail and rigour were almost overwhelming for a ‘student of the arts’, words and phrases flew over my head with no chance of being captured. What I did understand was that Andrew had discovered ‘a very strong link between straw height and baking quality’. It, therefore, had become a matter of taste. Andrew motioned us in the direction of the mill. The sacks beside it were filled with heaped, almost grey flour. He pointed towards a big red button and then pointed at Tilly and Rory like a headmaster, “Do not touch this button. If you touch this button two weeks work will be ruined,” we all took precautionary steps back. I asked, rather naively, if the quality was better then why did we get rid of these varieties in the first place? Andrew provided another precise response, “When you look back at British agriculture in 1945, you have to understand that this country was starving. The green revolution and the identification of the dwarfing gene, allowed farmers to manipulate how a plant receives and accumulates its nutrients.” It also sounded very Mary Shelley and in fact it was, “the dwarfing gene allowed growers to manipulate where the plant stored their nutrients. It didn’t put it into straw height, it diverted it to other parts of the plant to increase the yield.” The results of this mutation were initially spectacular, 1.5 tonnes of wheat an acre, turned to 7 tonnes an acre. Man had taken a large step towards its attempted colonisation and domination of nature.
The poet Edmund Spencer described nature as “the greatest Goddesse… the ‘equall mother’ of all, who “knittest each to each, as brother unto brother.” The ‘Green Revolutions’ attempt to dethrone and take control of nature, forgot and severed the ties binding us to the soil and the land. Grain, I was beginning to learn, is greater than the sum of its parts. The flour sitting on supermarket shelves has mostly been severed from what constitutes a grain kernel. Not much is left, mostly tasteless starch and the treatment of the plant which bears the grain is not much better, it has been shrunk and metamorphosed into a shadow of its former self. Why? Efficiency, yield and control.
Dan Barber, the intensely impassioned American chef, stated in his ground-breaking book “A Third Plate” that in the West we mostly eat “with a heavy hand”. There is not much which is sustainable about the industrial food system, in fact, most of the time it seems utterly destructive and we have achieved this damage in an astoundingly short space of time. As Andrew explained, after the Second World War people needed feeding cheaply and quickly. The immediate intentions of efficiency should probably be seen as noble, but they were without care and foresight. The ‘green revolution’ was hailed as bringing agriculture into the 20th century, a monumental shift which saw a huge increase in the production of food grains (especially wheat and rice) that resulted in large part from the introduction into developing countries of new, high-yielding varieties. Its early successes were dramatic and farmers were amazed by the amount of food they could produce. In order to attain these successes, the new varieties required vast amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Nitrogen made in the production of explosives during the war was repurposed as fertiliser and pumped into the soil. An ingenious manipulation of nature, but it now appears we flew a little too close to the sun.
It may seem obvious, but to produce wheat, we are taking from the earth. To enjoy the silly and beautiful things we love, friendship, art, science, romance, humour, sport and cooking, we need energy. The development of agriculture, thought to begin around 10,000 years ago, allowed humans to spend a little less time hunting and gathering and a little more time thinking, discussing and shaping a society in which we could create civilisation. Well done us. The ‘Green Revolution’ could be seen as the ‘natural’, technologically improved continuation of agriculture, but maybe we forgot something crucial, to give back to the soil we are taking from. We have tried to “conquer and tame nature rather than work in concert with nature”, we tried to reduce grain down to its component parts. The relationship we have developed is one sided, we have a partner who cares for us, listens to us, makes the tea and nourishes us, but we sit slouched on the sofa, staring at the television and give nothing back. We are grateful for their help, but would we offer them breakfast in bed, a shoulder to cry on, an honest assurance of our love? You do not need to be a couples counsellor to deduce that this relationship is almost certain to fail. As Henry David Thoreau put it “What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?”. For centuries, wheat has been a cornerstone of community building. We learnt cooperation, effective social organisation and craft. The farmers grew it, the millers ground it, and bakers turned it into bread. The process of loss which the industrial food system has established runs deep and wide.
So, I was learning that Andrew was a renegade, Gilchester’s was rallying against a system fuelled by the petrochemical industry. “You give a tall plant more nitrogen than it has ever had in its two-thousand-year history and it tends to fall over,” Andrew continued “Stretching the cell structure which opens it up to diseases, means corporations create anti-mould and fungal protection, which again they sell to farmers”. Instead of looking at the source of the problem, industry looked at producing more chemicals to paper over the cracks. These are synthetic plants, and synthetic plants make synthetic bread, and synthetic bread makes...
Wendel Berry stated that “eating is an agricultural act”, but it is an ecological act too. The warnings of writers such as Albert Howard, Rachel Carlson and George Monbiot have not been heeded. The widespread use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertiliser has far-reaching environmental consequences, including the erosion of our soil and the destruction of our biodiversity. We are shackled to this system, one which has a total disregard for the interconnectedness of the natural world and its variety of life. “In nature,” as Rachel Carlson prophesized in her seminal work Silent Spring, “nothing exists alone.”
I started to feel a little overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. The timpani of the trickling grains continued, Andrew told Tilly to hop on to the mill to look down at the grinding stone; Rory didn’t have to hop on anything and instead craned his neck over the top like a diplodocus. Andrew was an oracle on cereals, his brain spinning like the grindstone, facts and theories tumbling out. The crop which we take for granted, perhaps due to its ubiquity was used by Andrew’s medium to show a possible rebalancing of how we grow our food. Andrew zoomed further and further into the microcosmic influences and consequences of growing wheat. I was curious why this has become Andrew’s raison d’être; his answer revealed the soul of Gilchester’s Organics.
“It was a spiritual and ethical decision.”