“The baker must crown all the work,” said Per Grupe, a Danish organic wheat farmer, during the Farm to Loaf Symposium held at the E5 Bakehouse in October. He was referring to the visible activity of the artisan baker and the unseen web of plant breeders, farmers and millers who are fusing heritage grains and ecological know-how with modern thinking in the production of non-industrial bread. Radio 4’s Food Programme presenter Sheila Dillon co-hosted the Symposium and described the day as about a “group of remarkable people, who are here to share what they know.”

Farm to loaf

My train journey to the Farm to Loaf Symposium began by travelling across the ancient wheatlands of East Anglia. A familiar and predominant scene of monotonous wheat agriculture filled the landscape. If good bread starts in the field with healthy grain, is it time to support the farmers that are growing wheat on a smaller and more diverse scale? Should we be farming wheat, which is based on its nutritional value rather that the size of its yield? Andrew Whitley, co-founder of the Real Bread Campaign, who opened the symposium, believes so.

Symposium speakers shared their experiences and knowledge, and passionately discussed the importance of “Integrity of the flour – respect for the grain”, as referred to by Hayter in her presentation. The lively and informed presentations were marked by an open and generous atmosphere. There was plenty of time to ask and consider questions, complemented by delicious E5 Bakehouse pastries and a garden lunch amongst herbs and chickens. The symposium organiser and E5 Bakehouse founder Ben MacKinnon described the day as focused on “Cross-fertilisation – we don’t know the answers, but we can stimulate questions to further our knowledge and spread the message amongst consumers.”

Ecological wisdom

The industrial wheat fields I had seen on my journey to the symposium are typical of an incredibly narrow gene pool, which has been modified over the last 60 years towards high yield varieties. This industrial grain is distinct, uniform and stable, perfect for industrial milling. Food writer Jojo Tulloh’s fascinating presentation, which was both historical and anthropological, included a quote from John Crace’s book Harvest (2013), “Earth and seed are soundless labourers.French wheat farmer Nicholas Supiot – who describes himself as a peasant farmer – recognises this ‘soundless labour’ as the management of the soil’s health. He believes that the wheat is the “image of the life of the soil.”

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British Farmer Andrew Wilkinson echoed this in his talk, emphasising the need for a “virtuous cycle of soil fertility management” that is characterised by biodiverse wheat, which can adapt to local conditions and mixed crop farming. Speakers and audience shared their experiences and discussed many aspects of organic, biodynamic and non-tilling farming practices and the benefits, difficulties and compromises of them – but all indicated a commitment to diversity and increasing the number of wheat landraces. This commitment was neatly illustrated by Supiot, who has been growing his own grains in Brittany for 20 years, “I am not for the arranged marriage, I am for the marriage of love,” he stated, reflecting on the ecological marriage of adaptable wheat varietals to its local climate, soil and companion crops.

Conservation plant researcher Nick Fradgley continued the discussion on diversity and wheat terroir by sharing his research work at Wakelyn Agroforestry in Suffolk and across Europe. His presentation of modern farming’s conventional and nature’s evolutionary plant programmes focused on eight wheat populations which had spent, as he describes, a “gap year” planted in different climates and soils across Europe, with varying rainfall or irrigation levels. His research has increased understanding of wheat’s ability to adapt by interaction with different environments and diseases.

Historical wisdom

Increasing the diversity of wheat includes re-introducing the use of heritage or ancient grains, and the ancient plant lore that was associated with them. All of the symposium speakers had extensive first-hand knowledge of researching and working with heritage or ancient grains – growing, milling and baking with them – and they generously and comprehensively shared and discussed their experiences during the day.

Archaeobotanist John Letts, seen as an ‘anthropologist’ of cereals, began his presentation by describing the immense amount of work needed to research and work with heritage grains. Danish farmer Per Grupe, along with Andrew Wilkinson and Andrew Forbes, a founding member of Brockwell Bake, also referred to this commitment to farming heritage grains which, as Wilkinson noted, is “not an accident, but the result of careful, considered and considerable effort.” Per Grupe added that it requires “good luck and old books” to navigate the gene pool.

Lett’s first heritage grains were the wheat seeds that he identified from a 700 year old thatched roof. He used these wheat seeds to find an equivalent in a seed bank, which grew into the tall and deep rooted wheat reminiscent of pre-industrial agriculture. This taller wheat was better at natural weed suppression – the wheat shaded out the weeds – and had a greater uptake of nutrients from the soil, producing a better gluten structure and higher nutritional levels in the grain. With such impressive characteristics, it is a wonder that modern short wheat became so dominant.

Inspiring people and projects

Andrew Whitley hopes to see “real bread within walking distance for everybody.” These aims are being met through two inspirational Scottish projects Nourish Scotland and Whitley’s Scotland the Bread, set up with Veronica Burke in 2012 to “build a home-grown grain economy”, working locally to encourage food security, independence, equity and justice.

The day’s presentations were inspiring but realistic reflections on the hard work, solidarity and conviction needed to develop the Farm to Loaf thinking, which interconnects the relationships between farmer, miller, baker and consumer and connects the entire food chain to the soil. Nicholas Supiot described this connection to the soil by explaining why he doesn’t plough his fields, and instead practices a no-till system to retain the inherent healthy soil bacteria.

Wilkinson is an organic cereal farmer and miller who converted from conventional chemical farming to produce organic flour alongside Galloway cattle. As a farmer and miller he believes in the importance of stone and slow milled flour, which keeps the natural nutrients intact. Per Grupe spoke of the parallels of his work selecting and repeatedly testing wheat varietals in ways similar to modern wheat plant breeders, except that he works with nature’s selective processes. He has cultivated old and new Nordic wheat varieties by propagating hundreds of wheat seed samples. He believes that wheat’s “dynamic process will never stop” and that we need to have diversity in the fields of wheat varietals along with companion crops which naturally challenge disease and pests. This method allows natural selection, rather than fungicides and herbicides, to control the ecological balance.

Sharing and supporting

John Clohesy, known as organic John by his farming students at Brooksby Melton College, believes that the “diversity of methods and the diversity of the [wheat] gene pool is what we will seek to survive.” Andrew Forbes is practically and enthusiastically making this search a reality through his wheat gateway which makes public the data on 398,000 wheat lines. The data is part of the work of Brockwell Bake which also includes growing heritage wheat varieties in three south London allotment plots conserving heritage wheat stock and a milling partnership with Gracewell bakery, Brixton, London.

Current UK seed marketing regulations control growing heritage wheat on a commercial level by restricting it to research, non-trade (including exchange) and conservation. However the Participatory Plant Breeding initiative is lobbying to change this and to support bakers wanting to use heritage grains in their bread.

A diverse future?

Jojo Tulloh hopes that there will be a new kind of regional bread which fuses ancient and modern practices and heritage ingredients with provenance. This optimism is echoed by Nicholas Supiot who supports “a new way of agronomy”, one that uses heritage grain to naturally develop new varieties which can grow in difficult conditions. Kate Hayter ended the day by describing how bakers would love to work with a diverse range of flour with new flavours and change the perceptions of what bread could be. The potential for diversity and change was recognised and celebrated throughout the day. The craft and care of the baker “must crown” the remarkable work of the committed plant breeders, farmers and millers, re-kindling their ecological and traditionally interdependent relationships to provide a healthier and sustainable loaf of bread.

Correction: This article originally stated that John Letts grew the wheat seeds that he had collected from a 700 year old thatched roof. This has been amended to say that he used them to identify the same seeds in a seed bank.

Photograph: Holly Victoria Norval

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