YQ and the rise of an alternative grain network
Charlotte Bickler of the Organic Research Centre interviewing Kimberley Bell of the Small Food Bakery
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Using indicators such as protein content to assess quality in grain has become embedded in wheat production, and yet these indices are limited in what they can tell us about a wide variety of baking or organoleptic qualities.
The baking process common to large scale facilities relies on consistency and speed and that is being questioned as part of the rise in artisanal baking and the real food movement. We have gained first-hand experience of the current issues and opportunities surrounding how quality is determined in UK grain markets as sales of ORC Wakelyns Population (OWP) seed have increased and producers have questioned “what can I do with it?”
The diversity within OWP challenges us to explore alternative approaches to marketing of both the seed and grain. When it comes to the grain, Kimberley Bell of the Small Food Bakery has been pioneering the use of OWP, which has been nicknamed ‘YQ’ (Yield/Quality), in wholegrain bread and other baked goods and showing what is possible with wheats that may not comply with standard ‘quality’ measures. Alliances are now developing across the country to bring together bakers, millers, farmers and more who are looking for alternatives across the grain economy. This was explored at the UK Grain Lab conference held at the Small Food Bakery in November 2017. In this article, Kimberley Bell discusses working with OWP, the current state of play and approaches to alternative systems with Charlotte Bickler.
CB: It is clear that the appeal of OWP goes beyond certain traits and characteristics that it may possess. What drew you to OWP ‘YQ’?
KB: At first it was the flavour, delicate and nutty/malty… and it might sound silly, but the silky texture of the dough we made with this flour was so enjoyable. Upon further investigation it was my interest in the story of Martin (Wolfe)’s work and ideas that compelled me to want to make a bread with it. I think to some extent many of us (bakers) are trying to find a way to work and exist in the world that contributes in a positive way to our community and environment. It just made total sense to me that we should be trying to bake with grain from Wakelyns and to play a part in getting this new grain into the food chain somehow, and the ideas behind it into the wider discussion on the future of food.
Part of my interest in the YQ Wakelyns population was that (although a modern crop), Martin’s intentions in developing the crop seemed to be aligned with a (pre-chemical agriculture) set of values more reminiscent of the past. Looking to bring back biodiversity and farm in a low input system are certainly value sets that I believe those working with heritage varieties have in common with Martin’s work and the story of the population wheat.
CB: We hope to test the baking quality of grain produced in our Organic Winter Wheat variety trial network, what would you be looking for when working with flour samples from these grains?
KB: Flavour. As a baker working with naturally fermented dough, I’m interested in how that flavour manifests itself after fermentation. After that, it’s the baker’s responsibility to find an appropriate product to utilise good flour. Some benchmark measures would be helpful though for bakers, as not having them can be a barrier to investing in new flours.
I have worked with two harvests of OWP YQ, milled by different millers and there have been big differences in the character (flavour and behaviour) of the resulting flour. This has as much to do with infrastructure as farming (storage and milling) but has been an interesting journey for me, learning how to cope with it, and testing my sense of responsibility as a baker to continue being an ambassador for this crop.
CB: Do you think heritage is important? How do you define this?
KB: I don’t have much experience of baking with heritage grain (though I would love to explore this). I would define them as older varieties that have evolved through hundreds of years of co-evolution and agricultural development. The work being done around the world to preserve them and bring them back into the food system is fascinating, and I think heroic. Though I have very little understanding of the science, I could certainly subscribe to the logic that crops that have worked well for our ancestors should be valued and certainly not allowed to be cast aside.
CB: What does local mean to you?
KB: Local means human scale and direct. It’s not about a prescribed geographic area, more about a web of strong human relationships that can deliver a sense of community and sovereignty over our food systems. For our bakery, in terms of geographical proximity, it’s about deciding what’s appropriate on a crop by crop basis. It makes sense for me that eggs should come from a few miles down the road, but, provided a relationship can be built and maintained with a farmer, I’d be happy to consider grain to be local from anywhere in the UK.
CB: Do you feel that there are easy ways for the food system to incorporate these principles presently?
KB:I think its important to discard the idea of the food system being some kind of ‘external’ thing and the notion that we are merely consumers…
Only after that mind shift (can) the principle of local, and the aim of sovereignty become achievable. Its time for all of us to realise that WE are the food system, it can be whatever we want it to be but we must become active citizens within it if we want it to deliver good, healthy food. So yes, in practise its easy! But in theory, lots of people can't, or are too exhausted to get their heads around it. How on earth did we get to a stage where a farmer will grow a crop that they don’t actually eat or haven’t even tasted. How on earth did we get to the stage where imported bananas or oranges are a cheap staple cheap food but locally grown salad is a luxury?
There are of course barriers to building the localised infrastructure needed to support such a movement towards local, and we must also collaborate to break these barriers down. I could go on and on about this.. but the fundamental change needs to be an attitude shift in individuals away from the sanitised corporate brainwashing of the big food retailers and towards cherishing (enjoying, valuing and making time for) strong human connections within their own community.
CB: What do you think the key elements of a successful local network are? What tips would you give growers and producers hoping to engage in something like this?
KB: Fundamentally, people need to make the time and space to come together and form relationships that will provide the network. It’s critical that we work together, so, for cereal farmers wanting to trade more directly and build a community around their product, they need to get out there and meet bakers and millers. It won’t take long before they find people they can work with and this will give momentum to new ideas. Making time to step outside of your work and see what others in the network are doing is essential to building these relationships. At Small Food Bakery the whole team spend up to two weeks a year travelling to visit farmers and suppliers and to attend lectures and conferences. Our network wouldn’t exist without this. But it works both ways, and it’s also important that our farmers and millers come to visit us too. It might sound like a luxury, but it’s during these visits that new ideas present themselves, problems get ironed out and business is done. They also build trust, loyalty and friendship… These are the most important elements of a successful ‘local’ network.
CB: What led you to organise the Grain Lab conference at Small Food last year? Will this continue?
KB: I think we urgently need to build localised grain economies across the UK and I thought an event of this nature might help. I have had the privilege to meet some brilliant people working with grain at all stages of the network and it seems that there are many of us that share a common aim to build strong local networks, but we are disconnected and therefore don’t move forward. After hearing discussions amongst colleagues from the scientific and agricultural side talk about the obstacles they perceived to achieving this, and on the flip side, bakers speaking about the challenges they face… It just seems to me that the first step is to get everyone in the same room learning about each other’s work, sharing a meal together, cross-pollinating our ideas, building empathy and knowledge in a convivial atmosphere. I was inspired by the US Grain Gathering hosted annually by Steve Jones and the team at WSU Bread Lab. Each year they bring together a gathering of farmers, millers, bakers and scientists who spend 4 days eating, learning, teaching and spending time together. I guess I wanted to re-create this kind of learning and development opportunity here in the UK.
As a baker, to have the opportunity to come together and exchange skills and ideas is progressive in itself, but if you add the full network into the mix I think the learning and exchange can be much more powerful…
CB: Where do you hope that the movement will go next? What role will the UK Grain Lab play in facilitating your vision?
KB: I hope that we will see more farmers, millers and bakers working together in much more long term forward looking collaborations. Ideally with academics and scientists in the mix to support with their knowledge and resources. I feel that the UK is really lagging behind other countries in this and we should run to catch up.
The UK Grain Lab (bolstered by our Grain Lab conference, which will be held again at the Small Food Bakery in November this year) will hopefully become a facilitated network that can help kickstart some of these relationships, foster a culture of transparency/sharing of knowledge and help to address some of the infrastructure problems we have to overcome. It would be great to connect seed breeders and those reviving old seed with bakers to ensure meaningful and real feedback loops – rather than relying on basic lab results and supposition to determine how to take things forward.
A Letter written in tribute to Martin Wolfe.
By Kimberley Bell (For a display at the World Agroforestry Congress in 2019)
Thank you for thinking of myself and the team at Small Food Bakery when assembling your tribute to Martin Wolfe for the World Agroforestry Congress. I hope I can capture and share a little in this letter of how Martin has contributed to our work here in our little bakery in Nottingham.
I dearly wish we could load you up with a counter full of fresh loaves of bread, bags of crispbreads, dried fruits, granola, custard and chocolate tarts, and chutneys. These are all products we make that either use ingredients from or inspired by Wakelyns. These things I see as the more simple, tangible expressions of Martins work that now form a very small (but important) part of the food system here. We have been so proud over the past couple of years to have been able to demonstrate the qualities of exceptional ingredients grown at Wakelyns through our baking and cooking. That said, what has become more important to us, is how Martin, the landscape and the wider community that has formed around Wakleyns have also shaped many of the less tangible elements of our work, heavily influencing the way we organise ourselves and driving us to do things better.
My colleague Laura & I first travelled to Wakelyns Agroforestry to meet Martin for the first time only 2 ½ years ago following an introduction from Josiah Meldrum (Hodmedods). This visit initiated a butterfly effect back here in Nottingham, changing our thinking about food systems and influencing our work at the bakery in ways we couldn’t have imagined. It has changed our bread; the decisions we make in purchasing ingredients; helped us articulate a philosophical framework around the bakery; and perhaps most significantly inspired me to convene an ambitious meeting called UK Grain Lab in both 2017 and 2018. Martin has had such a positive influence on so many people from many backgrounds - that influence extends to all of the team here and also into the new community that formed around UK Grain Lab.
Curiously perhaps it wasn’t the scientific outputs of Martins work that resonated with us, it was the opportunity to see, touch and taste things, experiencing a real-life example of Agroforestry, a landscape that was so unique and different. It got in your head and your heart almost instantly. Spending time at Wakelyns, gently shepherded through the trees and alleys by Martin, was always magical. That day, our first visit of many, being welcomed into Martins home and shown around the farm was all it took to convince us. There was a kind of truth and beauty in the ideas being explored at Wakelyns that we had been looking for and wanted to parallel in our baking and cooking. We were inspired to dig deeper and learn more.
On our first journey there, we of course noticed the stark contrast between much of the Suffolk landscape we had driven through, with large fields, either with bare soil or homogenized single crops stretching as far as we could see. It was winter, and the wind was vicious and biting. Arriving at Wakelyns for the first time seemed like an oasis; visually exciting, on a scale that was very human, and sheltered; safe and calm amongst the trees.
As bakers, we went to Martin looking for a sustainable wheat, having read a snippet about agroforestry online and thinking that growing the alley cropping system could be the answer. We got so much more than we bargained for, the outputs from Wakelyns were certainly as diverse and productive as the agricultural system being proposed! The YQ, a heterogeneous ‘Population’ he created & grew amongst trees at Wakelyns defied the status quo on every level. On that first visit, Martin calmly and patiently explained to us the politics and science of plant breeding and seeds, the national recommended list, how plant pathogens behaved, the genetics of old and new varieties of wheat, his work with mixtures, and then of course the population wheat and many philosophical and practical musings on diversity and resilience. I list all of these things because we are not academics, farmers or scientists, and one thing that Martin was brilliant at, was explaining complex ideas to the many and varied curious visitors that turned up at his door.
The energy gained from his vision will continue to drive us forward in our work for years to come. He had a long view & a quiet wisdom. We shared a belief that a systemic approach to changing food & agriculture was critical, exploring many ways in which his philosophies converged with those unfolding within the bakery. He was patient, gentle, supportive. He set me up for some challenging public speaking events, forcing me to learn to articulate my work. He saw the value in the occupation of a humble baker in joining the scientific and agricultural community in a movement towards better agriculture. He taught me to value complex systems, to pursue diversity, & to have faith that nature, (even human nature) will ultimately balance.
Through the newly established Grain Lab network, many people have been inspired by the YQ Wakelyns population wheat. I am observing a great momentum within this community to move away from commodity cereals, networks are starting to form to support localised growing, milling and baking of minor cereals – including more unusual varieties, landraces and even populations. Its so exciting to watch it unfold.
Agroforestry is not simply about agronomics, it’s a poetic and practical restoration of vital connections on every level. Amongst those trees, he fostered the most amazing community of people, presented an incredible contribution to organic agriculture in the UK, he gave us (here at Small Food Bakery) ‘our wheat’, now forming part of our identity. In doing so he taught us the revolutionary power we hold, simply contained within the act of baking a loaf of bread. What we gained form Martin directly and indirectly was so huge, I can’t really imagine what the bakery would be like now if we had never met him. No YQ bread to soften our hands & hearts, no Grain Lab community. So many experiences that have set our intentions in an exciting direction, steadfast, ready to face the future.
We remain connected to and in collaboration with many other people who have been similarly inspired by Martins work here in the UK and I hope that together, our community can become an ecosystem as diverse and resilient as an Agroforestry system should be, in turn moving food and farming culture closer to this vision.