Here in Wales, our Seed Sovereignty Programme has been working with growers and farmers on the ground who are literally sowing the seeds of a stronger seed sovereignty movement. As well as working on vegetable seed diversity, we have been working with a network of grain growers wanting to share knowledge of small-scale grain growing and bring grain diversity back to our Welsh fields.
Welsh grain seed sovereignty is in stormy seas. Genebanks hold hundreds of Welsh grain varieties, giving us some indication of the diversity of the past. One genebank alone registers 108 Welsh oat varieties, oats with an unknown patchwork of traits reflecting the patchwork of regional conditions across the country from which they were grown. But walk the Welsh fields today and you will not find them. Wales is currently only 9% arable food production, and most of these arable fields are modern grains bred for industrial farming. Where has all the grain diversity gone?
While many might believe that the Welsh hills are not suited to cereal production, you only need to take small steps into the past to know this isn’t true. Alun Lewis is in his late 80s and used to cut “corn” (oats, barley and even wheat) on farms all over Mid Wales. “Grains used to be grown all over these hills”, he tells us. “They were fed to animals and eaten by humans too.” While modern grains bred for high inputs and optimal conditions might not do well in our wet pastures, older Welsh grain varieties were selected and adapted over time to the conditions from which they came. Bringing these seeds back into farmers’ hands is the first step in a long journey of bringing grains back into local production.
Our Llafur Ni (Our Cereals) network is made up of farmers, growers and grain enthusiasts working together to defend our Welsh grain diversity. This year we collectively sowed 14 rare Welsh oat varieties on the clifftop fields of Caerhys Organic Farm. These varieties came to us in tiny quantities from the genebanks of the IBERS research centre. Partially a symbolic act of reclamation and partially a step towards bulking up these seeds to be planted again, we watched these oats grow into a multiplicity of heights, shapes and characteristics.
With the ultimate vision to grow Welsh landrace oats, our growers first needed to get to grips with how to actually grow grains, a fast-forgotten skill on many farms. Mentored by Dominic Amos of the Organic Research Centre, five growers took milling-quality oat seeds back to their land and set about learning how to cultivate, harvest and process these crops. An illuminating and complex process, four farms managed to harvest oats for the first time this autumn. The challenge currently in hand is how to process these oats for human consumption and the hunt is on for small scale oat dehulling and preserving equipment.
Below we hear directly from four grain growers in our Llafur Ni (Our Cereals) network about why they are experimenting with heritage grains and why they feel grain diversity is important to the future of Wales…
Sam Wren Lewis is one part of the Machynlleth Grain Growers. As part of the group he grew mixed population Wakelyn’s YQ population wheat this year (a genetically diverse population developed by professor Martin Wolfe and the Organic Research Centre) and is currently sowing polyculture experiments with population wheat from Brittany and fava beans grown together.
“My interest is how we can grow grains in ways that work with natural ecosystems rather than against them – ways that are good for humans (low input, healthy grain) and for the environment (sustainable, regenerative). This includes growing heritage grains, which can grow alongside other grasses and weeds. And it includes no-till and multi-crop methods that maintain a diverse and regenerative soil culture. This, in turn, can achieve healthy yields in the long-term.”
Glenn Hamilton has a small mixed farm in Mid Wales and has recently started trialling various cereals including black oats and concert milling oat mix.
“I grow heritage grains because I want to use them. Cereals are no longer grown in my part of West Wales, but they used to be. Modern grains may be unsuitable for the conditions I have here in West Wales, but I have grown heritage grains successfully here. It is important to me to keep alive sustainable farming methods and local crop varieties to reduce dependence on unreliable and wasteful global food chains.”
Joe Hope is one part of the Machynlleth Grain Growers. As part of the group he has trialled a third of an acre of concert mixed oats which he sowed with an old seed fiddle, harvested by hand and threshed in an old threshing box with his local Vintage Club. Joe and the group plan to trial naked oats next year and are working on solving the issues of processing oats on a small scale for human consumption:
“My interest in cereal crops derives from a lifelong love of the countryside and allows me to indulge and rekindle a childhood fascination with tractors and other farm machinery! But since the time of my childhood tractors have become huge, ugly and brutish while the countryside has been gradually eroded of diversity and local nuance. Cereal fields were once an integral part of the countryside in all parts of Britain and maintaining productivity relied on growing crop strains appropriate to local conditions rather than soil-sterilising intensive inputs of synthetic nitrogen and biocides. Fields of grain are now a rare sight in much of Wales and with them have gone a distinctive assemblage of flora and fauna. Responding to our biodiversity and climate crisis requires us to develop new farming methods, but these are likely to be informed heavily by past methods, varieties and wisdom, which were necessarily more sensitive to the interplay between agriculture and nature.”
Laurence Brooks is an ecologist and farmer based in Carmarthenshire. He grows crops on his farm to support winter birds and declining arable weed species. Laurence has been growing oats for animal feed and this year grew some heritage Hen Gymro wheat (resurrected from extinction by Brockwell Bake and stewarded by the Welsh grain Forum).
“I am really keen to be growing grain for people to eat – I started growing grain only as a sacrificial crop for arable birds and rare arable weeds, which has been really successful. We do feed the grain for livestock but this is pretty wasteful in food terms. I didn’t feel I had the knowledge to grow or market an arable product and it’s great to have the support of the Llafur Ni network to enable us to make our conservation effort more sustainable in food terms. I think it’s really important to grow the traditional Welsh grains to preserve these genetics which are already adapted for our land and so they can form part of a resilient and diverse ecological farming system which can stand us in good stead for future challenges of climate change”.