Fundamentals of Life - Grain

Amidst the worst rainfall ever recorded in the UK a few thoughts on another fundamental of life - grain.

Not popularly recognised as the thing underpinning modern populations, we rely on arable farming and particularly the efficiency of combines to gather tiny blobs of protein rich grains. Whether they get tipped into factory farms (most global grain now) or get consumed directly through bread or porridge type cereal they make other foodstuffs look paltry in comparison.

Assuming this doesn't change anytime soon (anybody for scything and manually threshing 50 acres of Spelt at permaculture HQ?) how and where might we produce such grain most benignly? The Welsh context pertinent here as next to zero grain for human consumption is currently produced.

Big arable works currently by using relatively large blocks of land (min.50 acres for bread wheat) which is generally drier and combine friendly and milling in large complexes often some distance from the user. Wiltshire and Suffolk sometimes resemble mini-prairies but produce cheaply even if the grain has to be trucked some way for milliing.

Cheapish transport and centralised kit in England has led to little Welsh production or milling capacity. This is most extreme when oats for human consumption are considered. They can be grown across several parts of Wales efficiently but most production is shipped off to Crewe to Morning Foods where value is added before usage all over the UK.

At the time of writing some effort is going in to get sowings of wheat and barley in Welsh ground this season. Meetings of brewers, millers and growers are looking for agreement for a definite market before crops go in.

Food products branded with Welsh ingredients inside have market loyalty readily available. This is illustrated by the success of Blas Tir brand potatoes from Pembrokeshire. Achieving 5-10% higher price than market average, all supermarkets in Wales now feel the need to stock them as the only clear Welsh origin potato.The premuim appears to make potato growing profitable for the 20+ growers members involved in the Puffin Co-op.The first beer or branded bread with Welsh grain inside might achieve competitive advantage although a Welsh branded Porridge might be a clearer proposition, as per Flahavans in SE Ireland.

The reality of conventionally grown potatoes or grain however might make the chemical input -local or not - unpalatable compared to many savvy consumers. Big arable is indeed the destroyer of much if only because it is now so good at concentrated production to the exclusion of most else.

Organic regulation would remove the use of neonictinoids and similar and the longer the term of production examined the closer the production costs move, ie steady rotations with good clover based fertility cost the same after the initial years forever effectively. Conventional costs can only rise with reliance on external inputs, eg oil, phosphate, herbicide all get dearer over time not cheaper.

Declining residual fertility since WWII and synthetic nitrate usage is a very touchy subject. Flooding is at least shining a light on the tiny organic matter levels in Suffolk type soils, now <1%. Good practice can raise this to 15%+, yes really. Each spongy 1% can hold a lot of water.

From a Welsh perspective we can get consumers to buy crops, even at slightly higher cost, and we have suitable land and skills (plenty of grain grown for animal feed in Wales now). Milling and processing kit is an issue but investment with public support (as per new Puffin packing line) may be a good idea strategically.

Adding value in Wales is good for Wales but global insecurity over grain supply is real enough too and anticipation of more problems realistic. Practical kit might be for instance malting plant and flour milling plant in both north and south Wales. Recogntion of the grain issues I hope is at least underway.

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