A great change for food and farming

A great change for food and farming
MARTIN HESP witnesses what he believes could be the start of a great change for food and farming, with the humble loaf at its heart.

As seen in the West Country Life magazine in the Western Daily Press and the Western Morning News

MARTIN HESP witnesses what he believes could be the start of a great change for food and farming, with the humble loaf at its heart.

There are times when everything seems to come together and you look around and think – this is an important moment, something new and good is happening here, and I am fortunate to witness it. Such an event occurred recently when an innovative South West milling company held an open day with the help of a neighbouring educational farm, having invited a host of artisan bakers, bloggers, food writers, journalists, grain producers and agricultural experts.  

There’s been a vast new interest in baking since the Covid lockdowns – artisanal bread-making in particular has gone through the roof. So the concept of bringing the interested parties together seemed sensible. The idea was to try and ensure the boom works for everyone involved, including the farmers who grow the raw material (ie the grain), the millers who process it, the shopkeepers who sell the bags of flour and the consumers who turn this basic product into bread, whether they’re professional bakers or just enthusiastic home-cooks… 

Even better, this coming together of minds could help ensure that the growing cereal crops is done in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. After all, people who make delicious artisan-breads go out of their way to purchase high quality raw materials, like the ones produced by Matthews Cotswold Flour. If you are going to the extra trouble and expense to seek the right flours, why not ensure those grains are being grown in a way that does not harm nature? 

This integrated way of thinking is part of the ethos being evolved by one energetic young man.  Bertie Matthews might be an eighth generation managing director in charge of his family’s highly traditional Cotswold milling company, but he is also an innovator who knows a good plan when he sees one. 

When Bertie left his City career to take over the reins of his family’s 109 year old mill in the Evenlode Valley, the company was not exactly in the rudest of health. There was no way the economies of scale could work for a small-ish rural mill churning out endless bags of cheap white flour when it was up against giant processing plants producing millions of tonnes of wheat a year.  

Bertie realised that it was the modest size of the Matthews Cotswold Flour mill (and the expertise of its staff) which was presenting him with an opportunity. He saw that the small nature of the company and its equipment lent itself to a kind of flexibility no giant mill could match. 

So Matthews Cotswold Flour started milling different styles of flour and grain of the kind so beloved by specialist bakers – at exactly the time as the huge boom in home-baking and artisan-bread was beginning to take shape. 

The making of sourdough, for example, became a kind of silver-lining of the Covid pandemic. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of people were worrying over their own sourdough starters while shut away at home and proudly producing loaves which would cost £5 or £6-a-pop in artisan bakeries. And a great many of those home bakers realised you could only make a good loaf if you were using quality flours. Also, different flours. Once you’ve become hooked on baking, why not experiment with different grains and make a variety of loaves? 

You’ll see evidence of this in any large supermarket. Where once there were bags of just plain and self-raising flour along with perhaps a wholemeal, you’ll now see entire shelves filled with products made from different grains. 

Bertie found himself in the vanguard of this revolution, talking to farmers in the Cotswolds and beyond persuading them to grow grains which wouldn’t have been considered commercially viable just five years ago. While he was about it, Bertie was also listening to farming expert Ian Wilkinson, who runs an exemplary not-for-profit education outfit called FarmED which happens to be just 500 metres from the mill.

Suddenly Bertie was learning about the trend towards new sustainable ways in agriculture, such as ‘regenerative farming’.

Which takes us to the recent open day, staged at the FarmEd visitor-centre. A day when some 40 interested parties came together in one place in order to discuss a future for the Great British baking scene in all its many facets. 

“Today is our first chance post-Covid to celebrate what we all do,” Bertie told me. “And I mean the people who are farming the soil in the area, the people who are making decisions on whether to grow things sustainably or whether to grow a diverse range of grains. I’m talking about the millers, the bakers, the pizza-makers, the pasta makers…

“This is about just trying to show that we are connected by this shared desire to create amazing tasting food – from the soil all the way to the plate – hopefully and ideally, in a way that enhances soil-health.

“It’s been amazing for us to create products with various types of ancient grains. What we are trying to show off today is the people behind all that. These are the people who take that flour and turn it into an amazing bread or pasta. These are the people who are growing that grain which makes that flour taste so great. We millers are essentially just one stage in the process.”

As we stood talking in the impressive new buildings which are at the centre of the educational farm, Bertie cast an eye across the establishment.    

“Ian Wilkinson has been fantastic – I’ve worked with him for the past two years and I’ve learned so much from him.  I am a complete believer in everything he talks about in terms of regenerative farming. Now we are asking the farmers questions – and the home bakers are asking them questions. We all come together with a common shared belief that great taste is all part of an overall understanding and experience.”

Bertie told me he believed there was a new awareness surrounding where food comes from – an interest fuelled by social media. 

“Never before has it been so easy to Google or Instagram your local miller, butcher, baker, farmer. There are farmers here today with 50,000 or 60,000 followers online – because they are brilliant at what they do. They are educators as well as farmers. What is going to happen over the next five or ten years is that we will all be talking about what underpins our incredible products and whether or not they are coming from a sustainable farming model.

“Which is great. We are going to hear a lot more about regenerative farming,” said Bertie. “It’s not everyone’s favourite term, but it is going to be on everyone’s lips. It has been widely reported that we might only have 50 harvests left (because of soil decay in industrial agricultural systems). I’m a 30 year old guy with a baby who will be born in November – and she will be 50 by then. That is worrying. It’s no good having a mill in the middle of cereal country if all that soil out there is infertile. 

“What farmers care about is the sustainability of their businesses, first and foremost – and we can help them by offering a fair price for their grain,” added Bertie, coming back to the hard-nosed reality of the present day. “And we can offer them a diverse range of products to sell into and in that way they are going to reduce their risk. Any farmer is going to be happy with that.”

It was Ian Wilkinson who took us on a farm-walk around the 107-acre mixed holding which has been set up to “provide learning spaces and events that inspire, educate and connect people to build sustainable farming and food systems”.

Very impressive it was too. Later Ian talked to me about what he calls “agro-ecology”… “This place is a living textbook of what could be achieved in the future. We are rethinking what we are doing and looking for something away from an intensive agriculture. We started here eight years ago – we changed the farming system to a complex rotation which included fertility building – otherwise known as carbon sequestration. We divided up the mono-cultures into a series of different crops – complex herbal lays which are deep rooting, nitrogen fixing, protein delivering… all the things we want.” 

As he had done earlier on the walk, Ian waxed lyrical about the increasingly rich quality of the farm’s soils enhanced through crop rotation as well as other processes such as mob-grazing techniques. “Now you can see the biology going on right in front of your eyes,” he smiled.  

“We are now receiving groups who come and walk around the farm – some will be completely unaware of agriculture – others will be movers and shakers. And, as we can see today, mixing everyone produces astonishing results. The idea of having primary producers mixing with people who are either consuming the food, or processing it, or baking it, or whatever… Mix them together! It is so powerful and that is what FarmEd is all about,” said Ian who, wearing his other cap, is managing director of the highly successful Cotswold Seeds  – a family-run company that works with over 15,000 farmers across the UK.

Referring to Bertie’s flour and grain revolution, he told me: “I think one thing we’ve demonstrated is that there’s room for many small operations – whether it’s millers, bakers, whatever. There should be lots and lots of them. 

“Here in the UK there are five million acres of wheat, effectively growing single varieties. We are heavily invested into monocultures. The seed industry largely controls the wheat the farmers grow. The further and longer we go down the road of monoculture the more problems we are going to have. So I think it’s necessary to have mixtures. And there are farmers here today who work on a very large scale and some of them are mixing wheats and barleys and all sorts of grain. There are pioneers out there. 

“You can scale up quite quickly. Here for example we started with a small bag of seed and we are scaling up,” said Ian, referring to the field continuing an impressive mixture of old ‘heritage’ forms of wheat he’d shown us earlier.

It seems that a greater range of tougher more resilient cereal crops could be essential for our food supplies going into a climate change future.  

“For hundreds of years we’ve had weather – but it’s the extreme nature of weather that is changing,” said Ian. “With pronged droughts there’s a need to have more carbon in the soil, which holds more moisture. If we do get very long dry spells, or wet spells, or hot or cold spells, what survives are the resilient natural systems. What I fear won’t survive is the monoculture system where we are annually cropping all the time, losing our carbon to the atmosphere. The carbon in the soil is what holds the soil together, what holds the moisture in – any carbon we are releasing into Co2 warms the planet and makes the situation worse.” 

To follow Bertie’s example and conclude by talking about the bottom line, I asked Ian about the economics of “agro-ecology”…

“If a farmer gets nine to ten percent of the total value of food – they’re not getting very much – so if it costs a bit more to produce food, it’s not going to make that much difference to the farmer,” he reasoned. “We have to revalue our food – some foods are too cheap. We have to accept the way we are living – the way we are consuming – needs a rethink.”

Bertie Matthews has indeed been having that rethink. And, as a convert to sourdough-bread-making I am glad he has. Because to me the economics add up. To make a good sourdough you need quality flour – which, yes, does cost a little more. But the loaf you make will be infinitely more tasty than an industrial white-sliced – and it will be much better for you, at the same time as being more filling and somehow more sustaining. 

A homemade sourdough loaf, containing just flour, water and a pinch of Cornish sea salt, costs not much more than a quid and lasts me and my wife the best part of a week. If the production of its raw material has also been environmentally friendly and carbon neutral and it’s given the farmer a reasonable living, so much the better. 

What’s not to like? No wonder I came away from Bertie Matthews’ open day thinking I’d witnessed the start of something special.   

Martin Hesp – Editorial Director

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