The inaugural meeting of the Welsh Grain Forum was held at the Falcondale Hotel, Lampeter, 11th November 2013. The meeting revolved around the aim of revitalising the growing of all kinds of grain in Wales. Around 40 participants heard talks from a miller, two bakers, a grain grower, a brewer and a distiller, and how they would like to be able to use more grain from Wales in their products, if only it was available.
1. Opportunities for Welsh Grain-Based Businesses
If the popularity of the ‘Great British Bake Off’ and the burgeoning market for artisan beers is anything to go by it seems that, at long last, we are learning to appreciate our staple grains again. But what opportunity does this present for us in Wales?
Conventional wisdom says that Welsh grain, generally, makes weak flour and struggles to meet the malting specifications. But specialist bakers, by using different techniques, can produce delicious products from grain that the mainstream would consider ‘out of spec’. Welsh microbreweries have, in the past, successfully used malt from Welsh grown barley, which has added greatly to the provenance and marketability of their beers.
So it is quite possible to produce quality Welsh products from Welsh grain and that means all sorts of exciting possibilities for our local producers and processors. As a nation we can once again enjoy our local grains and rediscover a world of flavour, but to make that happen we need to strengthen the links between growers, millers and maltsters, bakers and brewers and of course, our customers. In short we need to work together to re-establish a local grain economy. This workshop is a step in that direction.
2. Points of view
A miller, two bakers, a brewer, a distiller and a grower all gave their thoughts on the opportunities, challenges and constraints on Welsh grain economy:
In more recent times, she has used wheat grown at Aberystwyth University Farm (variety Tybalt), and was experiencing strong demand from bakers. Across the Atlantic, grain is enjoying a revival in the sense that‘We can grow milling wheat in Wales’.
‘The idea that Welsh grain cannot make bread is a relatively new one’. Anne Parry, from Felin Ganol water mill in Llanrhystud, used records going back to about 1850 to show that in the not too distant past, most local farmers brought both wheat for baking and animal feed to be milled.
‘It’s about baking techniques’
The reason the specifications for milling wheat are so tight is that all large scale bakeries use the same process, and fundamentally the same recipe, and aim to make the baking process as fast as possible’.
Azelia Torres, from Azelia’s Kitchen, is an extremely versatile baker and she uses a wide range of flours, including Welsh grown Tybalt, landraces & variety mixtures. She spoke of her experiences with some French bakers who may keep grain a year before milling and prefer grain of low protein content which is important for making a good crust.
Rick Coldman, from Mair’s Bakehouse, uses traditional baking techniques to produce about 25,000 sourdough loaves a year, and each batch takes 24-30 Hours from start to finish. He has used Felin Ganol flours (and the Aberystwyth University wheat) to produce his ‘Ceredigion loaf’ and ‘Aberystwyth Rustic’ bread. He is excited to see people enjoying local bread, for him the main issue is price, which is a challenge in market dominated by very cheap products. ‘
‘Welsh brewers and distillers want to use Welsh grains’.
‘Historically, people needed beer. It was the most effective way of dealing with water borne pathogens, and every village had a local brewery, using the grains that were around them’.
Stefan Samociuk from Penlon Cottage Brewery has carried some of the idea of beer as a local product through to modern times, producing traditional light beers. He has experimented with different varieties, and the provenance of the grain is an important part of the marketing strategy.
John Savage, of the Dà Mhìle Distillery, is equally keen with respect to whisky. He started producing in 1992 with the aim of producing a product ready to sell for the Millenium, and try and use local grains whenever they can.
John is building floor malting facilities to give him more flexibility and greater control of the entire process.
‘Growing milling wheat is quite possible but challenging ’.
Andrew Broad, of Fronlas farm, first started growing milling wheat because of a change in the way he produced his beef cattle. Having switched to a smaller breed that did better on grass, he could use the land that was previously for feed grain to produce grain for the milling and malting market. He now grows wheat for Felin Ganol and some malting varieties of barley including ‘Archer’ and ‘Goldthorpe’. It is going well but it is not without its challenges.
3. Making the market
We agreed that a campaign that plays to the strengths of small artisan/ traditional bakers and brewers is key to the success of developing a local grain economy. This means focusing on provenance and traceability; celebrating regional and varietal differences as we currently do for cheese and wine.
We should look at several different ways of doing this including Facebook, events (tastings, baking/ brewing workshops etc) ‘mainstream’ media, business to business networking events. We identified several priorities:
- Dispel the myth that good cereals cannot be produced in Wales. Raise the profile of Welsh Grain by celebrating its flavour.
- Develop/ promote a range of specialist local flours, going beyond the generic white and wholemeal.
- Target the home-baking market.
- Work with restaurants (although the experience of some suggest that margins are likely to be small).
- Develop the wholesale market to increase volumes (although margins are correspondingly smaller).
- Sell Welsh grain across the UK, not just Wales.
4. Setting Out the Issues
Re-establishing local grain economies in a world dominated by global grain markets, and large companies producing huge volumes of cheap product s, is challenging to say the least. The remainder of the workshop aimed to highlight what these challenges were and what we could do to address them in the short and medium term.
Baking and brewing businesses have, in some ways, very similar requirements. They both need to dry, store, clean and handle grain and need similar facilities to do so; and they both need a lot of energy. One way we could tackle this would be establish to ‘hubs’ on an industrial estate where businesses could share facilities and renewable energy could be generated on site to serve them.
Building relationships and sharing information
This is about businesses getting to know each other better and building long term relationships based on trust and mutual benefit. This could be done in several ways for example an on line forum and share ideas, experience, knowledge and market information; a group email list; regular meetings/ workshops.
Issues for growers
- Seed regulations, especially for growers wishing to use varieties no longer on the recommended list (e.g. Heritage varieties suitable for grain and straw) and cannot, therefore, be legally sold.
- Varieties are not bred for organic conditions; although organic seed is multiplied up on organic farms it is bred in and for conventional systems and therefore does not have the vigour/ disease resistance organic growers really need.
- Support for arable crops and inconsistencies in agri-environment schemes can constrain/ discourage production.
- A shortage of suitable machinery/contractors for harvesting, drying, cleaning and storage.
Resilience and flexibility needs to be built in to farming systems so that if grain does not meet milling criteria it can be sold on to the feed market for a reasonable price.Experimenting with different growing systems, e.g. using wider rows for a bolder berry and to allow mechanical weeding.
Our main issue will be, like the growers, access to grain cleaning and drying facilities and long term bulk storage. The other challenge to be faced is transportation for the grain and for the resulting flour, logistics and cost will need to be addressed.
Small bakers struggle to be viable in a world dominated by large companies churning out large volumes of cheap product. As a rule of thumb the retail costs need to be about 4 times the cost of raw ingredients but it was felt that there was a threshold of £3.00 above which consumers would not pay. The problem needs to be looked at from two angles: reducing costs and increasing the consumers’ willingness to pay through education about the true value of bread.
The total demand for malting barley for Welsh breweries is about 800-1000 tonnes (excluding that to Brains). Evan Evans alone accounts for about half of that. At the moment about 60% of that comes from England and 40% from EU. There is a strong desire from many breweries to use Welsh grain if it can be turned into quality malt, and the opportunities for import substitution are therefore great.
5. Next steps
In the short term we will:
- Establish a ‘Welsh Grains Group’ on Google to enable us to communicate with each other. (Action: Tony Little)
- Establish a Facebook page to start talking to the general public. (Action: Azelia Torres)
- Act as a central facility to publicise all the work with Welsh grains that is already going on.
- Write articles for the press including Gwlad. (Action: Tony Little)
- Consider getting profile in ‘Farmhouse Breakfast Week ‘January 2014. (Action: Tony Little)
- Contact the machinery rings to try and address access to machinery and equipment for growers.
In the longer term we need to:
- Develop a plan for reinvigorating local grain economies in Wales. (Action: All, but led by Tony Little)
- Develop a campaign promoting traditional, local and Welsh bread and beer. (Action: All)
- Develop relationships, and facilitate communication, between all parts of the supply chain, for example through regular meetings.