Ecological food production

Studio needed

To start the end of a life in painting


The mill:



The flour and the bread.

All starts with two things: Flour, and Water.

Most of our bakers, even the classy artisan ones, use homogeneous flour. Flour, and before that grain, even if it is organic, has traveled from Kastakstan or another part of Russia. Imagine all the inputs – farm machinery and transport; tractor, lorry, boat, lorry, roller mill. The people, to run these machines, to sell the grain and flour, blah blah… believe me theres a lot. Wheat grain is the most traded food source in the world ‘Wheat… set record volume in 2016, at 31 million contracts traded’ ( and this activity generated billions in revenue during such trades.

The other major constituent of bread is Water. Our bakery uses a filter to take out a lot of the stuff that is put in it to make it ‘safe’. We’d love to collect rain water, as this is the most pure, or to collect some from one of the various wells around here in South Devon. We are on a quest to do this. In the mean time…

we are tackling the flour and grain part of the bread.  Our mill is housed a few doors down form the bakery and is now providing the flour for our, soon to reintroduced, Wholemeal loaf. The loaf will be 50 to 70% of our flour; the grain comes from the UK, Dorset, Wiltshire, Devon, Cumbria. It travels by road to us, we mill it ,and I carry it down to the bakery. Its pretty simple and the bread tastes great!! Being a bit of a puritan I am growing our own heritage population of grain and attempting to harvest it by hand this will then be loaded onto a trailer and wheeled 100 yards over to the mill… but this, being four years in, is proving difficult. Hopefully 2018 will be the year I crack the puritan way. In the meantime Shillingford and Dartington farms are growing heritage wheat for me, and alongside this i’m buying wheat from other farmers around Europe and the UK – I want to find the finest sourdough bread making grain i can that will grow well in Devon and the South West – who, if my plans come together, I will visit and learn from their experiences.

I’m selling fresh flour – and thats worth it’s weight in gold – from the Mill. Pop over and we can have a chat.

Milling wet grain

This week I made some great tasting but dam square brick, Donald Trump wall building, loaves.

Thats not the story here: The story is about the moisture content of grain. For a couple of hundred years the grain industry has needed grain to be 12% – 14% hydration, anything above 14.5% is breeding ground for all sorts of nasty pathogens, for the benefit of long term storage. Sure we have to store grain, but all of it? Can we mill grain of a higher moisture content. I thought so. I washed (sounds a bit idiotic now) some local grain, it was filthy – which made me think I was undertaking a worthwhile process. When I’d finished washing the grain and clearing it of all the chaff I tipped it into the hopper. Water dripped from the bottom of the hopper, ‘ops’. That didn’t seam right (the first indication my process wasn’t quiet heading in the best direction). I switched the mill on. It was the reassuring whirl of the stones, the hum of the motor, the bristley brushes puffing sprinkling soft clouds of flour out of the wooden shoots, that lured me in to a sense of calm. Shattered!! by the sound of a grinding metal, the likes of a sound I have never heard before: Like the first time you hear a car crash into something at speed or the first time you hear a woman scream during child birth or the first time you hear something break, rip or tear inside your body. The hum had become a screech-grinding-shatter-boom that made me duck for cover. When it just continuedddd!!I quickly rose up and turned the machine off. I could smell something that reminded me of gunpowder?! (a cap gun gong off, thats the closest I’d ever been to gunpowder, so im not 100% about the smell of gunpowder).

Had I broken the mill?


“its not even yours” – my wife reminded me of, whist drinking a G&T, during a discussion on what I’d achieved that day.

This was a week ago. I have been back three time to see the mill and SWITCH ON THE MILL, to be deafened by that sound. Its left an indelible mark on me. That sound will never leave me. Maybe I’m over egging it: its only a bloody mill and not child birth or body snap. 

Anyway…. I fixed the mill by lifting the stones apart with w hydraulic pallet lifting jack. Turns out the the wetting of the grain and then grinding it makes a paste strong enough to stop a 4kw motor – thats a strong, heavy motor to you and I. The stones spin bloody (not going to guess an MPH) fast when not forced together by the mills mechanism – and glue two 1 meter diameter by 40cm granite stones together. So I obviously added too much water. How much is too much? How much is enough? (you wet the grain to soften the bran and make it less capable of cutting the strands of gluten during the milling process. Gluten makes bubbles in your sourdough). Advice I’d received was 2 hours of soaking. The two hours advice didn’t seam tangible. I have decided to follow this advice:

The following method is taken from –


1. A small sample of flour or ground wheat (2 to 3 grams) is weighed and placed in a moisture dish.

2. The sample is heated at 130 degrees Celsius in an air oven for 1 hour.

3. The sample is cooled to room temperature and the residue is weighed.


• Moisture content is determined by heating a flour or ground wheat sample in an air oven and comparing the weight of the sample before and after heating.

• The amount of weight loss is the moisture content.

• Moisture content results are expressed as a percentage. An example of a wheat moisture content is 12 percent. (

Once I know the moisture content of the grain to be milled I can then add some water (temper) for a period of time, as recommended by the BMIN Wheat Conditioning IAOM District Meeting 2016, to raise the moisture levels to less shattering [gluten] levels:

Recommended tempering time :

1BK moisture:

•Hard wheat: 24 – 36 (48) hrs.   16.0 – 17.0% (17.5%)

• Semi-hard: 18 – 24 hrs.             15.5 – 16.0%

• Semi-soft: 12 – 18 hrs.               15.0 – 15.5%

• Soft wheat: 6 – 12 hrs.               14.5 – 15.0%

So what I have learnt so far this week:

dont wash grain and then mill it

Raise the moisture content in a considered and measurable way

First of all – speak to mills and ask them about tempering


Milling at last

Last week I made 10 loaves from wheat I milled on the premises. The wheat was Mulika, a modern wheat, bought from Stoates mills in Dorset.

As I complete the process of milling, making and baking the journey I am on demystifies, its a little misty as I haven’t found anyone doing exactly what we are doing – growing wheat, making and baking sourdough bread from it – all in the most gentle, or with the lightest touches, possible.

I was trying to grow heritage grain, which I still aim but with an added, and crucial element, namely that making and baking bread (feeling, tasting etc), is crucial to inform the type of grain we will attempt to grow. The growing part is of course important: we need to be able to grow ‘the’ wheat well in the Devon climate, environment and topography for it to be sustainable. It wont be disastrous if we have to combine some Devon wheat with some European wheat. After all the current organic system ships its wheat (60 to 70% of most blends) from Kazakhstan and or Russia. So this process is three fold; Stop shipping our wheat form half way across the globe, grow the best bread making wheat we can here in Devon, source the best bread grains from around Europe (Try an grow, mill, make sourdough bread in Devon from them).

The bread from the Mulika grain was ok, good crumb and tasty, but not good enough. The crumb needs to be more open, the dough more springy and the flavours more developed.

Next week I’ll be milling more and working with hydration levels – the last batch were at 67% hydration.

Thanks for reading. Ill post pictures and notes next week.

Our new mill arrives

Our mill has arrived from E5 bakery c/o Ben Mackinnon. She looks so gorgeous and her story; the grain to mill to bread, makes perfect sense. IMG_5396

The next goal is to start her up and start milling grain. We will grow and partner with growers and travel Europe to find grain that makes the best bread we can with The Almond Thief. My desire is to develop local grain so that the system of soil-to-bread has as light an impact as possible on the land and people involved in it.

I see the system as; get grain from seed banks and other growers using natural techniques; grow the grain of have it grown for you using natural methods; process the grain using as little oil (diesel or petrol) as possible; mill the grain (with this mill and the TTT mill); use the fresh flour to make bread.

Hope you come with us on this journey.

Grain of truth

“We are trying to get agriculture away from the extractive economy and into the renewable economy.”

Wes Jackson – – talks on the subject of agriculture and a 10k year year problem. This is exactly what I tell people when they see the field i’m working with. I’m trying to grow grain without ploughing or digging. I’m finding it darn near impossible (to use a phrase an American would be used to) to find a growing solution that doesn’t require planting annually, and all that goes with this process; sprouting the seed or vernalisation (the process of a little moisture and then a period of cold to make the seeds heads appear later on), clearing the ground, drilling or broadcasting. If you leave your field, like I did, to the life then you’ll be facing the prospect, if you have planted complementary plants well, of a carpet of plants, ironically most of them being perennial. How you get your seeds down to the soil, past the leaves and shoots, is a challenge. Then you have the problem of the seeds being crowded out. I also had the problem of the seeds being eaten by mice, slugs and snails. In the end I had to plumb for scything and a light till of about 2 inches then broadcast sowing and another run over the ground with the rotivator. This took me five days on one acre. Because of the work involved my strategy took another sharp turn: I elicited the help of two organic local farmers to plant about four acres each. If I had perennial grains I wouldn’t need to undertake this process at all…..

We cannot carry on this myth of western farming – this is the one where our food is better grown under tight control by farmers using synthetics as they produce higher yields. Conventional, AKA synthetic farming, has for 10k years sped off in the wrong direction. Thank goodness there are people like Wes Jackson treading a different path. This project, grain of truth, is part of that different breed. Our products wont be like Wes’s as we are growers not breeders but we will support perennial grain breeders when ever they have a product for us to try. In the meantime we will plant heritage grain populations, heritage grain, heritage vegetables and fruit and nut bushes and trees – as much perennial as possible. I’d also like to find a use for dock, chicory seeds and burdock plants.

Most of my plants are in now. The new Blacktail mountain water melons have been sprouted – ‘Blacktail Mountain’ was developed by plant breeder Glenn Drowns of Iowa when he was a teenager in 1977, and time after time it beats all the other early watermelons in trials – it is widely acknowledged as one of the earliest varieties available.’ and i’m already salivating about the Irish sweet million Tomato’s im growing again this year. (Sourdough toasted bread with garlic, basil and Toms).

60 years and our soils are dead!

In the UK, and therefor by default the whole Agribusiness dominated western world, our soils are dead, not in 60 years (recent United Nations FAO report), but already. Unless you’re privileged enough to live near a farmer with long term vision, long enough to see the harm synthetic (AKA conventional) farming could possibly do to the land, anything that lives off the soil and anything that eats things that have been grown in the soil – that just about applies to every one of us! – you’ve been absorbing the death of soils for 50 years or so. Therefor I state that most soil and most food is dead! Not in 60 years but NOW.

Lets think about this. Slow down, allow yourself to taste the food you put in your mouth. Take some time to absorb the flavours (sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami) focus on your feelings elsewhere in your body as the food is swallowed and digested. If it isn’t caked in sugar or fat it probably tastes of very little, (but, hold on, what about all those E numbered flavours. They have taste, yeah! like some food company hocus-pocus). Unless you eat food grown by a farmer with vision; a focus on taste, not on yield, then your experience will be of bland un-nutritional food. If you are a subsistence farmer, like I am, your goal is to have lots (yield) of great tasting food (back to the soil). Here is the crucial bit. If the soil you are using (befriending) is alive! then it will imbue flavour in the things that grow in it. The soil connects to our, and the animals we eat, bodies and those bodies to its many parts. How can I possibly say that the most of the soil, in the western world, is dead?

Don’t take my word for it. “We must move away from viewing soil merely as a growth medium and treat it as an ecosystem in its own right.” Environmental Audit Committee of the British House of Commons. Agribusiness (AKA synthetic farming) doesn’t much care for ‘living’ soil, to them soil is a growth medium. The dead soil (AKA growth medium) I inherited when I rented land off the Dartington estate in Devon, UK can only be described – apart from dead – as a medium, soggy in the winter and hard and cracked in the summer. I quickly set to work in improving the soil. In the first year; I planted millions of seeds that mingled and embraced the existing seed bed, I imported and distributed 300 ton of organic matter (all locally sourced unwanted material – Old thatch, garden clippings, wood chip, sawdust, leaf mould, felled trees and paper) and most importantly I embraced Nature and abandoned any links with agribusiness.

What did I do with all this material? I built raised beds and inside these beds layered the paper, sawdust and thatch to suppress the amazing and resilient Buttercup and Dock and beat down the march of the couch grass. I then drove around and collected manure (Thank you Kate and Jack at Lower Sharpham Farm and the Mare and Foul sanctuary at Littlehempsten) and had leaf mould picked up from the Dartington gardens and dumped in piles, that I spread around a little, on the field by a local farmer. All this was to build a fertile layer for precious seedlings, trees and fruit bushes.

I am doing all this work because the soil was dead; In Sept 2015 I dug eighty holes and found two limp and lifeless worms, I noted no beetle life, little bird life and the soil itself was squashed, cloying and still. I planted 50 leaks and cabbages which either just withered and died or stayed pretty much the same size for the next 12 months. Fifty percent of the 50 fruit bushes I planted died, their leaves turned bright yellow (as if they had seen a plant ghost) and then died. I knew as these signs emerged that I needed to focus on the health of the soil and my importing of organic matter began.

I’m writing about this because Its not 60 harvests, as the UN report says, until our soils are depleted, in the vast majority of cases they are already depleted. If they are depleted then we need to work to regenerate them and this work should begin now. Lets all rent a field and do what I have done?? Lets look at the numbers. I.e. If I have imported 300 tons of organic matter on to 4 acres of dead soil extrapolating this to 1000 acres and then the whole of the UK’s agribusiness land what does the number look like? This number is somewhat unimportant as its so vast. We are never going to have enough material, on this scale, to import and make our soils better. So…. We have one solution, no options: We wait for nature to help us. This will take seven to 10 years I suspect, depending on its connections to LIFE – to other healthy soils.

This means that when we finally wake up, to the absurdity of eating chemicals made of oil, toxic to our bodies and to a farming and food industry that grows and sells us food that makes us fat – because it has NO nutritional value and only serves to volumise us – and disease ridden, we will have a transition period. This transition period will last 10 years. No UK grown food for 10 years, unless you live near an enlightened farmer of course or you grow your own.

Soil: An ecosystem in its own right

A recent UK government report –  states that we should change our view of soil as a growth medium and treat it as an ecosystem in its own right. The problem is that consumers are dictated to by supermarkets and industrial food producers. Their products have very little to do with the soil, not even the veg. Our tastebuds have been hoodwinked, natural occurring vitamins, acids etc have been replaced by chemical flavourings with no nutritional value. Our friends, the tastebuds, no longer stand at the vanguard as we consume foods. We can no longer tell the quality of our food. The soil is a distant memory for most. The quality of our soil should be tasted by, and understood, by us all as we eat.

If we do not understand the importance of soil quality we miss the importance of our own health. In 60 years agribusiness would have destroyed our soils here in the west – In 60 years my little girl will be eating purely synthetically raised foods. She will have no use for her tastebuds……. Soil will have no meaning to us.


Bio-diversity V’s Synthetics

Ive been growing heritage wheat on a farm scale for four years. I started because of a talk given by John Letts during my course on Sustainable agriculture. The talk resonated with me on these fronts: Wheat was a staple food source I was not used to growing which, potentially, for my family meant greater nutrition, growing Heritage varieties represent a better way to grow wheat; shorter more digestible gluten strains, plants that outgrow unwanted plants (weeds) negating the need to spray synthetics to KILL them, plants that mine nutrients better; they have a much increased root system as compared to modern wheat. Lastly growing populations – many varieties of wheat grown together – meant resilience against spreading pathogens. This all resulted in, as I was later to see at Johns Lett’s farm, fields of wheat with various personalities. To bring this to life Im going to describe how I felt sitting in the field of wheat during my first year (2014). Sitting there, listening to the bees fly past my head, filling it with warm busy vibrations, of a creature purposefully looking after its fellows, i noticed the adjoining field. This field was also occupied by wheat. At that moment I thought of the scenes on TV, I had witnesses as a boy in the 80’s, of a Russian army parading past the Kremlin. All neat, regimented, copies, drones (not the type we now know). The wheat in the adjacent field looked ready to march as if waiting in the wings to be given their orders ‘off you go, quick march’. My wheat on the other hand – to continue the analogy – was rabble, something like Kelly’s Hero’s. A rabble with attitude and an element of coolness.

So a few years later….. I moved to a field that had been synthetically controlled, Russian army style, for 30 plus years. The first year I had the field planted, as you may of read, with lots of complementary seeds that would improve the soil and habitat. I also tried to plant wheat. I say tried but what I mean to say is I feed the animals on the field some wheat. The slugs and snails the rabbits, the mice etc. This is the crux of this piece of writing and our whole lifetimes desire of sustainability. If there is NO balance, NO bio-diversity and no control (synthetics) your crops will become food for the creatures. Obviously – unless you have been brainwashed by corporations – we cannot revert to synthetics. Research shows, and no doubt this is the thin end of the wedge, that adding synthetics to the soil gives us cancer, kills everything in the soil making it purely an aggregate, makes weeds bigger… and so on. Achieving balance cannot happen in one field and its surrounding woodland. Balance comes from keystone species; Wolves, Eagles, Bears. In the UK we are still trying to kill off all non-human species, Badgers in particular, but we are nearly there. Give us a few more years and total wipeout will be ours!!! 

Bio-diversity seams to be the answer. Build that and the creatures devouring the wheat will have to look over their shoulders a lot more. Instead of the mice calmly waltzing their way up the wheat stems or pea pots, there will be scurrying mice darting up steams before being swopped on by Sparrows hawks. Rabbits foe will be Polecats and Buzzards. Slugs will be eaten by beetles and Leopard slugs. Wood pigeons by foxes. In order to achieve this gorgeous picture, that exists in my mind but is also emerging on the field, there must be no barriers or fences, little plastic, NO synthetic sprays or soil additives of any description. Large parts, about 1/3, of the field must remain untouched and undisturbed. I feel the need to work with, not against, the creatures of the field for I am one of them. I will then find a balance of nutrition and life that will fill us all with flavour, nutrition and wellbeing.

The photos at the start of this blog show the field being readied for fruit bushes. The soil is so bad, recovering from 30 plus years of abuse, that it will not grow fruit well. The trail bushes I planted last year went through a period of difficulty, some went bright yellow and keeled over, overs contorted from the gnawing of Rabbits teeth on the bark and then fell over. Others struggled through, all of them did a good impression of an under nourished kid. Maybe this will generate tasty fruit, as with some wine – Priorat from the north eastern highlands of Spain for example; deep, red in colour and in minerality, luscious and full of body. Cherries and blackberries in taste. Maybe my fruit will express the hardships of depleted soil through concentrated flavours? I am betting that soil with bacteria, mycelia, worms – creatures of all sorts – organic material and deep dark colours will imbue the fruit with more flavour and therefore nutrition. The piles of sawdust and compost in the pictures will be covered in the dark soil you also see. I’m really looking forward to the fruit harvest, along with the birds and bees and rabbits and dear, over the next few years.

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