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.