Meet the farmers shortening the supply chain in bakery

12 July 2023, 08:00 AM
  • This year’s National Organic Conference (NOC) showcased the collaborative approach being adopted by a group of farmers, millers and bakers to deliver shorter, more sustainable supply chains in the bakery sector.
Meet the farmers shortening the supply chain in bakery

The event, organised by organic certification body Organic Farmers and Growers (OF&G), was hosted by Mark and Liz Lea at their farm, Green Acres, in Shropshire on 3 July.

An organic licence holder for 23 years, Mark took the decision to focus on growing non-commodity grains in 2016. This summer the diverse arable enterprise will harvest 21 cereal varieties. These include some of the oldest wheats recorded in Britain and composite cross populations such as YQ, which was developed by Martin Wolfe and the team from the Organic Research Centre at Wakelyns in 2001.

To successfully grow and sell such a range of diverse cereals, Mark has sought to create a network of loyal customers. These like-minded businesses value the environmental benefits of his low-impact grains and the level of collaboration that their direct relationship encourages.

“Everything is grown with the end user in mind and sold directly to millers or bakers. As a result, we’ve added value to our wheat,” says Mark.

“The other motivation, that’s equally important, is that by establishing a very short supply chain we have the privilege of connecting with the genius bakers who use our product. That is so rewarding.

“We all trust one another. We respect each other and it works beautifully,” he adds.

Mark is a firm believer that food is better when we engage with it. He is one of a growing number of farmers seeking to address the failings that exist in commoditised food systems.

“I believe that if there’s a story associated to your food, if you can appreciate the provenance behind it, it’s more likely to be enjoyed, valued and less likely to be wasted.”

The movement towards the growing and eating of non-commodity grains in the UK is epitomised by work of UK Grain Lab. This coalition of farmers, millers, plant breeders, bakers, scientists and academics has a vision for a shorter, healthier, and more diverse supply chain, where the identity of people and place is celebrated and valued.

Six representatives from UK Grain Lab took part in a panel discussion at NOC highlighting their work to secure legislative protection for the breeding and growing of genetically diverse seeds.

These types of wheat species reduce the need for artificial inputs, such as synthetic fertilisers and pesticides through their increased genetic resilience. This contrasts with the single variety wheats that currently dominate the market where disease risk increases as monoculture grains become susceptible to new pathogens that evolve over time.

For many arable farmers, the primary goal is achieving a high yield. Hardly any commercial grain contracts stipulate food quality in terms of nutrition. As a result, most cereal plant varieties are selected on the basis of performing well in farming systems that rely heavily on the use of synthetic inputs, a stable climate, and with a mandate focused on producing a high volume of energy-dense foods.

OF&G’s business development manager and curator of NOC Steven Jacobs urged the audience to think differently during the UK Grain Lab panel session.

“We recognise that genetically diverse grains won’t produce to the level of other varieties, so there is an imperative for growers to identify new markets, where there’s a much higher appreciation of flavour and provenance,” says Steven.

“It’s essential that we have fairer and more transparent routes to market. These must also be sustainable, both in terms of economic viability and by providing greater environmental resilience.”

Regional grain alliances and open-source software platforms such as Open Food Network UK are beginning to help fill that gap. An ever-expanding network of community-driven food enterprises that put people and planet first are having an increasingly positive impact.

Open Food Network already works with 2,000 producers and 200 food hubs in the UK, proving that local, sustainable food systems are possible. Its model of common ownership also ensures that the supply chain is more resilient to shocks such as pandemics and climate emergencies; they are also more supportive of all forms of life.

Another UK Grain Lab member, Henrietta Inman, is an author and founding-baker at Wakelyns Bakery in Suffolk who makes much of her wholemeal sourdough with organic YQ flour.

She is a passionate advocate for sourcing local, agroecological-grown ingredients to create nourishing food for the community. Through supplying bread to 15 local shops, bread subscriptions and Hodmedod’s online, Henrietta has a vision to enable greater accessibility to healthy, delicious food that has a minimal environmental footprint.

For Henrietta, the connection between farmers and bakers is at the heart of achieving this.

“Links in the supply chain are so important, they can have a butterfly effect” she says.

“Real bread, that’s nutritious and baked with creativity and purpose has a value that goes far beyond the raw materials. It has the value of building relationships with those who grow, make and eat it.

“This interconnectedness can help strengthen security within food systems and allows local economies to thrive.”

When Mark Lea finished his welcome presentation at NOC, he highlighted the rapid changes that have happened in food and farming over the past the five years. These include the rise of regenerative farming, an increasing focus on soil health and carbon sequestration.

“It’s an exciting time to be farming, and I’m genuinely proud to be organic. I’m proud of the food we produce and the nature and biodiversity we support whilst doing so.

“We’re pleased to have moved away from the production of commodity food and instead developed relationships with people who value our products and the way in which we produce them,” Mark concludes.

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