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A Magazine for Sheffield

Flour to the people: An experiment in food sovereignty

The Sheffield Wheat Experiment is on a mission to reimagine our food systems by growing and milling their own wheat. The team behind the project told us more.

Sheffield wheat 4 credit gemma T web
Gemma Thorpe

Last October more than 200 people in Sheffield planted heritage wheat in their gardens and allotments. This August they came together to process the wheat into flour.

Here the Sheffield Wheat Experiment team and founders – Ruth Levene, Toby Hyam, Jonny Feldman, Anne Baber, Rich Swan, Nick Souček and Camilla Allen – share more about their ambition to create a Sheffield 'landrace' of wheat, set up a local grain economy and bake a Sheffield heritage loaf.

Tell us more about the Sheffield Wheat Experiment.

The Sheffield Wheat Experiment grew rather organically out of shared interest and enthusiasm during the first lockdown. Jonny and Camilla were already planning to launch the Sheaf Community Bakery in April 2020. When they could not have an in-person launch event, they moved to Zoom and invited artist Ruth Levene to talk about her previous project, A Field of Wheat, and grower Toby Hyam to share his experience of growing heritage grains on his allotment.

Also in attendance was Rich Swan, who alongside Nick Souček had already started the Sheffield Grain Project with the aim to share heritage wheat seed with other growers and develop a landrace [a local variety]. The energy at this event was the catalyst that started the Sheffield Wheat Experiment.

What exactly is the experiment?

The experiment is trying to explore if we can create a Sheffield landrace of wheat. Can we bake an affordable Sheffield heritage loaf? Can we grow cereals that are much more nutritious? Can we become more resilient to the changing climate? Can we have a food system based on food sovereignty, not profit? Can we re-imagine Sheffield as somewhere with its own local grain economy?

How many people are involved now?

Around 225 people got some seed, though some inevitably dropped out through the year. We had 170 people come to our event – about 80 growers alongside their friends and family. We estimate that between 110 and 130 people grew the wheat.

Has everything been done by volunteers?

Ruth and Camilla are paid a nominal amount after successfully applying for an Arts Council grant to design and deliver the project. All the growing, the invaluable advice, much of the harvest event and the baking, is voluntary and is done by the founders and many wonderful growers.

People have contributed so much and we’ve unravelled a wealth of talents, even beyond the skills of growing crops. At the threshing event alone people hand crafted flails, flour scoops, paintings - not to mention the baked goods!

What have you been growing?

The wheat now grown for most bread has been developed specially to suit the need of industrial agriculture which requires the addition of multiple pesticides and artificial fertilisers. Farmers get locked into ensuring they have not only the seed but also the chemicals, often sourced from the same conglomerates. Their farming practice and our food is controlled by the needs of a few shareholders in these big agribusiness companies.

For this reason, we wanted to choose heritage wheat. That is a wheat that is now not normally grown as it does not suit the needs of this industrial type of agriculture. It grows much taller and, because we had a mix of varieties, has a corresponding variable quality in the grain. This variety is an advantage.

In any year, if the conditions become intolerable for one variety and its yield declines, another variety will do particularly well, so you have a more constant yield over time with far less requirement for artificial fertilisers or pesticide.

We purchased 40kg of seed from Torth y Tir, a farm and bakery in Wales who have recently been on the BBC's The Food Programme. And we also sourced some Millers Choice from an amazing organisation called Brockwell Bake based in South London, who have developed a collection of heritage wheats specifically for UK bread production.

Sheffield wheat 1 credit Gemma T web
Gemma Thorpe

Are you pleased with what’s grown?

The dull, grey August we have experienced in Sheffield meant that the grain took longer to ripen, and as a result the wheat that we have harvested has got quite a high moisture content, so it’s still too damp to mill. Over the next few months, we will be testing the flour that we mill, whilst the rest of the grain gets put in the ground ready for our second harvest.

Having said that, seeing your small patch grow from a few sparse grains into a six-foot tower of wheat has been a lovely thing for the growers. They have sent in some wonderful photos showing how much enjoyment this has given them, with them often standing beside their wheat showing how tall it has grown.

We had around 170 people attend the threshing and processing event we held in August at Bloc Studios in the city centre. Our community of growers were able to participate in the processing and find out more about food systems and local food resilience.

What will you make with the flour?

Heritage wheat is likely to have a relatively low protein content compared with the dwarf wheat we normally see grown. We are often told that bread requires a strong flour - that is, a flour with a high percentage of protein. The higher the protein, the more gluten. It’s this that develops as the bread is kneaded and gives the bread we normally bake its strength. Lower protein flour does not hold its shape so easily so we are told it cannot be used for bread.

What we have learnt is that this is more about post-industrial convenience for agribusiness rather than a truth. After the harvest this year Jonny and Anne prepared some tin loaves, focaccia and cake made with the flour we had milled from grain harvested from Regather’s field.

The results proved that we could make really lovely loaves and focaccia by slightly adjusting how we baked. And even when we did not, the result was still very tasty, even if it was more like a bulky pancake.

How can people find out more?

Visit the Sheffield Wheat Experiment site or, for lots of photos of the growing journey, search #TheSheffieldWheatExperiment.

If you want to know more about the community bakery, visit their Facebook and Instagram pages.

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