If you’re lucky this winter, you can buy a very special loaf at Machynlleth’s Wednesday market. Baked in a limited edition of six a week by Penegoes bakery Rye and Roses, it’s made from wheat grown a few miles down the road at Glandyfi, and milled the traditional stoneground, water-powered way at Felin Ganol, Llanrhystud. It’s many years since wheat was last grown at any scale to make bread in this part of Wales, and it’s the result of an experiment by a group of enthusiasts called the Dyfi Grain Growers. The group is also growing oats.
One of them is Katie Hastings, who also works for Mach Maethlon and has been growing vegetables for many years. “I have a real interest in feeding the local community, and I started thinking, would it be possible to grow our own bread and our own porridge here in the Dyfi Valley? And I found out that grains used to be grown all over the valley 50, 60, 70 years ago. People used to grow cereals on areas of land which people now say are unsuitable for food production, but really weren’t in the past when these native Welsh varieties were grown”.
Katie and her colleagues embarked on a long experiment, learning how to plough, sow, harvest and thresh the grain. They harvested it by hand, and rather than use a combine harvester they borrowed a threshing machine from Meirionnydd Vintage Club. “When we were cutting the grain and making stooks in the field, people were coming down from the hills to see what we were doing, and keen to help,” she says. “Using the old threshing machine really allowed me to connect with the older farmers, because they had this machine that we needed, and they wanted to see us using it again. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without these older farmers showing us how.”
One of these is Alun Lewis of Penegoes, who remembers his father growing wheat, barley, oats and potatoes on the family farm, and eating home-produced bread, cheese, meat and vegetables, in an era when the Dyfi Valley grew a much higher proportion of its own food than it does now. Later he spent 27 years as a contractor, taking his threshing machines from farm to farm. Unlike a modern combine harvester, a threshing machine is static, and requires people to feed sheaves of wheat or oats into it, in order to separate the grain from the straw and chaff.
“After the War every farm had to grow wheat and potatoes to feed people,” he says, referring to the local War Agriculture Executive Committees, or War Ags, set up in 1939 with powers to requisition land from farmers who did not comply. “Our records show that we were threshing on nearly every farm here in Penegoes then, and everywhere else, Tal-y-bont, all down that way, one farm after another.” As Alun and his father only had three threshing machines and they covered an area as far south as Llanon, there was a lot of pressure to get the work done. Fortunately, they were able to borrow an extra machine from the War Ag, and there was help from prisoners of war and the Land Girls.
Alun has been sharing his memories with a project called ‘Mixed farming – histories and futures’, which is researching farming practices over the past two centuries. Together with oral histories from older residents organized by the lead partner ecodyfi, the project is looking at tithe maps from the 1840s, RAF aerial photographs from the 1940s, archive footage from the BBC and other documents. A Geographic Information System is being used to draw all this data together and provide a field-by-field overview of how land was used.
Among the historic data is a set of maps from the 1930s which were compiled on field trips by schoolchildren and their teachers. Hailed as the first investigation into land use in the UK since the Domesday Book, it identifies seven categories, including woodland, water and built-up areas, and shows how much more arable farming there was in the Machynlleth area in those days. The survey was organized by London geographer Sir Dudley Stamp, who saw it partly as an exercise in citizenship for young people, but the maps went on to make a real contribution to food security in the War.
Echoing this, one of the aims of the Mixed Farming project, whose partners include the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth University and Environment Systems Ltd, is to contribute to a public discussion about the future of farming in the area.
“These are turbulent times for farmers, and it helps to take a long view. Farming has changed enormously over the past century in response to economic and social changes, and it can change again. We want to make information and resources available to farmers and help inform the public debate,” says Chris Higgins, project manager.
It’s not just maps and memories that link us with the past. At Aberystwyth University, Dr Fiona Corke explains how they are maintaining a traditional wheat called Hen Gymro. “It was collected from Welsh farms in 1919 by Sir George Stapledon, first director of the Welsh Plant Breeding Station, and it’s known as a landrace not a variety, because it was a mixture of types adapted to the locality where it was grown,” she says. “The old wheats all have long straw, which was used for thatching, and they are low yielding compared to modern wheats. However, they were reliable, and now there is interest in them again, particularly from organic growers because they don’t need a lot of fertiliser”.
Backing the revival of traditional cereals is the Welsh Grain Forum, which is a network of millers, bakers, thatchers, maltsters, distillers and brewers committed to restoring a national grain economy. Key to this is creating a food culture that embraces regional variation, as grains evolve to suit different conditions. As Katie puts it, “We want people to taste the flavour you get from a mixed population of wheat, which is very different from flour you buy off the shelf. This loaf has the flavour of the Dyfi Valley, reflecting the soil and climate where it was grown.”
The Mixed Farming project is funded partly by the Ashley Family Foundation and partly by the European Union through Welsh Ministers. The European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development has been made available through the Welsh Government, Powys County Council and the three Local Action Groups operating in the Dyfi Biosphere area: Arwain, Cynnal y Cardi and Arloesi Gwynedd.
The project runs until autumn 2020 and welcomes involvement from people interested in the history of agriculture in the area and sustainable food production diversification options. Please contact Ecodyfi to find out more.