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Heritage Grain at The Fold

When Dave Outhwaite wanted to malt his own grain to make homebrew, he ran into a problem. Modern varieties of viable grain, ready for growing, can only be bought in large quantities, which isn’t much use to an enthusiastic homebrewer.  

When he began to look further, Dave realised the grains developed for modern farming techniques didn’t really match his needs. ‘Modern varieties are ‘short straw’, with just a few types sown in huge quantities. This isn’t how things were done a couple of centuries ago - farmers would keep a blend of their best grain for planting the following year, seed was shared between farms and a large variety of grains might be sown in the same field.’

Three years ago, the UK Seed Library sent Dave just a few grains of heritage varieties, which he sowed at The Fold in Bransford. After two years, he was harvesting several kilos of grain and, if all goes to plan this year, he could be harvesting a lot more again, all derived from those few original seeds. 

‘Half of it is wheat’ says Dave, ‘I’m growing some barley for the homebrew and there are oats which are fed to our chickens. Each year I make enquiries about different varieties which are available. The French seed library has a UK grain from the 1830s. Likewise, the American seed library has a variety called Michigan Amber. These are all types of grain sent from this country abroad more than two centuries ago, which I am now planning to try out.’

There are pros and cons to growing old varieties of grain. Once planted, they don’t need a lot of fertiliser and can be more hardy. Dave describes them as ‘mongrel’ rather than ‘pedigree’ varieties which are robust nonetheless.

Growing them is a labour-intensive process. At least fifteen people have been involved in the project at The Fold, preparing a quarter-acre plot for sewing, then caring for the growing crop and finally harvesting it. Many things can go wrong. ‘The ground is a medium-heavy Teme valley clay and we need a week or two of dry weather before we can start planting in March or April’ says Dave. ‘As it ripens, the birds begin to take an interest so we have to keep them away. When it’s ready to harvest, a prolonged period of wet weather can ruin it.’ 

Despite all these hurdles, Dave is optimistic about the coming season. ‘I need to discover which varieties are best for baking bread or brewing, so we need to grow enough to experiment with. At the end of harvest time this year, we’re planning a ceilidh with music, food and dance – a proper harvest celebration event.’