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Last Updated: Monday, 10 March 2008, 10:43 GMT
World warned on food price spiral



Field
Your garden will probably not look like this

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Global stocks of wheat are plummeting and people are starting to worry about the price of staples like bread. But can you beat the commodity market by growing your own?

Look out your back window. How's the grass?

If you've got a garden at all, it might be that the grass is an unloved scrub as sparse as Elton John's hair used to be. Or it could be a lush strip of glorious verdure.

HOW TO GROW WHEAT

infographic

Prepare the ground by finely raking the soil as you would to plant grass.

infographic

Scatter the wheat seed evenly by hand and rake over. Consider a bird-scaring device.

infographic

Harvest with sickle or scythe. Leave 2-3 inches of stubble. Tie stalks into sheaves.

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Thresh by placing sheaves into pillow cases and hitting against brick wall.

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Winnow by throwing wheat and chaff up into breeze from fan. Chaff should blow away.

1 of 5

Either way, the odds are you're not getting much use out of it. Wouldn't it be great if you could improve your health, help the environment and at the same time do your part to fight inflation?

The world is running dangerously low on wheat, one of civilisation's original staple foods. Drought in Australia and China and a switch to meat in the newly prosperous parts of the world are putting the squeeze on wheat. Prices are at a record high.

Baker and organic food campaigner Andrew Whitley believes the answer lies in your back garden and that it's time, as he puts it, to "bake your lawn". He is launching the Real Bread Campaign.

"If wheat makes bread why not grow bread just like you grow vegetables. We think of it as being a massive prairie-style enterprise but it is just a plant like anything else. It's like grass.

"There are few things that give greater satisfaction than being able to grow something and harvest it and share it with friends and family."

Wholewheat approach

In the UK, we eat a lot less bread than we did in the 1950s. But it's still a fair bit. In 2000, we ate 720g per person per week, the equivalent of just under one large loaf.

From this Whitley has worked out how much garden we would need to put over to wheat production to cater for all our own bread needs. Assuming each 720g loaf of bread uses about 432 grams of flour, that's 22.5kg of flour per year just for our bread needs. With a family of four you get a total of 90kg of flour.

Combine harvester
You will not be able to fit this in your garden

A conservative yield estimate of three tonnes of wheat per organically-cultivated hectare is reasonable, Whitley suggests. Assuming you're going for an extremely wholewheat approach - using the whole grain, including bran and germ - each tonne of flour pretty much equates to a tonne of wheat (in British commercial milling 4.5 million tonnes of flour is made from 5.5 million tonnes of wheat every year), then you need 297 square metres of wheat to provide your family with bread.

And there's the rub. According to Garden Organic, the organic growing charity, the average British garden size as of 2006 was about 90 square metres.

Furthermore, Whitley strongly advises you only use a quarter of your garden at any one time to produce wheat. A "monoculture" of wheat year in year out would exhaust the soil and allow the spread of disease. Using your 22.5 square metres of land would only provide 6.8kg of flour. And while those in the south-east and east of the UK are in wheat territory, those in the rainy west may find they struggle.

Andrew Whitley sows seeds using a fiddle drill in Cumbria in the 1970s
Many people see this as a terrible, ghastly, pathetic throwback to an era of grinding toil
Andrew Whitley

But Whitley knows most people will not be able to grow all their own wheat and suggests even producing a couple of loaves-worth a year would be a triumph.

Those in the wheat industry are a little sceptical to say the least. Martin Caunce, owner of Brow Farm in west Lancashire, sells milling wheat and hand-operated mills so people can produce their own flour, but suggests most people will not want to take the final step and grow their own wheat.

"It is more feasible to grow your vegetables and buy your bread," he says. "It takes too much space. You just couldn't make it pay."

Lot of bother

The argument is that you could save a great deal more money by following the example of Tom and Barbara in The Good Life and focusing a bit more on vegetables.

Sally Smith, an adviser at Garden Organic agrees, suggesting: "It's a lot of bother for very little return. You would need a smallholding really."

Women talk over a fence
'How yours coming on?'... 'Lovely'

But assuming you do want to grow your own, Whitley recommends turning over the soil and finely raking it. Your wheat seeds should be of a long straw variety and you should scatter evenly before raking over them.

Undersowing the crop with grass and clover might help with weeds, nutrient balance and avoiding bare earth after the harvest.

Planting might take place in late March or April and harvest might typically be in August, stretching into September if the crop has had a bad year.

You could follow the ancient test and bite down on a grain to see if it's ready to harvest, Whitley suggests. If it's hard, it's ready. If it's squishy, it's not.

Winnow or bust

Use a sickle or scythe to harvest the wheat, leaving at least two or three inches of stubble. The stalks should be bound into sheaves and then threshed. Whitley advises putting the ears into a pillow case with the stalks poking out the bottom and then whacking them on a brick wall.

You must then winnow the wheat. Traditionally this was done by throwing the wheat up into a breeze. The heavy grain would fall back to the floor, while the wind blew the chaff away.

WHY IS WHEAT EXPENSIVE?
Drought in China/Australia
Export curbs
More meat being eaten
Biofuel production
Commodity speculators

Milling can be done in a specialist hand mill, or even in a hand cranked coffee grinder, Whitley suggests.

To some it may all sound like rather too much effort, but Whitley, who first grew wheat on four square metres of his allotment in Stoke Newington in 1974, disagrees.

"Many people see this as a terrible, ghastly, pathetic throwback to an era of grinding toil.

"[But] it is a great way of getting control over what goes into your bread, to make sure no nasties get in."

In the end most of us do not have the gardens to conjure up the wheaty romance from the end of movies like Gladiator or Witness.

But to look out over the kitchen sink at even a couple of square metres of gently oscillating wheat would be an achievement.

And, as Whitley notes, there is one fringe benefit - you can have your own crop circles.


Below is a selection of your comments.

It would be worth it just for one loaf you could really call your own.
Martin Comer, London UK

Funnily enough my brothers and I did this on a very small scale as children at about the same time as Mr Whitley. My father stopped the car one evening for us to look at a combine harvester at work, we took some of the wheat that was not harvested at the edge of the field home, threshed it and planted it the following spring. That autumn we harvested, threshed, and then ground it using stones from the rockery. Looks like we were 30 years ahead of our time!
John Boxall, Frome

I've been baking my own bread for six months and wouldn't eat a shop loaf now if you paid me so growing it seems like the next logical step. I have about twelve square metres ready for ploughing - hmm - not quite enough is it?
Paul, Eastbourne

As for not getting any "nasties" in it. British farmers and millers have to operate to some very high standards and as such the chances of having any rogue elements in your daily loaf of bread are slim to none, compared to organic grain that is high in mycotoxins and usually contaminated with ergot, a poisonous fungal infection of grain. So forgive me if I don't take Mr Whitley up on his offer of sharing his loaves of bread. I think I'll distil mine and make some alcohol instead.
Phil , Norwich, Norfolk

We have grown wheat on our seven acre smallholding for four years. It's hard work and not as straightforward as one might think but fun. Rabbits have been the main problem. I have at various stages done everything by hand apart from ploughing and cultivating the soil. One highlight was getting 70 sheaves threshed for free by a traction engine thresher at a local fair.
Paul Lovatt-Smith, Hailsham, E Sussex, UK

Due to the small amount of grain produced I would not grow it. For experimental purposes I would be interested to see one day how it would work out. I think it would be far too labour intensive on this scale without machinery, leave it to the experts on a more productive scale (crop rotation required as well). I already grow sweetcorn, courgettes, beans, onions, shallots etc. Grow the expensive stuff to subsidise what is getting more expensive.
M Weeks, Worcestershire

It would be a lot easier to just stop eating wheat altogether and switch to potatoes. This is why the Irish potato famine was really, really bad - potatoes provided far more energy food per measure of area than wheat so families needed less land to feed themselves. Then when the potatoes got blight, there were big problems. Now we have blight resistant varieties so potatoes are the way forwards. You don't have to do all that threshing and grinding stuff either - just dig them up, clean them up, prick them and stick them in the oven for 45mins.
Kate, York, UK

A few years back I got some wheat seed from a local farmer friend and put in a small patch of wheat, say 20' by 40'. It grew beautifully and we were thrilled. When it was ready to harvest, we cut it down and bundled it up. Not so easy as we thought. Then trying to get the wheat off the stalk nearly did us in. We thrashed and thrashed and wore ourselves out. We did manage to finally get some grain loose and then threw it up in the air to blow the chaff off. I think we finally ended up with a few cups of wheat. The rest we stashed away for a year or two then finally threw it out in a field for the birds to pick at. Lesson learned: harvesting wheat is extremely labour intensive. And we gained an immense respect for those cultures who did it all (and some places still do) by manual labour and did it all day long, day after day, field after field.
Nina, Alberta, Canada

Having grown perhaps a million bushels of wheat in my lifetime should give me a little licence to comment. While I find it very noble and also rewarding to grow one's own wheat it takes considerable effort to harvest and thresh the grain. One must also consider if they will plant a variety that lends itself well as to the proper milling and baking properties. Will it have the correct amount of gluten? Will it have a good taste? Will it have the proper protein content? You in the UK are known for your great gardens so by all means utilise your space for growing vegetables, but allow those with machines to produce your otherwise labour intensive wheat.
Greenbeanman, The Wheat State, Kansas, United States

As I understand it, UK-grown wheat has a lower gluten content than North American-grown varieties. This produces rather hefty wholemeal bread, not to everyone's taste. But it can be mixed with Canadian wheat to lighten it up a bit. It would be satisfying to grow your own supply of wheat - couldn't families sponsor farmers to grow wheat for them? Some organic farms run schemes like this already.
Elspeth Gibson, Glasgow

My garden is much smaller than the average size given in the article so no I won't be growing any wheat. However, I do grow salad crops, beans, blackberries, raspberries, rhubarb, onions and potatoes which goes a long way to supplement my family's diet. It might be more viable on an allotment site where land could be allocated for wheat growing and a group could work it together for mutual benefit.
Gwen Seller, Wirral, Merseyside

Well, I'm allergic to the stuff- it's mildly amusing to see the price of 'normal' bakery produce catching up with the cruelly over inflated price of gluten free baked goods.
E Russ, Leics, UK

As lovely as it sounds to home grow our own bread, what about the attractiveness of wheat to rats? I don't want hordes of them in my side garden. Shouldn't we support our local farmers instead and the government provide more incentives for British farmers to produce the food we vitally need? Perhaps increase pressure on supermarkets as well?
Bread Lover, Herts

Not in the garden, perhaps, where vegetables and fruit close to the back door would be more practical. But a full-size allotment is 300 sq yds, not far off the required 297 sq m, so that's an option. Trouble is, wheat doesn't grow well everywhere, such as here in wet mid-Wales, and some of us might have to choose an alternative bread cereal like oats or rye instead. Certainly worth considering, though.
Andi Clevely, Llanidloes, Powys

There are other good reasons to have wheat in the garden. The taste of ripe wheat nuts fresh off the stem is incredible, an experience not available plastic-wrapped in stores. Green wheat stems themselves can be chewed on or sucked for a tasty sweet delight. In the USA, much more so than England, the growing of wheat has been "ghettoised" to distant portions of the country. It would be socially beneficial for a larger part of the populace to see and experience the growing of local wheat. A third benefit may come if the growing of local wheat were to become popular, and that would be an increase in genetic diversity and enhancement of qualities that are incompatible with industrial agricultural practice but may be of value nevertheless... like flavour.
Stuart Brown, Sharon, MA USA

It would be more environmentally simple just to cut down slightly on meat consumption - consumption which means vegetable protein is wasted on growing an animal to full size, on a high-protein diet, before slaughtering it.
Chandra, London

As a childminder I encourage the children in my care to choose, grow and eat what appeals to them on the allotment I have. I would encourage them to grow their own wheat and then we could use it to make the pizzas they like cooking and eating so much.
Saran Andrews, Bedfordshire



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