Food campaigner, writer, broadcaster and consultant Geoff Tansey joined Scotland The Bread Chairman Andrew Whitley in 2015 for a filmed guided tour of Macbiehill Agroforestry Farm in the Scottish Borders. Andrew is now preparing to move from the five-acre farm closer to Balcaskie Estate, where we are now based at Bowhouse and our grain is grown. It is a fitting time to shine the spotlight on developments at Macbiehill and with the Scotland The Bread campaign following the death of Andrew’s wife and Scotland The Bread co-founder Veronica Burke in 2018.
We are grateful to Geoff for conducting this audio interview to provide just such an update.
In the original film, Andrew walks the viewer through the benefits and lived experience of operating this kind of smallholder farming operation. The video is half an hour long, and spans an accessible and inspiring introduction to organic agroforestry, as well as the myriad benefits of a more biodiverse grain supply feeding into a system that values a slowed-down sourdough loaf.
Some highlights are excerpted below, but the full tour is a fascinating starting point for understanding just how different these growing methods are to conventional, industrialised systems, and how radical yet achievable.
In Andrew’s words: ‘…now that I’m doing it, it seems surprising that we ever abandoned growing trees and crops together.’
The big questions that Scotland The Bread is trying to answer:
‘A curious baker wants to know where his flour comes from, why it might differ from other kinds of flour and how we might make it more nutritious. The kind of baker I became, i.e. a sourdough bread baker, gets very interested in the reasons why people can eat certain types of bread and not others, and why the whole issue of the effect of our diet on our health and well-being has become a matter of public importance in the last 20 or 30 years particularly, and bread has an important role in this. So what I’m interested in is how I can find the best grains to make the best and most nutritious and tastiest bread, from grains that will grow in the climate we have, with all its vicissitudes and difficulties – because after all that’s how people fed themselves two or three hundred years ago, before the system changed and we started importing a lot of wheat, and turning our local grains into animal feed, or even worse, car feed as we are nowadays.’
On the importance of diversity:
‘The idea of population breeding is to provide a diversity within a field of wheat, rye, barley or whatever, a diversity which is capable of resisting any challenge that is thrown at it. It is not saying: ‘It will be a disaster if I don’t get 10 tonnes a hectare’; it’s saying: ‘I want to get a crop year in, year out’, which is allowing the crop to do some of the work in terms of choosing which is going to grow well this year and which is going to grow next year, in a way which is adapting, which is harnessing the ability of Darwinian evolution if you like, to provide an adaptability over time, wherein lies resilience.’
(Andrew goes on to explain how, in fact, agroforestry fields can actually result in higher productivity, yields and added-value additional income generators such as willow crop for basket weavers.)
‘The reason we’re growing all these different varieties and trying to evaluate all their different properties is because we’ve come to a pretty pass: everybody in the food system benefits from the growing of grain, except for the people who eat it. The people who grow it, and who trade it, and who make it into bread take profit out of it and take qualities of value out of it, which means when it gets to the final consumers in the form of bread it is a de-valued, denatured and nutritionally impoverished product. So what we’re trying to do is to say: ‘Hey, we could do this differently. We could actually pay attention to the innate properties of the grains we grow. What’s in them? How much nutrient? How much mineral?’ The things we actually get from our bread – or that we could get from our bread – the iron, the calcium, the B vitamins and so on, but more than that we could actually take some control over who grows it and why they grow it. Because it’s a sad fact that in this country of Scotland, which grows nearly a million tonnes of wheat, virtually none of that wheat is used to make bread. It’s used for all kinds of other purposes, for distilling, for turning into alcohol, for turning into animal feed, for starch production and for bio-ethanol – for feeding cars, not people – and this is an outrage against self-sufficiency, but it’s an outrage also against the sensible, sane use of resources in a resource-constrained world….What we’re trying to show here is that by harnessing everything from the extraordinary ability of molecular biologists to analyse what’s in grain to the efforts of smallholders and small farmers to grow grain in a way more in harmony with the environment to get the best out of soils in which they grow, and to pass those on for bakers who actually care how much they leave in and bring out of the grains they’re working with, then we can actually end up with a healthier, happier population which is engaged with the whole food system in a way that it currently is not.’
On re-evaluating agricultural goals:
‘What we need is a new way of measuring success in our agriculture, and we are working with others on the idea that if we could somehow reward farmers and growers on the basis of the number of people nourished per hectare rather than the number of tonnes of produce per hectare, then we would be going some way towards improving the situation…This notion that it’s only money that is the arbiter of something that is as important to us, to our health, and the the health of our environment as food is an offence against humanity, but it’s also an offence against rationality in my view.’
‘If we could re-align our research to the real needs of people rather than the needs of corporations or individual commercial interests, then that would put an enormous injection of energy and expertise into something really important.’