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Uncommon Grains Reviving rare welsh oats, scottish bere barley and human-scale equipment

It was a dreich winter morning when we signed on for an all-day Zoom session with grain growers from our Seed Sovereignty networks in Scotland and Wales.

The original plan was to ship the Welsh growers of the Llafur Ni network up to Scotland to meet with Scottish crofters and growers who had been bulking out bere barley in the Highlands and Islands for the past few years, with the help of our Coordinator, Maria Scholten.

We had been dreaming of debates and discussions, knowledge sharing and convivial chats over oatcakes made from rare Welsh oats and beer brewed from bere barley.

Photo by Andy Pilsbury

Alas, Covid had other ideas. So there we were, 9:30am on a Saturday morning in February, facing a full day on Zoom.

Needless to say, a zoom conference room is not a grower's natural habitat. We had to make this day worth their while and keep spirits high, so the day started with poetry – in both Welsh and Gaelic – and ended in a session of traditional music performed by attendees.

In between, we had everything from presentations of research on the genetic diversity of bere barley and traditional Welsh oat varieties; a planning session with Common Grains Scotland, an independent collective developing a more ecological alternative grain economy in Scotland; and demos on baking and brewing with heritage grains.

To bring our Uncommon Grains gathering to life, we produced and posted out a zine full of stories, recipes, poetry and practical how-tos for participants to digest before the main event.

Image by Jesse Thomas, Sailing Rock Prints

The most anticipated event of the gathering was delivered by crofter, engineer and baker Adam Veitch.

In collaboration with Am Fasgadh at the Highland Folk Museum, Adam has been researching the human-scale equipment that used to be essential to crofting life, and which could help small-scale grain growers today overcome some of the challenges they face when trying to process their harvests.

Adam has now studied the equipment and records available at the Museum and compiled a comprehensive description of the grain machinery a small-scale crofter would have historically used to process their harvest.

All of this has been done with innovation in mind. Adam's research contains sufficient technical detail to enable modern makers to re-produce and enhance historical designs for use by the small grain growers of today.

Technical sketch of a winnow machine by Adam Veitch

After presenting his research, Adam surveyed the growers to determine which pieces of equipment it would be most useful to bring out of the dusty pages of the museum and back into use.

Among those chosen is a small-scale de-huller, the absence of which has long been an issue for the growers in our Llafur Ni network. In the next stage of his work, Adam will prototype a de-huller and, with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, we will finally be able to process our Welsh oats this year!

It would be a real achievement for the Llafur Ni group to finally taste the fruits of their labours, after three seasons of bulking out these rare oats.

Adam's research, and the growers' enthusiasm for it, demonstrates the vital importance of having options for human-scale grain processing.

The industrialisation of agriculture has led to the invention of larger machinery in order to increase production. In response, crops have become more uniform and homogenous to fit the machinery.

Affordable, reliable small-scale machinery for processing smaller volumes of grain have largely been consigned to museums as a thing of the past, but their presence on the farm is sorely missed by modern, agroecological, small-scale growers.

The Seed Sovereignty Programme is hoping to address the urgent need to revive human-scale processing by providing research and prototype designs to everyone in our network free of charge.

Photo by Jason Taylor

Maria Scholten, our Highlands and Islands Coordinator has retired after a life dedicated to increasing seed biodiversity and reviving regenerative growing practices in Scotland and beyond. Thanks for all your hard work Maria!

Photo by Sophie Gerrard

The Seed Sovereignty Programme is an initiative of The Gaia Foundation, supporting a biodiverse and ecologically sustainable seed system across Britain & Ireland. Because a food revolution starts with seed.

Header photo by Andy Pilsbury