All posts by gs

Resilience to the 2018 drought

The 2018 summer of low rainfall was one of the driest on record. Cereal grain harvest dipped but did not fail, loss of production caused more by conditions in the previous winter than the summer drought. A further example of grain harvest’s resilience to untypical weather in the north-east Atlantic. 

The long summer of unusually low rainfall in 2018 parched much of the grassland and stunted many of the cereal crops. The wheat and barley appeared to suffer in many places. A record low for grain output looked set to happen. Yet the yield figures suggest a remarkable resilience to what turned out to be unusual weather for the region. 

First the rainfall …. How low was it? 

Daily rainfall records for East Scotland

The Met Office provides a valuable series of historical rainfall data. The analysis here uses the daily series for regions of the UK from 1931 [1]. The Met region ‘East Scotland’ is the one where most of the wheat, barley and oats are grown.  The period in 2018 from April to the end of August joins that of several other years in being unusually dry – 1955, 1976, 1981, 1984, 1995, and 2003 all had rainfall below 200 mm (Fig. 1). 

Fig. 1 Total rainfall between 1 April and 31 August for the East Scotland region in all years since 1931. The line just below 200 mm is the value in 2018. Years of low summer rainfall are arrowed. Data source: Alexander & Jones, 2001 [1].

There is little sign of any major trend in either low or high rainfall over the main summer period. Many of the other years after 2000 were much wetter than 2003 and 2018. The highest point in recent times was the very wet 2012, which had more rainfall than all other years except two. What distinguishes 2018 is the pattern of rainfall.

Many of the years having low summer rainfall had a fairly wet May, as evident in the steep rise in cumulative rainfall in 1976 and 2003 in Fig. 2. The same sort of thing happened in 1955 (not shown). This rainfall in May probably fills the soil enough to allow the crops to last through a dry June and July at which point most of the season’s growth has occurred.

Fig. 2 Cumulative summer rainfall, East Scotland from April for four dry years including 2018 (symbols). Data source: Alexander & Jones, 2001 [1].

2018 had a wetter April then most other dry years but then low rainfall until late July. Although 1984 had the lowest rainfall overall, 2018 had the lowest from late April through to mid-July, which is when the solar income is large and when the crops are bulking. Summer rainfall in 2018 would have been less than in 2003 if it had not been for that rain in late July and early August.

So did this low rainfall during crop bulking have an effect?

Yield figures for 2018

Each year the Scottish Government provide absolute records of crop-areas (i.e. all fields counted) and estimates of yield per unit area based on data from a range of sources. The final estimates are published in December [2].

The wet year of 2012 provides a comparator: most crops but particularly wheat, oats and oilseed rape produced a low yield per unit area that year because of waterlogged soil and low solar income [3]. Total cereal output was lower than in any other year of the past two decades. 

The records show 2018 yields were no worse. Wheat yield per unit area (t/ha) was down to near the 2012 value but most of the other crops showed little fall in yield (Fig. 3). When expressed as a percentage of the average of recent years, the simultaneous dip among crops in 2012 was not repeated in 2018 (Fig. 4). 

Fig. 3 Grain yield of wheat (red), oats (black) and oilseed rape (blue) over the last 20 years.

Was anything different about 2018. Total cereal output (the sum of wheat, barley and oats) was low, in fact just above the 2012 value, but this was due to reduced land areas sown with cereals, mainly winter barley which was sown in the autumn of 2017 before the summer drought of 2018. Sources in [2] state ‘Winter barley area dropped by a fifth due to poor weather conditions. This, along with a four per cent drop in yield resulted in production decreasing by 24 per cent.’ The greater effect therefore occurred before the winter and ‘was a result of the difficult weather conditions in late 2017.’

Fig. 4 Grain yields in Fig. 3 as a percentage of the average over the period, wheat (red), oats (black), oilseed rape (blue).

It appears therefore that yields per unit area – the best guide to the effect of weather on the summer bulking conditions – were not strongly affected by the 2018 drought.  

Caution is needed because the yield figures are an estimate, i.e. not measured for all crops. Some crops were not harvested for grain at all, where the weather ‘resulted in a number of farmers choosing to whole-crop due to the low yield and quality [2].’ (Whole-crop means to take all the crop for feed without separating the grain.) Some of the poorest yielding fields might have been removed from the estimate of yield therefore. 

Could grain yields collapse in this region?

Drought leads to zero crop yield in many countries. Even in parts of Australia, where standards of agronomy and resource-use are high, recent droughts have led to total failure of cereal crops that are not irrigated. 

So could crop failure occur here? In principle yes. But it would have to be a much drier year than any since the records began in 1931. Given there is no discernible trend towards low summer rainfall and that most years between 2003 and 2018 were wet, and two of those years – 2014 and 2016 – produced among  the highest mean yields ever in this region, there are certainly no indications that summer droughts will become a feature of the Atlantic maritime cropland.

Then again, you can’t trust the weather …. [4].

Sources, links

[1] Daily rainfall series from 1931: Alexander, L.V. and Jones, P.D. (2001) Updated precipitation series for the U.K. and discussion of recent extremes, Atmospheric Science Letters doi:10.1006/asle.2001.0025. Further information at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre web site: https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/hadobs/hadukp/

[2] Cereal and oilseed rape harvest: 2018 final estimates:  https://www.gov.scot/publications/cereal-oilseed-rape-harvest-2018-final-estimates/ Published 12 December 2018. See also https://blogs.gov.scot/statistics/2018/10/04/2018-scottish-cereal-harvest/ 

[3] Links to Living Field articles on high rainfall: The late autumn floods of 2012, Winter flood,  Winter flood … continued and Effects on corn yields of the 2016 winter flood.

[4] A fuller version of this article will appear on the curvedflatlands web site: link to be available later.

Author/contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk or geoff.squire@outlook.com

The barley timeline

Through her interest in traditional landforms and crops, Jean Duncan [1] compiled a history of barley landraces and varieties grown since the 1800s. She named it The Barley Timeline.

A selection of old varieties and landraces is shown in the panel below. The Living Field grew all the landraces and varieties named in the timeline in a part of the west garden in 2018 [2].

To accompany the display Jean devised the poster below, which gives general information on barley and the bere landrace and notes on each of the chosen varieties.

Selected varieties are being grown in the Living Field Garden in 2019.

Click for a 1 Mb PDF file of The Barley Timeline.

[1] More of Jean’s work with the Living Field at Jean Duncan Artist.

{2} Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson with support of the glasshouse staff at the James Hutton Institure grow the barley plants. For information: gladys.wright@hutton.ac.uk.

More on barley and other grains at the Living Field

A decade of demos and teaching, growing, milling, cooking, road shows and open days – Ancient grains at the Living Field: 10 years on

Introduction to the barley landrace, bere, and index for all Living Field articles on bere – The bere line – rhymes with hairline and see also for the historical distribution of bere and barley – Bere country.

Photographs of old and unusual barley types from Britain and overseas – Barley landraces and old varieties in the garden 2015

Boosting small-scale seed production

Maria Scholten introduces the Seed Sovereignty Programme, managed at the Gaia Foundation and aiming to boost local and organic small-scale seed production.

The majority of the ‘organic’ products we purchase and consume are grown by organic methods, but not necessarily from organic seed, as demand for organic seeds is bigger than supply. The UK and Ireland Seed Sovereignty Programme seeks to address this by supporting small-scale growers in steps towards a more resilient agroecological [1] seed system with regional diversity at its heart.  

The UK and Ireland Seed Sovereignty programme

Small-scale seed producers are often maintaining varieties that are too ‘niche’ for larger seed companies. The focus on hybrid seeds has led to dramatic reductions of open pollinated varieties – for example, see the Open Pollinated Seeds web pages [2].  Countering this trend, small-scale seed producers have an important role in the conservation of horticultural biodiversity!  

The Seed Sovereignty Programme aims to boost seed-saving skills and offer models of diversifying vegetable growing with seed production for agro-ecological growing.   Our objectives are:

  • support and cultivate regional and national connections and collaboration to provide coherence across the food and seed sector,
  • support farmers and growers with further skills, resources and information,
  • foster a more supportive environment for a biodiverse and ecologically sustainable seed systems to thrive.

Small scale seed producers 

There are few small scale seed producers in Scotland. One of them is the herb nursery & herb seed producer Duncan Ross at Poyntzfield Herb Nursery on the Black Isle [3].  Duncan has collected widely and during his 40 year work built up an impressive collection of herbs and salads adapted to Scottish growing conditions. 

The only remaining seed producers association in Scotland is the Scots Timothy Seed Growers Association who maintain a landrace of Timothy grass Phleum pratense [4]. They were formed in 1962 to conserve and promote this last remain grass landrace.

Scotia Seeds is a small-scale seed company, based at Mavisbank Angus, and specialising in wild native plant seeds & mixtures [5]. Many species of known provenance are bulked annually and offered for sale.

There are still a few landraces around with seed produced and distributed locally.  A good source of information can be found at www.scottishlandraces.org maintained by SASA [6].  

The seed programme in 2018

In Scotland in the first year of the programme in 2018 we delivered basic vegetable seed saving trainings in Aberdeenshire, Lothian and on the Black Isle. Over fifty persons, commercial growers, community growers as well as allotment growers attended these well-received events. 

The seed trainings covered  seed plant reproduction biology; inbreeding/outbreeding crops and implications for number of seed plants required to avoid inbreeding depression and to maintain genetic diversity; different types of pollination and implications for seed crop isolation and spacing; seed crop husbandry and seed borne diseases;  seed harvesting, processing, drying and storage.

2019 events [7]: a series of four seed saving workshops in Glasgow in collaboration with Glasgow Local Food Network is starting 30 March; selection workshop at the Cyrenian Farm near Edinburgh on 31 August, and events around traditional grain growing in Lochaber.

Heritage grain growing

Interest in heritage grain growing among crofters in the Highlands led to a visit to Uist in November 2018 for a crofter-to-crofter technical meeting on traditional grain growing.   The trip included a visit to the Blackland Centre to study redeveloping neglected croft land [8]. This was not a one-off touristic trip but will actually lead to reintroducing traditional grain growing in Lochaber in 2019 – the first time in decades. The grain experiment is planned to link in with the Plant Teams project at James Hutton Institute and facilitated by the Soil Association Scotland.  

For the traditional crofters’ mixtures of rye, small oats, and bere – the interest is widespread and more crofters and smallholders have come forward with an interest in growing.  The interest is shared by a Welsh growers group keen on starting to grow traditional oats.  This has raised issues such as where the seeds can be sourced and also what is a traditional Welsh oats?  

In Scotland this seems to be less of an issue as oat landraces are still grown – more widely on the Uist than on Orkney and Shetland, in the form of coirce beag, Orkney Traditional Black oats or Shetland Aets respectively – different names for the same species, Avena strigosa [9]. 

However, for those crofters with an interest in common oats or porridge oats, Avena sativa, the questions arise: which varieties are traditional Scottish oats and where are the seeds?  To start with the latter: the seeds are in genebanks and will years of multiplying before they can be reintroduced to field scale grain growing. 

It can be done. Andrew Whitley did a sterling job with Scotland the Bread [10] and set a good example with his Scottish heritage wheats multiplied by community groups and individual growers throughout Scotland. 

Organisation, funding, contact

The programme is led by The Gaia Foundation, implemented by five regional or national coordinators in Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland. It works in partnership with the Irish Seed Savers, The Land Workers’ Alliance, the Soil Association and seed companies Real SeedsThe Seed Cooperative and Beyond GM. The project has received funding from the A Team Foundation, Esmée Fairbairne Foundation and the Evan Cornish Foundation.

Contact: Maria Scholten, Coordinator in Scotland for The UK and Ireland Seed Sovereignty Programme. email: maria@gaianet.org. Web site: www.seedsovereignty.info. Twitter: @Scotseedsov

Sources, references, links

[1] Author’s note: Agroecology applies ecological concepts and principles to food and farming systems, focusing on the interactions between microorganisms, plants, animals, humans and the environment.

[2] Open Pollinated Seeds www.open-pollinated-seeds.org.uk provides explanation, educational material and many useful links on the value of maintaining open pollinated seed production as a means of promoting biodiversity and making seed accessible to all.

[3] Poyntzsfield Herb Nursery www.poyntzfieldherbs.co.uk been ‘growing herbal plants and seeds including native species since 1976’. They grow a global collection of plants for seed mostly on site, including Scottish native plants with herbal properties. A short video about their work can be seen on vimeo.com/video/303756632

[4] The Scot’s Timothy web site www.scotstimothy.co.uk (Ed: website unavailable 2019/04/18, will check and update) describes work on maintaining the Timothy landrace – ‘the only landrace grass seed variety still grown for commercial production in the UK’. Their web site has useful information and links on ‘Biodiversity and conservation’ and ‘Landrace Farmers’. Seed is available via the web site from their farm at Menstrie, Clacks.

[5] Scotia Seeds www.scotiaseeds.co.uk based in Angus, is one of the largest wild plant seed providers in the UK. Along with the James Hutton Institute, Kew and a range of wildflower seed producers they were partners in the EU NASSTEC project Native Seed Science, Technology and Conservation Initial Training Network www.nasstec.eu/home.

[6] Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture or SASA  is a government funded body that (among many other duties) maintains several plant landraces, details at www.sasa.gov.uk/variety-testing/scottish-landraces.

[7] Project events in 2019: contact Maria Scholten for details. Further information on some of the organisations/venues: Glasgow Local Food Network glasgowlocalfood.blogspot.com and the Cyrenian’s Farm near Edinburgh cyrenians.scot/community-and-food/good-food/farm.

[8] The Blackland Centre in Grimsay, North Uist supports research and practice on the regeneration of production on blackland, typical crofting areas on acidic, organic soils. See www.blacklandcentre.org/contact/the-blackland-centre/.

[9] More on bristle oat or black oat Avena strigosa is given on the Living Field page on Cereals.

[10] Scotland the Bread scotlandthebread.org is ‘an innovative social business, owned by its members’ aiming ‘to establish a Scottish flour and bread supply that is healthy, equitable, locally controlled and sustainable’. The page on ‘Heritage four and grain’ describes their work on regenerating wheat varieties from the 1800s.


Beans on toast revisited

The famous Beans on Toast Project was started 7 years ago by student Sarah Doherty and artist Jean Duncan with Geoff Squire and other members of the Living Field team [1]. The project looked at the origins of this seemingly simple meal.

Not so simple in fact – 10 crops, grown in four continents and using masses of water and other precious resources – the product of a highly complex supply chain leading to a tin, a packet and a tub.

This example of the worldwide growing and sourcing of products that go into the food we eat has been used many times by the Living Field, most recently at a Citizen’s Jury event at the Scottish Parliament in March.

Beans on toast a few years on…

Sarah’s been reflecting on the project. She writes –

“Seven years on, I look back at the ‘water footprint’ for the Beans on Toast project as an eye-opening experience!

It was a reminder that there is a story behind everything. Almost everything we eat has travelled a long way to get on our plates. For so much water to go into the humble beans on toast – it baffles me how much more water and effort goes into producing other things.

I recently took up sewing and have been struck at how expensive it is to buy material for making home-made clothes. When mass- produced for high street stores, clothes may seem easy and cheap. However, making material is an energy and water intensive process too often involving crops for fibres such as cotton and linen. 

I’m certainly more mindful of this now which is why I’m learning to cut my wardrobe down to what I really use and like the most! 

At the Citizen’s Jury Scottish Parliament

Geoff was asked to attend a Citizen’s Jury as a specialist assisting the Jurors with background information on the topic being considered.

He used the Beans on Toast example [2] to show, first, that much of the food we eat is not grown here but imported, and second, that most of our pre-prepared food is made from mixing the products of many different crops grown using the resources of other countries.

Beans on Toast relies on haricot bean, tomato, oil palm, soybean, wheat, maize, sugar cane, paprika, onion, and oilseed rape ….. and that’s just the main ingredients. And the food on one plate of it needs several bathfulls of water.

The famous Beans on Toast project continues …

Beans on Toast is an excellent example to show that we need to use less of other countries’ resources and more of our own.

What’s known as the legume-gap or protein gap – the difference between home grown and imports – is massive. We grow just a few percent of the plant protein needed for feeding peole and farm animals.

We have been adding to the information on sourcing food and estimating how much water and nutrients it takes to grow and process food like this [3]. Beans on Toast lives ….

The supply chain deopicted by a youngster at Wormit Primary School following a visit by Sarah and Jean.

Sources, links

[1] Sarah was studying at Durham University when she worked at the James Hutton Institute for about a year in 2012 . She has kept in touch. She last visited in summer 2018. Jean Duncan who worked with Sarah on educational projects with local schools still works with the Living Field project.

[2] The Citizen’s Jury event was held at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh 29-31 March 2019.

[3] The EU TRUE project runs currently, coordinated at the James Hutton Institute. Among its aims is to study the global food and feed supply chains, to cut waste and and to raise local production. It’s full title is Transition Paths to Sustainable Legume-based systems in Europe https://www.true-project.eu

Contact for this page: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Pollinator plants

Want to help stop the widespread decline of bees and other airborne insects? Here are some notes on the Garden’s plants most visited by bumble bees, hive bees, hoverflies and the occasional butterfly. Most of these plants are easy to grow.

One of the main aims of the Living Field garden is to allow native cropland plants some space away from weedkiller treatment and competition with crops. Recent scientific reports have drawn attention to the widespread loss of invertebrate life and insect life in particular. The declines are happening all over the world.

Everyone who owns or manages land can do their bit to support flying insects. Here we show some of the Garden’s plants and plant groups that have offered food and shelter to flower-visitors over the years.

The legumes

Legumes – (upper) sainfoin, (middle) lucerne and white melilot then (lower) tufted vetch – Images by Living Field

The legumes (family: Fabaceae), just ahead of the Composites, are the single most important group supporting wild flyers. The legumes as a whole offer probably the greatest variety and longest flowering season of all plant groups in the garden. They fix their own nitrogen from the air. All parts of the plant are high in protein.

Sainfoin, the melilots and lucerne were once grown or tried as forage crops in Scotland. The clovers, mainly white and red, are still sown, but the red is more commonly seen in the wild. The bumble bees’ favourite of them all is the blue-flowered, tufted vetch (lower images in the panel) – its strings of flowers produced for months on indeterminate sprawling and clinging stems.

The composites – thistles and knapweeds

The composite family – hemp agrimony (upper), greater knapweed, tansy and common thistle (middle), cotton thistle (lower) – images by Living Field..

Next are the composites (family : Asteraceae), each flowering head consisting of many individual florets. Not all species are equally visited, but the best here for pollinators are thistles and knapweeds. The great cotton thistle grows like a small tree, supporting large heads several centimetres across, bumble bees often bustling two or three to a head.

The greater and common knapweeds, hemp agrimony and tansy shown above are perennials, whereas the thistles in the garden tend to be biennial – germinating one year, overwintering as a rosette and flowering the next. The weedy perennial creeping thistle is too invasive in the garden’s small space and though it supports insects is discouraged in favour of other thistles.

Field scabious and teasel

Field scabious in the meadow, attracting a wide range of pollinator species, flowering for the longest period in the Garden – images Linda Ford / Living Field

Of all the species in the garden, field scabious (family: Dipsacaceae) is the one that offers sustenance to flyers for the longest period. A perennial, growing mainly in the meadow, plants put out flower after flower from early summer to late autumn (except in the very dry 2018). If there was one plant that we could grow for the bees, it would be this.

Teasel is a close relative that also grows well here. It self seeds and is mostly biennial. Plants are moved at the rosette stage in autumn or early spring to form clumps that flower in the medicinals bed.

Labiates – mints, sages, deadnettles and woundworts

Labiate family – betony (upper), sage (lower rt) and clary in the meadow – images by Living Field.

The labiate family (Lamiaceae), including mints, sages, woundworts, deadnettles, hempnettles and basils – are well represented among the medicinals and herbs. They grow in sun, in shade and as occasionals anywhere. The large flowered types such as the herb sage are most frequently visited by the Bombus species, while betony tends to attract more of the smaller carder bees.

The smaller flowered species, such as meadow clary (a perennial n the meadow), fields mints, hempnettle and wild basil are less attractive to larger flying insects but have their own specialist range of inverts.

And many more when the weather’s right

These are not the only plants that offer food and shelter for flying insects. Among the first in the year are the flowers and leaves on the garden’s native trees and shrubs. Early summer in the hedges, flowers of wild roses offer a welcoming landing platform for grazing hoverflies.

One of the longest flowering species, not shown here in the photographs, is viper’s bugloss Echium vulgare, one of the borage family. (See it at the Bee plants links below.) Borage itself and the comfreys are also well visited.

Populations of bees and other flower-visitors were very badly affected here by the dry 2018. There was little left in flower by the end of August, while in most years the field scabious and viper’s bugloss are still visited in late October.

The coming year’s weather is uncertain as always, but we’ll try to manage the plants to give the longest possible season to the resident insects and spiders. First out will be the willow ….. .

But not the main crops

Nearly all the plants referred to here are native species or ones introduced long ago and now naturalised. Very few of the crops grown in the region (and the garden) – barley, wheat, oats, peas – support or need pollinating insects.

Oilseed rape fields provide a crop-based source of food for a few weeks early in the year and field beans also offer high-protein flowers much later. But the main sown crops and leys that could provide the right seasonal habitat – the legume forages and grass-clover mixtures – are rare and mostly long gone.

In the broader landscape therefore, the main source of food for flying insects lies in the broadleaf ‘weed’ species that live in crop fields and disturbed margins – in fact most of those shown in the panels above belong in this category. These arable plants, mostly not injurious to crops, have declined over the last century to the point where many of the plants themselves are now rare. It’s no wonder insects apart from pests are having a hard time in cropland.

Contacts

The Living Field’s page on Bee plants give further notes and images of the individual species most frequently visited in the garden.

As usual, the plants are grown and tended by Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson with help from the farm.

The photographs of the insects on field scabious were taken by Linda Ford on an ideal summer day a few years ago, the others by Geoff Squire. Colleagues from the farm cut the Living Field meadow once a year and trim the hedges in sequence every few years to allow flowering and fruiting (e.g. for roses, willow, hazel).

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk or geoff.squire@outlook.com

Three grain resilience

The north-east Atlantic seaboard has grown three main grain crops – oat, barley and wheat. All originated in the east Mediterranean or west Asia, but all find the climate here good for their growth. Most years that is.

The fall in output of the main staple grain crops in 2018, and before that in 2012, due to unusually bad weather, raised many questions as to how food and alcohol production would be affected if the climate continued to vary between wet and dry. The crop in 2012 suffered from cloudy skies causing slow plant growth, and then very wet soil that made harvest difficult. That in 2018 suffered from lack of water mid-May, at just the point when the crops were starting their main phase of growth.

Yet in neither year did production collapse. Total grain output from wheat, barley and oats fell by little more than a tenth of the average. Perhaps the varied needs of the three grains give cereal production here its ability to withstand years of bad weather. Historical change in this combination of grains may tell much about how agriculture can cope with the future.

Here, we look back over 150 years to see that the balance of the three grains and other crops has undergone major change, most of it not due to the weather, and ask whether the three grains give production some resilience – a capacity to withstand shocks, to adapt and continue.

1900: decline in grain output, a move to grass

In and around 1900, and for many decades before that, oats was by far the most widely grown grain crop in the northern part of Britain. In the crop census for Scotland [1], oats occupied more than three-quarters of the cereal area, and barley most of the rest. Wheat was minor. Few other cereals were grown – a little rye and some ‘mixed grain’ usually consisting of oats and barley.

It was a time of great change, most of it considered negative for home production. The area sown with cereals decreased as did that of the ‘root’ crops (turnips and swede) and also the grain legumes (peas and beans). They all gave way to grass, to feed cattle and sheep, with the result that the country was far from self-sufficient in grain at the time of WWI.

From privation to food security: 1945 – 1990

The areas grown with cereals and other arable crops kept on falling until the start of WWII when the need for home-grown food and feed caused some of the grass to be re-ploughed and sown with arable. The proportional areas of the three cereals remained the same, except for a little more wheat.

Yield per unit area had not changed much from 1900. Something had to happen. The privations of the war years and reliance on imports to feed the country spurred government into action. Plans were laid to raise farming output, but it was well over 10 years before there was any improvement in yield.

The phase of ‘intensification’ really began in the 1960s – machines could plough deeper, mineral fertiliser was readily available and new crop varieties were introduced able to allocate more of their mass to grain rather than straw. By the 1980s, yields had more than doubled. This result of intensification was a major achievement, reproduced in many parts of the world (The Green Revolution).

The largest single change here during that time was a shift from oats to barley and wheat. They were more profitable than oats and could now be grown to higher yield and over large areas with the fertiliser and pesticides that became readily available. Most of the wheat and about 20% of the barley were autumn-sown winter crops. They were able to survive the cold of winter and be ready to bulk up on the sun’s energy as early as May, and so were higher yielding than the traditional spring varieties.

By the 1970s, the country could have fed itself from home production, but then a rise in global trade meant that cereal food could be imported on the cheap. Home production became almost irrelevant to peoples’ consumption of cereal products except oats.

The great levelling : 1990 to the present

The seemingly unstoppable rise in grain yield slowed in the late 1980s. The brakes were on – for various reasons (which will be looked at another time). Yields per field and total grain output from the country have hardly changed since. They go up, as in the favourable weather of 2014, and down as in 2012 and 2018, but their present trajectory is level.

It’s the same for grain output in much of Europe, and crops farther afield, such as oil palm, also suffer: years of expansion and rise in output are followed by a levelling.

The levelling presents a major problem for science and crop management. 2014 gave the highest average yields ever in the region expressed as grain mass per unit field area. There is still potential for increase. The maximum on-farm yields are much higher than the average. Possibly modern varieties, able to yield well in good years, are over-sensitive to bad years.

Lessons from the past

The great swing in the mid-1900s from mostly oats to mostly barley was caused by markets and new opportunities for trade. Science and technology provided the means but the markets drove the change. Government strategy was to gain self-sufficiency in food, but that sufficiency ultimately came from outside.

There was no real strategic plan for home -grown production and there does not seem to be one now. That farming can switch between the three grains (and between grain and grass) should make agriculture less at risk of future catastrophe, whether due to climate. volcanic eruption or blockade. But the country should not wait to see what happens.

The resilience afforded by oats, barley and wheat should now be planned into the future of farming here. The Common Agricultural Policy did little to challenge current markets and the dominance of the few major influences. Post-CAP there is an opportunity to set targets for home-grown cereal food as distinct from cereals as substrates for animal feed and alcohol. Tinkering round the edges will do little. Major structural change in land use is needed.

Some previous posts on this web site have looked at the effects on crops of unusual weather in the past decade [2]. Future articles and notes will look at how farming used the three grains to the lessen the damage caused by the 2018 drought. We’ll also be starting a major series of articles on the options for future sustainability, with reference of course to lessons from the past 5000 years.

Sources, links

[1] A longer version of this article is available as on the curvedflatlands web site: Resilience in a three-grain production system, where full reference is given to the government statistical records from the late 1800s to the present and commentaries on trends in areas and yields of the three grains.

[2] Related topics on the Living Field web site: Winter flood on the water-field pages and The late autumn floods of 2012. For our general educational work on grains, see Ancient grains at the Living Field – 10 years on.

Author contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk, geoff.squire@outlook.com

[Last update: 16 March 2019, with several textual corrections! GS}

Ancient grains at the Living Field – 10 years on

The Living Field project has been sharing knowledge of ancient and modern cereal grains for over 10 years [1]. Here we look back at how things evolved from field studies in barley on the Institute’s farms to growing our own range of cereals and finally using bere barley and other flours to make bannocks, bread and biscuits.

The sequence is shown here for bere barley. Seeds are sown, crops are grown. Bere plants support reproductive heads or ears holding grain. Plants are harvested and the grains removed and cleaned. They are ground into meal or flour, then used alone or mixed with other flours to make bread, bannocks and biscuits.

This sequence has sustained people for thousands of years.  Today the grain we eat in Scotland, except for oats, is not grown here – the main cereal products from local fields are alcohol and animal feed. But whatever the future of agricultural produce, the grain-based cycle will remain essential to settled existence. In this retrospective, we describe the Living Field’s shared experience of ‘seed to plate’ over the last 10 years.

School visits to the farm’s barley fields

We began by introducing visitors to the James Hutton Institute’s fields where barley is grown both for experiments and for commercial grain sales. From 2007, the Living Field has been using the farm’s barley to give school parties a first taste of life in the crop.

The larger image above looks down from a barley field at Balruddery farm to the Tay estuary. The school children in the pictures were visiting fields of young barley at Mylnefield farm just above the Tay. This was in May 2007. They walked along the ‘tram lines’ looking at plants and finding ‘minibeasts’ – the first time many of them had been in a crop. They were fascinated with small creatures found crawling on the plants or walking over the soil [2].

The public interest in crops and their ecology in those early visits encouraged us to explore a much wider range of cereal plants than presently grown in commercial agriculture.

Ancient grains at the Living Field Garden

So began a small collection of grain crops which were sown, tended and harvested each year in the Living Field Garden [3]. We began in 2010 by growing bere barley from Orkney, black oat, emmer and spelt wheat, alongside modern varieties of barley, oats and bread wheat. Rye and a landrace of bread wheat from the western isles were added later, then several other barley landraces and old varieties [4].

The collection of photographs above shows a general view of the  garden. including a tall cereal plot (middle right), then c’wise from upper right – a barley landrace from Ireland, rye, black oat, emmer wheat, young spelt ear, spratt archer barley and a bread wheat landrace.

By 2011, the Living Field had combined its practical experience on the farm with the collection of ancient and modern grains in the Garden. Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson had perfected the way to grow all these different species. We now needed a means to demonstrate processing the grain and making food from it.

Milling and baking

The harvest from the small plots in the garden was too little to make flour enough for open days, road shows and exhibitions. Additional grain and flour (or meal) was begged or bought from a range of sources, notably Barony Mills in Orkney and ‘Quaker Oats’ in Fife.

The Living Field then bought its own rotary quern for grinding the grain into meal and chaff, which is the name given to the other bits we don’t usually eat, mostly the protective sheathing around the grain and the awns.

Now to make a loaf! Fortunately one of the team, Gillian Banks, was already an experienced bread-maker and after some experimentation turned out tasty loaves made from various mixtures including bere and modern barley, oats, emmer, spelt, wheat, rye …. and more [5]!

The whole chain from sowing seed in the ground to making food could now be demonstrated from first-hand experience. We did this at various open events beginning 2012.

The panel above shows (bottom left, clockwise) – visitors experiencing a range of ancient grains and flours, demonstrating the rotary quern, a sheaf of spelt, making things from sourdough, and a four-panel set showing oat grain in a bag, sieving and sorting meal from chaff and finally bread.

Open Farm Sundays

The highlights of our outreach over the years has been LEAF Open Farm Sunday. The Institute is a LEAF innovation Centre [6], so on the first Sunday in June, the farm and science come together to host the event. One of the main attractions is the hub of activity around the Living Field garden, cabins and tunnel. Typically 1000-2000 people visit the hub during the day. We’re mobbed ….. thanks to all!

The essential structure of a successful open day is, firstly, to provide plenty of things to do for young children, to keep them occupied and allow time for older children and grown-ups to talk about what’s on view; and, second, hands-on activity with natural products, things such as living plants, and grain and flour that can be touched, felt and smelled  [6].

Group activities are usually located in the garden’s polytunnel, just in case of rain.  The panel above shows (lower left c’wise) examples of grain and flour, a ‘tasting’, making things with grain and other natural materials, an activity table for children and their grown-ups, and bags of grain from the garden with young scientist sitting on the rotary quern fascinated by oat grains.

Cooking with bere barley – more than bannocks

The thread linking exhibits through the years has been bere barley – Scotland’s barley landrace, an attractive plant, easy to grow.  Bere as a crop declined in the late 1800s and is now restricted to a few fields in the far north. Like most of the world’s landraces, bere faded in competition with modern crop varieties and production methods. Yet it remains a favourite here. Its story continues [7].

Bere and other barleys were traditionally used to make a flatbead or bannock, either on its own or mixed with oatmeal or peasmeal, but  bere meal has many uses when mixed with other flours.

The Living Field has friends and correspondents like Grannie Kate who regularly experiment with different uses of ancient and modern grains. Scones, shortbread, batter, porridge, soups can all include bere as a unique constituent. One of the team regularly adds a a spoon or two of bere meal to their morning’s rolled-oat porridge.

The images above show (top left, c’wise) bere and oat bannocks, a bag of bear meal in Grannie Kate’s kitchen, bere fruit scones and bere shortbread [8].

On the road

Following the Living Field’s appearance at a ‘biodiversity day’ run by the Dundee Science Centre in January 2016, we were invited to join the exhibition trail organised in 2016 by the Centre as part of The Crunch [9]. By this time, we could take take the whole process on the road – seed-plant-grain-flour-food.

Gill Banks and Linda Nell, with Lauren Banks and Geoff Squire, ran the grain to plate events at The Crunch venues. One was in a darkened auditorium at the Dundee Science Centre, another at a local community Centre.

The Science Centre suggested we bring some bread made in the usual way from cereal grain and some made from insects. Gill bought various whole insects and flours and made some insect loaves that several of us had a pre-taste of and concluded they tasted just like nice wholesome loaves.

Anyway, the insects went down a treat at the events and started many a conversation of what we eat and what it costs – insects gram for gram need much less energy and cause much less pollution than most other forms of animal rearing.

The panel above shows scenes from the (top right) the January event) and bottom right (The Crunch) both at the Science Centre, then (top left, down) sheaves of spelt and black oat, globs of gluten extracted from wheat by Gill, mixed-flour bread with dried crickets laid on, and (at the bottom) dried insects for cooking or eating and (centre) barley grain.

Ancient grains in Living Field art

Through working with artists, the team were able to see the plants they had grown become part of artwork. Jean Duncan for example was able to place grain not just as a food but as essential to the development of farming and human society since the last ice. In her work, grains and plants appear close to circles, barrows, landforms and field systems.
Some extracts from Jean’s creations are shown in the panel above. Various ears, spikelets and grains appear commonly alongside mounds and barrows (example right). At top left, ancient cereal plants are stylised as fans, drawn near the centre of  a circular design,  used to create a revolving backdrop for an opera. At bottom left, a section of her ‘teaching wheel’ shows a range of cereal species grown in the region since the neolithic [10].

At Open Days, children like drawing things,  messing with paint and pencil: better then just looking, it helps to give them a lasting memory of what they saw and touched.

Where next

Nearing the end of 2018 and the project will continue its work on bere and other grains, ancient and modern. The Living Field is connecting to the swell of interest in local food and recipes.

Few others can demonstrate the whole chain – not just grain to plate – but from sowing the seed to eating the food and, crucially, saving some grain for the next year’s crop.

The James Hutton Institute has recently been awarded funds for an International Barley Hub. Let’s see what the 2019 season brings!

…… warm bere and crickets?

The idea of ‘insect bread’ always raises interest, even if to some the thought is less than appetising. But insects and bread have a long history together ……

At one time and even now in many places, a bag of flour can have resident insects in the form of weevils. They live and reproduce in it, eat it and recyle it in one form or another (probably best not thought about). They add a little crunchy something to a baked loaf [11].

That’s insect bread ‘by accident’. For several years, and as shown above, Gill and Co have been experimenting with bread made from insect flour mixed with grain flour. The insects tried so far are mainly crickets, raised especially for the purpose (though not by us). Insects as alternatives to fish and meat in European diets is a hot topic now  [12].

Sources, references, links

[1] Geoff Squire and and Gladys Wright developed the ideas around a seed to plate theme not long after the Living Field garden began in 2004.

[2] The Hutton farm staff have been partners in the Living Field since its making in 2004. They manage the crops, drive the tractors and  explain what’s going on to visitors.

[3] Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson grow the Living Field cereals from seed each season. They have been helped by several other people in earlier years, especially Linda Ford.

[4] Thanks to Orkney College and SASA Edinburgh for giving the original seed. The Institute’s barley collection was the source of several landraces and varieties grown in 2015: see Barley landraces and old varieties.

[5] Gillian Banks experiments with bread making and has regularly baked a range of ancient grain loaves and biscuits for open days and road-shows: see Bere and cricket.

[6] Open Farm Sundays have been well supported by Hutton staff – Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson prepare and run the Living Field ‘space’; other regular contributors to the ancient and modern cereals theme include Gill Banks, Lauren Banks, Linda Nell,  Linda Ford, Mark Young and Geoff Squire. Students and family have helped time and again on the stalls and exhibits. For more on LEAF Linking Environment and Farming, see LEAF innovation Centre.

[7] Bere barley and bere meal feature regularly on the Living Field web site, for example see the Bere line – rhymes with hairline, Bere country,  and Peasemeal, oatmeal and beremeal.

[8] The Living Field’s correspondent Grannie Kate’s offerings mix bere with other flours, see Bere shortbread, Bere scones, Bere bannocks and Seeded oatcakes with beremeal. Barony Mills in Orkney also has a book of recipes.

[9] The Crunch was a UK-wide series of events held in 2016, coordinated locally by Dundee Science Centre:  Gill and Lauren Banks, Linda Nell and Geoff Squire, among others, offered a range of exhibits on themes of grains and bread: see Bere and cricket, The Crunch at Dundee Science Centre. Thanks to DSC for inviting us to take part.

[10] Jean Duncan is an artist who has worked with the Living Field for many years. For examples of her work and links to her wider presence from the neolithic onwards, see Jean Duncan artist.

[11] Geoff reminisces – ‘lived once in a place where the flour bought to bake bread had live-in weevils; you could pick the big ones out, otherwise they got baked.’

[12] Crunchy bread made by Gill Banks from insect flour: photographs and details at Bere and cricket.   Later, Gill, Geoff and Linda F found when investigating an infestation of weevils in grain, that insects in bread, whether by design or accident, bring a high-nitrogen (high protein) addition, insects being about 10% N by weight – little nuggets of protein in your low-N loaf!

Contacts: this article, geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk or geoff.squire@outlook.com; growing the cereals, gladys.wright@hutton.ac.uk

Real time virtual field – tashibunosho rice

Just over 10 years ago, the Living Field Project began to make a computer-based, virtual farm. A landscape was populated by crops and hedgerows, insects and mammals, tractors and people. The intention was to show how fields worked, how food was produced and how fields could not exist without the living things that make soil, vegetation and food webs. We exhibited the virtual farm at the Royal Highland Show, Edinburgh, 2008 [1] using computers and screens. Attempts to take it to the web ran out of funding a year or two later.

A farmed landscape, constructed by teamLab [2] and displayed at the Singapore ArtScience Museum [3] is a compelling example of learning by immersion in a virtual landscape. A screen on a wall in the first exhibition room depicts rice terraces on Kyushu Island, Japan.

teamLab’s Tashibunosho monitor at Singapore ArtScience Museum [4]

Four Seasons, a 1000 years, Terraced Rice Fields – Tasibunosho

The display is credited – 2016, Digital Work, 6 Channels, 1000 years, Artwork by teamLab. The caption reads:

“This monitor work depicts the harmonious existence between man and nature in the famed terraced rice fields, Tashibunosho in Kyushu Island, Japan. This work is generative, with the virtual world synchronising with the actual environment on Kyushu Island – weather and timings of sun setting and rising – in real time. ‘

The observer enters the room – the detail draws you in. A man leading a bullock along a path, groups of people doing agricultural tasks or eating a communal meal, a large bird (perhaps a crane) winging slowly across the landscape, clouds passing over the scene, dissolving and generating, water flowing between the fields. And humour that should appeal to all – a big frog marching along a path. It appeals to the young – they can touch!

Four clips from a 30 second phone video following a crane flying over the rice terraces (Living Field)

It is not possible to appreciate in one visit of a hour or two the changes on the monitor that must occur as days pass into seasons. teamLab explains:

“The imagery changes throughout the day; it grows brighter as the sun rises and glows with the setting sun before darkness sets in as the night deepens. Mirroring nature in many ways, the appearance of the artwork is constantly changing and no two moments are ever the same.”

There is no formal explanation of farming or food production. Yet the events witnessed are impressed on the mind. Rice crops are sown, irrigated and harvested in fields defined spatially by paths and bunds. The fields are not isolated but connected, most clearly by waterways and by farm workers with their draft animals. Nature flies or walks over or among the fields and into the surrounding low vegetative hills. The landscape is whole and connected – it is more than a set of fields.

The series of four images above left are single frames from a 30 second video taken by a phone. The video follows a large bird that casually flaps its way over the rice, each plant carefully delineated. It passes over scarecrows, overtakes a cloud. It continues past a large tree set in a clearing and around which people are seated. Finally it disappears out of the rice to the left of the monitor.

The display might provoke many points of discussion among groups of young visitors, depending on the time of year and whether rice is growing or not, for example:

  • how did the plants get there and what are they for, assuming most of the visiting children will not know where food comes from (as in the UK)
  • why are the fields set out in that pattern, why are they covered in water, where does the water come from – and what happens if it runs out
  • what do the farm animals do
  • where have the trees gone – we can only see one big one and a few smaller ones
  • where does the rice go when it’s been harvested – who eats it?
  • ….. and more …… (with thanks from some UK visitors for a unique experience)

Sources, links

[1] The Living Field’s Graham Begg and Gladys Wright designed and built Virtual Farm in 2007/08 for exhibition at the Royal Highland Show, Edinburgh in June 2008.

[2] teamLab’s web site gives examples of the Tashibunosho rice fields at https://www.teamlab.art/w/tashibunosho.

[3] More on the ArtScience Museum at Where art meets science: Singapore.

[4] The low-quality images here were taken by phone in the dim light of the exhibition hall and give an impression of the display. teamLab’s high res images can be see via [2].

Contact: geoff.squire@outlook.com or geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Where art meets science: Singapore

Note on a visit to the ArtScience Museum in Singapore. TeamLab’s mesmerising exhibition halls. Stunning architecture.  Lily pond.

The ticket desk warned adults that about 60% of the exhibits were for children. There was no need.  The exhibition spaces were mesmerising, children and adults alike absorbed in the shifting images and games.

It was like one of those busy open days at the Living Field garden: people marvelling at the diversity of life,  children quietly buzzing around the activities and all coming to appreciate that people and nature can coexist.

Concept and design of the building

The main exhibition halls were below ground, underneath the ‘palm’ and ‘fingers’ that are the visible part of the structure. The ‘palm’ appears supported only near the base. A lacing of struts extends throughout the  fingers.

The concept of the quite stunning building was explored in early sketches by Safdie Architects, viewable in the foyer [2]. One of the sketches is shown above left.

teamLab and Future World

The main permanent displays, given the name ‘Future World – where Art meets Science‘ are housed in the below-ground chambers.  They were made by teamLab,  founded in 2001 and comprising a group of ‘ultra-technologists’, bringing together ‘hundreds of innovative thought leaders from multiple technical and creative backgrounds’.

In first exhibition – Nature – people interact with the various streams of images projected onto, or rather part of, the walls and floor.

Photo of the exhibition panel. Click on the image to see a larger readable copy.

‘Water’ streams down the far wall and along the floor. The flow is deflected if a person moves close to the wall or stands on the floor. Butterflies emerge and flap round the walls. They disappear if touched. Incessant, low volume, musical sounds accompany the movements. You’d think they would soon grate, but they didn’t, even after an hour of wandering in the space.

The descriptive panels explain the purpose: people affect nature all the time; they are part of it, not distinct from it. They can destroy it but need it.

The photographs shown in the panel above – all from Nature –  are phone snaps taken in the available light. Excellent images of the exhibits can be viewed on teamLab’s web site [2].

Next on from the Nature exhibit are a series of rooms where visitors can move things around, sit at desks writing and making things, interact with moving images and (for the very young) play with brightly coloured balls. Crocodiles crawl across the floor. They know you’re there!

Leaving the darkened halls, the visitor emerges into  the central shaft, a great space with a pond at the bottom and open to the sun and rain at the top, connecting inside to outside.

Outside the Museum – the lily pond

Immediately beneath the ‘palm’ on three sides is a pond whose surface is almost covered with lily leaves. The pond is raised above the surrounding walkways, so that people can kneel on the bounding wall and peer into the water.  The pond lies above the underground display halls and is said to filter light down through their ceilings.

The pond extends some way out towards the Bay. The cluster of tall buildings at the city’s financial sector can appear as if they are on a level with the pond.

To the right of the financial sector, directly by the Bay but too small to see from here, is the Merlion that continually spouts its stream of water (top panel, upper-right).

As in most other parts of Singapore’s centre, the standard of plant-culture is very high. The lily pond is made to look like it takes care of itself, but there must be a continual pruning and removal of dead material and maintenance of an ideal nutrient balance in the water.

Did Art meet Science?

In the Living Field’s work with artists, the starting point is usually some topic of environmental or agricultural science – field systems, population dynamics, the structure and functioning of roots, plant metabolites and so on. The artist bends scientific knowledge and sometimes the scientific process, bringing together things that could not possibly coexist or would at least be normally far apart in time or distance.

A similar process underpins the construction of the Future World exhibitions. They do this to a degree subliminally, through the senses. It’s the impressions that last, rather than anything strictly logical. There’s more on one of the exhibits at the next post Real time virtual field –  Tashbunosho rice.

The Museum is well supported by Singaporeans. Like the V&A Museum in Dundee, it must be a source of great local pride.

Sources, references, links

What’s On!

[1] ArtScience Museum at Singapore – general information, ‘what’s on’, etc.

[2] Designed by Moshe Safdie – link to the ArtScience Museum at Safdie Architects.

[3] teamLab – perhaps start with www.teamlab.art/concept.  See also interviews and comment at Indesignlive, e.g. 5 minutes with teamLab and coverage of their Tokyo exhibits at New Digital Art Museum in Tokyo.

[4] Future World – where art meets science – link to see more on this permanent exhibition at the ArtScience Museum Singapore.

Author/contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk / geoff.squire@outlook.com, visited October 2018