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Repurposing Grass Pea as an Embroidered textile and handmade paper

Caroline Hyde-Brown, at Norwich University of the Arts, gave the Living Field this account of her work with the legume, grass pea. Here are some examples of her craft.

Read on to see how it is done.

Introduction to the grass pea

The grass pea Lathyrus sativus is a member of the legume family (Fabaceae) and commonly grown for human consumption and livestock feed in Asia and East Africa (Caroline writes). It is a hardy yet under-utilised crop and able to withstand extreme environments from drought to flooding. The grass pea fixes nitrogen from the air which helps maintain a healthy and well fertilised topsoil [1].

However, the grass pea contains a potent neurotoxin called B-ODAP which increases if the plant is exposed to conditions of severe water stress. Historically the grass pea is known to produce adverse side effects with excessive human consumption which exacerbates the risk of a neurological disorder known as lathyrism which can cause permanent paralysis below the knees both in adults and children. 

Growing the plants

In September 2019 I initiated a collaboration with John Innes Research Centre in Norwich to investigate whether this ancient legume could be utilised to create a biomaterial with a sustainability strategy of raising its residual value. With a mixed methodology of qualitative research, critical inquiry, and home-based experimentation, I explored the inherent qualities of the natural raw plant residue with Anne Edwards and Abhimanyu Sarkar [2]. I used a framework known as the ‘whole systems’ approach adding freshly collected rainwater and solar heat [3].

Growing the plants: (left) in shallow container, weak and spindly plants one month old, and (right) in a glasshouse at the John Innes Centre.

I experimented with different types of potting containers to observe growth patterns and plant behaviour. Shallow containers produced spindly and weak plants compared to the much stronger and higher yielding plants grown in deep ‘rose’ containers or in a glasshouse.

My assistance with the harvest at John Innes yielded positive results during January 2020. I began with behavioural growth studies in agar flasks, which provided a fascinating insight into the delicate root structure as the roots are normally below ground. Unexpected discoveries about how the grass pea behaved under certain conditions helped the iterative design process.

During lockdown last year I had time to observe the plants on my windowsill and how they used the agar provided by John Innes. I didn’t need to water them, and it was fascinating to see how the plant easily grew, the perfect house plant!

Root studies with grass pea: (upper) in agar flasks on a window sill, after 5 months; (lower left) seedlings emerging in a shaped shallow container; (lower right) soil turned out after six months to show root patterns.

I also planted some grass pea in different types of container with various depths to see which environment the crop preferred. The black container (photographs above, lower left) provided the wonderful patterned shapes shown lower right.

Embroidery with roots and tendrils

Perfectly formed tendrils from the harvested residue of grass pea inspired me to do some hand embroidery. I used Kantha stitching on cotton to reflect the Indian traditional embroidery technique of simple straight stitch.

Grass pea tendril

My overall aim was to see whether the grass pea residue could be recreated into a cloth of some kind. Cutting up the paper samplers and using other threads and vintage lace slowly transformed the paper into a fabric, but the harvested residue was extremely dry and brittle.

I was unable to spin a thread out of the stalks.  However, I believe, with the right biotechnology, cellulose could be extracted from the grass pea to make clothing, paper, shoes and lighting. Recent advances prove that using agricultural waste is an extremely profitable and sustainable operation with companies such as Agraloop [4], already spinning innovative and unique fibres.

Papermaking

Initially my papermaking explorations were unsatisfactory. The handmade paper felt stiff, broke easily and resembled cardboard. After boiling the residue and retting it in a bucket for a week however, it softened to produce a softer slurry or pulp.

Making paper: paper slurry poured onto a mould and deckle with scattered seed pods adding texture and interest (upper); kitchen set-up with slurry, waste residue and mortar and pestle (lower left); and retting residue in harvested rainwater (lower right).

Although I was unable to provide precise samples of artisanal stationery, each piece of handmade paper had its own individual character. I began to realise that imperfections can help create an authentic narrative and felt more confident in exploring other possibilities with ingredients.

A series of handmade papers were constructed from localised resources. I wanted to see if the grass pea could hold other grasses and petals within multiple layers of slurry. I took advantage of the warm weather and dried them in the garden. By adding spices from the kitchen, combined with grass clippings and petals taken from hedgerows and heathers they took on a lovely range of colours.

Paper samples made with grass pea and root residue.

I also wanted to test some of the bio-resins from my collection of azeleas to see whether it added another material dimension. I looked at adding colour and referenced the pantone colour range for 2020 to provide inspiration for a moodboard of handmade paper.

Handmade papers coloured with various natural dyes

Bio pots and other functional products

Interpreting scientific knowledge and merging it with my own craft-oriented methods is a lengthy and complicated process. The bio pots initially started out as a conversation when I decided to see whether the knowledge I had gained through papermaking over the summer could result in something more tangible like a functional product.

I looked at whether the grass pea pots could be dyed to provide colour, starting with kitchen spices such as paprika and herbal tea bags with raspberry, blueberry, tea, and coffee. These were quite successful samples and ongoing observations are being made into the waterproofing and durability. Further growth studies will commence this year with a view to creating something that may offer a sustainable alternative for the tree planting initiatives overseas.

Grass pea bio-pot samples 2020 (upper) and kitchen decorative pots to keep nuts and spices in (lower).

… and some final remarks

Research into the use of natural resources to provide extra sources of income has proven potential. It shows how the bridging of traditional artisan work with modern design can provide sustainable solutions. An essential part of the process includes rigorous testing of raw materials to demonstrate that the process is both restorative and circular from the beginning of the supply chain to the end product.

As an inter-disciplinary artist, I seek to implement new ideas through forming partnerships which help shape and question my own practice.  I feel fortunate that we could build a strong professional network to bridge knowledge gaps. It was a collaborative process that reinforced our objective of helping to improve rural livelihoods in India.

I conclude that the grass pea supply chain could be disrupted from field to biomaterial and repurposed to provide vital ingredients for economic change.

Sources | Links

[1] Caroline writes: “When all other crops fail, grass pea will often be the last one left standing. It is easy to cultivate and is tasty and high in nutritious protein, which makes it a popular crop. The Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) states that at least 100,000 people in developing countries are believed to suffer from paralysis caused by the neurotoxin.  More at the Crop Wild Relatives Project: The curious case of the grasspea.

[2] From the John Innes Centre web site, 27 May 2020: Paper making with grass pea.

[3] The “whole systems approach” was devised by a group of Product Design Students at the Iceland Academy of Arts in 2015 during a project using willow. They designed a unique range of products including paper, glue and string adding just heat and water.

[4] Agraloop: transforming low-value waste to high-value fibre.

[5] The Journal of Sustainability Education describes how collaborations beyond the comfort zone of specialist areas possibly hold the key to making unusual discoveries. Journal web site: http://www.journalofsustainabilityeducation.org/

Contact Caroline Hyde-Brown

email: artistcaz@aol.com

web site: https://www.theartofembroidery.co.uk/

The editor writes: Many thanks Caroline from the Living Field for sharing your experiences and experiments on grass pea. We hope you can continue to develop the technology and craft work and help to generate new income streams for growers.

For other occasional Living Field articles on the use of legumes, see Feel the pulse and Scofu: the quest for an indigenous Scottish tofu.

Bere Barley at the Living Field

A summary of various articles on bere and other barleys from the Living Field project. First records of barley in the late stone age (neolithic). Structure – six-rowed, two-rowed (and four-rowed?). Origins of bere uncertain. It’s name – from bere to bigg. Bere not exclusively Scottish – similar forms reported from mainland Europe in the early 1800s. Geographical distribution mostly to the north in the 1850s. Bere’s decline  in the 1900s.

[Article in progress – subject to addition and editing … 21 February 2021]

Bere – an ancient grain

Bere is one of a group of cereal or corn crops grown at the Living Field garden near Dundee [1]. It is a landrace of the barley group. As a landrace [2], it is maintained from year to year from saved seed – and has been for centuries in Scotland. Each year, plants suited to the climate will leave more seed than others less suited, so gradually the characteristics of the population may shift. The bere grown in a particular region may become adapted to the climate and soils of that region. 

The Living Field got its bere seed from Orkney – from the Agronomy Unit at Orkney Collage and from Barony Mills – and though very little bere is now grown outside a few fields in Orkney, collections held at the James Hutton Institute include bere and other landraces from several northern locations. Bere is quite distinct from other old barley varieties such as Spratt and Old Cromarty.

Bere maturing in a field on Orkney mainland, taken 3 August 2018, showing (left) stems and downward curving ears, most leaf now withered, and (right) single ear with its vertical rows of grain and long awns.

Barley originated to the east of the Mediterranean Sea. Seed was gradually brought across Europe until it eventually reached Britain 5000-6000 years ago [3]. Barley ears with grains are first recorded at neolithic or late stone age settlements, and repeatedly through Bronze and Iron ages and onwards [3]. They are best preserved where the ears holding the grain had been charred in a fire.

Bere and similar types of barley therefore have a long history in these Islands. Yet it is unclear whether those grown by neolithic settlers started a line that led directly to the bere recorded in the 1800s and that present today. There was repeated migration of people from Europe from the earliest times, and it is not hard to imagine that seed would have been brought across the sea on many occasions. 

Bere and other barleys have been one of the main staple grains of the region, along with oat and pea [4]. These ancient grains have sustained people for thousands of years, even up to the early 1900s. Today, bere is a heritage crop, but now getting needed recognition as a source of breeding material and a nutritious food.  

The rest of this article presents some of the history of bere, including its fate after the 1700s, its relation to barley and the degree to which these two crops have been considered different.

Grains of bere, pea and oat (from left)

Structure – six-row, two row, four-row, naked and clothed?

To appreciate the various records from pre-history to the present, it is necessary to know a little of the structure of the barley ‘ear’ that holds the grains. Cultivated barley is defined by the row-structure in the ‘ear’. Grain sites are formed in triplets, on both sides of the ear’s rachis, a kind of stem. There are types in which all grains in the triplets fill. As the the two set of triplets fill along the length of the ear, they form six vertical rows and are named six-rowed. There are also types where only two of the six fill, and these are named two-rowed. The unfilled grain sites appear as little ‘pegs’. The difference is clear when 2-rowed and six-rowed are shown side by side as in the photographs below.  

Bere is generally included within the six-row group, because all six grains form and fill, but bere types have also been named 4-rowed, for example by the Lawsons, Edinburgh seed merchants, working in the 1800s [5], and also in a modern definitive UK flora [6].  In the four-rowed class, six grains form, but the outer two (the lateral ones) on opposite sides of the rachis merge into one row, so there are two rows of central grains and what appear to be just two rows of the four outer grains. The structure of bere can change on the same ear, leading to the Lawsons naming bere six- and four-rowed barley [5, see also 6].

The barley grown at the Living Field tends to hold its ears upright when they emerge from the top leaf, then they gradually bend towards the horizontal as the grains start to fill and as maturity approaches the ears move to hang down towards the vertical: bere (left) in early grain fill, showing three of its rows; and maturing two-rowed barley (right) where two of the four unfilled grain sites are visible as short pegs, one next to each filled grain.

The distinction is also made between naked barley in which the grains do not adhere tightly to the surrounding protective tissue, and hulled barley, in which the protective layers remain and are difficult to separate off.  

The barley that has been found at prehistoric sites is six-rowed and variously naked or hulled. Bere today is mostly classed as a hulled barley, but as recently as the 1800s naked 4-rowed were still cultivated [5].

Bere in the historical records – is it uniquely Scottish?

The word bere and its variations have been in use for at least 9 centuries. Macleod [7] writes that in the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST), covering usage from the 12th century to 1700, bere occurs also as bear, bair and beir. The other name by which it is known, big or bigg (from Old Norse Bygg) “does not seem to be in the DOST record” which implies it was pre-dated by bere and not recorded in use before 1700. It is also unclear whether bere and barley mean the same or different things in these early writings. Macleod cites the use of ‘barley beir’ for example. 

Bere and barley were both in common usage in records of the agricultural improvements after 1700, for example in Andrew Wight’s account of travels around Scotland, 1778 – 1784 [8] and in the Old Statistical Account, 1791-1799 [9]. Sometimes both names are used when referring to crops at the same location, implying they were regarded as different crops, but at other times the distinction is unclear.

Large areas of lowland Scotland are barley country, as here on the Tarbat peninsular. Traditionally used for food, alcohol and livestock feed, but now only the latter two, with few exceptions.

By the early 1800s, the published information on crops had been greatly expanded, especially through the various descriptive lists prepared by the Lawsons’ seed company in Edinburgh, notably in 1836 and 1852 [5]. Most of the barley varieties were named under two groups. One they define as Four-rowed, of which there were 12 types, some local and some from overseas including those named African, Bengal, Himalayan and Peruvian.  The second group, recorded as a different species [10] was Two-rowed or Long-eared barley of which there were 26 types, again some sourced overseas. They also distinguished what they called true six-rowed, comprising one or possibly two types and an unusual form named Spratt (which is shown among the images on this page).   

Common Bere was among the four-rowed and was also named Barley, Bigg or Rough Barley. So the Lawsons are implying that bere was also referred to as barley among farmers and merchants. It seems that around that time, the term ‘barley’ referred to two-rowed types, but could also be used for the four-rowed, and was therefore a general name for all cultivated barleys, whereas ‘bere’ referred to the local representative of the four(six-)-rowed types.  

One of the most interesting pieces of information in the Lawsons’ account shows that Scotland’s ‘common bere’ was by no means unique. One other type, named Victoria bere, was stated as being received from in the Belfast Botanic Gardens in 1836  and undergoing improvement by field trialling and selection. Another type, named Square, was received by the Lawsons from M. Vilmorin and Co., Paris, and had the following character: “Differs from the Common Bere in being three or four days sooner ripe, and having a thinner skin; properties which it may have acquired by being grown successively in the more genial climate of France, and is probably the same variety.” It is likely but not certain that Square was grown in France but the authors report ‘it was cultivated extensively in some parts of Germany’. 

So even as recently as the mid-1800s, bere was not seen to be a uniquely Scottish form of barley. Something very like it was grown elsewhere in Europe. Also, they include in the four-rowed group, two naked types – the Naked or Siberian (“Ear similar in shape to the Common Bere, but rather more distinctly six-rowed … “) and an earlier form named Old Scottish Four-Rowed Naked, neither of which were much grown at that time.

In the Lawsons’ account therefore, naked and hulled forms of 6- or 4- rowed barleys were still grown in the mid-1800s, as they were in the neolithic. 

Occurrence in the 1850 agricultural census and later

The area and yield of crops in Scotland were first recorded in a major agricultural census in the 1850s. The statist Thomas Thorburn presented averages of sown area and yield for each of the Old Counties and they have been were arranged by the Living Field on a map of Scotland [11].

The circles on the maps below represent the area of crops placed at the centres on the old counties. For reference, the internal boundaries show current administrative areas. Bere is shown on the left and barley on the right. Over the whole country, barley occupied about 10 times more area than bere, but at that time even barley covered a much smaller area than the main corn crop, oat. Bere, though present in most counties, was mainly grown in the north. 

Distribution of bere (left) and barley (right) from the 1854 census. Each circle represents the area of crop in one of the pre-1890s counties. For a circle of given size, crop areas are 10 times greater for barley. Orkney and Shetland formed one area in the census: bere represented by the large circle just above Orkney; the arrow on the right pointing to the small area grown with barley. Full description at Thorburn’s Diagrams [11].

The 1850s census recorded yield in bushels, a measure of dry volume. A bushes does not necessarily measure the same weight in different grain lots since it varies with the density of the grain and the amount of chaff [11]. Converting census records from bushels and using the same conversion for both bere and barley indicates that bere yield was 80-90% of barley yield over Scotland as a whole but were similar in northern counties at 1.5 to 2.0 t/ ha. (Modern barley yields are typically 5 to 6 t/ha.)

One of the fields sown by Barony Mills on Orkney in 2010, the harvest used to make beremeal (flour): for the main image, a photograph of a green crop (as inset) has been reduced to grey but with the infra-red accentuated to show the structure – the characteristic ‘leaping fish’ (www.livingfield.co.uk).
Decline

The agricultural census continued in the 1880s after a break. By 1912, bere occupied 5.4% of the total barley, so quite a bit down as a proportion of the total from the 1850s. The total barley itself was only 20% of the area sown with oats.

During the 1920s, 1930s and up to 1944, bere was still mentioned in the census but its area was included with the barley area and not given separately. In the 1950s bere was no longer mentioned – barley area alone was given alongside oats, wheat and rye.

[In progress – to include recent genetic analysis]

Sources / references

[1] For a general introduction to the Living Field’s work on cereal landraces – Ancient grains at the Living Field – 10 years on

[2] Landraces: articles on this web site – What are landraces? and Landrace -1 bere, and then The bere line – rhymes with hairline.

[3] Dickson C, Dickson JH. 2000. Plants and people in ancient Scotland. Tempus Publishing, UK.  

[4] The Living Field article on Peasemeal, Beremeal, 0atmeal gives a recent historical account of these three grains. Cooking tips from the Living Field’s correspondents can be found at The bereline – rhymes with hairline

[5] The Living Field article Bere in Lawson’s Synopsis summarises work by the Lawsons, seed merchants working from Edinburgh in the 1800s. Their main works are: (1) Peter Lawson and Son 1836. The Agriculturist’s Manual. Edinburgh, London and Dublin, (2) Lawson and Son. 1852. Synopsis of the vegetable products of Scotland. Edinburgh: Private Press of Peter Lawson and Son. Copies are available online via the Biodiversity Library and Google Books. 

  • Of the four-rowed types they write – “middle grains on each side forming a distinct straight row; lateral ones forming a kind of double row towards the base, but uniting so as to form one row towards the extremity of the spike; so that instead of being named four or six-rowed, they might with more propriety be named four and six-rowed barleys.”
  • On the definition of naked: “The difference in naked and other barleys, consists in the palea, or husk, separating from the grain in thrashing, as in common wheats.”

[6] Stace C. 1991. New Flora of the British Isles (second edition 1997). Cambridge University Press. The following appears: “Usually the three fertile florets per triplet produce 6 vertical rows of caryopses in the spike, but in some cultivars the 2 lateral rows of triplets on opposite sides of the rachis are superimposed producing four vertical rows (Four-rowed barley). 

[7] The Living Field article Bere, Bear, Bair, Beir, Bygg summarises the use and origin of words for bere as related in – Macleod, I. 2005. Cereal terms in the DOST record. In: Perspectives on the Older Scottish Tongue. Eds Kay CJ, Mackay MA, pp 73-83, Edinburgh University Press. Reproduced online in the Scottish Corpus of Text and Speech Document 840.

[8] Wight, A. 1778-1784. Present State of Husbandry in Scotland. Extracted from Reports made to the Commissioners of the Annexed Estates, and published by their authority. Edinburgh: William Creesh. Vol I, Vol II, Vol III Part I, Vol III Part II, Vol IV part II, Volume IV Part II. All available online via Google Books. For more at the Living Field on Wight’s observations – Great quantities of Aquavitae, Great quantities of Aquavitae II and The Mill at Atholl.

[9] The Old Statistical Account 1791-1799.

[10] The taxonomic naming of barley in not consistent. The Lawsons named four-rowed as Hordeum vulgare and the two-rowed as Hordeum distichon, as does Stace [6] who commented that they were ‘better amalgamated’. Most authorities today [e.g. 13] group them as one species, Hordeum vulgare, and distinguish the forms as sub-species.

[11] The Living Field article Thorburn’s Diagrams gives a summary of the 1850s crop census: Thorburn T.  1855. Diagrams, Agricultural Statistics of Scotland for 1854. London: Effingham Wilson. The Living Field article Bere Country gives maps of bere and barley in the 1850s based on Thorburn’s county averages. For more explanation of bushels and other measures of dry volume: Light on bushel and Grain measures in Ancient Greece.

[12] Agricultural Statistics provided by Scottish Government can be accessed at Scottish Agriculture: Economic Reports.

[13] Wallace, M., Bonhomme, V., Russell, J. et al. Searching for the Origins of Bere Barley: a Geometric Morphometric Approach to Cereal Landrace Recognition in Archaeology. J Archaeol Method Theory 26, 1125–1142 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-018-9402-2

Another comparison of bere (left) and a two-rowed barley, Golden Promise, both grown in the Living Field garden.
Contacts

All the bere and barley – except those photographed in Orkney fields – were grown at the Living Field garden at the James Hutton Institute near Dundee by Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson. Geoff Squire assembled the text above.

Photographs by squire/www.livingfield.co.uk

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

[Update – minor edits and corrections, 21 February 2021]

Through the Solstice

The winter solstice is the period around the shortest day, 21 December [1]. It is a turning point in the annual solar calendar. In the tradition, the winter solstice is a time of renewal, the turning of the year.

Today in northern latitudes, midwinter is a time of family and festivals. Food is in the shops, much of it imported from a global food system. Yet midwinter was very different 5000 years ago in the late neolithic when the early settlers to these islands began to farm. They could not import: they had to grow their own or go hungry.

The arrival of the solstice reminded them how long they had to last on stored grain and livestock. They could add to their diet from wild harvesting and hunting, but once people had committed to a settled existence, they needed grain and grass to ensure their survival.

Three more months at least before the soil was warm enough to sprout fresh grazing and germinate sown seed to give next year’s grain. This lag between the annual cycles of solar radiation and temperature is a defining feature of agriculture in the north. Farming has to cope with it now, as then [2].

They first farmers built great stone monuments to help them follow the solar and lunar cycles. Some, such as at Maes Howe in Orkney and Balnuaran of Clava near Inverness, were designed to mark or to celebrate the winter solstice [3].

Fig. 1 Daylength at the winter solstice, 21 December, at a range of archaeological and historical sites. Hours:minutes shown are from sunrise and sunset tables for 2020, excluding twilight [4]

Daylight hours

When neolithic and bronze age people were making their way across Europe, they experienced the large change in the length of day and night from south to north (Fig. 1). For example, daylength at the neolithic site of Carnac in Brittany (8:26) is two hours longer than at Callanish on Lewis (6:24). At the northern tip of Shetland, it is 5:40 and much farther north in Iceland, around 4 hours.

The length of day determines what can be done outside without torches and street lights. The order reverses in summer – much more daylight in the north than south. The effect of the latitudinal change on life and lifestyle was (and is still) huge, but the early settlers balanced one thing against the other. They crossed dangerous seas to settle and survive throughout the range of daylength, including areas that even today seem remote to most city people.

The standing stones at Brodgar and Stenness, in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, lie close to the Maes Howe chambered cairn, whose entrance passage is aligned with the setting sun at the winter solstice. [3]
Sunrise, sunset and the three twilights

It would be difficult in most years, even with the aid of aligned monuments, to tell exactly when the shortest day had arrived. Daylength changes very slowly in mid to late December, and the position of the sun is often obscured by cloud or mist. Two other factors make the estimation more difficult – twilight and the shortest day not coinciding with the latest sunrise or earliest sunset (Fig. 2).

Light from the sun is still visible even after it dips below the horizon. This is the time of twilight, of which there are three divisions – civil, nautical and astronomical. The boundary between them is defined by the angle the sun (below the horizon) makes with the earth’s surface [4]. Most people sense night has fallen near the end of civil twilight, but under a cloudless sky it is also possible to ‘see’ well into nautical twilight.

Fig. 2 Change in length of the day and types of twilight (civil, nautical and astronomical) for 40 days either side the shortest day (SD) on 21 December. The earliest sunset (e ss) is about seven days before SD and the latest sunrise (l sr) 7 days after SD. Location: Inverness, latitude 57.5 north.

Civil twilight at the winter solstice varies with latitude less than daylength. For example, it ranges from about 40 minutes at Silbury Hill in Wiltshire to about an hour at Funzie Girt in Shetland .

There is also the complication that the latest sunrise and earliest sunset do not coincide with the shortest day (Fig. 2). The reasons are complex and depend on the axial tilt of the earth and its elliptical (not circular) trajectory round the sun [5].

The photograph above shows two trees on the Hutton Farm near Dundee in 2010. It was taken after the end of civil twilight and well into nautical twilight. The original image was almost black, but shape and colour were revealed by digital processing.

Solar elevation and the sun’s intensity

The growth of crops and grass depends on the amount of solar energy reaching the earth’s surface rather than on the period of light. Daylength has an effect – it determines when some plants change their state, for example from vegetative to reproductive – but plants put on mass by capturing solar energy and using it to process carbon dioxide from the air into living matter.

The incoming solar energy increases from winter to summer solstices as a result of both increase in daylength and increase in the sun’s ‘height’ in the sky, defined as its elevation or altitude [Fig. 3]. Between winter and summer solstices, daylength increases about 2.6 times, while the sun’s elevation or altitude increases 5.6 times. (These values change with latitude – those cited are for Dundee near latitude 56N.)

The combination of longer days and rising altitude causes a 20-30 times increase in the incoming solar radiation reaching crops, grass and forest between the winter and summer solstices [6]. This, and the annual changes in temperature and rainfall, are the major factors that determine which types of crop and grass grow here, the times they can be planted and harvested and the yields they can attain.

Fig. 3 Diagram to show the changes through the year in the rising and setting of the sun and its elevation or altitude at latitude 56N. The horizontal axis shows the time of day, the vertical axis the elevation or altitude of the sun (90 degrees would be directly overhead). The lower curve is for the winter solstice, the upper for the the summer solstice and the middle for the equinoxes [6].

Sources / links

[1] The winter solstice is defined in astronomy as a particular time on usually 21 December, but it is also used widely to mean the period of several days around the shortest day.

[2] Living Field web pages on The Year describe the changing annual cycles and their importance for farming and food production.

[3] Maes Howe, Orkney: Orkneyjar; for archaeological detail, Canmore; to see the solstice, Maeshowe webcam site. Balnuaran of Clava: Historic Environment Scotland; Canmore. See also the Winter solstice on the Living Field site.

[4] Daylength, twilight times and solar elevation are available online for almost anywhere on earth. One of the easiest web sites to use, and the most informative, is timeanddate.com – insert a named place where indicated to see daily data tables; once there, you can use the map facility to find any place. Try also NOAA Solar Calculator provided by the US Global Monitoring Laboratory.

[5] For explanation of the earth’s tilt and solar trajectory, try: Articles about Sun at timeanddate.com; a BBC Weather page; the explainingscience blog. For a thorough and authoritative account: Szokolay S.V. 1996 (rev 2007). Solar geometry. Passive and Low Energy Architecture International (PLEA) and Department of Architecture, University of Queensland.

[6] The Living Field article No Life Without the Sun gives further explanation of the effects of daylength and solar elevation on the changes in incoming solar radiation throughout the year.

Common Grains | Seed Sovereignty

The Living Field has supported local crop landraces and traditional varieties. We have grown them, saved their seed, used their products to make food, promoted them on open days and shared them with growers and gardeners.

Grains are the staple diet of any settled population. Neolithic ancestors brought them to these islands thousands of years ago. People sustained themselves on locally grown grain crops such as oats, wheat and barley. This is no longer the case. Most of our grain foods are now imported, apart from oats which occupies a small area of arable land, and a few fields of special barley and wheat. We are highly vulnerable to loss of this essential staple food through blockade or import restriction.

So it is specially good to hear the continued and growing interest in projects like Common Grains [1] and Seed Sovereignty [2]. They operate outside the conventional channels of crop varietal breeding and depend on local and often unfunded commitment for their success. Here we pass on some recent news and upcoming events from both projects – with images of the Living Field‘s cereal landraces and some old methods of grinding and milling grain.

A landrace of bread wheat Triticum aestivum (left) and grain, spikelets and flowering stems of black oat Avena strigosa (right) grown at the Living Field near Dundee.

Common grains

With emphasis on both growing and baking, Common Grains is showing that short food chains work. It aims to reduce the physical and commercial distance between seed, crop, harvest, (saved seed), processing, baking and eating. As a result, the eater will likely appreciate the growing and have an vested interest in soil health and biodiversity .

Common Grains is developing ambitious annual and five-year plans, where again the joint emphasis is on growing grains and supplying nutritious food. Several farmers are experimenting with crop mixtures as a means to reduce inputs and improve the agricultural environment.

A summary of their conference in late 2019 is given on the We Knead Nature web site [1]. Long term plans include a hub for growers, customers and businesses, a Seed Bank of local saved-seed grain crops, and greater community engagement through formal education and kitchen skills. Contacts through Facebook and Instagram [1].

Ears of rye Secale cereale at the Living Field (left) when about to flower (upper, middle) and when mature (lower), and bere barley Hordeum vulgare (right) growing in Orkney (lower) and maturing at the Living Field near Dundee (upper).

Seed Sovereignty UK and Ireland Programme

The Programme’s web site explains its aims and purpose: “The Seed Sovereignty Programme of the UK & Ireland aims to support the development of a biodiverse and ecologically sustainable seed system here on home soil. Working closely with farmers, seed producers and partners across the seed sector, together we want more agro-ecological seed produced by trained growers, to conserve threatened varieties and to breed more varieties for future resilience.”

One of the main aims of the project is to establish regional and national hubs, networks and collaborations. Contact details of regional coordinators are given on the web site’s About page [2]. Activities include raising the main issues and current difficulties around saved seed, encouraging networks and support hubs, training, databasing, field trialling and participatory plant breeding.

There’s an upcoming Seed Week. Sinéad Fortune, Programme Manager, writes “From 18th – 22nd January Gaia will run our fourth Seed Week, which aims to raise awareness of local, open pollinated, agroecological seed being grown and sold in the UK and Ireland. The timing coincides with growers shopping for seeds for the coming season, and we hope to raise general awareness of the importance of agroecological and locally-grown seed with a wider audience.”

There’s ample opportunity to get involved and if you use social media then here is the tag #SeedWeek.

Methods of grinding grain through the ages: (upper left) saddle quern from neolithic Shetland, (lower left) hand-turned milling stones from Orkney, the meal swept into the container below, (upper right) water powered mill wheel (under wooden cladding) from Atholl Perthshire and (lower right) a wooden bushel measure used for grain and flour, again from Orkney (images courtesy of curvedflatlands.co.uk).

Sources / contacts

[1] Common Grains is on Facebook and Instagram. A note on the Common Grains Conference Scotland in 2019 is published on the We Knead Nature web site. Thanks to Rosie Gray for recent updates.

[2] Seed Sovereignty contacts and information. Sinéad Fortune, Programme Manager, Seed Sovereignty UK and Ireland Programme sinead@gaianet.org. Web sites: http://www.seedsovereignty.info/ and http://www.gaiafoundation.org/. For previous Living Field contact, see Maria Scholten’s article Boosting small-scale seed production .

[3] Landrace is the term usually given to a crop that is maintained from year to year through saved seed. For more on this site: What are landraces?, Landrace 1 Bere and Ancient grains at the Living Field.

Food systems are adapting to the pandemic … so far

Following the Nourish Scotland conference in November 2019, the Living Field began thinking about how it might best support those working towards a sustainable future for food and agriculture [1]. Then early in 2020 the pandemic hit, raising searching questions as to whether the food system could cope.

In March 2020, Pete Ritchie from Nourish Scotland, wrote a blog [2] putting the case that once the initial panic has receded, the international food system would adapt, the empty shelves would be re-stocked and no one in this country ought to go hungry. Nourish, through their blogs, web sites and conferences are at pains to point out that no one should go hungry in the UK because of shortage of food. Where they are hungry or malnourished, it would be due to other factors, such as social inequality, not the amount of food available.

Nourish were correct, but they were not giving the thumbs up to the current state. The blog writes that the food system – “ … generates massive environmental damage, monumental food waste, exploitative work practices and a disastrous mismatch between what we need to eat for health and what we are being sold.”

Dysfunction and mismatch are not simply other people’s problems. The blog continues – “ …..it would be good if Scotland were to produce more of what it eats, and eat more of what it produces.”

The argument raises the greater issue of the choices that can be made – whether to create a more equitable food system or stay with the current dysfunctional mix of hunger and plenty. Analysis by the Food Foundation [3] indicates the pandemic is driving more people into malnutrition and hunger: the food is there, but unaffordable or out of reach.  

Yet on the continuity of supply during the pandemic, the food system has adapted. Would the same be true following any global emergency?

The food-feed system is resilient ….. but it could fail catastrophically

The food system supplying Scotland and the UK was able to recover because of particular features of this pandemic. Farming and food stocks in most parts of the world have been little affected so far. With some exceptions, channels for imported food have remained open. It is too soon to say whether more will be restricted if lockdown and social distancing continue, but the chances are they will not be. However, other global crises could have far greater consequences.  

Imagine if imports had been shut off. The Food Atlas [4] produced by Nourish Scotland in 2018 shows the country’s reliance on imports. While some food supply chains can be satisfied by local produce, those supplying the staple carbohydrates, plant protein and vegetables are particularly vulnerable.

  • Scotland almost entirely relies on imports for staple, healthy carbohydrates. (The UK is less reliant but still has a major deficit.) The main local crops providing carbs are oats and potato, but on current areas they could not ensure sufficiency. Bread in particular – almost none of the bread we eat in Scotland is grown here. Nearly all other cereal carbohydrates are grown outside the UK (pasta, rice). Yet the country’s arable land could grow all the staple carbs needed.
  • Pulses – peas and beans – are, with cereal carbohydrate, the staple food of all settled civilisations. As for cereals, most pulse food is imported (e.g. canned baked beans) as is most pulse feed for livestock and farmed fish (e.g. soy bean from the Americas).
  • Vegetables – about half the vegetables eaten in Scotland are produced in the UK, most of the rest being grown in the EU or elsewhere.

If imports had been closed down, the country would be in trouble. Could this happen? There are two main possible causes: the food is there but imports are stopped, for example, by blockade due to international hostilities; or the food is not there to buy, because the countries producing it keep it themselves or have suffered a catastrophe in their producing regions (e.g. ash from volcanic eruption). Both have happened in the past. They will happen again.

It’s the balance that preserves

After the food insecurities the 1940s, a post-war Agricultural Expansion Programme was initiated to raise production and shift the balance more towards grain than grass. The programme worked, aided by technological advances in machinery, agronomy and crop yield potential.  Yet within a few decades, the country came to export much of its agricultural production and was again dependent on imports for food.

In an uncertain world, a country needs to keep its borders open for trade, both ways. But it also needs to ensure it can feed itself if it has to. The balance needs to be redrawn: local production raised, more food grown than feedstocks for alcohol and livestock, with a shift in emphasis to ‘building’ rather than degrading the agro-ecosystem. All this is possible.

An extended version of this article is published at Food security in the pandemic. More on the food system is available online [7, 8].

Sources, links

[1] Nourish Conference 2019 – Lessons for the Living Field.

[2] Nourish Scotland. Making the food supply chain work for everyone. By Pete Ritchie, 24 March 2020.

[3] The Food Foundation published some recent statistics on 22 May 2020: Food insecurity and debt are the new reality under lockdown.

[4] Nourish Scotland’s Food Atlas: http://www.nourishscotland.org/resources/food-atlas/

[5] To find out more about local food systems, search these organisations:

[6] Examples of relevant articles on the Living Field web site: City University’s food systems diagram: Five spheres around the food chain. Ten crops from three continents make this simple meal: Beans on Toast revisited. Barley, oats and wheat: Three-grain resilience in Atlantic zone agriculture.

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