#75: ‘Biology first’ regen, Black British farmers and the miller-to-baker relationship

#75: ‘Biology first’ regen, Black British farmers and the miller-to-baker relationship 150 150 Farmerama Radio
Jake Clarke at Organic Market Garden, Auckland, New Zealand. Photo Credit Olivia Oldham.


This month, our first stop is UK Grain Lab, a gathering in Nottingham of farmers, millers, bakers and scientists who are building a new grain system for the UK. We speak to baker Kate Hamblin and miller David Howell about the close working relationship between Offley Mill in Staffordshire and Hamblin Bread in Oxford.

Next, we head to  Aotearoa New Zealand, and hear from Jake Clarke, the head farmer at Organic Market Garden in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. Organic Market Garden – or OMG – is a model farm set up by For the Love of Bees, a charity that aims to heal ecosystems and provide healthy food to local people through a network of regenerative organic urban farms.

Finally, we share a preview from our upcoming series, Cultivating Justice. We’ve been working on the series in partnership with Land in Our Names and the Landworkers’ Alliance’s Out on the Land Group, with the first episode due to be launched next month. In this snippet, Abby speaks to Farmerama’s own Dora Taylor about her Masters research on the experiences of Black farmers in the UK.

This episode of Farmerama was made by Abby Rose, Olivia Oldham and Suzie McCarthy. A big thanks to the rest of the Farmerama team Katie Revell, Fran Bailey, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins, Jo Barratt and Dora Taylor. Our theme music is by Owen Barratt.

We’re very grateful to those of you that support us and allow us to bring you these stories every month. Even the smallest contribution makes a big difference to us. If you’d like to become a supporter, visit patreon.com/Farmerama.

Episode Transcript:

Abby Rose: Hello and welcome to Farmerama.

Thank you to everyone who signed up to our Patreon last month, or previously. We appreciate every one of you – your support helps us to keep bringing you the stories of regenerative farming around the world, each month. If you’d like to join our growing Patreon family, please visit patreon.com/farmerama where you can choose your level of support.

This month, we hear from a baker and a miller about the benefits of having a close relationship – and what it takes to maintain it. Then, we head to Aotearoa [Ow-tee-ya-roh-uh] New Zealand where a market gardener shares how important love and compassion are in his growing practice. And finally, we hear about some important research on the experience of Black farmers in the UK.

In early May, we headed to Nottingham for UK Grain Lab, a gathering of farmers, millers, bakers and scientists who are building a new grain system. While we were there, we spoke with Kate Hamblin, baker and founder of Hamblin Bread in Oxford, and David Howell, miller at Offley Mill in Staffordshire. Kate and David have developed a close working relationship – with David milling all the flour Kate bakes with at Hamblin. We asked them to share more about how and why they work together.

Kate Hamblin: My name is Kate Hamblin. I have a bakery in Oxford called Hamlin bread, and we use UK organic Stoneground heritage flour. 

David Howell: My name’s David Howell. I’m from Offley Mill in Staffordshire, a watermill, and we produce Stoneground flour. Um, and we produce Kate’s for her bakery. 

Kate Hamblin: So we’ve always worked with the heritage wheat farmer, John Letts, who has worked with David for a long time.And We’ve always used him, his, his grain in conjunction with organic, modern varieties. And initially we were getting organic, modern flour from another supplier, but, uh, you know, due to pallets breaking, not arriving, arriving in poor condition. Uh, John Letts suggested that we buy organic, modern grain directly from one of his friends, get it stored at David’s mill in a silo, and David could mill it fresh for us and therefore deliver not only the heritage flour, but all our flour.

David Howell: Initially taking on the work with heritage harvesting, Kate was there to supplement as a business opportunity. But, um, in the last five years, not only does it do that. It purely keeps a waterwheel going, which is obviously the heritage roots of the mill, um, which is something I really want to keep going. But then you start to get involvement in the wheat and the grains and understanding of them, uh, and even more so this last few months, uh, with this war in Ukraine, um, I am completely convinced it’s the way forward because the fertilizer’s not going to be available. Uh, and the climate change we need to be looking at an alternative.

Kate Hamblin: it means that I have control over much more of the process so I can identify the farmers that I want to buy grain from. Um, hopefully in the future, have more of an influence over the types of grain and, um, It means that we also have grain security. So the grain that we buy stored at David’s, we know that that’s there.

So we’re less vulnerable to fluctuations in flour prices, or for example, during the pandemic, when it was, there was a, uh, a national flour shortage. We had this security because we knew that we had all of this grain in silo and that it was just going to keep on coming because David was going to keep on milling it and delivering it. Um, the flour is also very fresh because David mills at the day before he delivers it. So that’s a guaranteed, um, and there’s just complete transparency in the whole process.

David Howell: I think the farmer should need to move more to the better quality and look at the smaller businesses, uh, to combine with and benefit them rather than the great big feed mills that are taking over things. And we’ve got some good farmers, good land and good equipment, um, a little bit more understanding with a smaller business. I think that would be the key structure for forward to, and especially look at alternatives to fertilizer. I think that’s the key structure for survival of the economy and the environment at the moment.

Kate Hamblin:  in a way it’s, it’s so simple what me and David have. Um, but it’s, it’s very holistic and it’s very complete. And I think that, you know, that could be replicated in various iterations across the country. There’s a lot of people with a lot of good intentions who are working either on the farming side, um, or on the baking side or on the milling side. And it’s just about knowing that you can join those dots, that you can create a new model of working together and it takes a bit of commitment between one person and another. It might take a slight financial risk. Um, but it also takes a little bit of imagination to think that, uh, another, another way is possible. 

David Howell: You have to have full trust in each other. Um, the trust in, from my perspective, that I’m constantly investing to try and get the best product to Kate possibly.

But while it’s doing that, I need to have a hundred percent faith that the customer is going to continue with you to do that. I couldn’t work without our Kate’s arrangement with everybody, I’d have to have somebody that I trust completely. It’s a time thing that’s been built up that obviously we’re both very proud of and it can work in the right hands, but it needs the same commitment from each person.

Kate Hamblin: We’re both very pragmatic. We both have small businesses and it has to work not only on an ideological level, but also on a financial level as well. And I think that some, sometimes that’s what’s, that’s what’s missing from the wider conversation. And, um, yeah, I, I guess I just want to communicate that it is a totally viable way of doing business, the dirty word.

David Howell: I think things have come on leaps and bounds in the last 10 years. Um, 10 years ago. Okay, The grains weren’t as good. Um, but you couldn’t see a future in them. Um, the way things are progressing now I can see a future in them. Kate’s obviously pushing forward all the time. Uh, and it wouldn’t take a lot for another couple of bakeries like Kate to come in and take account for a lot more of our work.Um so Yeah, I’m hopeful for the future of heritage grains. I think it’s, uh, I’m convinced it’s the way forward. 

Kate Hamblin: Just make contact with people, just get in touch with people, just talk to people and just put yourself in an uncomfortable position to move things forward. Just, just do it, just do something.

Abby Rose: Jake Clarke is the head farmer at Organic Market Garden in Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland in Aotearoa New Zealand. Organic Market Garden – or OMG – is a model farm set up by For the Love of Bees, a charity that aims to heal ecosystems and provide healthy food to local people through a network of regenerative organic urban farms. Fellow Farmeramerer Olivia Oldham, spoke to Jake about OMG.

Jake Clarke: My name’s Jake Clark. And I’m the head farmer here at OMG. Um, OMG stands for organic market garden and we’re an urban farm that operates on about a 500 square meter plot of land and 320 square meters of that is growing space. Um, we provide 41 vegetable boxes each week to, um, locals living in the community.

We also have a compost CSA and a seedling CSA, and we produce around 300 packets each year, um, of seedlings, uh, 75 per season. 

Olivia Oldham: So you’ve come over from Yorkshire, is that right?

Jake Clarke: Yeah, that’s right. I worked in sort of ecology and land restoration in the Yorkshire Dales.

Olivia Oldham: Yeah. What do you think is the biggest difference between what you could do over there and what you can do here in Auckland.

Jake Clarke: Here in Auckland, we can grow all year round. Um, Um, in, in summer where we’re growing, um, peppers and pumpkins and, uh, cucurbits and tomatillos corn, and then in winter, we focus more on brassicas, celeriacs and celeries and alliums. Whereas back in Yorkshire, you’d be lucky to get a harvest from your vegetable garden in the middle of winter. I think from my mum’s garden, the only thing that would be able to harvest in winter was Sorrel. You know, you’d go out on a, on a frosty morning and the only thing that would still be there is sorrell, everything else would be dead. So we’ve got massive potential here to grow food all year round.

My favorite thing to grow hands down is definitely pumpkins. Um, they have a totally unique way about them and you can try and control them and you can try and send them a different way, but they’ll do what they want. And it’s such a visceral reaction to the elements and the sun with their big leaves that act like solar panels and capture sugars.

And then you get these giant fruits, which form on the vines and they swell up and grow almost before your eyes. And then from a winter storage pumpkin then you can just put them away and bring them out in winter and carve into it. And it’s like, for me, it’s like carving into the sun, you know, you get that, those lovely sugary smells of summer and it’s just, yeah.

From not even growing, but also eating. It’s just, I love growing pumpkins it’s just so much fun.

At OMG where we’re organic, we’re regenerative. Um, and we use the term biology first. So we prioritize, um, the biology, the microbiology, the birds, the bees. Um, and what a lot of that relies on, um is no tilling and poly-cropping.

So because we’re a small site and we can’t do mono-culture because there’s not enough room to do a row of cabbages and then a row of pumpkins and then a row of zucchini. We have to intertwine it all and stack the crops in amongst each other, like an ecosystem. And another huge aspect to this project is to mitigate climate change through growing our food.

Um, I think a lot, uh, what we get taught today is that our food production and our agriculture is a burden on our planet when it can actually be a way to restore our planet. Um, so yeah, the storing of carbon within the soil is a huge aspect, which we’d really like to focus on. And that’s where the no-tilling comes into play.

Um, because with tilling, we damage the sole, we damage the funghi, the microbiology, and we release carbon into the atmosphere and lose its moisture holding capacity. Um, but by not tilling it and leaving it undisturbed, um, we can leave it to do its natural thing. We can increase the carbon in the soil, increase the biology. ANd then it becomes a carbon sink.

When you’re growing, you’re either degrading or, um, damaging the ecosystem or contributing to it. So we really want to teach people to contribute to a healthier ecosystem. I think from my perspective and my viewpoint is that, um, growing up in the UK and then moving over to New Zealand, um, and both of them being very capitalist, um, countries focused around, um, money and economic growth. Um, we forget about sort of our own joys and our own love and compassion that’s involved in growing and gardening. So an example is right now, we’re here in the polytunnel. Um, and there’s, I don’t know how to put science behind it. There’s no sort of, um, there’s no way to sort of calculate it, but when I sow a tray of seedlings and seeds, when I’m involved, when I’m a hundred percent focused in that process, when I’m there. Making sure that each, um, seed that I put into the tray is, has my undivided attention, I have excellent germination rate when I’m rushing and when I’m not focusing, um, when there’s other things on my mind, the germination rate isn’t as great and it shows in the seeds. So I don’t know how you calculate that with science, but there is something there, um, And also, you know,  it feels nice to be compassionate, 

It feels nice to, um, to have, um, love at the center of the project. Uh, it’s a rare thing. Also for me, it, the poly-cropping celebrates diversity and celebrates sort of the wonderful interconnectedness of life and, um, it here at the farm, it really mirrors, um, sort of the, the cultural diversity that Auckland has and it shows and represents what a beautiful thing diversity can be, how we all have our different traits and, and we all bring different things to the table and together we can be this wonderful, healthy ecosystem. Um, so that’s what I reflect on a lot. That’s what I think about when I’m gardening and trying to incorporate as many species as possible. Um, and that’s, I like sharing that story.

Abby Rose: For the Love of Bees has a number of other projects, including community composting and creating pollinator habitats. Jake also told us about the Earthworkers Programme, a week-long intensive course teaching people from around New Zealand how to grow using OMG’s ‘biology first’ regenerative principles. In the future, the hope is to build on the Earthworkers Programme to set up many other farms around the country which can act as learning hubs.  

Finally, we wanted to share a preview from our upcoming series, Cultivating Justice. We’ve been working on the series in partnership with Land in Our Names and the Landworkers’ Alliance’s Out on the Land Group. Cultivating Justice shares and celebrates the voices of queer, trans, Black, brown and neurodiverse people in the agroecological food and farming movement. The first episode will be launched next month, so look out for that, end of June. In this snippet, I speak to fellow Farmeramera, Dora Taylor, about her Masters research on the experiences of Black farmers in the UK.

Quite early on in the research you talk about rural spaces are overwhelmingly white, and then you say, As Beth Colier points out, ‘Black absence in green spaces is incorrectly interpreted through a colonial perspective as rooted in a lack of interest in or appreciation of nature. Black people enjoying nature are seen as exceptions.’

I would love you to talk a little bit about that and that finding, and also what you recognised in yourself as well, or what you communicated.

Dora Taylor: So I think there is this framing. We think of Black communities as being mainly in cities, which they are, but the reasons behind that are actually very structural, it’s because that’s where migrants were kind of put when they came to the UK. And there’s a lot of racism that exists in rural spaces. And there is there is this kind of historical narrative around English culture, which has this idea that diversity is a very new thing and that historically everyone was white and that people very recently came here and kind of disturbed that, that narrative is definitely there, even though when I say it, it sounds very extreme. Actually, that is really there in the way that like, especially English culture I think is. But I had quite a strange experience, I suppose, when I was doing this research because I grew up in a rural area of the UK, with a lot of privilege, and I’m very light-skinned mixed race.

And I realised that even I had kind of internalised that idea of Black people being exceptions in nature, even though I, as a Black person has enjoyed this natural environment for my whole life. Yeah. And I think it really made me realise quite how powerful those cultural narratives are, that I was kind of discovering them in myself and having to kind of check myself when people I was speaking to were talking about their connection to and love of nature, to really like acknowledge that I was having this reaction as well of being like, ooh, that’s unusual, when it’s really not. It’s just that Black people are kind of excluded actively from rural spaces, which means that you might not see Black faces as much, but that connection to nature is definitely not lacking. 

Abby Rose: Definitely. I recognise it in myself as well, that I a hundred percent have believed that narrative for many years. And without even noticing that I’m believing it. So really appreciate you drawing that out, and reflecting back on all of us, some of these things we don’t even notice are written in our brains, in our culture and how, how destructive they are actually as well. I think that’s the other thing we have to acknowledge, what do you think this research tells us about the situation in the UK today?

Dora Taylor: It demonstrates how little attention has been paid to Black growers as a community from like the wider alternative farming space. I think that it’s come at a time where that attention is really picking up actually. But when I was doing my research, it was really difficult because there was very little information. I think I found maybe two texts on Black British growers in the UK. Obviously academic writing is not the only form of information, but I think it is a good snapshot into how much attention has been paid to that dynamic. I think we need to be careful of framing the apparent growth in Black farmers and growers as a new phenomenon.

It’s just that they haven’t been given as much support and air time as other alternative farming spaces have. And I think, although there are a relatively small number, I think we need to recognise that those traditions have been there for a really long time. 

Abby Rose: Later on in the research you talk about within the international African diaspora, providing food for the black community has historical significance as a form of Black resistance. The strong tradition of black people growing through in the UK is not simply a form of diasporic reproduction of homeland conditions, but it’s something which is embedded in who we are. British Black growers focused on self-preservation unity and intergenerational learning. I don’t know. I just felt like a lot of very powerful words are used there, and it does give this really strong visual of community and values. And so I was wondering if maybe you’d like to just paint a picture of what it is that, you know, you felt and saw. 

Dora Taylor: Really, I felt so much joy and love and openness. I felt a real kind of flexibility and dynamic way of communicating and of learning that’s really, it’s actually not set in stone at all. And I think the traditions that I was learning about are very porous and the way that I was being taught when I was like volunteering with people and kind of like learning about the different ways to grow things –  it’s so open and the way that they were talking to me about the plants and like the way that plants have emotions, and like, I felt a flexibility and dynamism and like freshness that I think is sometimes lacking in other parts of the space. 

Abby Rose: Could people use the results of your research to inform what they do? Or is there even a call to action for people in the alternative food movement?

Dora Taylor: I actually think that the work is already happening. I think that this research came at a really interesting time, even in the six months since I submitted this, there’s been a real growth in the way that Black farmers are being incorporated into the wider alternative farming space. I think. There’s been a lot of momentum around building networks and like getting stories out there. I think that there’s definitely a need to be more comfortable with maybe the like uncomfortable realities of how entrenched our perceptions are of the place of Black people in nature. I think that’s a really ingrained thing that everyone should be actively working on.

This episode of Farmerama was made by me, Abby Rose, Olivia Oldham and Suzie McCarthy, . A big thanks to the rest of the Farmerama team Jo Barratt, Katie Revell, Fran Bailey, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Dora Taylor. Our theme music is by Owen Barratt. Toodleloo.