Category: Old Hall Community

Growing Barley by Cliff Jordan

Plot at Old Hall with Barley crops just beginning to germinate

Many people who want to grow their own food start with herbs, and then vegetables and fruit. Some are ambitious and keep animals for meat and milk. But an enormous part of our diet is made up of cereals – grains such as wheat and oats – virtually all of which are produced by industrial scale monocrop agriculture, with huge fields and huge machines. I became curious – what would it take to grow just enough for a household’s
consumption?

In the UK, we each eat an average of nearly 50kg wheat in a year. Say you want to produce enough for a household of four: that would require maybe a tenth of an acre – a plot 50 yards by 10 yards in size. Way bigger than your usual garden, but miniscule compared to modern arable fields. I live in a community by the River Stour where we collectively farm 70 acres, within which I found a strip of land about half that size to experiment with.

Modern industrial agriculture is amazing; its constant leaps in productivity rely on new and better machines, new techniques and continual improvement of varieties. These are bred repeatedly to provide a crop that the machines can handle well. But unless you have half a million pounds worth of combine harvester, new varieties may not suit you. They tend to be fussier than old varieties, needing the right nutrients and weed control regime to produce optimum results. Partly fuelled by artisan bakers, and many people discovering intolerances to contemporary wheat, there has been a resurgence in interest in recent years in old varieties of wheat, and in landraces – a mix of different varieties grown together, rather than a field full of plants each with an identical genetic makeup.

You might be familiar with pearl barley – this is a barley grown for human consumption (most barley grown in this country is for feeding animals and for brewing beer) that has been through a machine to remove the hulls – a hard outer casing on each and every grain. Pioneers in this country have started in the last three years to grow ‘naked barley’ again. The yield is thought to be lower than modern barley varieties, but it does not require that stage of processing to make it good for human consumption. This is what I decided to experiment with.

I waited until the winter rains had finished, and the ground had dried out enough to work and then cultivated my plot (with a tractor and power harrow, because we have that equipment and it would be purist and perverse not to take advantage of it. That said, I spent as much time attaching the harrow to the tractor, and turning at the end of each row, as I did actually cultivating the plot.) I marked out some lines with sticks and string, and used a manual push- along seed dispenser to sow each row of barley seed. I did this during that magical week in late March when it seemed summer had arrived. It has been cold ever since and no rain has fallen. I look each day to see if the seed has germinated. If I were a subsistence farmer I might be praying by now, or sacrificing to the gods.

My hope is that the soil will warm up and that April showers will cause tiny roots and shoots to burst out of the buried grains, and I will have rows of barley popping up. I imagine having to hoe between the rows once or twice, to hold back the weeds that I know are lurking, but I hope that, once established, the barley will out-compete them. I can already picture a golden summer’s day with scythes, harvesting the barley and gathering it into stooks to dry out, and then bringing it into a barn to thresh and winnow. All being well, we will harvest a hundredweight or two of grain to last us the year. Even if reaping, threshing and winnowing with hand tools prove too difficult for us, we have chickens that will gladly glean the plot for us, so the efforts will not all be wasted.

Fingers crossed.

Cliff Jordan. April 2021

Lincoln Longwool by David Hodgson

Head shot of Lincoln Longwool Sheep

Not everyone eats meat but only vegans don’t wear wool. That leaves the vegan a choice of cotton, linen, and fossil fuel based textiles for their fashion choices. Even silk is out. If one was to source their textiles from within thirty miles of the Stour Valley in order to meet with the theme of this year’s River Stour Festival then the vegan would be strolling around in the altogether. Clothing made from wool, leather, suede and felt would be our main choice.

Two Lincoln Longwool Sheep in a field

Two Lincoln Longwool Sheep in a field

The Lincoln Longwool is one of the world’s rare breeds of sheep. Originally an Eastern Counties breed that had been around since before the middle ages. Lincolns were the backbone of the wool industry right through to the seventeenth century and East Anglia and areas around the Stour Valley was the centre of that industry. Indeed at the time the town of Lavenham in Suffolk was said to be one of the wealthiest towns in England despite its small size. East Bergholt would have been close behind too and Old Hall was, at that time, the largest estate around. At the wool trade’s height the Lincoln Longwool were exported as far away as South Africa, New Zealand and Australia because their fleeces were the longest fleece and good for spinning. The quality of their meat was also exceptional. Actually people who have tried spinning the fleece of a longwool say that it is hard and difficult. Perhaps the spinning techniques in the middle ages were different to the current methods, who knows. Felt clothing was common in those days too. However the wool trade declined in the seventeen century and the Old Hall estate began to be owned by a succession of London based gold traders, pawnbrokers and bankers. The wool trade in East Anglia was dying.

A flock of Lincoln Longwool Sheep feeding

A flock of Lincoln Longwool Sheep feeding

Jump forward two hundred and fifty years and the pre world war two development of synthetic fibres, nylon, spandex, acrylic and the like, made from fossil fuels, were becoming mainstream by the 1960’s and by 1970 the Lincoln Longwool breed was at the point of extinction. In fact there were only a few flocks left and their survival was down to the dedication of only three breeders. When Old Hall Community started in 1974 a decision was taken to start our own flock. We searched around and purchased nine ewes and one ram from a breeder in Rutland and with limited knowledge, began to save the breed. Now nearly fifty years later we have one of the oldest flocks in the country and there are now over 100 flocks elsewhere. The Lincoln longwool is still on the endangered species list however and the continued nurturing of this East Anglian flock is paramount to its survival.

Jake, a founder member of Old Hall Community now retired, who’s initiative it was to buy lincolns, has handed over his shepherding to Chris Eldred, one of our younger members of some five or six years who has learned from Jake’s experiences. Chris is being helped more and more by another member also called Chris who has lived here almost two years. Both have taken an enthusiastic interest in the flock and between them the Lincoln longwool here at Old Hall is assured to survive on into the future.