Lost Welsh crops offer hope for future varieties

Pods of oats fly through the air – bursts of golden light caught on the sea breeze. Two farmers in their seventies teeter precariously over the moving parts of an old harvester-binder as it weaves, not quite effortlessly, through an acre of heritage grain crops.

For Gerald Miles, 74, it is the first time since he was a little boy that something like this has happened on his clifftop farm on the Pembrokeshire coast. For decades, Miles believed that the once common black oats of Wales had been lost forever. This belief, confirmed by an unanswered seed request in Farmers Weekly magazine after he lost his in a storm, launched him on a mission of rediscovery he calls “the search for the sacred grain”.

His quest has involved help from many unlikely sources and has been the catalyst for the formation of a group of growers, Llafur Ni (Welsh for “our grains”), who intend never to leave precious grain behind. ancient being threatened with extinction. It is a project which, according to the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Ibers) at Aberystwyth University, does not just look to the past, but could influence the future sustainability of cereal crops in the face of global warming.

Iwan Evans, 78, recalls a time when black oats were common, particularly in West Wales. “I left school in 1959, and at that time all the farms were growing black oats,” he says. Both Miles and Evans recall that oats were often grown alongside barley in a mixed crop called shipreys, which was used primarily as animal feed; the black variety of oats was believed to give horses “a little more energy”. As farming changed and draft animals gave way to combines, which struggled with tall oat crops, “black oats completely disappeared,” says miles.

  • Miles, front, and Iwan Evans, seated on a binder, harvest April bearded wheat, another heirloom grain grown on the farm

According to Katie Hastings, regional coordinator of the Gaia Foundation’s UK Seed Sovereignty programme, the evolution of black oats in Wales is representative of a wider homogenization of agriculture, which has seen crop diversity drop to at 75%. “People are turning more to monocultures now – they don’t have mixed farms like they used to. Farmers have all the livestock, whereas the mixed farms of the past would have had vegetables, grains and animals,” she says.

Miles and Hastings founded Llafur Ni in 2018 and the organization now has around 30 small producers and farmers. They hope that together they can share land, knowledge and seeds to re-diversify and strengthen the once rich supplies of unique Welsh cereals that populated farms and fields across the country.

Related: Charting the future: ‘Seed keepers’ bring variety to UK gardens

Hastings says it’s hard to know precisely how many grain varieties have already been lost. “We know there are hundreds of varieties in genebanks, but there would have been even more that have never been counted,” she says. “Each farm in each region would have had different varieties and different grains because they would save their own seeds every year; over time, the seeds adapt to their region and locality. Now fewer people are growing cereals and there is much less diversity in what they grow.

Dr Catherine Howarth, head of oat and pulse breeding at Ibers, says the loss of diversity in cereal crops is not just a loss for consumers, whose diets are becoming standardized, but could represent a perilous shrinking of the gene pool. “We know that modern oats have lost much of the genetic diversity present in some of these older varieties. The agricultural industry wanted to produce shorter, more productive oats; much of the progress in breeding during the first half of the 20th century was to this end. We don’t know what traits we lost in the process,” she says.

We used to have oats in the Welsh Highlands. They would have survived conditions we don’t grow oats in now

Dr Catherine Howarth

In 2019, Howarth provided Llafur Ni with 14 varieties of rare and valuable oat seed from the gene bank at Aberystwyth University’s Welsh Plant Breeding Station. Bank seeds have been collected in Wales since 1919 and many are no longer grown on a large scale. Howarth’s job is to identify important genetic traits in heirloom oats so they can be brought out of hibernation and reproduced into modern varieties needed to meet future climate challenges.

Howarth thinks Llafur Ni’s work could yield significant results. “Understanding the performance of oats in different environments in Wales is really key, and what farmers are doing provides very interesting insights,” she says. “It’s important to see how these varieties perform in a farmer’s field versus how they perform with us under research station conditions.

“We used to have oats in the Welsh Highlands as they would have been grown to feed horses and other farm animals,” Howarth adds. “They would have survived conditions in which we don’t grow oats now. In recent years there has been an increase in drought and in the future there may be changes in disease pressure and increased waterlogging during the winter. If we look at oats that have grown in environments where these conditions were more prevalent historically, there may be important traits we can bring to modern varieties.

Miles and the other Llafur Ni growers worked hard to “grow out” the small amounts of seed given to them by Howarth by growing the crop and collecting the seed year after year. Owen Shiers, farmer, folk musician and “rural revivalist”, says: “I only started with a Tesco bag… Now I have two big bags full. Growers are able to increase the amount of seed available and spread it over more grow spaces, increasing crop resilience.

When Shiers first heard that Miles was looking for black oats, he thought the description of the shiny grains sounded like a crop he had seen growing near his home in Machynlleth. The crop belonged to Evans, whom Shiers knew from playing folk music. When Miles arrived in Machynlleth, for the first time in decades, he saw black oats shining in the field. Hastings believes Evans was the very last farmer to grow them. “We didn’t realize how rare we were,” says Evans.

As the sun sets over the couple harvesting an acre of black oats that have been successfully grown on Miles’ farm, the friendship between the two sings as loudly as the birds in the trees. A long day in August was spent harvesting not only valuable oats, but also a heirloom variety of wheat called April bearded. There is a smell of fresh bread in the sea air, and the Llafur Ni team is starting to show signs of pain in their arms and backs. All day, freshly cut stalks and cobs fell lazily from the back of the harvester and were laid out in large piles of half a dozen sheaves leaning together in a single structure so the crop could air-dry. ‘air.

Miles, tired and smiling, says: “Farmers now have to adapt to use less artificial fertilizers, less pesticides and grow more with nature. These old varieties – cereals, barley, wheat and oats – have a role to play. These are ancient grains that were grown before artificial chemicals, and they can grow in low fertility land.

“These are the seeds that will feed us through climate change.”

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