Covid-19 has caused a lot of people to notice the benefits provided by local food chains. When we were forced into "Lock-down", home baking and cooking became 'safety first' measures that reduced the need for regular and 'risky' shopping trips. The problem was that too many people realised this, and flour disappeared from supermarket shelves overnight and wasn’t available for two months or more. Meanwhile, Yorkshire’s wholesalers and retail shops also struggled to get flour and our phone never stopped. We had 200 or more e-mails from home bakers as far away as South Devon. Here at the mill, we found ourselves filling 1.5kg. bags nineteen to the dozen, with two people filling and packing a 100 bags an hour.
The whole, tragic emergency has caused us to look at the resilience and environmental sustainability of our bread supply. This starts with a critique of our whole food economy and will soon appear in these pages.
Meanwhile, the revival of artisan baking grows in strength, and the mill has become busier. We still come across more established, larger millers, who continue to compete against each other (and us), by offering similar products with a lower price. The problem with that race-to-the-bottom, is that farmers get paid less money than they should and the consumer is never made aware of the true cost of bread.
We do have to remind ourselves that it is the farmer who is exposed to all the initial costs and risks: the several years of soil preparation, the uncertainty of weather patterns, the purchase of good seed and machinery, the many hours of effort and time. Farmers need to be encouraged and rewarded for what they grow, and not for the amount of land that they own (which is the current scheme).
In order to rebalance things, some of us think it is time to re-consider the steadying benefits that were offered by the Assizes of Bread. This was a fair-pricing scheme that was applied to the production of grain and bread from the middle ages until the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. It made local Mayors responsible for fixing the price of grain that was imported into or grown within their district boundary. The object of the scheme was to ensure that farmers, millers, bakers and consumers all got as fair a deal as possible, and not surprisingly, the scheme continued right through to the 1860’s (in parts of Oxfordshire).
It was nevertheless, a complex scheme to police and bakers did not like being controlled by the men from 'weights and measures'. On the other hand, it must have worked sufficiently well to have lasted for so many centuries. Today, with self-sufficiency, sustainability and climate change in mind, there could be something for us to learn from it. Wouldn't it make a worthwhile research programme for someone skilled with a computer and interested in the resilience of national food supplies? How might the best parts of the ‘Assizes of Bread’ be re-introduced ?
Keeping a weather eye on the wheat and hoping for an extended spell of sunshine is farmer and miller Philip Trevelyan, of Yorkshire Organic Millers. He produces organic lamb and small amounts of cereals, including organic wheat grown on the farm since 1975 and milled on the premises since 2005. Other wheat milled by Philip comes from organic suppliers within a 30-mile radius in North and East Yorkshire, at Driffield, Pickering and Whitby. Read more...
The journey of an artisan loaf begins with farmer Philip Trevelyan. Picture: Tony Bartholomew[