Gilchesters Organics is an organic farm and flourmill situated on an ancient Roman fort near Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland that specialises in growing organic and heritage grains. Run by farmers, Andrew and Sybille Wilkinson, Gilchesters Organics produces the finest organic and heritage flours, from their very popular Unbleached White Flour to ancient varieties like Rye, Spelt, Emmer, and Einkorn.
Andrew Wilkinson is an organic and heritage cereal expert with over 30 years of experience. In the late 1990s, when new science was being applied to plant research and organic farming, Andrew converted his farm to organic, and in doing so, became the first organic farm in the North East.
Over the ensuing years, with many telling them that they wouldn’t be able to grow organic cereals large enough to mill in the North East due to its cooler climate, Andrew and Sybille soon found that if they had healthy soil to work with and sowed the correct varieties of plants, the weather conditions didn’t matter. Andrew found that by growing cereal varieties that had the same plant genetics as those of more than 100 years ago – in other words planting heritage grains that were planted before herbicides were sprayed on the land – they were far more productive.
“When we set up Gilchesters Organics as a milling business, it was deep in an agriculture recession, so we looked at how we could diversity our farming system. It was also a time before the artisan bakery culture kicked in, those customers who buy sourdough bread and heritage flour now simply did not exist. Once we got the mill up and running, we made a choice that we would not go into supermarkets and sell our flours to farm shops and places like Pipers Farm that give a direct link from the producer to the customer.
Gilchesters Organics’ grains are an accumulation of several decades of careful research and considerable effort. Their ethos is to farm within the natural constraints of the land, producing high quality grains and flours that are full of flavour and sustain the traditional art of stone milling, whilst improving the health of the soil and the environment. They grow and mill their heritage grains alongside rearing rare breed species of cattle to balance farming and conservation.
The farm uses a rotational system for both their crops and animals in order to safeguard the soil’s fertility, whilst actively working to enhance it. Alongside producing organic and heritage grains and farming livestock, the farm also has a conservation programme, now in its 10th year. The programme focuses on re-establishing habitats for wildlife, from red-listed ground-nesting birds to small mammals. They have created new ponds to attract aquatic animals, planted and improved 8-kilometres of hedgerows for shelterbelts and birds, and planted new woods with native trees. They have also left 14-kilometres of field margins to grow wild in order to encourage biodiversity to the land. Now, each spring and summer brings with it a bounty of wildflowers that encourage owls, bees and butterflies.
It was in 2006 when Gilchesters Organics built their flourmill and began milling the farm’s high quality heritage grains.
What are heritage grains?
In simple terms, heritage grains are cereals that have a verified lineage, which can be traced back to ancient varieties. Taking inspiration from farmers in Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, Andrew found that growing heritage or ‘heirloom’ grains like Emmer and Einkorn were better nutritionally and were more likely to enhance soil health than modern hybrid varieties of cereal. Heritage grains take time to grow but they are higher in quality and more robust in the milling process.
Cereal populations and their benefits
Andrew Wilkinson at Gilchesters Organics is developing cereal populations that comprise of a number of varieties of the same plant species. By growing these diverse varieties of the same plant in the same crop, Andrew hopes to improve resilience to both extreme climate conditions like drought and flooding and pressure of disease.
Take, Gilchesters Organics wheat fields, for example. Andrew is introducing a number of crossbred wheat varieties into his wheat population. This new population is a mix of old and new varieties of wheat, which will eventually create what Andrew calls ‘the fabric of diversity’ in the fields and improve resilience to any adversities.
“Our research already shows that growing a population of diverse varieties is more effective on average than growing a single variety. Just think if you only plant a single variety cereal in a field and something happens to it – say the field is affected by adverse weather conditions – that whole field will be affected, no other strain of plant genetics can come in and save it as each plant is affected the same. Whereas, what we are trying to do here at Gilchesters Organics is to create a diverse crop where no one plant has the same pressure, and therefore has a greater resilience on average.”
“What we do is plant lots of different populations – each with a different make up of species – in specific areas to see which species survive well in bad conditions. Then it’s simply growing those varieties that are best for our conditions. It’s simple in theory but takes time, as you can imagine! What we are finding is that we are effectively mimicking the cereal production of the Middle Ages.”
Andrew is seeing a phenomenal increase in demand for Rye, but also Emmer and Einkorn. Andrew has always been an advocate of consuming the wholegrain, seeing it as the sustainable way of eating cereal.
How is Unbleached White Flour produced?
Gilchesters Organics’ Unbleached White Flour is one of the most popular flours with Pipers Farm customers.
There are two stages of growing wheat; ‘winter wheat’ that is sewn from August to November and harvested in July to September the following year, and ‘spring wheat’ that is sewn from February to April and harvested from August to October the same year – the specifics dates rely completely on where you are in the British Isles and the weather conditions.
This means that ‘winter wheat’ has a growing season of around 10-months and ‘spring wheat’ around 6-months. The ‘winter wheat’ are in the ground for longer, which means the plants have enough time to extract the nutrients they need from the soil in those 10-months, whereas ‘spring wheat’ completely relies on the weather conditions to accumulate the necessary components to grow and prosper. ‘Spring wheat’ is not in the ground for long enough, so the soil has to be healthy and fertile for the plants to grow well.
Andrew says, “That’s what we have done here at Gilchesters Organics, moving everything to organic and focusing on regenerative agriculture, systems that are focused towards the long term, consciously stewarding the land to create healthier soil for a better future.”
Once the wheat has been harvested, and the grain extracted from the rest of the plant, the grain is dried – being in the wetter North East of the British Isles, this stage is especially important for Gilchesters Organics. This drying process adds a stress on the grain – Andrew referring to the grain as “the living embodiment of the plant” – so the grain needs a period to ‘sweat off’ for minimum of 8 weeks. This ‘sweating off’ period effectively hardens the grain, crystallising the endosperm, which makes for better milling. The resultant grain is ‘fractured’, sounds undesirable, but is in fact perfect for baking – especially in the stretching and rising processes – as the grain has a consistent particle size. The hardened, dry grain is then milled into flour and filled into paper bags to be sent across the UK to artisan bakeries and farm shops.
Industrial-made white flour is very effective in extracting and milling only the endosperm (i.e. the white flour), so efficient in fact that it has to use additives like calcium, iron and vitamins to bump up the nutritional value.
In contrast, Gilchesters Organics mills the wholegrain (bran, wheat germ, and endosperm). Past through a set of coarse stones, the reason why the wholegrain is milled is to retain the ‘wheat germ’, part of the grain that is high in essential oils.
The milled wholegrain is then sieved to separate out the fine particles of endosperm (including the wheat germ) from the bran. Quite often when you open a bag of Unbleached White Flour, you will find the odd bran particle, as they can sometimes be the same size as the endosperm particles – a telling sign of small-scale stoneground milling.
Andrew says, “We know that when you take out the bran and wheat germ from the wholegrain, it takes the nutritional density and flavour away, so we try and keep as much as we can in our Unbleached White Flour, maintaining the characteristics flavours of the grain.”
“The way Pipers Farm present themselves is completely aligned with how we present ourselves here at Gilchesters Organics. Pipers Farm are a shop window for producers like us who don’t have a farm shop, it allows businesses like ours to prosper.” - Andrew Wilkinson, Gilchesters Organics