Mary Green gives a guide to different types of grain.
On a recent walk, someone asked me if I could write about different types of corn as they weren’t sure what was what. So, here goes!
“Arable” crops include any plants grown from seed in fields, but the ones we notice most are the cereals or corn crops. The ground is worked and ploughed each year, the seed sown, and the crop harvested when ripe. This is distinct from “pastoral” farming, which involves permanent vegetation (grass and flowers) as grazed pasture or hay meadows or a combination of both.
Around here cereal growing is not a big feature: most of our land is pastoral. But there are significant patches, especially on the higher plateau above Alvechurch towards Tardebigge and some of the low-lying fields around Alvechurch. Most crops are wheat, barley or oilseed rape, with occasional oats. Many farmers rotate their crops, so fields are different each year.
It’s been a difficult year for arable farmers: the wet and windy August weather delayed harvest but at least the late August dry and hot spell meant they could get most in.
Wheat is a solid-looking plant with upright ears of grain and no “awns” or hairs on them. The young leaves and stems are slightly bluish-green, then they turn golden. It needs fertile soil and a good climate. It is the main grain used in bread-making, and many other foods.
It is bred to be high in gluten and carbohydrate to make modern light bread. Older types of wheat, like spelt or einkorn, have lower levels of gluten and have more fibre. They grow well in our climate, are healthier to eat, and make a more solid bread.
Before the Second World War we imported much of our bread-making flour from America and Canada because they could produce high-gluten flour. The war was a wake-up call and manufacturers developed a new process that enabled them to make all that lovely post-war white sliced bread out of British grown wheat, so since then we have had big commercial wheat farms in England, especially in the east.
In more recent times people have realised that high-carbohydrate, high-gluten bread is not that good for us and have gone back to using the whole grain, mixed grains and older types of wheat, especially spelt.
Barley is much used for cattle feed, though in past centuries poorer people used it for bread. It was used in soups and broths and to make the original “barley water” which was thought good for invalids. It is also the grain for beer and whisky. Nowadays it is being used in bread again, usually mixed with wheat or rye.
It has less gluten and is quite high in fibre. It is a more silky-looking plant with long awns on the ears of grain, often called a beard, which wave in the wind as it ripens. It is a pale sharp green which becomes pale gold. The ears droop when ripe.
It grows in more inhospitable ground than wheat, so you find it in stonier and hillier areas. As you would expect, it is especially grown around brewing and distilling areas. The Hebridean island of Islay, which has nine whisky distilleries, is covered with waving barley fields.
They say the best whisky is made from barley grown on the island and one distillery uses barley only from its own farms, though many import it. This shows how seriously the crop is taken there, as it used to be here.
A barleycorn – an individual grain of barley – was used as an ancient measurement. There is an old song and old stories about “John Barleycorn”, the personification of barley, describing how he grows up and grows a beard and then is cruelly cut down and beaten, but later cheers us up in a “nut brown bowl.” The words beer, barley and beard have similar roots in old English.
Oats are even more able to grow in poor soil, on hills and in colder climates, so are traditionally associated with Scotland where is it the most common cereal. Oats are the ones with clusters of individual seeds hanging in loose bunches on the stalks, rather than the tightly packed “ears” that wheat and barley have. It has been a traditional food for horses and is the usual grain to make porridge.
Oats have low gluten, so aren’t suitable for bread, but oatcakes were a traditional staple food. Modern Scottish oatcakes are like a biscuit, but the older ones were thicker and cooked on a griddle. Staffordshire oatcakes are a batter cooked like pancakes. The biggest use, though, is in porridge, which is properly made from oatmeal, not oat flakes.
Oats are now thought to be a healthier grain to eat so have become popular again, especially as porridge but also mixed into wheat bread and as oatcakes. So they are being grown more, having begun to decline when we stopped using horses for transport. The dictionary of Dr Johnson, in the 18th century, defined oats as a food for horses in England but for men in Scotland.
Rye, which is a bit like a darker version of barley, is not much grown in this country. It is lower in gluten and produces a dark, close-textured bread with a nutty flavour. Maize, or sweet corn, is grown around here and is mostly used as cattle food. It is also grown for human use as a vegetable, corn on the cob.
In some countries maize flour (including polenta and cornflour) is used much more. It needs long hot summers. Our climate is not reliably good enough for it, but global warming may mean it becomes more common. It is unmistakable, very tall and with big leaves and the familiar cobs of corn in a sheath with a tassel at the end.
The grain is very high in carbohydrates but not gluten, so is more used for porridges and tortillas than for bread. It has been introduced all over the world but unfortunately at the expense of other crops. It fills people up but is not very nutritious.
All these grains, wheat, oats, barley, maize and rye, and others little used here, are descended from wild grasses. The grains from grasses were part of our food when we were hunter-gatherers, along with other seeds, pulses, roots and fruits making up a very varied diet. Over the centuries and millennia, the grasses were developed to have bigger and more carbohydrate-rich grains, and farming them changed the nature of human life.
The wild varieties are still around. Wild barley is quite common, even growing on city streets and waste ground. There was a lot along Station Road in Alvechurch till it was cut down recently. Wild oats are well known to grow among cultivated corn crops: you can often see them around the edge of a wheat field.
“Sowing your wild oats” is a traditional phrase for young men being promiscuous and providing unexpected babies, like wild oats providing rogue grains among the wheat. All grasses and cultivated grains are wind-pollinated, which is why they don’t have to have bright-coloured flowers to attract insects.
In past centuries, our arable fields had their own wildlife. There are flowers that like to grow in soil that is ploughed up each year, so they are called arable wildflowers. They include poppies, cornflowers, corncockle, corn marigold, camomile, wild radish, heartsease and scarlet pimpernel. Poppies grow in the body of the corn, camomile typically round the edges, heartsease often in the stubble after harvest.
Nowadays almost all corn fields are heavily weed-killed and these flowers have gone. Pesticides are also used so there are no insects. If you see corn grown in the old-fashioned way, as on some organic or environmental stewardship farms, it is stunningly different. There are flowers, insects and birds.
Birds that love arable land include lapwings, skylarks and yellow-hammers. Unfortunately the way the crops are grown nowadays has made them inhospitable to birds. They need over-winter stubble, insects or other plant seeds to feed on, and to be able to nest.
Most arable land now is empty of these birds, though some wildlife-friendly corn fields are now being planted with swathes of wild flowers around the edges or in patches. I notice when I go to other places where fields are more wildlife friendly that I can hear the familiar skylarks again.
After harvest the straw is used. It has little food value, not to be confused with hay which is very nutritious for animals. It’s used for animal bedding mostly, but it used to be a thatching material, either as long-straw or the shorter wheat-reed. It can even be used to build houses! The fields are left empty and you can see how little else has grown there.
Nationally 30 per cent of our farmland is arable. Annual cultivation releases carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming, and gradually depletes the soil. Pesticides and herbicides are used and artificial fertilisers compensate for loss of soil nutrition but in the long run make it worse. Some agriculturalists are experimenting with deep-rooted perennial types of grains which would help lock in carbon and maintain soil health.
Organic cultivation is possible. There are also other seeds and pulses which may be more sustainable. But the harvest of grain and the idea of bread being the staff of life has become so locked into our culture and even our religion (see the stained glass windows on the front of last month’s Village!) that it is very difficult to make changes to this aspect of our farming.
I wrote this poem after my recent holiday. I lived near the sea for most of my childhood and love to get back to it.
I am standing in the sea, up to my knees
Sun hot on my sunhat, toes sinking in sand
Trousers rolled up like a seaside postcard
Away from home but feeling this is home.
Eliot said the river is within us, the sea is all around us
But I think it’s the sea that’s within us
Like the moon her sister who circles us
From the womb-pool through the first cry
To the salt of love and the tears of death.
Her names are songs: the ocean, the deep
The briny, the whale’s length, Davy Jones’ locker
The great grey widow-maker.
In the stories, seals become men and women,
Mermaids hold up their fishy babies,
People live in the belly of whales or Neptune’s kingdom
Rediscovering the gills they had lost, breathing water.
We have gone to her for magic, for healing,
For food for the brain, to make ourselves clean.
She has embraced us but the sting in her salty tail
Is that she can drown us with too much love.
What have we given her as offerings?
Thick oil to clog her beaches, poisons in her fish
Millions of millions of tiny gifts of plastic
Which are now also in us and will not wash away.