Bread Matters founders Andrew Whitley and Veronica Burke made their home at Macbiehill Farm in the Scottish Borders, 17 miles from Edinburgh. They moved to the five acres in late 2009 and over the next eight years developed it into a unique site combining an organic agroforestry project with an eco-home as beautifully designed as it is sustainable.
Andrew began planting the agroforestry scheme in 2011, inspired by the work of Martin Wolfe at Wakelyn’s Farm in Suffolk. The basic design involves a rotation of cereals, grass and vegetables in 15-metre alleys between strips of willow, hazel, alder, poplar, aspen and birch, grown for food, shelter and (coppiced) timber for the wood-fired oven and wood-burning stoves in the farmhouse.
The land entered organic conversion in early 2010 and was fully certified by the Soil Association in 2012. It has maintained its organic licence ever since.
Creating the right conditions
Macbiehill Farmhouse and its land represent a considered approach to teaching, living, working and growing that tried to create the right conditions for the fermentation of Real Bread and good ideas. Powered entirely by renewable energy and with beautiful views from the kitchen windows over to the Broughton Hills, the heart of the house is a wood-fired bread oven. This was the launch pad for a number of Real Bread and community baking ventures over the years, as committed individuals signed up to breadmaking courses that became known as the most authoritative in the UK. Read more about Bread Matters courses here.
Outside, the focus was moving to the flour that went into the baking. In 2012, Scotland The Bread began as a project under the wing of Bread Matters, and the first priority was to conduct laboratory and field tests of the heritage grains that would become the company’s nutrient-rich flours. In March 2013, thirteen varieties of wheat, sourced from gene banks round the world with the invaluable help of Andy Forbes of Brockwell Bake Association were planted out at Macbiehill and on organic farms in East Lothian, Perthshire and Aberdeenshire. The varieties had been identified as having some Scottish origins or connections, and the focus that season was on bulking up the supply of seed grain to allow serious trials with the flour.
A great deal of work was done in 2013 beyond the wheat trial plots, turning the site into a productive smallholding. 80 gosling eggs hatched in May, in time for a dozen Sourdough Exchange workers to arrive at the farm. This residential course saw young people helping on the land, particularly with the organic cereals, in exchange for board and a learning experience in making slowly-fermented bread. In September the Exchangers were able to harvest the rye, thresh it and winnow it and, the next day, to mill it and bake sourdough rye loaves. It was an unforgettable total immersion in bread from the seed to the slice.
[Images of first Sourdough Exchanges]
Agro-forestry is a system that combines trees and arable crops in order to boost productivity and biodiversity. Two years after planting, the strips of trees became clearly visible and the alleys between them were ready to be grazed, in rapid rotation, by the first flock of geese. Wild flower borders had already been planted to attract bees, and one of the first jobs for Exchangers was to plant a hedge of bee-loving organic heathers and, beside those, a sweep of Aronia bushes. Otherwise known as black chokeberry, these bushes frame the view from the baking studio and attract bees whilst providing a habitat for small birds including the sparrow and meadow pippit. The berries were made by Veronica into delicious chutneys that brightened winter meals and proved to be easy to dry into a highly nutritious alternative to raisins.By 2018, the farm was producing considerable quantities of currants, berries, apples and even the first hazelnuts. Was it a coincidence that the first (grey) squirrels showed up soon after?
From 2012, the farm benefitted from hosting WWOOFers and HelpXers who contributed work in return for their board and lodging whilst learning about sustainable living. They helped produce the salads, beetroot, potatoes, onions, peas, beans, courgettes, cabbage, herbs etc. for the household and guests. By June 2013 the polytunnel and greenhouse were in serious production and strawberries in abundance were available from May to late September. With so many salads and vegetables, berries, cereals and pulses, supplemented by eggs, dairy and the occasional piece of meat from Whitmuir Farm, our fare began to look like the much-vaunted New Nordic diet. It was simply Scottish. We discovered, to take one simple example, that whole lightly-cooked beetroot thinnings were excellent on top of a barley risotto.
One of the pleasures and demands of growing a wide variety of food crops on a small scale is the dietary change demanded when there is more, or less, of something than expected. During 2016 Andrew experimented with some ‘achocha’ or ‘Appalachian Feet’ in the greenhouse. Only a few of these strange seeds germinated but they produced an abundant crop that ran into the sackload. Although they helped bulk out chutneys, it has to be said that their vigour was a lot more impressive than their flavour.
In 2016 the cereal growing was very much focused on the programme of research for Scotland The Bread, which became a Community Benefit Society in April 2016 and opened its community share offer during that summer. From sowing spring wheats and other trials, through hosting community growers as part of the Soil to Slice project, to shared events for the threshing, milling and baking of Scottish heritage grains, farming as a means to nourishing ordinary citizens became completely joined up with the other strands of Bread Matters’ work.
The photographs below show Nordic Svedjerug (swidden, or slash-and-burn, rye) reaching for the sun, and a display of the three nineteenth century varieties that became the range of flours Scotland The Bread launched to the market in August 2017 (Rouge d’Ecosse, Golden Drop and Hunter’s).
The work that has gone into turning Macbiehill into the thriving, productive organic farm that it is today has happened slowly, through hours of thoughtful planning and days of manual labour. These changes come about gradually, each plan coming to fruition to make a considered impact not only on this small patch of land but also very much remembering its place in the biosphere as a whole. For those who chip away at this never-ending task, the dramatic transformation and achievements are best appreciated through that classic reveal, the before-and-after photo. Here, on the left, are some photographs of the farm in 2011, when the first strips had been ploughed, the polytunnel and shed erected and a pond created. On the right are photographs taken from similar vantage points on 1 May 2017. Since then, of course, everything has grown quite a bit taller.
Any farm worthy of the name needs a good barn. At Macbiehill, Andrew & Veronica started from scratch, designing a steel-framed building clad in Scottish larch with an unusual feature – a dog leg at the South end, housing a wood shed whose roof is at the perfect angle to accommodate a 3.84 kW solar photo-voltaic array which generates about 2,800 kW hours per year. (Together with a 5 kW Evance wind turbine, Macbiehill Farmhouse generates about 75% of its electricity usage in a typical year.) The barn is set up for a variety of purposes, with a kitchen, equipment store, meeting space (seasonally used for plucking and hanging the geese), shower and composting toilet. Its three-phase electricity supply proved useful when the flour mill was established in 2017. It even has a 6.6 kW charging point for electric cars (like the one Andrew has run since 2016). The barn also housed the threshing machine that Veronica crowdfunded in 2015 which, while it is moving to Fife like Andrew, remains a resource for community groups and other small scale growers of diverse cereals.