Past Campaign ambassador Danielle Ellis of Severn Bites asks what makes this population wheat special.
If you walk through a field sown with YQ population wheat, you’ll find an astonishing variety of plants differing in height and appearance. This is because YQ is a heterogenous (genetically diverse) mix of varieties. Genetic diversity helps populations such as YQ to have good resistance to pests and disease, and tolerance of a range of stressed growing conditions. If something negatively affects one of the varieties in the population, there are plenty of others that may well still thrive. Though yields are rarely record-breakers, they are notably consistent year on year.
This is in stark contrast with the goal of standard, commercial plant breeding, which is to produce a genetically-uniform variety. This uniformity often results in vulnerability, leading farmers with ‘all their eggs in one basket’, so to speak, typically reliant on a range of agrochemicals and other means in attempts to avoid losing some or all of a crop.*
In 2001, Professor Martin Wolfe was the Research Director of The Elm Farm Research Centre (EFRC), later the Organic Research Centre (ORC). He joined forces with Professor John Snape at the John Innes Centre on a composite cross population wheat project. Together they selected twenty modern varieties of wheat, choosing half for producing a good yield and half for their milling quality, from which Snape’s team then produced 190 crosses. These were passed to Martin’s ERFC team at Wakelyns in Suffolk for the next stages of the project. Ninety nine of the crosses, each produced by one parent from the yield group and the other from the quality group, resulted in what became known as YQ ORC Wakelyns Population Wheat – or more simply as YQ.
Between 2008 and round 2013, Bread Matters and Real Bread Campaign co-founder Andrew Whitley took part in trials to determine the performance of YQ flour in Real Bread making. Despite promising results, however, getting other bakers on board was a slow process. This all began to change in 2017 after Hodmedod’s co-founder Josiah Meldrum, who knew Martin well, took some YQ flour to Kimberley Bell’s Small Food Bakery in Nottingham. She was impressed and Martin invited her to visit Wakelyns.
Also having been a member of the Real Bread Campaign’s original working party, Martin helped to change Kim’s thinking about wheat systems, influencing her work in ways she couldn’t have imagined. In a tribute letter, published on the bakery’s website after Martin’s death in March 2019, she wrote: “On that first visit, Martin calmly and patiently explained to us the politics and science of plant breeding and seeds; the national recommended list, how plant pathogens behaved, the genetics of old and new varieties of wheat, his work with mixtures, and then of course the population wheat he had created”. Kim has gone on to champion YQ through UK Grain Lab, which she established in 2017, and around the world.
Better bred bread
Wakelyns is now run by Martin’s sons and their families. Part of their new approach is inviting other people to set up businesses on the farm. In 2021, Henrietta Inman opened Wakelyns Bakery. Together with Maisie Dyvig, she currently produces up to 350 loaves of Real Bread each week from their own wholemeal flour. They mill much of it from YQ wheat grown on site and by John and Guy Turner at their organic Grange Farm in Nottinghamshire.
As a population wheat crop adapts to its growing conditions, Henrietta and Maisie find that flour milled from YQ grown at the Grange is different to that from the Wakelyns crop. Henrietta says the latter produces a “fluffier result.” Explaining what quickly attracted her to bread made with YQ flour, Kim has noted: “at first it was the flavour, delicate and nutty/malty. It might sound silly, but the silky texture of the dough we made with this flour was so enjoyable.”
The future of YQ?
Edward Dickin from Harper Adams University has been developing a population wheat by crossing pre-20th century wheats, such as Red Lammas, with wheats from the 1930s, such as Holdfast, and more recent cultivars including Crusoe and Illustrious. Trials of Oak Farm population wheat (named after Edward’s home farm) are going well. Going forward might the YQ crosses be updated, perhaps including heritage varieties? If so, will it still be YQ?
Plant seeds can only be marketed (ie sold, traded or given away) for commercial use if on a national list. One of the hurdles for listing is passing the DUS (distinct, uniform and stable) test, something of a challenge for a genetically diverse and adaptive population wheat. From the first trials in 2001, Martin and the ORC worked closely with Defra on this obstacle. In 2014, a special license was granted to allow YQ to be traded across the EU. Since this limited license expired, YQ seed cannot be sold or traded commercially.
After Regulation (EU) 2018/848 of organic production and labelling of organic products came into force in January 2022, marketing organic heterogeneous material (eg seed that does not meet DUS test) is now permitted across the EU and in Northern Ireland. Not all plant variety rules in post-Brexit Britain are the same as in the EU.
Whilst negotiations are continuing to rectify the situation in Britain, it is legal for a farm that has grown YQ to save seed from its own crop and re-sow the following year, as is milling and selling YQ flour. Companies producing limited quantities of YQ flour in the UK include Hodmedod’s and Tamarisk Farm, while Scotland The Bread sells YQ wheat not as seed but for home milling. Places to find recipes and tips for baking with wholemeal YQ flour include the Small Food Bakery and Hodmedod’s websites.
* As an extreme example, the Cavendish variety accounts for around half of banana production worldwide and the vast majority of the global export market. Scientists (not to mention farmers and countries economically reliant on bananas) fear that every plant of this monocultural clone could be more or less wiped out in one fell swoop by disease, as happened to the Gros Michel variety in the 1950s. [ed.]
Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 52, October 2022
- Grassroots grain Britain
- Landrace for life
- An adaptive approach to wheat breeding, growing, processing and baking
- Capital grains
- A new Welsh grain economy
- Mountin' a comeback
- Local grain guide
- The flour of youth
- Weaving new bread webs
- Sowing the seeds of loaf
- Nordic saga
Published 8 Nov 2022
Real Bread Campaign: The Real Bread Campaign finds and shares ways to make bread better for us, better for our communities and better for the planet. Whether your interest is local food, community-focussed small enterprises, honest labelling, therapeutic baking, or simply tasty toast, everyone is invited to become a Campaign supporter.
Support our charity
Your donation will help support the spread of baking skills and access to real bread.