Wheat Project Diaries Chapter 2: A Visit to Ampney Brook Farm

Ampney Brook Farm, Cirencester, Gloucestershire. March 25th 2024.

We recently shared the first chapter of our Wheat Project , a year-long initiative with 10 nature-led farmers in which we’re supporting them to do more of the type of farming we think is needed in the food system. Here is the next update of the project from Ampney Brook Farm, where the wheat seeds had recently been planted when we visited.

The connection between flavour, nutritional value, and sustainably grown food is such that each is an expression of the other. The more diverse and healthy the soil wheat is grown in, the more nutritionally rich and flavourful it will be. This is the idea at the heart of our Wheat Project, for which we are creating the conditions for farmers who share this belief to thrive. ‘Grow wheat in the way you know to be best for the soil, grain and the planet, and we’ll buy it,’ was what we said to them. Now, with the growing season underway, we want to check in with these farmers to see what good looks like, to witness first-hand what farming wheat in this way requires. And so we jumped on a train to Ampney Brook Farm.

“You’ve almost come at the worst time!,” says farmer Annie Landless from her farm office as she surveys the surrounding fields. Despite her grim verdict, she delivers it with characteristic warmth and a smile, which, thankfully, is infectious, because she’s right: in this in-between time in which “winter is nearly finished but not quite,” things appear rather subdued at Ampney Brook Farm, a 600 organic and regenerative farm near Stroud producing grass-fed beef and heritage grains.

At the same time, coming here now, on a bit of a whim and with no real agenda, is the point. Over the year-long scope of our Wheat Project, of which Ampney Brook Farm is taking part, we will follow the journey from seed to plant to grain to loaf, sharing stories along the way that track the flow of food from the fields to our bakeries. So, perhaps not a day for shorts, but a perfect day to talk about the realities of the farming calendar and the work to ensure a good harvest later in the year.

“Farming is cyclical,” explains Annie as we walk down a farm track, “and you know everything will come back; it’s just a matter of when. But it’s important to enjoy what’s in front of you.” Just then we hear the rather perfectly timed call of a chiffchaff. “Those birds are a great example. They return here in the middle of March after spending all winter in Africa. When the chiffchaff comes back, you say to yourself, ‘Ok, it’s going to get better from now,’ so it becomes this lovely milestone in the year.”

As we drive to the fields where wheat for GAIL’s is growing, Annie explains how her career in farming is a homecoming of sorts. She grew up on her family’s farm in Oxfordshire but heeded her parent’s advice not to go into the profession herself for a long time, working in communication roles in London and Berlin instead. “I got into food while living in Berlin and I found it led me back to how and where produce is grown,” she says. Returning to London, she worked as a community manager for a farmer’s market before doing a post-grad at the Royal Agricultural University. “It gave me the foundational knowledge but the biggest learning curve was actually working on a farm,” she says.

“Farming is Cyclical, and You Know Everything Will Come Back; It’s Just a Matter of When. But It’s Important to Enjoy What’s in Front of You

After taking in the wheat fields we drive to another part of the farm where the herd of Hereford cattle are grazing. Annie jumps out of her pick up, cuts into a hay bale and begins rolling it out to form a carpet of hay all the way down the field. Between contending with some pretty large, hungry cows, Annie explains that her main priority at Ampney Brook is the health of the soil, which guides decisions on the farm about everything from how the fields are used and planted, to minimising the use of tractors (which compact the soil) and a having a minimal till approach that keeps nutrients in the ground.

With the hay rolled out and Annie safely out of the way, I wonder what cows have to do with wheat? “Cows are essential for our soil management,” says Annie, explaining that fields of diverse herbal leys are maintained for three to five years and rotationally grazed, enhancing soil fertility with manure and trampled plant matter. “This process boosts organic content,” Annie notes. Wheat is then cultivated for two years, drawing on this enriched soil, before the cycle of ley grazing resumes.

“How We Farm Requires More Thinking. It’s About Seeing the Farm as a Living System in Which Natural Processes Fit Together”

“How we farm requires more thinking. It’s about seeing the farm as a living system in which natural processes fit together,” she says. Having been around farming for most of her life, though, Annie is understanding of the challenges farmers face, and why not everyone chooses to farm in this way. “It’s tricky because farmers have to make a living and they work in line with the systems that are put in front of them by governments and policy makers. When you do this type of farming, it’s a bit of a leap of faith, so you have to really believe in it and have customers who do too,” she explains.

As we stop on the edge of the 20 acres of land growing wheat for GAIL’s, Annie explains how a particularly wet winter meant planting late this year. It wasn’t ideal, but the genetically diverse variety planted, Miller’s Choice, makes it much more resilient to difficult growing conditions. “With a field of genetically identical wheat, if something affects the crop one year, the whole lot will get wiped out, whereas we will always get a crop because some genetic variants will do well,” she says.

We’ll have to come back later in the year to see proof of that, something Annie is keen for. “Farming is really, really hard work, especially in winter and you’ve got to feed cows outside in non-stop rain. But it’s really rewarding too. It might not look as beautiful as it could right now, but when there are orchids, dragonflies and butterflies everywhere, it’s unbelievable. It’s better than most things I’ve experienced,” she says.

Want to follow our Wheat Project as it advances from farmer to miller to baker? Sign up to our newsletter for regular stories.

Words Charlie Monaghan
Photography Elliot Sheppard

Back to blog
  • Feeding a Crowd

    Whatever your plans, our sharing boxes are the perfect way to take care of the catering. Order in advance for delivery right to your doorstep.

    Order now 
  • Click & Collect

    Beat the queue! Reserve your favourites ahead of time online and we’ll have your order wrapped and ready to collect at your convenience.

    Order now 
  • Delivery on Demand

    Breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea. Discover what's fresh out of the oven and order it straight to your door with Deliveroo.

    Order now