UK farmers supply most of the requirements of UK millers. Flour millers depend on farmers to grow enough grain of the right type for milling different kinds of flour. Most flour produced in the UK is milled from wheat, although small quantities of rye and oats are also milled to make flour.
Over the last forty years, there have been big improvements in the quality of wheat produced in the UK, meaning that millers now source more than 80% of their supplies from British farmers, compared with less than half that in the late 1970s. UK growers now produce 14-15 million tonnes of wheat each year, supplying over 4.5 million tonnes to the British milling industry, and also exporting to millers overseas. To put this in perspective, total wheat production in Britain was less than 5 million tonnes in the early 1970s.
Different varieties of wheat are suited to different types of flour, meaning that farmers have to be careful about selecting the right wheat to grow, and then keeping varieties separate at harvest time and in store. Other key considerations are achieving the right technical standards (for example in relation to grain protein content); making sure it is kept free of insects, other pests and potentially harmful contaminants; and protecting the environment by ensuring correct usage of fertiliser and pesticides (if necessary).
Types of wheat
Most wheat grown in the UK is winter wheat. This is planted in the autumn, generally between September and November. Winter wheat accounts for more than 95% of the UK grain used by millers. Grain planted in January-March is generally spring wheat. This tends to yield less, but can suit some farms well. Wheat imported from North America, which accounts for 600-700 thousand tonnes each year, is spring wheat used to make breadmaking flour.
nabim categorises UK wheat varieties into one of four groups in order to give farmers an indication of the likely use of the grain and how much it is likely to be worth. This information is released each year in the nabim wheat guide. Farmers also receive advice on varieties from other sources such as the HGCA, which produces a Recommended List each year.
Millers work closely with plant breeders to assess new varieties before they are available on a commercial scale, so that growers have a clear indication of the likely market for the grain.
Why is wheat imported?
Traditionally, millers used wheat from North America, especially Canada, because it is ideal for making the high risen bread enjoyed in the UK. Wheat of this type still accounts for a proportion of the breadmaking grist (a grist is the blend of wheat used to make flour). However, working together, plant breeders, farmers, millers and bakers have found ways to improve the standard of UK grain and adjust the baking process so that a greater proportion of home-grown wheat can be used. This has had benefits for UK farmers, in that they have a bigger market for their produce, and consumers since imported wheat is more expensive than home-grown. There are advantages for everyone in the chain associated with local supply rather than using imported material: for example transport costs are lower and traceability is easier.