The missing middle

Processing, milling, spinning or butchering are the hidden parts of the supply chain but they could also be the missing link in a sustainable future, finds Olivia Oldham.

Almost everybody has heard of the ‘farm to table’ movement, with its suggestion of a direct connection between the fields and the plate, mediated only by a brief sojourn in the kitchen. For some foods, like fruits and vegetables, this picture is more or less accurate. But for others – like bread, or hummus – this narrative passes over a key piece of the puzzle: processing.

This is the ‘missing middle’ of the agricultural system: the vital yet often undervalued or ignored services that transform a cow in a paddock into a steak on a butcher’s counter, or that turn grain in a field into the flour in a baker’s kitchen.

Across the sustainable farming movement, there is a growing awareness that for producers to change the way they farm, and for consumers to change the way they eat, something needs to be done about the middle of the supply chain.

Rosie Bristow is a Masters’ student at Heriot-Watt University, studying how small- to medium-scale processing equipment can play a part in developing a regenerative textile industry for the UK.

She’s particularly interested in flax, and the linen fabric it can be used to make. Britain once had a thriving flax industry, but over the last few centuries it has been lost, with no flax being commercially grown, and no mills left to process it.

“I think the fashion industry as it currently exists is so horrifying and intertwined with colonialism and exploiting people,” says Bristow. “I feel like we ought to be able to make clothes and home furnishings for ourselves without it being so extractive and destructive of the planet.”

This sentiment reflects the goal of the sustainable farming movement – that is, to produce food and fibres in a way that honours the dignity and health of people and the land. But without the means to transform raw materials like flax into finished products like linen, achieving this goal is challenging.

Deborah Barker
Deborah Barker, founder of the Fibreshed movement, is part of a movement trying to bring farmers closer to processors and makers. 

“The missing link is the processing equipment,” says Bristow. “If we had that, it would link up the two sides: farmers interested in growing a new fibre crop, and fashion or interior designers interested in using regenerative textiles. But there’s just nothing in the middle at all, other than sort of medieval wooden spinning wheels.”

The problem isn’t always that the middle is ‘missing’, though. Some food scholars even argue that in some cases, it’s growing, with a smaller number of ever-larger companies taking control of much of the processing sector.

The archetypal example of this trend is that of abattoirs. According to the Sustainable Food Trust, as of 2018, 88 per cent of all sheep in England are slaughtered at a mere 32 abattoirs, while 73 per cent of cattle are slaughtered at only 19 facilities. In an effort to do something about this dizzying statistic, the Trust have established a campaign for small-scale, local abattoirs. They argue that these are essential for the production of traceable, high-welfare, rare-breed and sustainable meat.

A similar fate has befallen grain mills, with around 65 per cent of flour production in the UK controlled by just four companies.

“The processing infrastructure has been taken out of cities and really centralised,” says Emma Shires. “It’s been taken away from where people can see it.”

Shires is an engineer-turned-flour miller who, alongside bakers Kimberley Bell and Emilie Lowen, recently co-founded the Nottingham Mill Cooperative. In 2021, they bought a small, modern, stone mill which they’ve put in the window of Lowen’s bakery, right in the Nottingham city centre. Their goal is to share the process of transforming grain into flour and bread with the public. In doing so, they hope to build long-term, direct relationships with local farmers, and to develop a thriving, diverse and resilient grain network in their area.

Shires Mill
Nottingham Mill Cooperative has invested in a small stone mill to enable them to buy direct from local farmers. 

A lack of infrastructure isn’t the only barrier to this dream, though. It’s not just the mills that are missing, but also the millers.

“We need to be able to bring more farmers and millers and bakers in,” says Shires. “There’s got to be lots of little people.”

“What’s actually missing is people and social capital, rather than hard infrastructure,” says Josiah Meldrum, co-founder of East Anglian pulse and grains business Hodmedod. “It’s easy to buy a whole load of kit…but that in itself isn’t really the answer if you don’t have the right people around the infrastructure.”

When it comes to pulses, Meldrum argues that the necessary processing capacity does already exist – just at a larger scale. What’s needed, he says, is for producers to work collaboratively to make use of that existing infrastructure.

We have had to build relationships,” Meldrum explains. “We [Hodmedod] use five different seed cleaners and processors in total. It has meant that we haven’t had to invest huge amounts of money in very specialist bits of equipment.”

“The problem we have at a smaller scale is that when we ask people to process for us, we get pushed to the back of the queue,” he adds. “We are still getting our 2021 harvest cleaned and processed for us. If we could capture some of that capacity and the skills that already exist in that space, then a big customer could go straight to that regenerative processor and know that they are supporting a particular type of agriculture.”

Plaw Hatch
The Fibreshed movement aims to connect sheep farmers with designers and makers. Image Plaw Hatch Farm. 

Deborah Barker, director and co-founder Southeast England Fibreshed, shared a similar observation about the infrastructure available to process sustainably-produced wool.

“Some of the bigger mills are interested in working with smaller amounts and smaller businesses, but it takes a certain volume just to get the machinery going, so you have to bring the wool together from different farms.”

Unlike Meldrum, Barker sees this as a problem: the Fibreshed movement she is part of is particularly interested in preserving the traceability of fibres to a single farm, meaning that existing larger-scale infrastructure might not be appropriate for their goals.

Nevertheless, she says that “what matters is to support the mills that are there. If they had some investment, you could produce smaller, more workable machines than we have now. That would make life a lot easier for people working the machinery and would make it more accessible.”

Roller breaker
The machinery required for sustainable supply chains is often not industrially produced. Image Nick Evans. 

Ultimately, Bristow thinks the processing sector needs to be at a “human scale”.

“I wouldn’t want to be trying to raise five million to buy a huge industrial mill and copy what they’ve got in the Netherlands,” she says. “I feel like that wouldn’t create very exciting jobs. I don’t want to go back to the industrial revolution and have everyone work in a big factory.

“I’m trying to imagine an industry that doesn’t exist. It needs to be a new, different style of work – a set-up that’s actually enjoyable. Otherwise, it’s not going to happen other than as a weird, niche hobby.”

2 Comments

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  1. Near us there is a small organic farm which produces wheat, einkorn, spelt and rye, and milling the grains themselves. They produce baked goods as well as organic cordials from their elder and blackcurrant plantations. They have invested in apple trees and will soon be producing organic apple juice. This is the kind of enterprise that I applaud. I am lucky that they do a postal or local delivery service since I don’t have a car. There are also other ‘artisan’ producers of everything from Dexter beef and mutton to fresh pasta, who sell mainly from market stalls. Eventually, I feel they will form some sort of co-operative in the various food categories. By buying from them now, we can encourage them into bigger enterprises.
    In the Sarah Brown wholefood days we were also investing in small kitchen size grain mills – hand powered too!

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  2. Do you think small scale processors, millers, and spinners have a role to play in encouraging more regenerative, sustainable practices? Is it the key part of supply chain that allows farmers to keep more of the value of their crop/raw material and get paid for a higher quality product (and environmental services) rather than a commodity whose value is reduced to mere weight and price (and doesn’t reflect the true environmental cost)?

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