STEPHEN Craggs took the title of Arable Farmer of the Year in 2013 and won the award for a second time this year.

However, the business has undergone radical changes since the original title win, with the majority of the farm now used for growing ancient grains which are sold into specialised markets.

Spelt wheat was the first alternative crop to be introduced at East Close Farm in County Durham.

That was back in 2015 and three other ancient wheat varieties have since been added; Emmer, Einkorn and rye.

Previously, the farm grew a large acreage of continuous wheat, with oilseed rape used as a break crop.

Unusually for a unit in the North of England, it is a past winner of the Milling Wheat Challenge, which is awarded by NABIM (National Association of British and Irish Millers).

The soil is mainly a grade three clay loam and has been extensively drained.

The diversification business was set up in response to changes in consumer demand and a drive to supply direct to customers, rather than selling to grain merchants.

It found a gap in the market for ingredients that were naturally high in protein and fibre and the farm now works in conjunction with a local mill to produce a range of goods.

Marketed under the brand name Craggs and Co, ancient grain products in the range include flour for artisan bakeries, pearled spelt for making commercial soups and salads and flakes for cereal manufacture. In addition, flour is sold in 1kg bags to farm shops, food halls and health food outlets.

The diversification capitalises on a number of modern trends, explained Mr Craggs.

“British provenance has become increasingly important, and our spelt grain is already displacing imports.

“Every load of grain from an individual field is recorded, as traceability is a key priority for our customers.

“There is a growing number of people who are becoming intolerant to the gluten in modern hybrid wheat varieties, where it tends to be found at much higher levels, compared with ancient grains.

“In the latter, the gluten is also more soluble and easier to digest.

“Ancient grains have a higher protein and fibre content than some of the more contemporary varieties.

“These qualities are popular with consumers who looking for a healthier lifestyle and they have also been linked to benefits to gut health.

“Great taste is another advantage and in our opinion, ancient grain products have a fuller flavour compared with standard products.

“This year we have won several Great Taste awards, including two stars for our Wholegrain Emmer Flour, two stars for our Wholegrain Einkorn Flour and two stars for our Dark Rye Flour,” he added.

New customers are continually being found in this specialised market and demand has increased dramatically. To strengthen the supply chain, growers from as far away as Scotland and Leicestershire produce ancient grains for the company and others are being sought.

There is an in-house haulage business for the collection of the harvested grain and the firm now produces most of its own seed. East Close spans 2,300 acres, with roughly 80 per cent of the land dedicated to the growing of ancient grains and standard wheats sown on the remainder.

While ancient grain seed is more expensive compared with standard varieties, there are savings to be made on inputs, Mr Craggs pointed out.

“Spelt is grown in a husk and does not respond to inputs in the same way as modern wheat.

“Once the weeds have been controlled, the crop us fairly self-sufficient. There is a reduced requirement for fertiliser, pesticides, drying and labour costs, as well as an increase in straw yields, so there are substantial savings to be made per acre.

“The sowing and cultivation equipment is standard, although the protective husks mean that drill settings may need adjustment to prevent blockages.”

The sustainability element of the new model was another reason why the business stood out for the judges. After the husks have been removed, they are used to generate power for three biomass boilers, which in turn supply heat to dry the grain.

“Husk removal is the element of the process which has prevented the wider uptake of the growing and marketing of ancient grains; it has historically been confined to cottage industry-scale enterprises.

“Our specialised machinery was imported from Switzerland and has allowed us to access and supply larger markets.”

Mr Craggs and his team are currently investigating the potential for the export of ancient grains to other countries and will continue to build the customer base.

“Now that we have growers producing on our behalf, there is room for the business to expand still further. It has been a learning curve, but diversifying into ancient varieties and adding value has given the business a firm footing for the future,” said Mr Craggs.