The story behind a loaf of bread


E.Botham and Sons
Woodcut print of farmer sowing wheat


Today wheat is grown all over the world, with different varieties sown according to the various climates. In Canada, the harsh winters require a fast growing grain, with wheat sown and matured in about 90 days. By comparison, UK wheat is harvested in August, having been planted the previous September. Different varieties again are required to cope with the dry sun-baked lands of northern India. The forecast for total world wheat production in 1990 is 570 million tonnes, with Western Europe contributing about 90 million tonnes. This world crop would cover an area nine times the size of the UK, with each hectare cultivated producing an average of 2.3 tonnes. In the UK, the average yield is over six tonnes per hectare, indicating the efficiency of our farmers.


Wheat is sown on two-fifths of Britain's arable land, resulting in a total harvest of 12-15 million tonnes per year. About four per cent of the crop is used for seed the following year. Wheat is grown nationwide but predominantly in East Anglia, where summer temperatures are highest and rainfall is low. The British grower will sow winter wheat between September and February and spring wheat in March or April. The seedling develops a number of branches or tillers, following which ears will emerge and flower soon afterwards with the grain ripening six weeks later. Harvesting commences in August and finishes in September. The crop is cut and threshed by combine harvester. English wheat is often too damp to store without drying, so hot air machines are used. Great care is required not to damage the protein content in the wheat intended for seed or milling by overheating.


Historically wheat grown in Britain was often weak or soft, and low in protein compared with grains grown in North America. This is not a derogatory description, it simply means British wheat was not particularly suitable for making the well risen bread most people prefer. Only recently have varieties more suitable for breadmaking been produced, allowing millers to use more home-grown wheat in place of imported North American strong, hard wheats. These new varieties, combined with advances in baking technology, in particular the use of added vital wheat gluten, have helped cut imports from 2.5 million tonnes in the 1960s to less than half a million tonnes today, with consequent savings to the balance of payments.

Ears of wheat

Wheat growing areas of the world
Wheat growing areas of the world