|UPDATE, May 2021: since our first lentil harvest in 2017 we've continued to trial lentil production in the UK and the fifth year's crop is now growing. We now have good year-round availability of Whole Olive Green Lentils with smaller crops of other lentil varieties and organic lentils available from time to time.
Four or five years ago, when Nick, William and I were all working for East Anglia Food Link and developing the Norwich Resilient Food Project with Transition City Norwich, we talked a lot about lentils. We were thinking about what a more sustainable diet might look like for the city of Norwich; what would people eat if they were more reliant on local production? How would farming have to change?
It seemed to us that lentils could be part of the answer. It goes without saying that lentils are delicious and extremely nutritious, but they're also a useful low-input crop for less intensive farming systems - they fix their own nitrogen and suffer few pests and diseases (certainly fewer than beans and peas). They're also less water intensive, something we think will be increasingly important in East Anglian crop selection.
A wonder crop!
Well, not quite. The catch is that they're rather tricky to grow because they don't compete well with weeds (they're low growing and not especially vigourous), need a warm, dry autumn to ripen for harvest and - even if all that goes well - are not very high yielding. We decided it'd be unreasonable to ask a farmer to risk growing them for us (and they'd have to be daft to say yes!).
And yet historically there's lots of evidence for lentils being grown all over Britain - even as far north as Scotland - so the idea never quite went away. Then last autumn I visited Sweden to meet farmers growing bean varieties we're interested in trying here. Whilst there I saw their successful lentil trials and heard about a continuing tradition of lentil growing on the island of Gotland. Surely if they can do it in Sweden we can do it too - I came back with lots of notes.
We're extremely fortunate to have Professor Martin Wolfe just down the road and he was as excited about the prospect of lentils as we were. Not least because my Swedish friends had suggested that a technique called intercropping - in this case growing lentils mixed with cereals - overcame many of the production problems; it's an approach Martin is particularly passionate and knowledgeable about.
Martin's pioneering farm, Wakelyns Agroforestry, is part of the Organic Research Centre and as such is well placed to carry out trials. Three kilos of seed were sent from Sweden and plots planted in early May - the picture above clearly shows the different cereals (oat, wheat and barley varieties) as well as some plots where the lentils are grown alone.
We won't know whether the trial is worth expanding until the autumn, the lentils are growing fantastically well at the moment and visually the intercropping seems to be working; but the key will be whether we get a useful harvest and a lot will depend on the weather this September.
Lentils growing in a plot without a cereal
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