HomeCoronavirusBack to the grind: historic mills boosted by flour shortage during Covid-19...

Back to the grind: historic mills boosted by flour shortage during Covid-19 lockdown

A glance at social media is enough to confirm the craze: the lockdown has turned many Brits into amateur bakers, many of whom proudly show off their sourdough loaves or banana bread.

With a shortage of flour at supermarkets, many shoppers have turned to traditional local mills to get their fix, leaving the mills struggling to meet demand, while ancient dormant mills grind back into life.

Karl Grevatt, the owner of Charlecote Mill. Photograph: Shashika Poopalasingham

Orders have been “off the scale” says Karl Grevatt, 38, the owner of Charlecote Mill, perched on the banks of River Avon, north-east of Stratford-upon-Avon. “It’s still a bit mad,” he says.

“It is a combination of locals all ordering at the same time, new inquiries, old customers coming back to the mill. I’ve had a lot of inquiries from all over the UK which I can’t deal with. We got up to a seven-week waiting list, I’ve got that down to around four weeks. I’m working on orders from the end of April at the moment”.

The Warwickshire mill was built in about 1752 and restored in the late 1970s. Working in an old building with old technology has its limitations. “It does need to rest, it’s working very hard at the moment,” Grevatt said. He is also battling low water levels in the river, following the dry weather during May, which has slowed the mill.

Helped by Shashika Poopalasingham, a volunteer, Grevatt is milling about three tonnes of flour a week, producing almost double the usual amount, which he delivers in the afternoons to local customers. Despite the surge in demand, he has decided not to increase his prices during the pandemic.

Charlecote Mill

Charlecote Mill. Photograph: Handout

The Traditional Corn Millers Guild, which represents about 35 traditional mills across the UK from Orkney to south-west England, hopes demand will continue beyond the coronavirus crisis.

“One of our hopes is that people who have started to use traditionally milled flour stick with us in whatever the new normal is,” says Simon Dodd, the guild’s secretary, who works at Worsbrough Mill near Barnsley in South Yorkshire.

“We know where our wheat comes from, often we know the farmers who have grown the wheat, and because most of the flour is freshly milled, it does its job really well,” he says.

The guild’s members are reporting between 200% and 500% extra flour production during the last few months, but Dodd warns that traditional milling has a “speed limit”.

Despite scaling up production, traditional mills are unlikely to trouble commercial millers, which produce flour for bakeries and food manufacturing, and account for about 99% of UK production.

Demand for traditionally milled flour has also triggered the restart of some mills.

The community group behind the Warwick Bridge Corn Mill near Carlisle was not due to start milling flour until mid-June, but local demand during the lockdown accelerated its plans.

The Warwick Bridge Corn Mill.

The Warwick Bridge Corn Mill was not due to start flour production until mid-June. Photograph: Handout

“People were getting in touch, saying when is the flour going to be produced?” says Phil Healy, a retired accountant and chair of the community benefit society behind the mill’s revival.

There has been a mill on the site since the ninth or 10th century, although flour production stopped more than 30 years ago, and the society was finalising lease negotiations when the coronavirus hit.

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High demand during the pandemic has also brought some inconveniences – the group has had to pause its plans to build a bakery on the site and therefore will not hit its immediate profit targets.

However, the society says demand for flour has brought welcome publicity, which it hopes will attract the last few investors needed to fund the project.

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