Great British Harvest: wheat, barley and corn

September 27, 2018 6:13 am Published by 4 Comments

Wheat and barley are the UK’s two main cereal crops. Each year, we produce around 6.5 million tonnes of barley – and more than twice that amount of wheat. Corn – properly known as maize – is fast catching up, now covering around 250,000 hectares of land each year. Many other crops are grown on British farms, of course, but if you’re staring out of a train window at gently waving stalks in a field, or tramping past fully grown crops on a ramble in the countryside, there’s a fair chance you’re looking at either wheat, barley or corn.

What’s growing here?

But can you tell the difference?

Can you reliably tell the difference between these three crops – at sight? Here’s what they look like.


Wheat looks much like grass (with the stems a little wider) when it’s young. It grows taller, developing a seed-head that’s a bit like a brush. At harvest time, it’s a golden-brown colour.


Barley looks pretty similar to wheat, but is a lighter gold at harvest. Its seed head has a long ‘awns’ or ‘beard’, which stretches out past the seeds.


Corn is completely different and easy to spot! It grows in kernels – what we know as ‘corn on the cob’ – on long, thick plant stalks, which rise up past human head height.

Where do these crops grow best?

Wheat grows well in Britain, where we can rely on some hot weather in the summer, but nothing excessive, and a fair amount of rain. It needs plenty of sunshine before harvesting. Good flat land and suitable soils make the eastern areas of the UK ideal for wheat-growing.

Barley thrives in temperate climates too, making it another good crop for the UK. Again, it’s most often found in the eastern areas of the country.

Maize, meanwhile, prefers it slightly warmer. New varieties of maize have been developed that suit the UK’s climate particularly well: the crop is currently concentrated in western parts, but is spreading rapidly eastwards year by year.

How are these crops harvested?

Wheat is harvested in the summer months, when its moisture level is just right. A combine harvester cuts it (leaving the stalks in the field), threshes and winnows it, and dumps the grain into its truck. The stalks left in the ground are often ploughed back into the soil or are turned into hay bales (or stacks of hay blocks) for use as animal feed and bedding in the winter. For the barley crop too, combine harvesters are used to reap, thresh and winnow.

The golden, olden days of haymaking, with pitchforks and wagons loaded with hay and laughing infants, are long gone! Combine harvesters also put an end to traditional haystacks or ricks, which were made from the actual grain itself, left to dry before being threshed.

Harvesting techniques continue to move forward. In a futuristic move, a farm in the UK last year became the first to plant, tend and harvest an entire crop – in this case, barley – without any human setting foot in the field. Automated machines operated from a control room, as described here.

There are concerns about automation on farms, of course – and there are also significant concerns about the growing and harvesting of maize in the UK. This article from the Soil Association explains the issues very clearly. The late harvesting of maize, with the subsequent potential degradation of the soil, is a particular concern.

What do we do with these crops?

Surprisingly, we don’t eat very much of the maize we produce. It’s mostly designed for animal feed or for fuel, as described by the Soil Association in the article here.

Wheat overwhelmingly ends up as flour (wheat farmers in the UK supply almost all the country’s demand for wheat flour – and export some too). Different varieties produce different types of flour.

A smaller amount of wheat grain is sold for cooking, where it’s often simmered in stocks and stews. And, of course, the grain plays a vital role in breweries!

Barley is grown for consumption, for malting, distilling and brewing purposes, and for use as animal feed.

NGF wheat

We’ve got wheat bran, wheat germ and wheat grain in their original state, as well, of course, as a huge array of wheat flours, for all purposes. Other products, including our biscuits, breads, noodles and pasta, are made from the finest wheat flour.

If, like a certain prime minister, you’re unable to resist wheat grass in its original form, you’ll be glad to know that you can buy the grain from us for sprouting your own mini-field – along with the powdered stems of young wheatgrass too.

NGF barley

In our range of barley products, you’ll find barley malt extract and barley miso, as well as barley flakes, grain (pot and pearl) and powdered barleygrass. Naturally, various of our (lightly) processed products contain barley too.

NGF corn

Corn cakes, cereals, crispbreads and crackers fill our shelves, along with corn syrup, corn flour, couscous, pasta, polenta and popcorn.

We’ve got a rich harvest in the UK – and we make the most of it at Naturally Good Food!

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This post was written by Yzanne


  • John Uk says:

    “Corn” is defined as either a generic term for the grain of a cereal crop or the chief cereal crop of a district, which is wheat in England and oats in Scotland. Maize is maize, and isn’t synonymous with the term “corn”” in British English. Since you are referring to the crop and not the grain of the crop, the use of the term “corn” to describe maize is incorrect, though it is correct to describe the grains of maize as “corn”, albeit generic (various grains can be classified as corn, such as peppercorns and barleycorns). Should you require further clarification, feel free to consult any dictionary such as the OED. Please edit the article to correct the oversight. Thank you.

    • Yzanne says:

      Dear John,

      Thanks for that very useful clarification! We won’t adjust that particular article, as we’re in the (lengthy!) process of migrating all our blogs to a new provider and this one isn’t earmarked for moving anyway, so is about to be lost. But I will certainly bear the point in mind for the writing of future blogs.

      Best wishes,

      Yzanne Mackay
      Writer and Editor
      Naturally Good Food

  • Ben (a farmer & hay maker) says:


    The stalks left behind are turned into straw, not hay. Hay is dried grass, cut with a tractor pulled mower, then tedded & put into rows to dry.
    After a combine has harvested wheat & barley, the stubble field is used for straw for animal bedding (though barley straw can be a good low energy fodder). Arable crops have nothing to do with hay making. Hope that clears that up.

    • Yzanne says:

      Hi Ben,

      Thanks very much for that! I have to say that I’m relieved that’s the only mistake in that blog – but it’s one we will put right when we reissue it on our new website. Embarrasingly, we actually have farmers on our staff, so there’s no excuse for getting it wrong!

      Best wishes,

      Yzanne Mackay
      Writer and Editor
      Naturally Good Food

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