The malting barley seed was finally sown at Octomore Farm this morning – about a month later than planned. The weather conspired against farmer James Brown, and the field he has chosen was simply too wet to take the tractor and seed drill until now. We need a great summer of weather to see if the crop can catch up. It is not impossible. Islay enjoys long hours of daylight during June and July which means that plants can have a vigorous growing season if they see warmth combined with regular rainfall. It could still happen. James is eternally optimistic.
Nothing is easy or predicatable about growing malting barley on Islay. This is the first time that this field has been used for growing the crop, and a great deal of work had to be done to prepare it. The fields of Islay are not natural features. They have to be prepared and constantly maintained. They only exist because of a network of field drains that channel the water away and without which they would be simply waterlogged bogs. Most of these drains were originally installed when the fields were built back in the 18th century and they were hand-made of dry stone. It is hard for us to imagine the amount of labour that must have been involved. Later, during the 19th Century, a factory making crude clay drainage tiles was built at Foreland on the Rhinns – which would have been a major step forward. Many of the original stone and clay drains still exist and are still working, but many do collapse over time, particularly when subject to the weight of modern tractors. They then have to be located, dug out and replaced with modern plastic field drains.
The first thing that a farmer will notice when a field drain has collapsed, or become blocked, is a wet patch in a field, often attracting standing water, or the growth of rushes. Finding the blocked drain is often not easy. There are no plans showing where the drains are located of course, and the search involves a combination of experience and trial and error. Some farmers search for them using dowsing rods.
Another big issue in some fields is the number of boulders that scatter the land, many of which could wreck either the seed drill or the combine harvester, or both. These have to be dig out, sometimes by tractor, but often by hand, and then shifted to edge of the field. The big field being sown at Octomore Farm this year is quite stony, particularly at the lower levels where it gets closer to the sea. This is probably ancient raised beach material. The small stones are considerd to be a good thing however, as they quickly heat up in the sun, and then release that stored heat slowly over time, warming the soil and promoting growth. We are going to need their help this year.
James Brown is philosophical about the late start. He knows that there is now a high risk that it may not be possible to harvest the barley successfully for malting – but even if that is the case it will not go to waste. It will end up as cattle food – which is not what we want to hear, but no-one ever said this was going to be easy…
The malting barley variety being sown at Octomore is Concerto. We will be releasing a new Bruichladdich Islay Barley later this year.