Field Notes from Coull Farm

IN

Andrew Jones works some of the most exposed farmland on Islay . Coull sits on the far-west coast, near Machir Bay. His fields are ravaged by salt spray, Atlantic winds and in the unluckiest of times, geese. Around 4,000 of them stay on Islay year-round, but that can multiply tenfold from September to March.

Growing barley here is extremely trying but Andrew’s attitude is surprisingly resolute. He meets the challenge with positivity, and a sense of calm, “if you don’t try, you’ll never know”. It is an almost thankless task, that results in around two thirds (around 2 tonne per acre) of the yield to that of mainland farms. It’s a task that’s undertaken in order to grow barley locally for Bruichladdich single malts.

A few field notes from recent musings can be found below:

 Soil Conditions

Andrew comments that the soil diversity in Islay is impressive. On Hunter Jackson’s land at Cruach, he mentions, “I don’t know how he manages it, but his ground is almost pure peat in areas. The soil here at Coull is good but hard to work with, it’s gravelly, rocky and there are areas that are just sand. We know that some fields just aren’t suitable for planting, but a lot of work has gone in to drain the area properly.”

Alternative Crops

Last summer, Andrew was the first we know of to plant rye on Islay. He came to production director Allan Logan and asked “is there something else we could be trying”. It is this perspective that led to our first ever distillation of the flavourful crop.

The crop grows tall (around 5ft), growth inhibitors are necessary even, especially as the ground at Coull would be susceptible to lodging due to wind. The subsequent harvest was tricky. Coull’s combine had to take a cross-field approach to try and lift the grain into the cutting unit. Undeterred from the challenges of planting something with little prior experience, island rumour has it that he could be open to doing another round. Intentions are to plant this winter and leave dormant, to harvest next autumn.

“This year, the ears have been burnt and Islay farmers found themselves uncharacteristically wishing for rain.”

Weather – 2018

A prolonged winter on the west coast this year resulted in the soil being too cold to plant. Andrew comments that the earlier the seed is in the ground the better, so the weather conditions are hugely influential on the success of that year’s harvest. “It often leads to a higher weight. If you’re still planting in May, you’re looking at around a 50kg loss per acre.”

Despite not having enough sun in recent years, this summer’s blistering heat has not been entirely welcome either. This year, the ears have been burnt and Islay farmers found themselves uncharacteristically wishing for rain. Now, around harvest time, the last few weeks have been bleak and wet.

September 2018 has seen a number of farmers growing impatient with the wet weather. The decision to harvest their barley depends on a number of factors. If the barley is too wet and doesn’t get enough time to dry, the moisture content is high. Islay farmers are normally looking for under 20% so some wait for the sun to dry out the grain before taking it from the field. However, there’s also the risk that if you leave it too long, and wait for dry weather, the heads will starts to fall into the field where they won’t be picked up by the combine. Add this to farmers sharing combines, jostling for its time in the warmer conditions and you have yourself a tricky situation, one which is sure to keep many of them awake at night.

Diversifying

With politics rocking the security of the Scottish farming industry, Andrew comments that he may have to further diversify into arable farming. With Brexit potentially risking farming subsidies, he mentions that stock farming is on ‘a sticky wicket’ with “stocks disappearing like snow off a dry-stone dyke.” Now more than ever, farmers may have to rely on a mixed farm basis. It’s a topic the distillery will follow with interest over the coming years.

 

Cast your mind back to 2015, to read more.

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