This year’s barley harvest is all but in, though it has been a struggle. Seventeen farmers on the island are growing for us, up from twelve in 2014, ten in 2009, seven in 2007, and just one (Richard Macaire at Kentraw) when we started with the concept of reintroducing malting barley to Islay in 2004.
Where mainland farms can expect to harvest around 3 tonnes an acre, the short growing season on Islay and the vagaries of the maritime weather mean the average yield here is just 1.5 to 2 tonnes an acre. A low moisture content is also desirable at the point of harvest, as the grain must be dried to 12% in order to be stored until malting. The growers cite a five year rule-of-thumb; one good year, one bad, three average. Ian McKerrell, of Island Farm, recalls mistily the heights of 2014, ‘Two eleven an acre, and 18 percent.’ This year the consensus seems to be that the grain is good and dry, but not particularly big and heavy.
The crop germinated well and had initially strong growth in the warm Spring, but the summer months were cool and wet. The average temperature, as recorded by our weather station at the distillery, was only 3 degrees warmer in August (14.8•C) than it was in May. Rainfall in August (108mm) was almost double the amount of rainfall in June (55mm). Combines were seen frozen in various fields where the ground was too wet to proceed.
Autumn seemed to announce itself in storms rather earlier than normal; winds regularly exceeded 50km/h in each of the first three weeks of September. This stalled the harvest for a couple of weeks, in which the grain was vulnerable. Raymond Stewart, of Sunderland, described how the stalks become bent too low for the combines to pick up, turning the barley into ‘expensive food for geese’.