Introducing our Biodynamic partners, Yatesbury House Farm

IN

The story starts with a phonecall, in 2010. The head of Demeter UK, certifier of biodynamic food, telephoned Richard Gantlett at Yatesbury House Farm, 1300 acres of silty clay loam on the chalk bedrock North of Salisbury Plain. There had been an enquiry from an independent distillery on the island of Islay, looking for biodynamic barley. These distillers had a background in fine wine; it’s widely known that the most elite vineyards employ biodynamic methods.

Influenced by Alex Podolinksky’s work in Australia, Richard had been working biodynamically since 2003. While he hadn’t yet certified, the farm was operating under biodynamic principles – within the cycles of the seasons, using special natural inputs, incorporating micro-organisms as vital parts of the farm’s ecosystem. There had been no demand or outlet for explicitly biodynamic produce until Bruichladdich came calling. “That’s one of the reasons I love the connection with you guys,” he says, “because you encouraged me to get certified, get the proper stamp as it were.”

For Yatesbury, the original attraction of biodynamics was in building up the soil. “Farming is always a process of degradation, when you look at soil. We were looking for something to add, to put back in. Our goal has been to enliven the soil so that we can make healthy and quality crops,” explains Richard. He had started off as a conventional farmer, following the families of both of his parents into the business. He had a wealth of latent knowledge through growing up in that world, and went on to study agriculture at university, which included a token course on organic farming. And then, an epiphany moment. “It wasn’t actually until I came home and started farming conventionally that I realised I didn’t want to be sending someone out on the sprayer. I did it once myself and thought, OK, I’m not going to do that. I don’t know a farmer that doesn’t want to spray less pesticide.” In 1998, he began to convert the farm to organic, winning the full blessing of his parents after the first year, and taking a total of 5 years to covert the 1300 acre farm. 

Although that process was exciting, he found that going organic at that time seemed more about what not to do, and was largely focused on maintaining nitrogen levels in the soil. Instead, the key to regenerating the fullness of life in the soil for Richard came through a much more diverse approach. He was interested in measuring the amount of carbon in the soil, as indicated by the amount of organic matter cycling through it. “That’s the life of the soil and makes the soil function better. We’ve been mining carbon, as farmers, without knowing it.” He is so passionate about it that he is just finishing a PhD on the subject.

Through clever companion planting and rotations, herbal leys, and joined-up thinking about all the aspects of the farm – from the visible cattle to the invisible mycorrhizal funghi – he has invested in the dynamic nutrition of the soil and thereby boosted the crops. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you get high yields, but I’m not concerned about that; I want the quality to be good.  The soil is where everything comes from. It’s our most important asset on the planet as human beings.” As a measure of success, where his soils had started with 3% organic matter in the 1970s, that level has doubled since they became biodynamic. A by-product has been that they are currently fixing 10 times more carbon on the farm than they are emitting.

Richard Gantlett

“We’ve been mining carbon, as farmers, without knowing it.”

Keep up with Yatesbury Farm on instagram 

With so much good stuff going on at the grassroots, you might wonder why Bruichladdich has been a bit quiet about this longstanding relationship and its legacy of maturing biodynamic whisky stocks?

The reason is that we wanted to champion local sourcing and have greater traceability and accountability for our principle raw ingredient, which led to a declaration that we would proudly use only 100% Scottish barley. At that time, we felt it necessary to take a stand against the norms in the Scotch industry, even though that position entailed a risk – harvests may fail, alcohol yields may be inferior to that from imported grain – and a self-imposed restriction. There were no biodynamic farms in Scotland growing barley.

The traceability is not just a theoretical exercise; what we actually seek is meaningful partnerships with growers who are progressive and who are interested in the destiny of their produce, just as we are interested in its origins.  In terms of de-anonymising the barley’s source, establishing a single farm and being able to be transparent about that is the ultimate prize. So not working with Richard and the flavour potentials of his biodynamic barley began to feel somewhat arbitrary.

Yatesbury are on the journey to become officially B Corp certified, which we managed to accomplish this year, a move which enshrines and mandates the positive impacts of a business on people and society, as well as the environment. Perhaps this single farm could be the exception that proved the rule? In 2018, Allan Logan, our Production Director, picked up the phone to Richard again.

Says Allan, “As distillers, we have the purchasing power to support the local economy. This industry should be electively supporting a culture of progressive farming methods, which might mean making other sacrifices. To make the best spirit we can, we choose to work through the challenges and advances of our growers, we want to learn from them. We are proud that we can take their produce through to releasing a whisky, with all the detail and also the understanding of what we have gone through to make this, as a community.”

And so, we can reveal that we currently have 5 years’ worth of spirit made with biodynamic barley grown in Wiltshire maturing in our warehouses on Islay, and are hotly anticipating a 6th from this year’s harvest. Our maltster, Bairds, are excited as well, reporting that it malts brilliantly, “it has so much extra life about it.” In 2011 and 2013, biodynamic barley represented about 2% of everything we made (from the previous years’ harvests). In 2012, that proportion was 7.4%, and in 2019 and 2020, it made up just a little over 3%.  “It is very exciting to have biodynamic spirit in the warehouses,” says Adam Hannett, who will ultimately be responsible for the creation and release of our first biodynamic whisky, whenever he deems it ready. “There isn’t a huge amount of spirit but what we have is developing nicely. Texturally it is really rich. Most is maturing in ex Bourbon barrels so picking up lots of vanilla and toffee notes, the citrus element comes through, stone fruits developing nicely…”

Watch this space.


>> More about Bruichladdich’s focus on sustainable agriculture

>> More about biodynamics in wine in this interview

>> An example of Alex Podolinsky’s teaching 

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