Mark French of Rockside Farm is pictured sowing a variety of malting barley called ‘Concerto’ in the big ‘Minister’s Field yesterday under a mackerel sky. Mark has chosen to sow early this year, taking advantage of the extended period of dry weather – but that sky tells of a change to come.
Conditions for both ploughing and drilling have been close to perfect because the soil is very dry. Mark uses a sophisticated seed drill that incorporates a harrow, reducing the number of passes that the tractor has to do up and down the field, which saves time as well as being good for the environment.
Growing malting barley on Islay is always going to be a risky business and there are any number of things that can go wrong. He has decided that the potential advantages of getting the seed in the ground early outweigh these risks – which include the seed sprouting and being nipped by a late frost, or suffering excessive damage from the 50,000 wild geese that are still on the island. The geese could still be here for another couple of weeks although they are starting to show signs of moving on out. Most of the Islay farmers growing for Bruichladdich will choose to wait a little longer before drilling.
If Mark is right, and he gets a ‘good start’, then he may literally reap the benefits at the back end of the season – and be able to harvest his grain early, which will reduce the damage from wild deer and geese as autumn approaches. If he has guessed wrongly, then damage at the front end will mean his yields could be affected.
There are few hard and fast rules in this kind of marginal farming – just weighted calculations based on local knowledge of the various risks. The skill lies in the age-old land knowledge of the farmer himself.
Good luck to all our farmers in 2013. Those who sowed early in 2012 probably had the best of it – and the total from our Islay farming operations was around 930 tonnes. It would be great to think they could manage 1,000 tonnes this year. Fingers crossed…