Rockside is a big farm near the west coast of the Rhinns of Islay. Mark and Rohaise French grow malting barley for Bruichladdich in addition to attending to their herd of Angus beef cattle and running Rockside Trekking Centre. Mark planted his barley early this year, taking advantage of a spell of very dry weather in March and April to plough the ground and get his seed in.
There are a lot of risks associated with early sowing on Islay. Huge flocks of wild geese spend the winter here, only leaving at the end of April for their breeding grounds in Greenland, high above the Arctic Circle. They are very adept at digging the seed up as soon as it is in and can do significant damage. The seed might germinate quickly, and then be nipped by a late frost, or heavy rain can puddle the ground, drowning the young shoots.
Those sun-soaked early April days now seem a long way off, because the weather then became very difficult. Lots of rain, and unusually low temperatures for the time of year. There was some goose damage, but the early sowing seems to have paid off.
Mark says his crop at Rockside Farm is probably slightly ahead of where he was at this time last year. He is also pleased with the quality of the barley plants at the moment, which are showing good root growth with substantial girth to the stems. There is also plenty of evidence of “tillering” which refers to the production of side shoots from the initial single seedling, and results in the formation of multiple seed heads from a single plant. That is exactly what we need…
The Spring has been late and cold however. Growth across many plant groups, even grass, has been slow. A side effect of this has meant that the herds of wild red deer have not been finding their post-winter ‘early bite’ on the hills and are therefore in poor condition. They are coming down into the fields looking for food – and they have been coming into the barley. So we need warm weather for a number of reasons – to push the barley on through these first delicate stages, and so that the hills sprout green and the deer return from whence they came…
Unfortunately, not all the Islay barley farmers are in such a good position. The story at Octomore Farm is nothing like as rosy. Octomore is very heavily grazed by big flocks of Barnacle geese during the winter and farmer James Brown did not wish to risk taking heavy damage from early sowing – so he waited until the flocks had gone. But then the rain started. He managed to get his barley fields ploughed, but has not been able to get the seed in because the ground has been too wet. Maybe things will be OK on Friday of this week – but he is over a month later than last year.
Growing malting barley on Islay for Bruichladdich is very very difficult. Our farming friends risk a great deal to provide us with this fantastic crop, that, perhaps above all, defines who we are and what we believe in. We salute them.
We will be releasing another Islay Barley expression later this year.