Can Whisky Save Our Soils?

14th November 2021 / by Jane Carswell

As we prepare to release our first biodynamic whisky, we turn to the farmer to find out how making whisky from barley grown in this way plays into the bigger picture. The much bigger picture.

Richard Gantlett, our biodynamic barley farmer, has recently completed a thesis on soils as part of his Doctorate of Philosophy in Agriculture from the University of Reading. “Agricultural soils are everywhere: they occupy roughly 37% of the earth’s surface…”

We fired a few questions at him to find out what’s going on beneath the ground on his biodynamic farm, Yatesbury.


Can you explain the connection between soil and food / barley?

Richard Gantlett [RG]: In a natural, healthy soil it’s the soil organisms that feed the plants through a network of interacting species. For example, by integral cell connections of fungi and plants, the fungi provide plants with nutrients like phosphorous and in exchange the plants give the fungi carbon compounds like sugars. The vitality of plants and their seeds are therefore reliant on the vitality of the soil, indeed the soil life can flavour the plants and seeds.

You describe soil degradation as one of the biggest threats to our future. What do you mean?

RG: Soils are multi-talented! They provide clean air, water and food.

Our civilisation relies on growing food and fibres (e.g. for clothes) in soil. All terrestrial food-webs begin with the soil.

Degraded soils increase flood and drought, because soil is like a sponge that can hold water. If the soil is washed or blown away then we simply cannot grow food, or it becomes more expensive to do so.

There is 10 times more carbon stored in soil than in a forest; degraded soils release carbon into the air.

Damaging the soil also pollutes the oceans – think of algal blooms in the ocean that have resulted from nitrates (and phosphates) leaching from the land. That means, therefore, all of earth’s biodiversity relies on healthy soils.


And yet you’re “cautiously optimistic”. Your farm sequesters 10 x more carbon than it emits. How do you see the role farming could play as part of climate change solutions?

RG: I see a new vision for farming where each farm is individual, each farmer can mitigate for climate change through growing soils and adapt to climate change by … growing soil.

Each farmer can do this according to their skills, knowledge, location, climate, and market. In this vision each farmer is supported by a network of advice and research funded by a vibrant, valued and flourishing farming community.

What should be the masterplan, in your opinion, and why? 

RG: 1. Eradicate the need for toxin use in farming by 2030 through encouragement and regulation. 2. Enable agencies to protect our soil, water and air against pollution by penalties and education. 3. Empower farmers with a new vision to grow their soils, by encouraging biodiversity in all forms.
Why? Because then we are serving all life.
To find out ore about Richard’s first harvest of biodynamic barley, distilled in 2011 and bottled in 2021, see The Biodynamic Project.
Bruichladdich Distillery
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