Hashtag Whisky is Agriculture

IN

“Bringing sensibility into our farming systems, through variation, through generative natures, through organic, through animal integration, whatever it takes…”

Dr Steve Jones, cereal breeder at WSU Bread Lab. 

It might not be the most glamorous thing you associate with distilling, but we were proud to host a nuanced and meaningful panel discussion about whisky and agriculture this week, live from the distillery. 

We had representation from 3 distilleries, a breeder, a botanic garden, and a farmer, and a healthy live audience across Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, reaching more than 12,000 people. Three main themes emerged, as we looked towards the future we are creating for ourselves. 

In the fields with bere barley, Orkney

Diversity 

A diversity of life in the soils was promoted by everyone.  In Thierry Vrain’s experience, after an entire career as a soil scientist in American / Canadian academia, the diversity of life in the soils, even the idea that soil was alive, had been a revelation. 

“If you want your plants to be healthy, you need all these microorganisms to poop manure to feed the soil!” he said. “There’s no difference between cow and horse manure and that of microorganisms; it’s the same thing. They’re releasing the minerals that the plants need.”  The damaging effects of glyphosate (“roundup”) on the micro-biological life of the soil, and similarly on the human microbiome, is what led had him into becoming a committed campaigner against its use.  

Steve Jones had also had a previous career in the world of “big ag”. “I was a commodity breeder for over 20 years and my job was to make everything the same… No one on this panel wants everything the same, I don’t believe! I got out of that system about 12 years ago…” He went on to describe the potential of landrace crops, like the bere barley we work with at Bruichladdich. “We have a room here [in Washington State University’s Bread Lab, outside Seattle] with 8000 lines of ancient, heirloom and heritage. We improve them though! We’re interested in making it better, making it different, which is how it was originally designed, right? We’re breeding Bere to be black purple and blue. Everything we do is on a population basis, so we develop in essence, new versions of landraces…”

Why does he do that? One of the reasons is “The climate isn’t just changing, it’s chaotic! The way to deal variation and diversity of the climate, is variation and diversity in our fields.”

There was talk about diversity of planting. David at Spirit of Yorkshire distillery described how they had recently direct drilled their winter barley; Steve Jones of the Breadlab agreed that winter types were a “strong part of the rotation” that keeps the soil active. 

There were many similar accounts of different crops, like legumes, or rye, being planted alternately, helping the soil’s fertility. Richard Gantlett of biodynamic farm Yatesbury House described their system of herbal leys that mix 23 different species, “Different species do well in different years, or in a different part of the field to another species. And so the diversity is almost like an insurance policy from the point of view. And that creates the life and the healthy energy in the soil which then feeds the following crops.”

How does that work, exactly? No surprise, it’s about carbon, which is the backbone of all organic chemistry, and therefore all living things, plus many useful molecules like carbo-hydrates, proteins, etc. Thierry explained, “Carbon holds the water. The more carbon you have in the soil, the more crops, the more cover crops, the more water you have, and the more nutrients to feed the life of the soil.”

David Thompson had an interesting bit of research to relay about water retention, from his position above the Humber estuary, where drainage and flood risk is on the radar. A recent project with Yorkshire water showed that 1% organic matter in a hectare of soil holds 30 tonnes water; so if that amount could be raised every year (like at Richard’s Yatesbury House farm), it could really make a difference. Said David, “We can think outside of a bottle of whisky, we can think outside of growing the crop, we can think about the whole environment when we’re doing these sort of techniques.” 

Richard puts his success at raising his soil’s organic matter content by 0.25% a year down to the cows that are part of his mixed farming approach. They feed on the herbal rich diverse pastures that are the winter cover crops, helping to recycle the nutrients, and returning or “sequestering” significant amounts of carbon from the plants back into the soil. Another angle on diversity there. 

Beaming live from the stillhouse at Spirit of Yorkshire distillery

Investment

NcNean’s Annabel Thomas spoke about committing to buying all organic barley for her new distillery, in spite of it being more expensive. This led to wider discussions about both the economics and about the principles of investment. 

The idea that organic barley was more expensive because it was unstable had been discredited in Annabel’s experience, where their all-organic supply for distilling has been so consistent since 2015 that they are now confidently switching to buying from just 2 farms rather than 10 (primarily so as to be able to get closer to understanding their carbon footprint in much more detail.)

Is it more expensive because it is lower yielding then? Steve Jones thinks that is “a myth, we shouldn’t take that as default, if you are controlling the weeds and getting the fertility up through cover crops.”

Controlling the weeds is easier said than done! For Richard Gantlett the weeds are valuable, he wants to keep them, by planting competitive varieties that can beat the weeds. Dave Thompson advocated having the right variety for particular land as critical, in his experience.

The source of the expense might be more hidden. Annabel began, “Barley is obviously a really important part of whisky, both in terms of creating the flavour but also in terms of purchasing and in term of the impact on the land, and connection to that land. Biodiversity you can see around the farm with your own eye, but also there are things that go unseen like the impact on the water environment around the farm.” Richard developed the point. “It’s important when you’re talking about the cost of food sometimes, just to question why some food is cheap. Some of the pollution isn’t factored into the cost of a product; so it’s paid for by someone else, probably the planet, and picked up by tax payers. We have a farming system that doesn’t support biodiversity, that has consequences, and costs eventually, and we’re seeing those borne out in climate change and the biodiversity loss.” 

The panel concurred that if you are not investing in good systems you are investing in bad systems. We have the ability, whether as businesses or individuals to “vote with our wallets”. Douglas Taylor of Bruichladdich shared how, “Organic is still a tiny part of our business. There is still not a huge demand for organic globally, so we’re trying to forge a path to create the market, create communication..”  

“We almost need for businesses to choose what the responsible direction is, and then that to be offered to consumers,” host Christy of Bruichladdich added. “Luxury goods like whisky can actually help add their value back into the supply chain.”

This is our 2017 crop of organic barley, in the fields.

People

In the end, choices come down to the individual. But it helps if those individuals form a coherent ecosystem! You need the farmers, the maltsters, and the distillers to all be able to accept variation to make a regenerative alternative viable. Steve Jones commented, “Big industrial maltsters in the states cannot tolerate variation. It’s not allowed in the commodity system, it’s also not allowed in the seed system, also in European regulation that’s the case.”

All the distilleries voiced their support of local communities and developing the immediate relationships around them, not only because it reduces food miles, but because growing knowledge and sharing intentions makes for better longevity and momentuum for your project.

Richard Gantlett’s biodynamic farm is a closed system; they bring very little in. He’d like to see farms become more autonomous, individualised, giving overall versatility.  “I think what’s important in any farming system is the farmer. It doesn’t matter what type of farming you do, the farmer is the most important, the controlling, factor.” 

These people really care about what they are doing and how they are doing it. You can watch the full discussion here: 

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