2017 Bere Harvest – "The Year Of The Skegs"


Peter Martin and John Wishart of the Agronomy Institure of Orkney College/UHI in Kirkwall recall some of the highs and lows of the 2017 harvest of Bere for Bruichladdich.

"Growing Bere is never dull, and just when you think you are beginning to understand the crop the unexpected happens! This year it was the awns, the long bristles which grow out of the ear (actually a long, barbed outgrowth from the husk which covers the grain). They are particularly long (and fierce!) in Bere. Locally, farmers call them “skegs” and one of the most common recollections of Bere for many retired farmers is how, in the days before overalls were worn, the skegs would work their way through clothing, causing serious irritation wherever they reached!

"There would have been a lot of contact with skegs in the days when the crop was cut and tied into sheaves, then stooked, stacked and eventually threshed – all by hand. Our problem with skegs was different however! For some reason, in some years and on some fields, combine harvesters don’t always manage to successfully break off the awns of Bere during threshing. When this happens, the awns stick to each other and it can be very difficult to empty grain from the tank of the combine or even from trailers. Anyone used to seeing grains of modern barley running out of a trailer like water would be horrified to see a trailer full of Bere tipped at 45 degrees with not a grain moving – the only way to get it into the dryer is to shovel it out! Fortunately, not every trailer load was like this, but even one is memorable!

"This year, the Agronomy Institute’s Orkney Bere supply chain started harvesting our fields around Kirkwall (Weyland and Watersfield farm) on 26th August. This was then followed in early September by Muddisdale, then Sydney Gauld’s field at Quoyberstane, Mhari Linklater’s field at Inganess, our fields at Westermills in Burray and on 19 September by Magnus Spence’s field at The Northfield in Burray.

"Looking back, it all happened very quickly with harvesting and grain drying running in parallel. With fields in very different locations, this was only possible because of the great support we get from contractors Ian Sinclair, Barry Moar and Arnold Mathers who do the combine harvesting and baling of straw for us. The Bere harvest works well for them because it comes in towards the end of cutting silage but before the majority of farmers, who grow later‐maturing barley, have started harvesting.

"With Orkney having a very short growing season for cereals, our strategy with Bere has always been to try to take maximum advantage of its ability to produce a crop in a shorter period of time than modern varieties. We therefore try to plant it as early as possible in April, in the hope that we will be able to harvest during reasonable weather at the end of August and early September, before the onset of wetter weather later in the month. In some years, we wonder whether this works, but this year we were lucky and avoided relentless September rain which made for a miserable harvest for many cereal growers.

"There was also the bonus of dry, good quality straw which, in Orkney, is needed in large quantities for livestock bedding over the winter. With poor quality imported straw now being sold for over £40 per bale, we wish we had not sold our own so soon after the harvest!

"In the end, our crop was just over 100 tonnes which we were quite happy with and, together with the grain we carried over from 2016, this allowed us to increase the amount supplied to Bruichladdich to 97.5 tonnes this year. Our first Bere crop, back in 2002, produced less than 1 tonne of grain..
there was a sense of achievement in seeing the fourth bulker load of grain leave Weyland farm on 28 November."

Harvest photos: John Wishart.

Photo of Peter and John: Anton Sucksdorff

The Agronomy Institute of Orkney College/UHI

Bruichladdich has released five different vintages of single malt whisky distilled from the ancient landrace of six-row barley called Bere.  The Bere for these releases was initially grown as a series of experimental harvests by Dunlossit Estate on Islay, with the seed being supplied by the Agronomy Institute on Orkney. In recent years the Institute has managed the entire supply chain of Bere - harvesting the grain on Orkney with the help of a group of local farmers, contractors and the Institute's own agricultural land.

The lastest release in the series is the Bruichladdich Bere 2008: Islay Grown, the grain for which was harvested on Islay in 2007. 

Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2009 was created from Bere grown on Orkney in 2008.

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