Mid Coul is an organic farm that lies on the south side of the Moray Firth to the east of Inverness. It has been farmed by the Rose family since 1912 and, as can be imagined, has undergone a number of changes during that time. Originally traditional sheep and arable farmers, the family moved into pig and turkey production in the 1950’s before refocussing on organic management of the land in the 1990’s.
A particular speciality is the production of high value organic vegetables such as carrots and parsnips but in recent years, much of the production has shifted again, this time towards growing biomass to supply two anaerobic digestion systems generating renewable energy for national gas and electricity grids.
Farmer William Rose has provided Bruichladdich with organic barley since 2003 and was the source of grain for our first ever organic single malt. This was probably a world first, certainly in the modern era, although prior to the Green Revolution (which really only started after the second world war), all farming was organic by nature.
Today, Mid Coul is a fascinating, vibrant place. They proudly claim that: “Everyone on the farm is constantly striving to ensure that the land is managed to best advantage economically and environmentally.” Crop rotation is central to the organic regime and a very wide range are grown in addition to malting barley, including the root vegetables, rye, oats, beans, nitrogen-fixing clover and grass. Sheep are raised and organic cattle fattened for market. There is even a small farm shop that operates on an honesty-box principle when supplies are available. Our barley therefore has to take its place within this complex organic cycle. Seeing it in the field the rich understory that organic methods promotes is immediately apparent. This is evidently not ideal if the aim is maximum yield, but what if quality, rather than yield, is the primary aim? The idea is very aligned to our philosophy at Bruichladdich.
There is a unexpected atmosphere on the farm as a result – one in which very high technology production methods sit comfortably alongside wild and biodiverse hedgerows and field margins that teem with birds, butterflies and wild flowers. An interesting example of this is a good local population of Corn buntings, farmland birds that used to be abundant but are now scarce. According to the RSPB the UK population of these buntings fell by 89 per cent between 1970 and 2003. This is mainly because modern herbicides and insecticides mean fewer seed and insect food sources are available to them on ‘conventional’ farmland. Their presence on Mid-Coul is indicative of the benefits of organic farming to wildlife.
Despite this, the Mid Coul operation feels very 21st century. All the farm tractors are fitted with super-accurate GPS navigation systems which enable them to be self-driven up and down, say, a field of carrots. The driver does not have to worry about guiding the vehicle, he can concentrate on other tasks such as monitoring the cameras that are linked to weed identification software enabling their mechanical removal. These super-sophisticated systems are backed up by teams of up to 70 seasonal workers who lie out on tractor booms to manually weed the rows.
While we were there, the permanent staff of eight, plus a number of contractors, were engaged in cutting and storing silage in immense pits ready to feed the new 2.4 megawatt anaerobic digester that will supply natural gas (methane) to the grid when it is brought on line in around one month’s time. The giant green domes of the new plant sit rather futuristically in the landscape and work rather like the four stomachs of a cow, converting biomass to biogas through the stages of hydrolysis, acidogenesis, acetogenesis and methogenesis – eventually producing methane.
The waste ‘digestate’ from the process is then spread back onto the fields as a nutrient-rich fertilizer.
One is left with the impression that if we are to maintain our lifestyles in the long term then it will surely be farms like this that lead the way by really addressing sustainability and minimising the inputs of petrochemical based fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. An idealistic vision, yes, but one that William Rose is determined to deliver in a rational, commercially appropriate way. And judging from the number of beautiful dragonflies, butterflies and flocks of seed-eating birds to be seen thriving on this rich organic farm, it is a vision that can only be of great benefit to our native wildlife as well as people.
With thanks to William Rose, Hazel Geddes and all at Mid Coul Farms