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Saffron Walden: Barley farmer cashes in on Scotch whisky distilling boom

11:00 22 March 2014

John Hare, Saffron Walden farmer

John Hare, Saffron Walden farmer

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A cereal farmer is celebrating after successfully making the switch from growing brewing industry barley to a more lucrative crop suitable for distillers.

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Despite the challenges he faced in farming on heavy clay soil at Saffron Walden, John Hare decided to pursue the greater financial returns he could get from growing for the booming distilling market.

“The market for brewing malt has been in decline for many years while the distilling sector is booming driven by growing demand for Scotch whisky,” he said.

“I realised I would have to make the change at some point and with premiums in excess of that offered for malting types I thought ‘why wait?’”

His challenge was in getting nitrogen levels in the soil down to the correct levels and he managed this through using high seed rates and treating the soil with nitrogen early on.

Mr Hare uses a simple system based around winter wheat, spring beans, winter oats and spring barley.

For 10 years he grew the Optic barley variety for malting and wanted to switch to a higher yielding crop.

“In 10 years of growing Optic I consistently achieved a grain nitrogen content of 1.7-1.8%,” he said.

He began to consider growing for the distilling market. Although he was confident of meeting the lower grain nitrogen limit of 1.65% he was conscious that his 400 acres of mainly London boulder clay could present some difficulties.

“After much consideration I came to the conclusion that with the right variety, a high seed rate drilled early and with nitrogen applied soon after I could achieve the 1.65% nitrogen limit without impacting yield,” he explained.

He took the advice of Openfield barley trader Bob Bingley and plumped for Concerto, a favoured variety among distillers because of its high grain spirit yield, and one which is bred by seed company Limagrain, a French farming co-operative.

He drilled at the beginning of last April over 26 hectares and produced a respectable 6.9t/ha with an average grain nitrogen content of 1.62%.

With premiums over November futures currently heading for £30/tonne due to a decline in the planted area across much of Europe he plans to stick with Concerto this season.

Openfield arable technical manager David Leaper, said: “Heavy land of the types that is commonplace across East Anglia is not what we might consider ideal ground for distilling barley, but by mimicking the practices of growers in Scotland we can produce low-nitrogen grain successfully.

In most cases a seed rate of 250-300 seeds/metre squared would be acceptable, but on heavier land growers are advised to push this up to 350-400 seeds/sq. m. Typical nitrogen applications of 100-120kg N/ha should then be applied soon after drilling, ideally within 72 hours,” he said.

Limagrain senior barley breeder Mark Glew said new distilling growers following John Hare’s experience should find meeting the grain nitrogen specification relatively easy.

“Concerto is not a vigorous tiller so it is important to drill with a high seed rate otherwise the crop is unlikely to have the number of heads needed to dilute grain nitrogen. Growers should be aiming for about 800 heads/sq m heading in to harvest,” he said.

“If, as Mr Hare manages, growers can apply all the nitrogen in one application as soon as possible after drilling this will also help meet target grain nitrogen specification.”

For Mr Hare, Concerto spring barley has proven to be a cheap crop to grow with most weeds taken out before cultivations with a single application of glyphosate. A high burden of wild oats and broadleaved weeds meant the crop received a further two herbicides in season while last year the crop received its first fungicide around mid-May and a second about five weeks later, around June 26.

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