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The transformation of a barley field in just three short months is no less than a little miracle.

As we turn off the motorway in the north of County Wexford the June greenness seems to amplify and envelop us. Lush tree canopies fold themselves over the road, whilst on the banks loom hedgerow, nettle, fern and grass. A dense, fecund, emerald world rejoicing in the coming summer ripeness.

Ballymorgan, farmed by Robert Milne, is the byproduct of all this verdant richness, and to call in at this time of year is to see the farm at its indulgent best. Where in March was the rolling brown of unsown fields is now the blaze of every shade of green; of barley, wheat, wild bird cover and the darker woodland that fringes them.

ROBERT MILNE AT BALLYMORGAN

At this time of year the barley has yet to turn; still clad in the luxurious green of underripeness. In a few weeks the green will be replaced by a baked, drying golden-yellow; now its stems and awns have the wind-ruffled softness of a house cat’s coat – in stark contrast to the firmer, colder, paler wheat in the fields adjacent. This is photographer Caolan’s favourite time of year to capture the barleyfields; this special point at which the plant is developed in all but colour and fullness of kernel.

We find Robert and family in the top field, picking their way through the barley, already almost up to their waists. They are hunting rogue wild oats; their tops peeping just above the barley’s parapet. Left unchecked they’ll take over the field, so Robert is scrupulous in his control. Every one is pulled from the soil – by hand. He seems to take the wild oats as something of a personal insult; something he absolutely can’t bear to see. Day to day he’ll stop the tractor just to haul a couple out if he sees them going past.

The result is a barleyfield which, even to the untrained eye, looks absolutely pristine. Ballymorgan sits at comparatively high altitude by County Wexford standards, and Robert’s fields hold a commanding hilltop position, visible for miles around. His vista takes in the gentle undulation of the soft landscape, whilst on the horizon we can see Mount Leinster and the Black Stairs mountains pulling the clouds down from the sky, squeezing the rain from them long before they reach the farm.

MOUNT LEINSTER

If anything, at the time of our visit, Robert could use a little rainfall. It’s been a dry few weeks and the barley could do with a final soaking before a good dry run to the finish line and harvest time. Going by the forecast, Robert’s likely to get his wish at the weekend. As to whether the fine weather then holds until August, that’s in the hands of the Gods. But Ballymorgan is always one of the driest of our terroirs. Robert’s quietly optimistic.

Hook Head is still in the same county, but it’s almost impossible to believe it, so markedly different to Ballymorgan is its terroir.

Where Ballymorgan sits in dense, green woodland and undulating hillscape, Hook Head is blasted by salty Atlantic gale, jutting out into the ocean on a slender, near-ethereally flat peninsular. All the protection the barley has from wind is the looming lighthouse the fields back on to – the oldest working lighthouse in the world. As a windshield it doesn’t offer much.

HOOK HEAD

The very soil of Hook Head is different to Ballymorgan’s. Where Ballymorgan, like almost all of Wexford, sits on the rich brown earth Clonroche series unique to this county, Hook Head is unique as Wexford’s only example of the Elton series – heavy loamy clay on limestone. It is also, as you might guess in this flattest of terroirs, thin soil indeed. One step off the low cliff and you can see the limestone bedrock barely a foot beneath the soil’s surface.

No surprise then that the barley here is already far shorter than Ballymorgan’s, to the north. Barley approaching knee height, thanks to remorseless wind and shallow roots. Starkest of all is the colour; where Ballymorgan virtually glowed with green, here the awns, the kernels and even much of the stems have been bleached a stark, harsh white – a legacy of constant exposure to salt air. The layperson would look at these fields and wonder, perhaps, why Martin Foley goes to the trouble of growing barley here. By comparison with the verdant north it looks to the untrained eye to be almost lifeless. By Martin’s own admission the ferocity of the gales a fortnight after sowing destroyed the fledgling barley shoots such that the plants had to start again from scratch.

Yet he goes on to tell us that not only is his expected yield just the same as Robert’s, but that this year is looking (touch wood) like the best he has seen in 56 years of farming barley.

HOOK HEAD FARM AND LIGHTHOUSE

It is one thing to be academically aware of the varying effects of different terroirs upon a plant – another thing entirely to have it visually presented in such stark fashion. Lest we forget, these two farms are in the same county, were sown at more or less the same time and with the same barley variety – Laureate. What’s more, these fields are unfinished business. At the time of our visit (22nd June) there are still six weeks before Martin gets his harvest in (probably 7th-10th August to beat the summer storms, which he attests arrive like clockwork on the 14th). Robert, weather allowing, may not bring his own harvest in for a week or so after that.

We’ll be back again then to report on the harvest and the vintage as a whole. In the meantime, these two such different terroirs offer a stunning reminder of the impact of terroir – even within such close proximity as that of a single county. A demonstration of the difference that place makes to the growth of an otherwise-identical crop. And, by extension, the flavours we are able to tease from each one.

BALLYMORGAN
HOOK HEAD

EDITORIAL