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May 30, 2023 | editorial | 10 minute read

The last week of May seems like an atrociously tardy point to finally be issuing an update on this vintage’s sowing.

The seasons have turned, spring has almost run its course; by now we’re used to seeing the barley looking lustrous and green (other than at Hook Head, where Atlantic salt winds always put paid to any sort of colour). But this year has been an especially striking example of the truism that no two vintages are ever created equal.

Signs looked so promising at the start of the year. The late stages of winter were so fine and dry that some farms got their sowing done as early as mid-February. Barely any rain (Met Eirann recorded 14.3mm this year compared to a February average of 57.3mm) meant that those quick off the mark in the driest parts of the county, such as Wexford, had barley down in record time.

Hook Head Sowing 22

David Walsh-Kemmis at Ballykilcavan in Co. Laois — the winner of our inaugural Grower of the Year trophy — was one of those who sowed earlier than usual. ‘The Waterford barley at Ballykilcavan is looking really well,’ he told us. ‘We took a chance on sowing it in early March. Right now it’s well into stem extensions and we should see the first awns appearing in a week or so’. (Quite possibly around the time you’re reading this.)

Tellingly though, David had an additional comment to make. ‘We’re glad we [took the chance],’ he said, ‘because it rained solidly for weeks afterwards’.

21st April. David Walsh Kemmis, Laureate.
21st April. David Walsh Kemmis, Laureate.
21st April. David Walsh Kemmis, Laureate.
21st April. David Walsh Kemmis, Laureate.

It’s fair to say that if February was an unseasonably bright and cheerful month, in March the weather presented its bill. From the 15th of March, almost as soon as David had sown, the sky darkened and down came the rain in torrents. The average total for the month over the last 30 years has been 63.4 mm. This year Met Eirann recorded 103.4mm at its Oakpark weather station.

‘Sowing was delayed due to the wettest March in memory’, Con Murphy at Annestown in our own Co. Waterford related. ‘We were exactly a month later sowing than last year’.

Bannow Island, just round the coast into Co. Wexford was even later. ‘I didn’t get sowing until around the 14th of April,’ Ed Harpur said. ‘Approximately a month late. We had to cut back a bit on fertiliser because it’s going to be a shorter growing season and protein could be a problem’.

Rain delays were even more pronounced for our Organic and Biodynamic farmers. Their no-till approach to agriculture means that soils are far more water-retentive, meaning even in a drier year they’re usually the last to get seed into the ground. In the wake of this year’s torrents the wait was agonising.

‘Four weeks later than usual,’ says Martin Garrigan, our new Organic grower up in Co. Dublin, who finally got his barley in on the 7th May.

25th April. Bannow Island.
25th April. Bannow Island.
25th April. Bannow Island.
25th April. Bannow Island.
24th May. Martin Garrigan, Organic Grower.
24th May. Martin Garrigan, Organic Grower.
24th May. Martin Garrigan, Organic Grower.
24th May. Martin Garrigan, Organic Grower.

Last of all, taking to his fields on a barely believable 17th May and once again sowing our cherished heritage barley variety, Hunter, was Biodynamic grower Trevor Harris in Co. Kildare. We’re used to Trevor being at the back of the queue; when we visited him last year he had sown in early May and seemed supremely laid back at the timing. This year his comments were a little more to the point:

‘We had a tough spring growing campaign this year. I’ve never seen a year like it. Such a sustained period of wet weather. We usually don’t get too uptight about sowing dates, but this year we were worried. Barley needs to go into a good seedbed though, so we just had to wait. The barley is all sown now, and in reasonable soil conditions, and soil temperatures are up so the plants should catch up on lost time.’

His final optimistic note was one shared by the other growers we talked to: ‘The weather was good when we did get sowing and conditions were great,’ Ed Harper told us. ‘The barley is growing very well and was up very quick. And after all the rain we had in March and start of April we could actually do with a bit of rain now again!’

‘Due to favourable growth conditions the crop emerged in 10 days,’ added Con Murphy. ‘Tillering is looking pretty good, and last night’s rainfall (Sunday 21st May) will certainly stimulate growth.’

‘Should be fine with the help of God and a drop of rain!’ commented Martin Garrigan, wryly.

17th May. Trevor Harris, Sowing.
17th May. Trevor Harris Sowing, Biodynamic Grower.
17th May. Trevor Harris, Biodynamic Grower.
17th May. Trevor Harris, Biodynamic Grower.
25th March. Mermaid variety, Philip Kehoe.
25th March. Mermaid variety, Philip Kehoe.
18th April, Sheastown
18th April. Sheastown.

Overall, those who got their seed in the ground early have experienced sowing conditions not a million miles away from 2021 and 2022. Yields are likely to be high, and proteins low (always a boon to distillers, since high protein generally means lower starch and thus ultimately less fermentable sugar. The wet weather through March and April increases the risk of disease, but it looks as though our early-sowing farmers have ridden their luck in that respect. (It possibly helps that many are using a variety being trialled for the first time this year called ‘Mermaid’, developed to be well resistant to water, and thus far living up to its name.)

The later planters have experienced conditions closer to 2016, with lower yields likely and probable higher proteins, meaning yields will also be down when we come to put the barley through washbacks and stills at the distillery.

Windy, showery days in mid-May are giving those growers the best chance to catch up on lost time, though at the time of writing a spell of bright sunshine could do with being broken up by a few more spots of rain.

25th April. Hook Head.
25th April. Hook Head.
11th May. Old Irish sown 20th April, Bennitsbridge.
11th May. Old Irish sown 20th April, Bennitsbridge.

It’s ironic, given the conditions in March and early April, that so many of our farmers are now crossing their fingers and squinting up in the sky for signs of gathering clouds. But these of course are the vagaries that govern the growth of all plants and the resultant expressions of all agricultural produce. We see our whisky entirely in that frame; its flavours dictated by land and season and by the way our growers respond to their rhythms to coax the best out of every vintage’s harvest. It is unpredictable, varied, challenging and dynamic – we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Good luck to our farmers across the South East and beyond as they weave their way through the last of Spring and the early days of Summer. We know the sown barley is in the very best of hands. In the words of Jeff O’Connor, Agronomist with our partners at Minch Malt: ‘Resilience will be required, and this is never in short supply when it comes to Irish farmers’.

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