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Of the land With so much in the news of late highlighting provenance, terroir, grain prices and the introduction of new crops into the Irish whiskey fold, we spoke with Bobby Miller, head of the Irish Grain Growers group. It was fascinating to get his views, to hear his pride and passion for the Irish tillage sector. He certainly didn’t hold back! IWM: Bobby, who are the Irish Grain Growers group? Bobby: Like a lot of things, we started out of necessity. In 2014, the price was €147 a tonne for malting barley. It just wasn’t acceptable. We feared we were being underrepresented, so about 80 or 90 farmers got together to start highlighting the situation. Farmers in the midlands and southeast: Laois, Kildare, Carlow, Wexford, the odd Wicklow or Waterford member thrown in - basically the malt growing region in the southeast. Bar a couple of small outfits, Boortmalt (Minch Malt) and The Malting Company of Ireland are the two main malting players in this country. Our group started from the Boortmalt catchment area, MCI is based in Cork, even though MCI is half-owned by DairyGold and Glanbia. Glanbia is based around here too so malting barley is grown for MCI in this area too. In 2016 we morphed into a group covering all tillage farmers as we saw a need to grow the group. IWM: You started at 80. How many growers are you now representing? Bobby: We’ve 400 growers now. There are about 6,000 fulltime growers in Ireland so there is room for more growth. IWM: What’s the price now per tonne? Bobby: €154.80 as of this harvest. Look, my father’s and my grandfather’s generation all complained about the price of grain, but malting barley was still seen then as the premium grain to grow. That’s disappeared completely. It’s maybe fifth or sixth place now. Feed barley, feed wheat, gluten-free oats, oilseed rape, beans they’re all outperforming malting barley as regards a profit per acre now. There’s a misconception that because there’s an extra few euro paid over the price of feed that you’re getting more for your barley. Just because you have 100 acres of malting barley doesn’t mean every tonne is going to be taken in by the maltster. In 2016, only 50% of the malting barley was purchased by the masters due to the tighter specifications and the weather. So, you have to put feed barley value on the rest, which means diluting the malting barley price you receive. Add in seed that is more expensive to buy, loss of yield due to reducing fertiliser use to try to reach the ever-tightening specifications required in Ireland, suddenly all the premium disappears. IWM: What about the distilleries themselves? Bobby: The distilling industry is another element. Why are they using French maize instead of Irish wheat? There are about 90,000 tonnes of maize imported. If you look at the Irish whiskey’s rules, it has to be processed and stored here for 3 years but it doesn’t matter where the raw materials are from. You have to call that into question at some point. How Irish by nature is the Whiskey? IWM: What would be the main grains sown around Ireland today? Bobby: Barley and wheat are the main grains, with oats being well down the list. Wheat is popular in the northeast. There are different types of soil, as Mark Reynier has been saying down in Waterford Distillery, and wheat likes stronger soil. At the moment there are about 200,000 tonnes of barley grown for the malting industry or about 10% of all grain grown in Ireland. The main crops are feed grains, but you also have beans, peas, oilseed rape, oats - though you’d want to know before sowing oats that you’d have a market for them.   “malting barley was seen then as the premium grain to grow.”     IWM: I imagine a lot of the malting barley is headed for Guinness and the breweries. What percentage would be specifically for distilling? Bobby: Well this is where the whole dynamic is changing. In 2018 I’m expected to grow 40% of my contract for distilling. IWM: Any particular distillery or are you more tied to a Malthouse? Bobby: I’m tied to Boortmalt at present. There are only two big players in the game, which is another thing our group are scratching our heads about when there’s so much growth. Is there an opportunity for more? IWM: Is malting barley acreage dropping? Bobby: It’s actually increasing after years of dropping, but the margin isn’t there for the farmers. They’re being encouraged to grow it but tillage farmers are being sold a falsehood. There’s a pride about growing malting barley, that’s what attracts farmers, to say, ‘Look. There’s a pint of Guinness. That could be my barley that made that pint’ but pride doesn’t pay the bills. Boortmalt give out seed to growers equivalent to about 170,000 tonnes but they’ll only buy, say, 130,000 tonnes at the very most. So, there are 40,000-60,000 tonnes that won’t be used any way that farmers get feed price for. They’ll get growers to sow enough to get enough if you get my drift. And they’re being allowed to do it, which is not right either. There were malting barley contracts traditionally but they’re valueless now. IWM: What’s driving these figures? Is it the distilleries or is it the malting houses? Bobby: The rapid growth in the Irish distilling industry, it’s great to see but it’s not getting to farm-gate level as regards to profits. The distilleries set the specifications they require. Distillers want barley under 8.8% protein to get more harvestable alcohol per malted tonne but to meet these specifications a farmer would need to come up with solutions such as applying less fertiliser. On average you apply 115-120 units of Nitrogen. To grow distilling barley you’d only put on about 90 units, giving you a third to a half a tonne less yield per acre. If you’re not getting compensated for that loss then there’s no incentive to grow it and if it isn’t purchased by the maltsters at harvest, you can consider it feed. Teagasc research suggests that there’s only a 41% chance of your grain making the distilling grade even when reducing your fertiliser use. The specifications are higher for distilling but there’s a flat price for brewing and distilling barley at present. I think distilling barley actually made a euro less this year, which is crazy stuff in our eyes. IWM: What are the consequences of not getting the payment you need? Bobby: The dairy sector is going to take over. That’s the simple answer.   “There’s a pride about growing malting barley, that’s what attracts farmers”   IWM: What surprises me is that the acreage has gone down but the yield has stayed very level. Is that just down to efficiency? Bobby: Technological efficiency. Twenty years ago your standard spring yield would have been 2½ tonnes to the acre. Now it’s closer to 3 tonnes. For winter wheat there are now reports of up to 5 tonnes to the acre, which would have been unheard of back then. The area is decreasing but the yields are increasing, which is how they’ve managed to stay on a parallel up to now.   IWM: Can you see that efficiency continuing to increase? Bobby: Well if the research industry doesn’t think there’s a tillage sector to support, they may just walk away from it and that will put an end to technological efficiency.   IWM: Between the malting companies, the distilleries, and the government, who would be the best positioned or the most likely to change this? Bobby: The government. You take that €154.80 a tonne - now I don’t know how that converts to a bottle of whiskey, but we need the equivalence of .1% - .15% of the retail price of a pint of Guinness extra.   IWM: Irish column stills switched from wheat to maize in the ’70s? What would be the effect if they switched back? Bobby: They’d need to establish a supply chain for that. The Irish farmer is prepared to go down that road. It would probably mean using 100,000 tonnes of Irish wheat, a real shot in the arm for the tillage farmer, of course, that’s if the price is right but it would show a vote of confidence for the tillage farmers which is very low at the minute.   IWM: You hear a lot of distilleries now stressing their relationship with farmers. Is this a myth in your eyes? Bobby: Yes, maybe with a few exceptions. Look. A large amount of the grain used is Irish because of its quality, but the threat from the big players is always ‘we’ll import it anyway if you don’t grow it for us.’ That’s not the right attitude. They’re under no obligation to use Irish Grain as it is.   IWM: Some distillers have been saying they would like to do their own malting. If you had a landscape in which even a few distillers were buying directly from you, do you think that would change anything? Bobby: What we’d love to see is a closer link between the farmer and the distiller. One example I would love to see would be a collaborative venture between farmers and maybe some of your smaller distillers. You know yourself there are other grains that could be used, rye, oats, wheat. I’d love to see distilleries saying, ‘Right lads and ladies, can you grow 10, 20, 30 tonnes of X for us?’ But the malting still needs to be done, so let there be an investment from the farmers and from the distillers in a malting facility. I think that could be very workable. You could even get your craft brewers involved. There are opportunities there. We are willing to explore them.   IWM: What about Mark Reynier in Waterford who claims to be working with 55 farmers? Bobby: Oh, he is. I know he might be a bit of a maverick but to be fair to him, his story is quite thorough and his ideal about terroir I happen to believe myself.     “What we’d love to see is a closer link between the farme
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