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Harvest 2017 analysis: Why Norfolk’s malting barley is in demand from big-name brewers like Marston’s

PUBLISHED: 12:00 21 October 2017 | UPDATED: 12:45 21 October 2017

Beer brewed with Norfolk barley was celebrated at Norwich's City of Ale festival. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

Beer brewed with Norfolk barley was celebrated at Norwich's City of Ale festival. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

In a year of average yields, malting barley has been hailed the king of East Anglia’s cereals harvest this year – underlining its growing reputation as a premium Norfolk product.

Crisp Maltings' commercial director Bob King at harvest Crisp Maltings' commercial director Bob King at harvest

After a growing season which swung from drought to deluge, the 2017 cereals harvest eventually produced some solid results – “a good average” according to many Norfolk farmers.

But among the mediocrity, the “shining light” was, once again, a crop for which the county has become renowned around the world.

Growers, traders and maltsters reported that the county’s malting barley has outperformed other areas, giving farmers a good price for achieving a decent yield and quality.

The consistent performance has attracted the attention of major brewers – including a recent deal struck to take Flagon winter barley from the Holkham Estate to Marston’s – generating a premium brand which could become an important competitive advantage as the trading environment shifts after Brexit.

Malting barley at the Holkham Estate. Picture: Matthew Usher. Malting barley at the Holkham Estate. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Andrew Dewing, chief executive of Aylsham-based grain merchant Dewing Grain, said: “The biggest plus of our harvest is malting barley – for Norfolk in particular. Whatever magic is in Norfolk, every single year it produces the best malting barley.

“It is a very buoyant market and a brilliant piece of news for Norfolk. It is that golden niche crop that Norfolk can do standing on its head, where other areas cannot. The average yield was lower because of the drought in May. You can get up to three tonnes per acre – that might have slipped to 2.75 but other areas are down to 1.5 or 1.25. And they have a lot more nitrogen in the grain and the timing of when the nitrogen went through the grain was wrong.

“So in East Anglia while the yield might be 10pc lower we got a dramatic bolt in the arm on the price because there was a shortage elsewhere. There was rain at a critical time in Germany and they had a drought in France, and Denmark had a difficult autumn, so there is a shortage of it in Europe.

“It is a double whammy. For the best malting barley you are getting prices of £180 per tonne for later in the year. That is a good price, but if you budgeted for £140 that’s a great price.”

Mr Dewing said the big question now was whether post-Brexit trading tariffs could make it more difficult to sell and export the crop in future.

“It is crystal ball-gazing, but my belief is that we will have a greater polarisation of the food market,” he said. “At one end of the market there is organic and specific, low food miles products and at the bottom end the government will want people to have cheap food. With that polarisation, I see very specific contracts being tied to brand or to specific groups who have got their name on it. Holkham and Marstons – that is the sort of thing I see that as an opportunity for East Anglian growers.

“We have got demand from maltsters and distillers, and they want to nail down the best growers. That is the battleground for us as we go into Brexit.”

The Marston’s deal was brokered by the Crisp Malting Group based in Great Ryburgh near Fakenham, whose commercial director, Bob King, said: “I think the whole provenance story is something that all producers are trying to sell.

“We have got the Maris Otter story in Norfolk and on a large scale the Marston’s, Flagon and Holkham story is all about having transparent provenance and understanding the whole supply chain. If you can supply from the area that historically has the best quality, it guarantees the market, and that allows you to be more flexible with the rest of your business. It allows for longer term planning.”

Mr King said this year’s winter barley had recovered after a poor 2016, but it was a much better year for spring barleys,, which had lower nitrogen levels than the rest of the country. “It is all useable, but there are other parts of East Anglia and the south where there is barley that does not have a home,” he said.”

James Beamish, farm manager at the Holkham Estate, said: “I think the brewers and the distillers are getting the confidence that, even in a challenging year, we have got more of a chance of producing that consistent barley, so this is where some of the bigger brewers are coming towards.

“We supply spring barley to Adnams, and the contract with Marston’s is for winter barley, so there’s no overlap.

“Their campaign is that they are the home of brewing, and it is a similar tale here at Holkham, where we like to say we are the home of modern farming and the agricultural revolution, so they can see that synergy and the provenance in their barley.

“I would say for the overall harvest it was a solid average. The winter barley was the shining light as far as yields go, but there were no disasters.”

REGIONAL ANALYSIS

East Anglian farmers faced an earlier-than-normal start to harvest 2017, but yields for many combinable crops were an improvement on 2016 levels, according to a property agency’s annual harvest survey.

Strutt and Parker’s provisional data, which covers farms in East Anglia, the south east and the east Midlands, shows the overall winter wheat yield for 2017 was 9.1t/ha (tonnes per hectare), up 2pc on the previous year’s average of 8.9t/ha. It was also higher than Defra’s estimated national average of 8.5t/ha.

Spring barley yields were down on last year’s levels – although at 6.1t/ha they were higher than the estimated national average of 5.7t/ha.

There was better news for growers of winter barley, who saw yields rise 10pc to average just under 7.4t/ha.

Winter oilseed rape yields also rose from a disappointing 2.9t/ha in 2016 to 3.8t/ha in 2017 – although that was below the national average of 3.9t/ha.

Jason Cantrill, a director of Strutt and Parker’s farming department in Norwich, said the East Anglian region had performed well overall. “Second wheats suffered in the dry spring, as did spring barley,” he said. “However, winter barley and oilseed rape bounced back from a poor result last year.”

NATIONAL ESTIMATES

Provisional UK estimates for Harvest 2017, published by the Office for National Statistics and Defra, include:

WHEAT: Up 5.4% to 15.2m tonnes. Yields up 7.3% to 8.5t/ha.

BARLEY: Up 10.6% to 7.4m tonnes. Yields up 5.4% to 6.3t/ha.

OILSEED RAPE: Up 23% to 2.2m tonnes. Yields up 26% to 3.9t/ha.

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