Micro-climates dictate farmers’ fortunes during a ‘disappointing’ barley harvest

PUBLISHED: 10:57 30 July 2020 | UPDATED: 11:31 30 July 2020

Norfolk grain trader Andrew Dewing says the north-east of the county has produced the best winter barley during a 'disappointing' 2020 harvest. Picture: Dewing Grain.

Norfolk grain trader Andrew Dewing says the north-east of the county has produced the best winter barley during a 'disappointing' 2020 harvest. Picture: Dewing Grain.

Dewing Grain

Localised micro-climates have created winners and losers among Norfolk’s barley growers – with farmers in Broadland gathering the best crops so far during a “disappointing” 2020 harvest, said grain traders.

Andrew Dewing, chief executive of Aylsham-based merchant Dewing Grain, said this year’s harvest of winter barley is “all done bar the shouting”, with below-average overall yields and distinct regional variations in quality.

While growers north-east of Norwich have grown good crops despite the wet winter and dry spring, he said others in the rest of Norfolk’s traditional barley heartlands have struggled to reach the grain quality specifications and low nitrogen levels required by the malting and brewing industries.

As a result, many of those crops will end up as animal feed – although he said the extra premium paid for malting barley was currently only £10 per tonne anyway, partly due to the huge surplus of grain created by the slump in demand for beer as pubs and restaurants closed during the lockdown.

And with a large spring barley harvest still to come, Mr Dewing said one silver lining is that there are competitive prices to be found for feed barley being shipped to export markets.

“We can categorically say that the good barley this year is to the east of the A140 and north of the river Yare,” he said. “We have had micro-climates going on across the county and where we usually rely on good barley coming from that coastal strip from Cromer and Sheringham to Blakeney and the Wash, the samples there are not perfect spec. It is like comparing the Championship versus the Premier League.

“If you talk about the ‘high plains’ of north-west Norfolk it had an awful autumn, so they had a tough time getting things done when they needed to. If you drove between Aylsham and Fakenham, there was a whole patch out the other side of Saxthorpe which just looked awful. They obviously had less rain at critical times.

“But there have been some good samples of around 1.7% nitrogen on very good land.

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“Because of Covid-19 and people not drinking beer, there are a lots of tonnes carried over from last year so the maltster is in a position where they have a lot of stock they have already paid for, and anything above 1.8% nitrogen has gone in the feed bin. The price for malting barley is not that far above feed.

“It just means there is no point trying to get a premium out of a 1.82% sample, there is no point taking it to a maltster. The trade-off is there is some good competitive prices for feed barley in world markets, and lots of boats taking feed barley for export.”

Mr Dewing said while the best Broadland crops are “as good as any barley”, the overall winter barley yields have been disappointing – although that is not surprising because of the weather.

“I think everybody is just feeling downbeat about it and they just want to get this harvest out of the way,” he said. “We knew from the growing season it was not going to be a bumper year and we were not going to have cheerful farmers.”

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