Tough year for Norfolk's famous beer-making barley sparks calls for higher premiums for farmers
Red Flame Communications
A poor year for a famous Norfolk malting barley variety has sparked calls for higher premiums to be paid to farmers to acknowledge the financial risks of growing it.
Maris Otter, a 50-year-old specialist variety revered by craft brewers across the world, is mainly grown in north Norfolk.
But while it is highly sought-after for its brewing qualities, it is low-yielding and can be difficult to grow in less-than-optimum conditions - which is why it attracts a premium price as an incentive for growers.
But this year, despite bringing exceptional yields for spring barley, was not a good one for autumn-sown Maris Otter.
Teddy Maufe of Branthill Farm, a tenant on the Holkham Estate, said an exceptionally dry period in spring meant fertilisers applied in March sat on the surface of the soil until it was washed in by a five-inch deluge of rain in mid-May.
"It was the equivalent of us going out with our fertiliser spreaders two months later than usual," he said - and it produced high nitrogen levels in the crop that pushed much of it beyond the 1.6% maximum usually accepted by maltsters.
To mitigate the poor growing conditions, grain merchants relaxed their specifications to accept loads of up to 1.7%, at a discounted rate.
Mr Maufe said while most of his 200 acres of Maris Otter was accepted with some deductions, his last field came in at 1.9% nitrogen - an unprecedented high for the farm - which was rejected and had to be sold as animal feed at £116 per tonne, rather than the £200 it would have fetched as premium malting barley.
He said it proved premiums needed to be higher to help farmers ride out a bad year.
"When you grow Maris Otter you are on a tightrope," he said. "This part of Norfolk is normally one of the best places for growing Maris Otter in the world. Most years you hope to succeed with the right agronomy and the right land but every now and again you have a quirky year and you grow a feed crop of Maris Otter, which is highly undesirable.
"I have been growing Maris Otter for several years, and we have always known there is an element of risk and for the one year in seven that some or all of your crop ends up in the feed heap, that is why I feel the premium has to be looked at so the good years can tide over the bad years.
"My only beef is that sometimes the grower takes all the risks, and that is why the premium should be higher. The grower has to be recompensed.
"At Branthill Farm we are also a brewer, so we know if the nitrogen is too high it makes the beer cloudy. They have to set a limit somewhere. But if you put a half a penny on a pint of beer it would solve all the problems at the coal face, because it could add £30 per tonne to the premium."
Another nearby grower, fellow Holkham tenant Jeremy Hancock, said he would give up growing Maris Otter after losing £13,000 of value from four lorry loads of barley which failed to meet malting specifications, and so was downgraded to animal feed.
Tom Rivett, a grain trader with Fakenham-based merchant H Banham, said: "It is a high risk crop to growers, but we always try to mitigate that.
"There is already a significant premium for Maris Otter, most of that is for yield but some is to relieve the risk factor.
"The growers we use for our Maris Otter crop have the correct land type and the experience of growing a low nitrogen malting crop which reduces the risk of rejections.
"This was probably the worst year for Maris Otter in my 25 years here, but even within that the bulk of the crop was taken.
"Maris Otter should have come in at £200 per tonne, so it is disastrous for a grower if it goes wrong and has to go for feed, but most have not had a problem.
"So I don't want to say it was a complete disaster and so we should push up the premiums. I personally think the premiums are about right, and most of the growers agree.
"There is always a debate about where that premium is and whether it is right or wrong for the farmers, which becomes a much greater focus when grain is rejected, through no fault of their own, because of the weather."