NRM South’s 15-hectare barley cropping trial, which has been growing barley for Tasmanian whisky industry on the Redlands Estate in the Upper Derwent Valley and scientifically monitoring its growth, will this week be harvested for the 2015 whisky making season.
In July 2014, NRM South formed a partnership with the Redlands Estate and owner Peter Hope to trial growing barley using sustainable growing methods with the goal of producing a unique paddock-to-bottle whisky, from barley grown, malted and distilled on the farm and monitored scientifically during the process.
NRM South’s ‘sustainable approach’ has focused on growing methods to reduce inputs such as chemicals, fertiliser and irrigation, improve grain quality for whisky making and, over time, produce a whisky that has unique qualities that might set it apart in the competitive industry.
The monitoring of the crop has included the development of a rotational cropping and grazing plan for the farm, installation of sensors to monitor soil moisture and weather conditions, and a program to monitor and track soil nutrients during the growing cycle.
In its first year, this approach has produced a promising crop and NRM South CEO Donald Coventry is excited to witness the harvest.
“The key to this first harvest was to match the need to produce a certain quantity of grain for the whisky with the desire to reduce the environmental impact on the property and its surrounds. In that we have succeeded. Right from the outset we knew that establishing a baseline for what defined a quality crop would be information that was tremendously useful for the Redlands Estate and for the whisky industry as a whole.
“We have been able to track and record some great data this year, and the interesting part is that growing conditions have been less than ideal, with floods at the beginning of August which delayed planting, low rainfall during the spring growing period and then cool and wet conditions in December and January during ripening. So that in itself tells an interesting story,” Mr Coventry explained.
Owner of the Redlands Estate Mr Peter Hope is also positive for what this data could mean for the industry.
“We’ve been doing two things here. The first is taking a more sustainable approach to the barley crop, which we expect will allow us to produce a premium whisky. Secondly, and most importantly, what we’re doing here has created a process to build knowledge that will allow the Tasmanian whisky industry to understand scientifically the qualities that make a great whisky. This alone is very exciting,” Mr Hope explained.
Regional Landcare Facilitator Ken Moore who has been overseeing the trial on the farm says the year has had its seasonal challenges, but he is pleased with its progress and the information gathered from the trial especially in relation to paddock preparation, soil nutrient management, seasonal conditions and weed management.
“On sites like Redlands, where intensive cropping has occurred on and off for 100 years, you have a lot of work to do to restore soil health. Investing in the soil this year has been about establishing a foundation for the paddocks into the future.
“During this process we have monitored and recorded what we have done to produce this year’s harvest. There have been a series of our own tests on both the soil and the barley and mid last year we partnered with Sense-T to run an Alpha Trial with below-ground soil moisture and above-ground weather sensors, which provided real time data on moisture available to the crop and in-crop weather conditions.
“Early on soil samples were taken and sent for testing the nutrient content and microbiological activity. These tests showed that the essential nutrients nitrogen, phosphorous, sulphur and potassium and trace elements zinc, manganese copper and molybdenum were generally at appropriate levels, but showed relatively low microbial activity particularly in soil fungi.
“To boost microbes in the soil we applied a natural soil builder product that stimulated the soil microbiology and later added nitrogen, copper and molybdenum once the crop was growing to improve its growth,” Mr Moore explained.
While it appears a bit technical, none of this is anything too extraordinary for most farmers already undertaking a sustainable approach to cropping. Mr Moore says that like other farmers, getting the right level of water on the crop, dealing with weeds and changeable seasons are usual activities for our state’s producers.
“With a long history of cropping, the bank of weed seeds in the paddocks were high and on the fertile river flats weeds will always flourish under the right conditions. This year we did one in-crop spray but still had weeds to deal with close to harvest.
“In relation to irrigation, this crop was grown as a dryland trial without irrigation. However, spring conditions in the Upper Derwent Valley were dry and the crop had moisture stress at several times so we also need to assess the comparative benefits and costs of dryland versus irrigated barley for the future.”
Mr Moore says there are a few more processes to go through once the grain is harvested, but he is looking forward to seeing the harvester in action and for what comes next.
“After harvest, the grain will be screened for grain size and to remove fragments of stems and weeds. It will also be tested for protein levels as malting barley for whisky making requires relatively low protein levels. If the grain meets the specifications required by distillers, it will be stored and then used to produce Redlands Estate whisky.
With the growth of the state’s whisky industry and the desire to ensure the Tasmanian provenance of all the ingredients and processes, building knowledge of best local production practices is essential. The Redlands Estate trial has been an important step in gathering and documenting actual growing practices and decisions that had to be made.
An online site about practices has been written during the year. NRM South will encourage other Tasmanian barley growers to add to that information so that, over time, growers will have access to a body of knowledge that enhances Tasmania’s premium whisky industry as a world leader.