Scaled back Scotch Whisky production due to the coronavirus outbreak has left many barley growers wondering if there will be a market for their crop.
While some Scotch Whisky distillers are still operational, mainly to produce high-strength ethanol for hand sanitiser, many are in lockdown and much will depend on how quickly they can resume whisky production.
A spokesperson for the Scotch Whisky Association said: “The Scotch Whisky industry and farmers remain in close contact as we seek to respond to Covid-19. While we have received reports from across the industry of a dip in grain demand as a result of scaled back operations, we believe that this will recover quickly as and when restrictions are gradually eased.”
Bruce Ferguson, general manager in Scotland with Frontier, said: “Scottish barleys are looking good but it is very difficult to estimate demand given the current situation.
“It has been well enough understood that the distillers have been reducing warehousing and stocks over the last five or six years. We will need to wait and see whether they take the chance to rebuild these stocks.
“We are fortunate in Scotland to have the distilling industry. The brewing market in the south has been far harder hit and may take longer to recover.”
Willie Thomson, East Lothian farmer and chairman of the NFU Scotland combinable crop committee, said: “There are many unknowns but like most farmers I am growing my barley in good faith.
“If the distillers can get back to full capacity soon it will be a short-term blip. If the shutdown is for longer, say three months, it would run into harvest and could cause real issues.”
Much of the area will have been sown with modern high yielding malting varieties such as Laureate, with crops looking well, if a little dry.
David Eudall, head of arable market specialists with AHDB, estimates 249,000 ha of spring barley will have been sown in Scotland which could yield 1.4 million tonnes.
With uncertainty around when the end of lockdown will come, he said: “There might be a large volume of Scottish barley with no home and relying on a functioning export market for feed.”
In that case it would be competing with English barley, with farmers south of the border planting almost 300,000ha more than normal and the highest area for 20 years.
Much will depend on negotiations with the EU and the avoidance of the tariffs that could come with a no-deal Brexit.