With the possible exception of a fairly smooth harvest – sadly, mainly due to lower yields – 2018 won’t be remembered as one of the easiest years by those earning their crust in the grain sector.

With the long, wet tail-end of 2017 biting into the season’s winter plantings and continuing over the spring sowing season, crops didn’t get off to a good start – and, in a stark contrast which took most of us by surprise, the long dry days of summer didn’t help crops which had been struggling from the start.

With the constant worries of Brexit and what post-withdrawal domestic farm policy might hold, the continued decline in our armoury of plant protection products and weedkillers – just as the arms race of fungicide resistance continued to swing in the wrong direction – all meant that there wasn’t really much in the way of cheer in the arable sector throughout the year.

Even prices which had risen in response to the low yields experienced across much of Europe were seen to falter in the post-harvest period as bioethanol plants once again began to smell of mothballs.

However, with those depressing points out of the way, it was nice to come across some pre-Christmas good news which, like the fairy lights on the tree, might brighten up the year and put a smile on our faces before it closes.

I’d have to admit to finding myself being genuinely taken aback to hear an announcement which was stacked on the positive side at a conference, recently – after all the doom, gloom and uncertainty which has been remorselessly pedalled for most of the year.

For even on a good day – and that would be when we’re spared the threat of the Armageddon which awaits the industry if the politicians don’t get their act together on Brexit – the best we have really been able to hope for is to hear that we should be focusing on the day job.

While it’s true that the basics should never be forgotten – and we should always strive to give our best performance – such advice is a bit of a no-brainer. Looked at closely, it’s not really all that insightful – and is probably about as much use as telling an Olympic runner that they have a good chance of winning a gold medal if they can run as fast as the top performing 25%.

So, what was this genuine piece of good news, which might just cheer up the fag end of a dismal year which many might be keen to see receding in the rear-view mirror?

Given its success in recent years, it might be no surprise that it involves whisky, the driving force behind the burgeoning growth in the country’s food and drink exports – and which adds millions to the Exchequer’s coffers every year.

It’s undoubtedly a growth sector and while the country might currently seem to be afloat with ever more variations of that other spirit formerly viewed as one of the most bland, gin, in many cases this is only to give the plethora of new distilleries something to sell while their early batches of whisky undergo the maturation period.

Although three years is the minimum required to get the stuff recognised as Scotch whisky, there’s a growing tendency towards ‘permiumisation’ which favours 10, 12, 15, 21 or even 40-year old malts on the highest end of the market.

Obviously this is going to tie a lot of spirit up in bonded warehouses for a while – but it all adds to the demand for raw materials – including malting barley.

Moan as we might about the distillers and maltsters importing grain from abroad, the companies involved in these trades still seem to have conscience enough to use a fair deal of Scottish-grown malting barley. (Admittedly this is probably because Scotland’s producers specialise in growing the low nitrogen, non-GN varieties required to meet the highly specific needs of the malt market.)

However, the small fly in the ointment has always been the lack of malting capacity within our own borders to malt enough barley to meet these growing demands from the whisky sector.

Indeed, in recent years the additional demand has often been met by malting capacity in the south of the country which previously catered for the brewing sector to make beers – but which, due to the slump in sales, now have spare capacity which can be used to produce malt for the distilling trade.

So, a fair amount of barley grown in Scotland is carted south of the Border to be malted – and then carted back up to the distillers. This has always worried me more than a bit because it doesn’t need an Einstein to realise that it might actually be cheaper to grow it locally in England and then just cart it one way, up to where the whisky is made.

I’m told that this is actually what used to happen until the middle of the 20th century when spring barley began to be more widely grown in Scotland – a fact which has left us with the legacy that although Scotch whisky has to be produced in Scotland, it has never been stipulated that this has to be done using only Scottish barley and malt.

But the good news is that it would appear that Scotland’s lack of malting capacity is about to be addressed – and around £50m is set to be ploughed into two new plants which will be able to handle in the region of an additional 100,000 tonnes of barley each year.

Bairds Malt, together with its procurement arm, Scotgrain, aims to have the new facilities, designed specifically to meet the needs of the distilling trade, in full swing by 2022.

The focus of the move will be to supply the whisky trade with a product which is ‘sown, grown and malted’ in Scotland, providing a unique provenance to back up the marketing image used by many distillers.

Speaking at Syngenta’s first Scottish malting conference last week, Keith Headridge, commercial director of Scotgrain, said that the investments would see a total new-build at the company’s Inverness site and further expansion at the Arbroath faciltites, which had a £25m upgrade in 2010.

Bairds – which is part of the global GrainCorp Malt Group – currently handles more than 200,000 tonnes of malt in Scotland for the distilling trade, so the commitment to increase this by a further 50% has to be welcomed.

However, Mr Headridge said that the move would do more than provide provenance for whisky makers: “Not only will we be supplying a quality product to the distillers but with state of the art processing facilities and local sourcing, the investment will mark a huge step forward as far as road miles and carbon footprint are concerned – adding considerably to the sustainability of the product.”

He added that the move would give whisky makers buying malt from the plants the ability to back up their marketing claims with sound provenance and sustainability credentials – a requirement which was likely to become increasingly important in the future.

So, some good news which recognises the value of our product and which will help secure an outlet for it in the future. That surely has to be worth raising a glass to at the end of a difficult year.