Well, there’s no getting away from the fact that the contrast between last year’s and this year’s growing seasons could hardly have been more marked.

This time last year, I was despairing as the fields were beginning to take on a bit of a parched look. I guess it was because my pride was at stake as, with my son and his wife-to-be making the trip from Australia to get married on the farm, I was keen for everything to be looking its best.

However, I think the contingent of Aussies who came over were probably laughing at what we were interpreting as a drought – for our handful of weeks without rain paled into insignificance with some of the tales from Down Under. It was probably safe to say that the farming folk were amazed at just how green everything was looking, despite all the gravel beds and lighter soils showing signs of suffering.

Probably just as well they’re not all here this year as I suspect the shock [of the green] might just have proved too much for them …

Anyhoo, the big event of this week, which I’ve no doubt also had plenty of folk dashing about getting the place looking its best, was the first ‘Arable Scotland’ event through at the Hutton Institute’s demonstration farm, Balruddery, just outside Dundee.

While I’ll leave it to other pages of the paper to go into detail of the headline issues being discussed, it was good to be able to get a feel for some of the research and development work which was going on at the moment – and to see how science and practice can come together.

We certainly need all the encouragement we can get about the future in these uncertain times and it was a timely opportunity to have the curtain lifted on some of the cutting edge work which might take a few years to emerge as well as having the chance to see what might be reaching us in the shorter term.

As was fitting, the first of these annual events focused on spring barley, Scotland’s major crop – and how we as growers can make the most of one of the few markets which lie on our doorstep and, with the continued increase in whisky sales, for which there is a growing demand.

But while spring barley is certainly the most widely grown crop in Scotland, with wheat standing some way behind in second place, it was good to see time and energy devoted to some of the more minority crops.

While it was good to see what might be the first ever crop of lentils to be grown in Scotland – from a variety which had been grown in the foothills of the Alps prior to WW2 and which was believed to be extinct only for seed to be found at the Pavlovsk experimental station and gene bank near St Petersburg, in Russia – the crop might take a wee while before it becomes a major player.

Slightly more mainstream was the Opti-oat project. Often viewed as a bit of a Cinderella crop, back in the days of yore, the ability of oats to do better than most at putting up with poorer soils and poorer weather – with which this country is blessed – meant it was the most widely grown cereal in Scotland. And that’s long before that upstart barley got the boost of supplying the burgeoning whisky trade.

So much so, indeed that in the first English dictionary, drawn up by Dr Samuel Johnson in 1755 the crop was defined thus: “Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” To which his sparring partner in later life, the Scot James Boswell, is said to have riposted: “Perhaps that is why Scotland is known for the quality of its men and England for the quality of its horses.”

So, having written recently about our Sustainable Farming Practices verification review for PepsiCo – prompted by the contract oats we sell to their subsidiary, Quaker Oats – it was heartening to hear that this global food giant has put its money where its mouth is. It has been instrumental in drawing a lot of the scientific background on growing and producing the crop together in one document.

Aimed at optimising yields and improving efficiencies in growing the crop, the ‘Oat growth guide’ – which is available free – has been drawn up in collaboration with leading industry and academic partners, including the James Hutton Institute.

With the figures showing that there is something like a four tonne per ha gap between the average farm yield achieved in the UK and achievable optimal yields, it’s primary aim is to deliver a 5-10% increase in yield. That means more oats per ha using the same resources – an outcome which would deliver a significant contribution towards making oats a more sustainable crop.

Unlike other staple cereal crops R and D investment to improve oat agronomy has, however, been a bit limited in recent years. As a result, while crops such as wheat and barley have had growth guides in place for years, oats have not.

Yet, the crop continues to gain ground as a health food with consumers looking to use the grain for far more than just their simple bowl of porridge at the start of the day, a fact which hasn’t been lost on Pepsico.

Mac McWilliam, R and D director of crop technology with PepsiCo, said: “It’s clear that oats are receiving more and more interest from consumers, as overnight oats and porridge drive up demand. This has to be matched with sustainable production and supply of oats.”

With more than 100,000 tonnes of the crop going through the mill at Cupar every year – heading to more than 60 countries – he added that the ‘Oat growth guide’ aimed to put oats back on the map for farmers, ensuring growers and agronomists had the best available information to optimise oat production.

The guide is the culmination of a five-year research project pioneered by PepsiCo, with co-funding from Innovate UK and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). It has been pulled together to help the company towards its stated goal of ensuring that all its directly sourced agricultural raw materials are sustainably sourced by the end of 2020.

The project involved looking at 120 commercial crops and 60 reference crops across four different seasons, collecting over 1m pieces of data and taking detailed field measurements to track the growth and development of the oats.

The guide provides benchmarks describing the growth and development of the oat crop during the growing season.

The idea is that growers can assess the progress of their crops against the benchmarks in the guide and tweak their management practices to help improve yields and efficiency, ensuring a more sustainable, high quality supply of oats at the end of the day.

I’m just hoping this year’s crop can stay on its feet …