GROWING BARLEY for whisky is a mainstay of Scottish arable farming – but under lockdown, maltsters and distillers have had to put the brakes on production, casting doubt on what harvest market will be waiting for the crops that many growers have just finished establishing.

It costs a lot of time and money to completely shutdown and restart a distillery, so many of Scotland's are still open with a skeleton staff to keep them ticking over, with some producing ethanol for hand sanitiser, but none are going 'full bore' at whisky production.

Distillery bosses are understood to be keen to resume full production, but are awaiting an indication from the authorities that their business is sufficiently important to justify bringing a full staff back in.

Speaking from NFU Scotland, crops committee chairman Willie Thomson said that he did not want to be seen to be 'crying wolf', but warned that the knock-on effects of the current go-slow could be felt well beyond this year.

"The longer this goes on, the less the demand for malt will be," said Mr Thomson, who farms at Wheatrig near Haddington. "The Scotch Whisky Association and Diageo assure us that they can do social distancing in distilleries, particularly with modern automation in place, but it is up to the Scottish Government to give them the go ahead.

"We maybe can't make the argument that whisky production is a 'key' sector, but in terms of the Scottish economy, and jobs, and the influence it has down the production chain, it could not be more important. Growers' big concern is that. come harvest time, if the maltsters have not been getting their product cleared, it is going to create a backlog.

"Come August/September, growers want to know that malting barley will be moved off their farms, because that space will be needed soon after for the wheat harvest. We need clarity on this sooner rather than later."

In Eire, growers supplying the brewing sector – including the usually voracious appetites of the Guinness industry – are already up in arms by abrupt reductions in contracts from major buyer Boortmalt, and questions are being raised about stocks of imported grain being used ahead of domestic production. Mr Thomson stressed that there was no such friction in Scotland, with growers, maltsters and distillers keeping in close contact as the situation unfolds.

Asked if it was yet time to consider steering already established spring barley crops towards feed uses instead, Mr Thomson noted that the malting price could be around £180 per tonne, while feed could be down at £120 – hovering at a price that wouldn't cover the cost of production.

"If you want feed, you grow feed," he said. "These crops are for malting, and we'd just rather see the production chain restarted, for the good of farm returns, the wider economy and a lot of jobs."

Scots Tory MSP Edward Mountain has also called on the Scottish Government to find a ‘swift resolution’ to the situation. Raising the issue during a Scottish Parliament Virtual Question Time, he said: “Farmers across Scotland have just finished planting hundreds of thousands of acres of spring barley, specifically for whisky production. If this barley is not required, due to distillery closures, the effects will be devastating to the agricultural industry."