From Field To Flask: The Story of Organic Barley

  • 6 mins

Delving into the roots of Knock Farm, we uncover the journey of how this Aberdeenshire gem became one of Bruichladdich Distillery's trusted partners in organic barley cultivation.

Spread out below a prominent hill in Huntly, Scotland lie the 1,350 acres of picturesque Knock Farm. To the untrained eye, it looks no different than the numerous surrounding farms of Aberdeenshire. But there’s a story behind this farm that sets it apart from the others—one that has led it to become Bruichladdich Distillery’s partner farm for organic barley cultivation.  

What Knock Farm does differently is something that resonates with the Bruichladdich Distillery ethos: they focus on relationships. Looking after the whole and the quality of the relationships that make up that whole, they discovered, is better for everyone. 

The farm didn’t always operate this way. When Roger and Beth Polson took over the farm from Beth’s father and mother in the 1990s, they did what many ambitious young adults do: they looked for a way to improve upon their parents’ methods. The couple began by focusing on increasing output. Increasing the number of livestock and quantity of grain sold would bring in more money, logically, but as the years went on and the fertilizer and vet bills continued to rise, they began to question this logic.  

“It really wasn’t economically working,” says Roger.  

Five years in, they began to close the breeding herds to all but breeding males. By ending the practice of buying in feeding livestock and improving livestock housing through increased ventilation, they improved biosecurity, all of which led to a significant reduction in animal diseases, reducing the need for vaccines and medicines. 

The Polson’s objectives began to clarify. They believed in an organic lifestyle for their family, and it only made sense to extend this philosophy to the farm. With the help of government incentives, they implemented conservation works such as fencing off watercourses to protect them from livestock and agricultural runoff, planting hedgerows and woodlands to improve biodiversity, and establishing ponds and reedbeds to help filter and clean water. 

In 2006, already a regenerative farm and well on their way to being organic, they decided to take the plunge and certify. Under European legislation, it takes two years of farming organically before the land can be certified as organic. Fortunately, a significant amount of the risks associated with this waiting period are offset by government incentives. The Polsons say it was a steep learning curve, but extremely satisfying to have been able to make it work. They’ve now been farming organically for 18 years. 


The challenge for an organic farmer is, of course, pest control and fertilizer input. Where a conventional farmer is dependent upon chemical fertilizer and weed killer—a quick, though costly fix both to the farmer’s profit margin and to the soil and water systems—an organic farmer has to rely on traditional land management techniques: mixed farming system with a strict rotation of pasture (utilising grazers). Ultimately, this all comes down to soil health. Fortunately for this farm, the solution was already on hand. 

Knock Farm produces cattle, sheep, barley, and silage. To successfully farm organically, it’s necessary to make these elements, along with the soil and water systems, work together. The farm works on a rotation system: barley is grown in years one and two, followed by a year of barley and peas undersown with grass, followed by five years of only grass and a rotation of grazers. The grass feeds the grazers, the grazers fertilize the soil, and by year nine, the soil is ready to once again feed the barley.  

“Sustainability is very much at the heart of what we do,” Roger says. “The whole thing comes from healthy soil. Our system only works because the soil is healthy—because of the way it has been farmed by successive generations.” 

The soils at Knock Farm are naturally quite acidic; the pH, phosphorous, and potassium levels are regularly monitored on the farm. But the Polsons also look at the bigger picture. Encouraging biodiversity, supporting clean water, reducing chemical inputs and disease, and increasing soil health all lead to a system that thrives, naturally. In other words, Knock Farm works because the family nourishes the relationships that create full-circle success. 


Roger and Beth’s daughter Nicky, and her fiancé Tom Mutter are now sharing in the management of the farm. Tom, who has been an agronomist and Farm Business Manager with Scotgrain for several years, says that although their yield is 25% to 30% lower than conventional producers, the premium they get for the crop and the significantly reduced inputs actually make the farm more profitable. Not being dependent on chemical inputs also means they’re not exposed to price fluctuations. 

“In 2005, our fertiliser bill was something like £20 to £25 thousand pounds, and nitrogen £100 per tonne. Today, nitrogen is £300 pounds a tonne roughly. So that fertilizer bill today would be quite staggering; and barley prices haven’t risen that much in the same period.” 

“Economically, it’s really changed the farm. It’s definitely more profitable today than it used to be. We don’t have the costs now that we used to have.” 

For Bruichladdich Distillery’s part, the interest in organic grew out of Mark Reynier’s (co-founder and former CEO) fascination in terroir and how different types of barley affect the final product. This led to conversations with farmers and an interest in organic barley, but there were few farms growing organic barley at the time. 

“I think there was a curiosity at the time about if we could go organic and what whisky would be like if it was organically grown,” says Production Director, Allan Logan.  

“When we were building the volume of organic barley, there was probably initially a belief that we would one day be 100% organic. But getting more farmers to change over to farming organically—you know, the risks versus the rewards—was a lot more challenging than you would imagine.” 

The risk of losing a crop to pests and of making it through the waiting period for a farm in conversion to organic are two main reasons farmers are reluctant to make the change. Government subsidies have done a lot to minimize these risks to farmers, but large-scale changes will need to be made if we’re to make a systemic shift towards organic. Perhaps, most importantly, the market needs to be there. 

“Your heart says you want organic. 100% organic would be far better for everything, but then we’d have a 40% uplift in our cost. If the consumer is not ready to pay for the uplift for that premium, then our business becomes potentially unsustainable,” says Allan. “Unfortunately, the demand for organic whisky hasn’t been huge.” 

Tom likewise mentions that some years, organic barley farmers aren’t able to find a buyer for their grain and are forced to sell it as conventional grain at a 30 to 40% lower price.  


One of the benefits of being organic is that the farm has more opportunities to pivot and introduce new elements according to need. “The organic system allows us to keep flexible. The farm is unusually diverse for a number of different reasons,” says Tom.  

He’s referring to not only the crops and livestock, but also the two wind turbines, the conservation initiatives, the horse livery, the stone business, and the timber forest that are all on Knock Farm.  

“I think that really is the security of farming moving forward.” 

Tom has a particularly interesting perspective, having worked in multiple areas of the agricultural industry between the retailer, supplier, and grower, giving him an uncommon view into the many facets of the complex web that makes up our food system.  

Of course, that diversity is also a challenge. This year, for example, Roger and Tom planted buckwheat in one of their fields to help combat couch grass, which easily takes over and is difficult to get rid of. The difficulty is in finding a market to sell that buckwheat to. 

“If you have to buy buckwheat every season, it’s just another cost. But if we can integrate a market for it, then it’s sustainable,” says Tom. 

It’s a high level of uncertainty for a farmer—who is already at the mercy of the vicissitudes of both market and climate—to accept. It only underscores the importance of creating partnerships across the industry and caring for those relationships. 

Allan Logan, Production Director at Bruichladdich Distillery, confirms the importance of this:

“We see the relationships more as partnerships rather than a supplier-buyer relationship where we’re just buying raw ingredients,” he says. “We want to work our partnerships as a win-win. We don’t want it to be where we’re always negotiating something... always trying to one-up and then it becomes unhealthy. Eventually, the relationship breaks. We want them to keep doing what they’re fantastic at doing.” 

The sense of partnership is one of the things Tom and Roger say that they appreciate about working with Bruichladdich Distillery.  

“What I like about Bruichladdich and what we’ve got going on is that it gives us some peace of mind that there’s some security for what we’re doing. Yes, they are a customer, but we’re very much working together,” explains Tom. “For an industry, I think it’s integral to the sustainability of what farms are doing... what drinks companies are doing. I don’t think you can take the approach of ‘we’ll just buy it from anywhere.’ I really think you’ve got to invest in that supply chain. 

“The way they’ve approached the whole situation, I feel if we ran into trouble with, say barley yield one year for whatever reason, I don’t feel like they’d just drop us and go buy from somewhere else. I feel like we’re integrated into the product.” 

“We feel like we’re a part of their family, as well. They make you feel that,” adds Roger.  For decades, in some cases centuries, many of our systems have operated on a competitive extraction approach, fixating on total yield, or maximum extraction, with little thought to the long-term health of those providing the harvest we reap, be it human, plant, animal, or ecosystem. The consequences of moving away from whole-systems thinking have become uncomfortably clear in recent years. But if we’re to support the shift towards wholeness, health, and sustainability, we need a systemic approach. Buying organic products is only one small part of that approach. Supporting the relationships that go into those products—the farmers, the market shops, the businesses, the ecosystems, and educational programs—is the heart of making that systemic change.