First the cabbage stem flea beetle brought the oilseed rape industry to its knees. Now this humble beetle could kill off the “barley baron” as well.

The term barley baron conjures up all sorts of images. For tabloid readers, anyone who receives a letter from the RPA is one. Not a spitting image caricature, but a product of the CAP. Gordon Gekko in cords.

Farming a listless landscape. No rolling fields. A Norfolk prairie perhaps? Maybe a flat Lincolnshire wold. Endless fields of barley melodically swaying in the breeze to the gutteral growl of a Quadtrac moaning in the distance.

barley ears

© Tim Scrivener

George Monbiot’s disciples believe the barley baron is alive and well. They are the arable farmers who have spent the past 40 years prospering on a “tri-culture” of barley, rape and wheat. Until now.

With oilseed rape ravaged by beetle and its larvae, it is no longer viable in large parts of the UK. Winter barley may too become a casualty of this unassuming invertebrate because the merits of growing winter barley are joined to rape’s hip.

ian pigottIan Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. The farm is a LEAF demonstration unit. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday

It’s early to harvest allowing early drilling of the brassica. And there are effective herbicides that can be used in rape to remove any barley volunteers.

But with rape no longer a consideration, why plant winter barley? It is expensive to grow compared with its spring alternative. 

And many farmers have experienced a year to forget with poor yields and pitiful quality. But the fragility of barley exposes the lack of diversity in our rotations.

See also: Dad’s sayings fit harvest 2016 well

The arrival of oilseed rape in the 1970s promised a new dawn for arable farmers. Rotations changed almost overnight. Leys were removed, rotations shortened and abrupt farm business tenancies were encouraged.

Farmers became fixated with winter cropping. Then blackgrass arrived and flea beetle followed.

While the arable industry was merrily making farming easier, they didn’t have a plan B. If oilseed rape was no more, what break crops would replace it? Peas or beans and what?

Options are scarce. The PGRO insists pulses need at least four years and preferably five between them. Linseed succumbs to flea beetle. Maize is digester dependent. And there is not enough livestock in the UK to consume all the silage and hay if one-fifth of the UK’s arable land were put down to grass. Besides, there are only so many outlets for Ahi flower, poppies and canary seed.

The barley barons are in a bit of a pickle. Forgetting the stoneless soils that enjoy the added diversity of roots and vining peas, many parts of the UK will this year be considering an arable rotation that has more than 50% spring crops. Rotations had none five years ago. Beyond cover cropping our rotations need to be wider.

Of course, it isn’t just about husbandry. Pulse values have been hit by increased plantings for ecological focus areas and no doubt spring barley premiums will come under pressure next year as areas inevitably increase.

While the barley baron may be doomed, this is not a time to whine. We have brought this upon ourselves. Tight rotations are to farming what sub-prime mortgages were to banking – overleveraged and carrying enormous risk.

Our behaviour will force us to consider long-term soil husbandry and financial viability as one, not in isolation. We may have to accept a year of root or fertility building, instead of cash cropping as part of future rotations.

As uncomfortable as it may be, perhaps the barley baron caricature was more accurate than we would care to admit.