The plume of smoke rose quickly, to the east of us. It was jet black and angry, quickly broadening. Within minutes, half the sky was engulfed in the ash cloud.
We were cutting barley in Ballycarney, just above the church, and we could tell the fire was close. Somewhere near Ferns.
It was about 4pm on Thursday afternoon. The main topic of conversation had been about getting as much barley in to Boortmalt as possible before the end of the day. There were rumours that contracts might be cut, and the depot, only half a mile away, was closing at 18.30.
That talk all stopped. We watched the smoke rise and make its way toward the Blackstairs.
En route, it deposited ash into the garden at home, my wife was telling me on the phone. People were ringing to see if we knew whose land was on fire, and if they could help.
We were wondering the same thing. A phone call to Donal Murphy from Jamie, who cuts our corn, established it was in Newtown, outside Ferns. I’m distantly related to the O’Neills of Newtown, and later discovered the combine in the field was the Stamp’s, a distant relation on another branch of the family tree.
Anyway, Donal said not to come, that there were enough people in attendance, and that the emergency services needed access and space to work more than anything else.
We cut away, feeling worried and guilty and concerned. The smoke continued for a couple of hours, sometimes receding, at other times flaring up again. Then, about two hours after it emerged, the smoke disappeared.
Not the first fire
We have seen this before. Back in 2013, a similar fire occurred in Castledockrell, on the western side of the Slaney.
This is a tillage area. Barley has been grown in abundance for brewing, malting, distilling and feeding for centuries. Wheat mills lined the rivers that feed the Slaney as it runs straight through the middle of Wexford, and the Barrow which defines our western border.
In 1798, there were battalions of maltsters and millers in the ranks of the United Irishmen. Growing grain runs deep in the soil and the blood around here.
The last few days have been properly surreal in Ferns.
We had the RTÉ news crew in the village, interviewing the local fire chief and Paddy Walsh, who had harrowed a fire break.
On Saturday, a busload of Roses had landed into the village on the road to Tralee - the Wexford Rose is from the village.
The whole place is festooned in red and white, as the local club try to win their first senior hurling title on Sunday.
We stopped cutting on Saturday morning for a couple of hours. Jamie Whelan, my neighbour who cuts our corn, and only stops for food and sleep, was part of a guard of honour for Jack Byrne, along with clubmates young and old.
Jack first hurled for Ferns over 60 years ago, and was a former club chair. He never missed a game, even primary school matches - as he was the school caretaker.
Some things are more important than the harvest.
The same community that honoured Jack came together to fight the fire. The blaze was within a field of the GAA pitches, and a couple of the hurlers rolled bales away to allow Paddy and Barry Murphy to break ground and stop its advancement.
The west and north of Ireland and Wales are still green, England looks like France, and much of France looks like Chad
Other people have been checking in on the farmers whose land was hit by fire to see how they were, because it’s a frightening thing when it happens. Fortunately, no one was hurt, and no house was caught up in the fire.
The danger of wildfires is going to increase in hot dry summers. The likelihood of hot, dry summers has increased, particularly in the south and east.
A quick search of current satellite photographs shows just how hot and dry western Europe is.
The west and north of Ireland and Wales are still green, England looks like France, and much of France looks like Chad.
It’s probably time that farmers equipped themselves with knowledge of how to minimise the prospect of fire, and how to cope when one breaks out.
No smoke without fire
The rumour that Boortmalt would cut contracts didn’t come true, at least not at the time of writing.
It’s now Sunday morning (14 August). All our corn is cut, and our contract is filled.
I availed of the opportunity to forward sell grain last November and February, committing 20% of my contracted tonnage at €250/t and a further 20% at €270/t. I was happy with the price then; it was the best price I’d ever been offered for grain.
Thus, I can have no complaints as to how things have turned out. That price will be lower than feeding barley, which will be worth about €80/t above last year’s record price.
The good news is that the other 60% of my delivered barley will be worth over €400/t, due to the independent pricing mechanism agreed between Boortmalt and the IFA malt barley committee
The FOB Creil price is the instrument that sets the malt barley price. FOB Creil isn’t a French rapper, it stands for Free On Board Creil.
Creil is a town in France north of Paris, which has lent its name to an important grain market. I’m not exactly sure what “Free On Board” means in this context; it generally refers to delivered to port.
In any event, the FOB Creil has been a much better performer than its predecessor, the MATIF wheat price.
It has been clear for some time that Boortmalt wants to franchise out barley intakes. Some, like Kavanaghs, where we deliver, are still managed by a Boortmalt representative. Others, like Doyle’s in Cooladine, (you can see their premises on the new Enniscorthy bypass, on the left-hand side as you travel south) are wholly independent of Boortmalt. Either way, everyone expects that in a couple of years all Boortmalt growers will be dealing with an intermediary.
To be honest, it won’t matter, as long as the contract is still in place. As long as farmers have the certainty of a contracted tonnage, and a pricing mechanism that will deliver a good price year-on-year, the system will be working satisfactorily.
That’s effectively what happened when Guinness/Diageo vested their malt barley business entirely in Boortmalt (then Minch-Norton) back in the late 1990s. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” as The Who sang.
However, this is the rub.
Along with the rumours that contracts might be cut for growers whose grain was still outstanding, farmers are talking in queues at intakes about other worrying trends.
Some merchants are for the first-time buying malting variety barley and paying a bonus over feed for it. Nobody is entirely sure what the destination of this barley is.
The fear is that it is being delivered to the merchants who are contracted by Boortmalt to assemble tonnage. This creates a chain with quite a few links.
There are two separate issues here. The first is that each link in that chain needs a margin for their efforts.
The more links, the less there will be left for the farmer.
The second is that this effectively could disestablish the malting barley contract, with it’s independently determined price.
Why would Boortmalt pay a price linked to FOB Creil, or any other independent determinant, if it can get all the barley it wants through a network of merchants?
Timing also matters. Growers’ representatives have little bargaining power when the grain is flying in over the weighbridge.
Boortmalt can more or less dictate what changes will take place, and state that farmers are voting with their tractors and trailers.
Boortmalt is a Belgian company, but Axareal, which owns Boortmalt, is a giant French farmer-owned co-op.
I’m not sure the co-op ethos sits easily with the undermining of a contractual arrangement between growers and the maltster. But that is effectively what is happening.
The visible effect is a farmer supplying grain to an independent merchant for a defined bonus over feed price.
You could blame the farmer, or you could say it’s the merchant’s fault.
For me, that misses the point.
A merchant is perfectly entitled to buy and sell grain on the open market.
Around here, the expansion of Boortmalt’s contracted tonnage has eaten into the feed barley market. Merchants are losing tonnage, and have to offer incentives to customers. And any farmer is entitled to take that price when offered.
Perhaps it’s time that Boortmalt growers established a direct relationship with Axareal.
Maybe a French farmer co-op would welcome a cohort of Irish farmers to their ranks.
Like most growers supplying Glanbia, who have “shared up” to avail of the bonuses paid from the co-op for grain, Boortmalt growers can invest in the co-op, and earn the protection of ownership of the company they are trading with.
Like the people of Ferns, who gathered on Thursday to put out a fire, and gathered on Saturday to pay our respects to Jack Byrne, and who gather in Wexford Park this afternoon to roar our hurlers on, grain growers are a small community.
We stand together, or we fall apart.