Growing traditional Shetland oats and barley could help farmers cut down the cost of feed, as well as opening up specialist markets in food, whisky and beer.
Less than a hectare of land is used to cultivate Shetland bere, the hardy cereal which dates back more than 5,000 years.
But a trial was held at Bigton farm last summer studying five early maturing barley species, including Shetland bere, and oats from Norway which could give the traditional grain a new lease of life.
The research was a joint project between the Shetland Livestock Marketing Group, Orkney College and Scotland’s Rural College.
Director of Orkney College’s Agronomy Institute Peter Martin, said early maturing varieties of oats and barley have great potential for Shetland, given the tight windows for growing crops and the challenges of the weather.
Harvests could be spread over a longer period by growing the early maturing cereals.
The barley and oats tested were found to mature about two weeks earlier than conventional cereal grown on mainland Scotland, but they produce a smaller yield.
In Shetland a lack of suitable harvesting machinery has been one of the reasons given for the drop off in cereal growing.
However, Dr Martin said it was advantageous to spread a harvest if there was not a huge amount of machinery available, as a longer harvest would make it easier for crofters to have access to equipment.
Spreading the harvest would also reduce the risk of having a large amount of crops affected by a spell of bad weather.
There are added financial benefits when feeding animals too.
Dr Martin said: “It looks to me because there isn’t sufficient cereals grown in Shetland that very often people seem to be importing straw and grains from elsewhere… Some [crofters] said they have had to import straw at £50 a bail which is a lot of money.”
“I fully appreciate there are challenges to growing cereals in Shetland and if it was easy people would be doing it.
“I’m not underestimating the challenges but I do think it’s worth looking into.”
The agricultural expert said Shetland bere had been superseded by other varieties of barley due to its low grain yield.
The Shetland barley also produces “quite long straw which can make it tricky to harvest”.
However bere was being used for specialist purposes elsewhere, and there was a lot of interest in using the cereal in food and drink products.
That would be something Shetland could explore to help bere and cereal growth.
In Orkney, Dr Martin said, there had been success with using bere for whisky and it can also be used in beer, as well as producing beremeal.
Last week he met with crofters to discuss cereal production.
“There’s a concern among those who are involved in cereal growing and Shetland agriculture about the status of Shetland bere and Shetland oats,” he said.
“There’s also a realisation that it would be very good to grow more cereals in Shetland so it is not dependent on straw and grain.”
SLMG chairman Ronnie Eunson warned Shetland bere was on the verge of extinction, with only two growers in the isles.
Without those growers all Shetland would be left with was “the stuffed dodo in the case at the museum”, he said.
The historic cereal was part of Shetland’s culture and heritage.
“So much of Shetland culture is defined by the last 200 years,” added Mr Eunson who argued that was too short a timescale to consider what Shetland produces.
Shetland bere was “completely, totally, genuine” and “virtually gluten free”, with traits that set it apart from other cereals.
Mr Eunson said since the 1970s there had been a decline in cereal production in Shetland, as support payments had not encouraged cereal growing.
That meant crofters were not willing to invest in machinery or the crop rotation.
But following the meeting last week, Mr Eunson welcomed the findings.
“In general terms, anything that adds value to produce locally provides an incentive to crofters and farmers to consider growing it.”
Though he warned:“The market has to be there to want to buy the produce, and simply at the moment there’s not a lot of interest in Shetland-grown produce that takes a premium.
“There is too much ‘click and deliver’ and not enough folk that are entrepreneurially looking at the qualities of Shetland produce.”
“I think the growers and the processors should speak together to try and find ways of making this work,” added the SLMG chief.
But the difficulty was finding a company that saw sufficient value in local ingredients for their product.
“I can only hope that folk will try to work through this together in a way that maybe an opportunity will present itself, but at the moment it’s a very difficult one because people don’t know that these products still exsist.
“If you want to try and sell Shetland beremeal to the Shetland public, would the Shetland public know what it was?”
Manager of the Lerwick Brewery Rhana Turberville said a Shetland beer using Shetland bere would be something they would be interested in.
“I think for us we would obviously love to use as much ingredients as close to home as we can.”
“We could do a special brew no problem,” she added and said it would be a brilliant selling point for the business.
If they could get enough Shetland bere to make a brew they would happily make one.
All grains are brought up from south, she said though they would need to be sure of the quality of supply if using Shetland bere on a regular basis.