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Time to bet on barley? Speaker promotes crop used for feed, malting

FARGO -- No barley, no beer. It's a slogan Steve Edwardson, executive administrator of the North Dakota Barley Council, mentioned a few times as he talked about industry changes.

Barley used to be grown primarily for feed but is now grown mostly for beer, says Steve Edwardson, president of the North Dakota Barley Council. Forum file photo.
Barley used to be grown primarily for feed but is now grown mostly for beer, says Steve Edwardson, president of the North Dakota Barley Council. Forum file photo.

FARGO -- No barley, no beer. It's a slogan Steve Edwardson, executive administrator of the North Dakota Barley Council, mentioned a few times as he talked about industry changes.

Farmers aren't planting as much barley as they used to. The crop has seen a loss of 310,000 acres planted nationally a year since 1987, he said at the North Dakota Agricultural Association's recent 45th annual Northern Ag Expo at the Fargodome.

The amount of farmland planted to barley peaked in the mid-1980s when the crop was mostly used for livestock feed, Edwardson said. But by the early 2000s, feed barley was displaced by corn, he said.

Barley is now more of a specialty crop used primarily for malting, a process used in brewing beer, he said. North Dakota produces between 25 percent and 35 percent of U.S. barley, 90 percent malting varieties and 10 percent feed.

Barley growers can make more money selling to the beer industry, but it also has to meet stricter specifications.

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"Malting barley is the only crop that must be delivered in a living state because if it doesn't make malt, it's less profitable," Edwardson said.

Growers can generally make $1 to $2 more a bushel for malting barley over feed barley.

Crop insurance has historically been based on feed barley, but Edwardson said that's changing. A new crop insurance product will be released for malting barley next year based on malting industry purchasing practices.

"Crop insurance is vital for risk management and securing production," he said. "We think it's a step in the right direction. I don't think it's going to be perfect."

Malt barley contracting programs have also improved, Edwardson said, giving more stability to growers and buyers.

Craft beers are a significant area of market growth, he said, growing by approximately 12 percent a year over the past decade.

"The growth is phenomenal."

Craft brewers want a close relationship with growers, but that can be difficult because what they consider a large volume order is typically not what a farmer considers large volume.

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They also might want older barley varieties simply for their nostalgic value, Edwardson said. "It comes down to romantic marketing."

But older varieties don't necessarily taste any different from the newer varieties, which perform better for farmers, he said.

There may be more opportunities on the horizon for North Dakota barley growers.

Coors, Heineken and Constellation, which distributes and markets beers like Corona Extra, are preliminarily investigating doing more business in the state, Edwardson said.

"They're just putting their toe in the water and trying to find a way to do it," he said.

John Swanson, who grows corn, wheat, soybeans and sunflowers with his dad east of Crookston, Minn., attended Edwardson's recent talk because he said they're thinking about growing barley.

"Wheat just doesn't pencil out," he said. "It's looking like maybe $5 profit an acre, and corn is looking worse than that."

Edwardson said more research is needed to keep barley competitive with corn and soybeans, which are easier to market and sell. But, he said, malting barley is a viable crop in North Dakota and the U.S.

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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