Thirsty beer industry boosts barley demand

Pat Sutphin / Plant Manager John Drake talks about the importance of Idaho barley July 18 at the Anheuser-Busch Malt Plant in Idaho Falls. According to the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, Idaho is the top barley producing state in the nation. Pat Sutphin /

It was a banner year for Idaho barley in 2013.

For the fourth straight year, growers planted more of the crop and took home more money — a decade-high $337 million.

Barley’s rising price and value as a low-water crop persuaded more of Idaho’s roughly 5,000 barley growers to increase acreage during the past 10 years. Idaho’s 620,000 acres of barley planted were the third-highest in the nation behind Montana (990,000 acres) and North Dakota (760,000 acres).

However, due to irrigation, Idaho’s 620,000 acres yield more barley than any other state in the country.

The beer industry’s thirst for malting barley has propelled demand, said Pat Purdy, who this year planted barley on 2,100 acres of his 2,500-acre farm near Picabo. He sells his malting barley to Anheuser-Busch InBev, which processes malt in Idaho Falls, as well as MillerCoors LLC, which trucks Idaho barley to Golden, Colo.

Purdy is vice chairman of the Idaho Barley Commission, which lobbies and advocates for barley growers. He said 2014 is shaping up to be another good year even as farmers shift 50,000 acres to wheat and other crops to take advantage of rising wheat prices and higher insurance payouts for failed crops.

“Prices are still strong, so we expect another year of increased barley cash receipts,” Purdy said.

The Treasure Valley is too hot to grow malting barley, but growers raise the crop for seed and animal feed.

Eastern Idaho has ideal conditions for growing brewer-grade barley, Purdy said, although farmers raise malting barley throughout most of the state.

“We’ve got a lot of cool, high-country barley growing regions,” he said. “As of yet, we don’t have a lot of the disease issues that forced barley out of some other states.”

In higher elevations outside the Treasure Valley, the aridity prevents Idaho farmers from losing yields to Fusarium head blight, a disease that has prompted growers in wetter states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota to convert barley fields to corn or soybeans, Purdy said.

The water tool

Treasure Valley farmers don’t grow malting barley because the hot growing season produces protein levels higher than brewers want.

So, farmers such as Richard Durrant of Big D Ranch, 13 miles south of Meridian, grow barley for seed and feed to sell to growers and dairies. Durrant said most locally grown barley is fed to dairy cows in the Treasure and Magic valleys.

Barley is not as profitable for growers as potatoes, sugar beets or corn, he said, so Valley growers rely on it as a rotational crop — especially during low-water years such as 2012 and 2013 — because it needs less water than wheat, which also grows in the early part of the season. Valley farmers plant wheat and barley in April and stop irrigating in mid-June, in time to start irrigating potatoes and sugar beets, which are planted and harvested later.

Valley farmers planted more barley than usual last year because of drought conditions, Durrant said.

“The last two years, water concerns in the Treasure Valley probably accounted for 50 percent of growers shifting acres to barley from wheat, and definitely from corn, so growers had a little extra water for sugar beets or something else,” Durrant said.

Conservation efforts

Barley already is a grower’s friend during low-water years. But brewing companies, the largest barley consumers, want to further curb the water needed to irrigate the grain.

University of Idaho associate professor Howard Neibling, who studies water management from the university’s Kimberly extension office, said brewers support part of his barley research.

Growers normally harvest barley at the soft-dough stage, when the kernel heads produce a toothpaste-like substance when squeezed, Neibling said. He was surprised when he found that barley last irrigated at milk stage, when the crop was underdeveloped and produced a milky liquid when squeezed, grew to be surprisingly healthy by harvest time. The early water cutoff saved two irrigations.

Neibling recommends irrigating through the soft-dough stage, but said the study shows barley’s resiliency, which gives growers a last-minute water-saving option if they get nervous about their water allotments.

“We tried to be a little extreme,” Neibling said. “Lo and behold, when we cut off irrigation at milk stage with only 2 inches of usable water in the soil, the crop made grade.”

Anheuser-Busch InBev and other brewing companies have ramped up research on water conservation because of pressure from Wal-Mart and other sellers, Neibling said. Wal-Mart is pushing for water conservation as part of its public relations strategy.

That can present challenges in places such as Idaho, where declining snowpacks have forced growers to work under smaller water allotments on fields where barley for Budweiser, Bud Light and other brands grows.

Pete Kraemer, Anheuser-Busch InBev’s vice president of supply, said 90 percent of the water involved in the production of beer is used in agriculture, a figure common in the beverage industry.

“No barley, no beer,” Kraemer said.

A-B InBev has reduced its water consumption from 3.5 barrels of water per barrel of beer to 3.15 barrels. Some of the brewer’s conservation efforts take place in the brewhouse. But the most significant changes take place in fields. They include switching from ground irrigation to sprinkler irrigation and breeding barley strains that resist disease and crop-damaging weather.

The Houston Chronicle contributed.