As grains go, barley is often overlooked compared with wheat and corn, though not by beer drinkers.
“Corn feeds the world, but barley makes it fun,” said Mary Palmer Sullivan, program director for the Washington Grain Alliance.
Nationally, 51 percent of the 221 million bushels of barley grown is used for animal feed, while 44 percent is used for malt production, which primarily goes to beer production. Another 3 percent is grown for seed, and 2 percent is used in food products.
In Washington, about 90 percent of the barley is used for animal feed, said Tom Zwainz, chairman of the Washington Grain Commission. He said Idaho and Montana are more focused on growing malt varieties and said the region between eastern Idaho and central Montana is where many malt houses are located.
Zwainz said that while just a tiny portion of barley is grown for people to eat, that is an opportunity. He credits Sullivan with pushing for barley’s heart-healthy claims that have been accepted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Sullivan describes barley as “a nutritional powerhouse” that is high in fiber, antioxidants and vitamins and helps battle diabetes and heart disease.
Sullivan oversaw the state barley commission before it merged with the wheat growers association into the Washington Grain Alliance a few years ago. She also runs the National Barley Foods Council from her Spokane office.
2011 was a bumper year for Washington barley, Sullivan said, with 150,000 acres harvested. That is up from 115,000 in 2011 and 81,000 in 2010. But it is a far cry from the 1.2 million acres harvested in the state in 1985, said Zwainz, who grows 550 acres near Reardan in Lincoln County.
He said one cause for the huge drop in barley acreage is the price of wheat, which has been so favorable. Compounding that, an herbicide used on wheat to control weeds is incompatible with barley, which means barley cannot be rotated on the same land.
“That’s caused a dramatic reduction in barley acres,” Zwainz said.
He added that researchers are working on a solution to the herbicide problem that should help bolster the barley industry.
As with wheat, lentils and dry peas, North Dakota is the nation’s top grower of barley. Also ahead of Washington are Montana and Idaho. Washington grows 4.9 percent of the nation’s barley.
And as with wheat, Palouse is barley country, with Whitman County the state’s top producer, followed by Lincoln and Spokane counties.
Spring barley is the predominant crop, Zwainz said, and it is planted between late March and early May. Barley harvest begins after winter wheat is brought in, typically around the middle of August, he said, though a wet spring can push harvest into September.
Zwainz is a second-generation barley producer.
“I’ve been growing it my whole life,” he said. “It’s been a good rotation crop.”
While the vast majority of barley is dryland farmed and planted in the spring, Zwainz said some Columbia Basin growers are experimenting with winter varieties under irrigation that result in bigger crops.
One of those growers is Dana Herron of Tri-State Seed in Connell. He is bullish about the future of winter barley in Washington, thanks to a new German variety called Wintmalt. Herron was contacted by KWS Lochow of Germany to grow the new version of barley in Washington.
He began experimenting with Wintmalt three years ago and has now expanded his production to 1,500 acres.
“Germans have winter hardiness figured out,” Herron said.
That’s good for Columbia Basin growers, who can plant winter barley in mid-October and harvest it the first week of July — then plant another crop such as corn on the same land.
Herron sells his barley to Great Western Malting in Vancouver, Wash., and the resulting malts go primarily to craft brewers throughout the Northwest. While winter barley’s future is in the somewhat milder Columbia Basin, Herron is also having good luck with test plantings in Rosalia and Davenport.
All of this makes him excited about barley’s future.
“I think it’s going to come back,” he said. “Winter barley will help. It will be a component.”