Barley’s history in the state is big. In 1930s and 40s, for example, Minnesota was the number one barley producing state. That’s partly why places like Rahr Malting, the largest privately owned malt facility in the world, established itself in Shakopee in the 1930s—to be near the source of its business.
Today, however, Minnesota produces only around five percent of the nation’s barley. Even as recently as the 1990s, Minnesota used to grow a million acres, but a fungal disease dwindled that figure to about 100,000 acres today.
And so, much like the grasslands and forests, barley, too, has been tracking the climate. Now, Rahr gets most of the barley that craft brewers want (primarily two-row barley) from upwards of 1,000 miles away.
“There has been a steady movement of barley north and west, says U of M plant geneticist and barley breeder Kevin Smith. “That creates significant problems for the malting industry—transportation costs are quite high. We’re trying to figure out how to bring barley back to Minnesota, back to where that infrastructure exists,” says Smith.
Interestingly, while climate change will present challenges for agriculture, it may also present opportunities for the return of barley to the state, albeit in a different form on a playing field that will be increasingly warmer.
The U of M’s barley breeding program has been around for more than 100 years, but its focus has been on six-row spring barley—barley planted, like most other crops, in the spring. However, says Smith, increasing temps attributed to climate change have decreased yield in spring barley. “It’s a cool season crop—it does not like hot temps, especially during flowering,” says Smith.
Thus, growing zones for spring barley will continue to move north and west, pushing into Canada and farther away from the state’s malting infrastructure. Similarly, across the U.S. barley production is down significantly in all major barley-producing states (which are, in descending order of production, North Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Colorado, Wyoming, Virginia, Minnesota, Maryland, South Dakota, Oregon, and Utah). North Dakota produced nearly 180 million bushels in 1992, but fewer than 20 million in 2012. Meanwhile, Canadian barley acres increased more than 20 percent in 2012.
Six years ago breeders like Smith saw the writing on the wall and began looking at alternatives that could bring barley back to a state where it was once a big player. They turned their attention to breeding two–row winter barley. For the uninitiated, craft brewers have traditionally liked two-row barley, while big brewers have gone with six-row.
The advantage of two-row winter barley in a warming climate is that it’s planted in the fall, overwinters, and starts growing again in the spring. But despite its name, it doesn’t necessarily love the cold temps. For it to become viable for farmers, it needs to consistently survive the winter. Right now, Smith says it survives southern Minnesota winters just more than half the time. With breeding progress ongoing and winters warming, Smith expects that to change.
“Twenty years ago we wouldn’t think of growing winter barley in southern Minnesota—it’s too cold. But we’re breeding for better winter hardiness [and] we’re making good progress,” he says.
Smith says that the ultimate goal (the grail, really) is that two-row winter barley could provide farmers with an opportunity to doublecrop. Farmers could plant barley in fall, plant a soybean crop after an early spring barley harvest, and have two different profitable crops on the same land.
Winter barley also has ecological advantages. Using winter cover crops helps reduce erosion, sequester carbon, and reduce nutrient loss from farms into waterways.
“We’re still four to five years away from where we’ll be able to release a variety that we think will be worth trying,” says Smith. “And it will still be a risky operation—but within five years we expect something that could survive most winters.”
A lot of craft breweries, and a lot of Minnesotans, are interested in sustainability and their carbon footprint. Such two-row winter barley might be part of the solution to keeping barley in the United States and Minnesota in the climate of the future.
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