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Anheuser-Busch barley program aims for higher yields from Idaho growers

Production from about 200 acres of barley fills a large steeping tank as part of the process of making malt at the Idaho Falls Anheuser-Busch plant. A single batch from the tank is sufficient to produce 6 million bottles of beer, according to Anheuser-Busch officials who led a tour of the plant for growers and area officials July 13. Photo by John O’Connell.

Anheuser-Busch brewmaster Dave Taylor believes barley  grown in Idaho has the perfect light color and produces consistently crisp and sweet malt, thanks largely to the state’s idyllic growing conditions and its lack of disease pressure.

Consequently, the maker of the self-proclaimed King of Beers, Budweiser, has invested heavily in Idaho – and has become a significant contributor to the Gem State’s economy.

Idaho remains the top barley-producing state in the nation, raising a combined 530,000 acres of malt and feed this season, according to USDA. Anheuser-Busch has 400 grower contracts in Idaho, and has been using Idaho barley for 50 years. It’s the largest buyer of Idaho barley, said Taylor.

“Almost half of the beer we deliver to (North American) consumers is dependent on barley grown in Idaho,” said Taylor, who also serves as the company’s vice president of supply. “We are a big part of the fact that Idaho is the biggest barley state.”

The Anheuser-Busch malt plant in Idaho Falls was built in the late 1980s and completed an expansion in 2005. It produces more than 300,000 metric tons of finished malt per year. The company employs 170 workers in Idaho, including 68 at the malt plant.

“Eastern  Idaho is one of the best barley growing regions in the world,” said John Drake, director of western malting operations with Anheuser-Busch.

Barley contracts are also vital to the well being of the state’s famous potato industry, said University of Idaho economist Garth Taylor.

“Barley is the rotation crop of choice for potatoes,” the economist said, explaining growers have to change the crops they plant from year to year for the health of their soil, and to alleviate pressure from diseases that thrive in spuds.  He said malt barley tends to fetch higher prices than wheat, another popular rotation crop in Idaho.

John Drake, director of western malting operations with Anheuser-Busch, samples barley in the malting process at the Idaho
Falls malting plant during a July 13 tour. Photo by John O’Connell.

Updated sustainability goals

Anheuser-Busch’s updated sustainability goals cover U.S. operations through 2025. Nearly 80 percent of the company’s Idaho growers now participate in SmartBarley, which helps them improve yield and efficiency by comparing their practices with others in their region, and even  the world. Growers are surveyed twice per year about their irrigation, crop management, use of farm inputs and ultimate yields. Their farm data is kept anonymous.

Anheuser-Busch has set a goal of increasing its U.S. participation in the barley sustainability program to 100 percent by 2025. The company
is also rolling out sustainability programs for its rice and hops growers.

“It’s a pretty aggressive goal, but I think it would be a good program for everyone,” said Hamer farmer and SmartBarley participant Justin Place.

The beer company has also set goals for reducing water consumption, using only reuseable or majority-recycled materials for packaging, and curbing carbon emissions and power use throughout its supply chain. It has cut water use by 38 percent in the past decade and aims to save another 9 percent by 2025. The company has funded weather stations in key growing areas of Eastern Idaho to help growers track evapotranspiration from their crops and better manage their irrigation. At the Idaho Falls plant, Anheuser is looking to improve its wastewater treatment capabilities, hoping to either reuse roughly a million gallons of wastewater per day from the plant, or to inject it into the aquifer to bolster a declining groundwater supply.

Anheuser-Busch hopes to use only renewable electricity in the near future, and has built a wind farm in Oklahoma to offset about half of its power consumption, company officials said. In May, the company added a logo to its beer cans acknowledging the renewable energy program.

The Idaho Falls Anheuser-Busch malting plant produces 300,000 metric tons of finished malt per year, according to company officials. Photo by John O’Connell.

Toward its goal of curbing emissions by a quarter throughout its supply chain, Anheuser-Busch is switching to an entirely zero-emission
truck fleet and has ordered 40 Tesla electric trucks, as well as 800 hydrogen-powered trucks.

The company’s barley breeding efforts are also geared toward producing new varieties that use less water and can boost yields with fewer inputs. The program generates about 1,300 experimental lines for evaluation each year. A few of those lines make the cut to become approved varieties for the company’s malt.

“The challenges have become much harsher, and we need to do things differently if we want to ensure the continuation of beer production
for the next 100 plus years,” said Ingrid De Ryck, vice president of procurement and sustainability for Anheuser-Busch.

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