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Barley farmers start supplying version of the grain that is edible for humans

USDA agricultural research service barley breeder Gongshe Hu leads a recent tour of new barley varieties grown in research plots at his Aberdeen facility. University of Idaho cereals pathologist Juliet Marshall is on the right. Photo by John O’Connell.

A major grain supplier is developing a new market for Eastern Idaho barley farmers, who have endured recent cuts to their contracted malt barley acreage.

In addition to raising malt barley for large brewing companies or feed barley for livestock, about 20 regional growers are now supplying Thresher Artisan Wheat with barley that was raised for people to eat.

Ken Morgan, Thresher’s director of merchandising for Idaho, said his growers are raising 3,000 to 3,500 acres of food barley this year, most of which will be sold to Asian markets that use it as a nutritional supplement to blend with rice.

The Idaho Barley Commission has worked for several years to establish a significant food barley industry in the state, and was instrumental in working with the National Barley Foods Council to secure a nationwide heart-health claim for the commodity, through the federal Food and Drug Administration, in 2006. Barley contains high levels of a healthy fiber, called beta-glucan.

“I think it’s a pretty good deal,” said Rupert malt barley farmer Mike Wilkins, who represents his area on the Idaho Barley Commission. “Any time we lose a market, you’ve got to fill it with something else.”

USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Aberdeen has also prioritized breeding food lines with elevated beta-glucan levels – the challenge for breeders is that lines with more beta-glucan also tend to yield less.

Idaho Barley Commission Administrator Kelly Olson said a Fortune 500 company will soon launch a food product – targeting millennials – that makes the heart-health claim and lists barley as its second ingredient. The company plans to expand its line of barley products if all goes well. Furthermore, Olson said a business team from Japan will soon be visiting Twin Falls and Boise regarding food barley. Northern Idaho also has a significant food barley acreage.

“Since 2016, there’s been a seven-fold increase in (Idaho food barley) acres. That’s largely driven by a rapid increase in demand for the Japanese market,” Olson said, declining to offer a statewide food barley acreage. “They have featured barley on national television with really a focus on weight management.”

The Barley Commission hosted a July 9 meeting about a planned marketing campaign it’s spearheading, featuring the major food barley players in Idaho and Washington. Olson said Scoular Grains also has an aggressive food barley program this year in the Jerome area.

Morgan explained Thresher contracts for food barley with growers from American Falls through Newdale. Most raise a two-row, hull-less spring food variety developed in Aberdeen, called Transit.

Idaho malting contracts have been cut somewhat due to a supply glut, driven by Idaho’s bumper barley crop in 2016, followed by a strong 2017 harvest. Farmers say yields should also be strong this year.

“We were hauling 2016 barley in March of 2018,” said Idaho Falls grain farmer Matt Gellings. “They’ve got plenty of product, at least around here.”

Morgan said depressed wheat prices have also led area growers to search for new crop alternatives. Thresher was formed when its parent company, Agspring, acquired General Mills’ Idaho grain operations in Newdale, Blackfoot, American Falls, Rockford, Pocatello and Idaho Falls.

“Malt barley plantings are starting to shrink, and you’re having guys who are wanting to keep that barley in the rotation,” Morgan added.

Thresher sold its first food barley production last winter, mostly to Asian markets. Morgan said the company is also working with domestic end-users and anticipates food barley will soon be an ingredient in a variety of U.S. products.

“It’s a newer market, this hull-less barley,” Morgan said. “It’s finally getting to a critical mass.”

Morgan said food barley growers can earn a premium of $2 to $3 per hundredweight, which effectively offsets lower food barley yields.

“We’re trying to stay competitive with malt barley,” Morgan said. “We’ve had more producers wanting to grow it than we had seed for it.”

USDA-ARS barley breeder Gongshe Hu said about 30 percent of his program’s workload involves developing better food barley lines. Earlier this year, Hu released a new food barley line, called Goldenhart, to replace Transit. Hu said both Goldenhart and Transit contain about 10 percent beta-glucan, but Goldenhart provides a yield boost. It yields about 5 to 10 percent better than Transit under irrigation, and about 30 percent higher in dryland fields.

“Food barley is a newly emerged market, in the very early stages but growing,” Hu said.

Morgan said his company already has some commercial Goldenhart acreage under contract and has been expanding seed to ramp up its production next season. Though Goldenhart has great potential for southeast Idaho’s dryland grain farmers, Morgan said Thresher is now contracting only with irrigated growers for a more stable supply.

Morgan said Thresher’s Eastern Idaho food barley acreage could “easily grow” to as large as 6,000 acres during the next few years.

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