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Brewer pays Idaho farmers to switch to organic barley

photo of barley

“4 billion bottles of beer on the wall…” Idaho leads the nation in barley production. Photo courtesy of Idaho Barley Commission

Anheuser-Busch is paying six Idaho farmers to grow organic barley for its Michelob Ultra Pure Gold organic beer.

The beer launched in 2018, and the St. Louis-based company wants to expand it, but first it needs to ensure that there will be an adequate supply of organic grain, said Azania Andrews, vice president of marketing. The company’s Contract for Change program gives farmers the incentive to transition fields to organic barley, she said.

photo of laura wilder

Laura Wilder

Idaho actually leads the nation in growing barley, at 34.6%, with Montana and North Dakota second and third, said Laura Wilder, administrator for the Boise-based Idaho Barley Commission. While Montana has more barley acreage, Idaho has higher yields because Montana barley is usually dry-farmed and Idaho barley is typically irrigated, meaning that Idaho produces more barley in total, she said.

Idaho has approximately 4,000 farmers who grow about 530,000 acres of barley, producing 53,530,000 bushels, Wilder said, citing a 2018 U.S. Department of Agriculture report. Of that, about 85 farmers are certified to grow organically and about 50 of them did, producing about 14,544 acres of organic barley, in 2016 figures, she said.

In addition, Idaho has three large malt plants – two in Idaho Falls owned by Anheuser-Busch, and one in Pocatello, Great Western Malting, Wilder said. About 75% of Idaho’s barley crop goes to malted barley, which is used to make beer – more than 12 million barrels, almost 380 million gallons, or 4 billion 12-ounce bottles of beer, she said. About half of Idaho’s barley goes to Anheuser-Busch, she said.

The six Idaho farmers are the first ones in the program, which will eventually produce 600 acres a year in Idaho organic barley. This is a drop in the beer barrel for Idaho’s barley crop, Wilder admitted.

“It’s a start and gives new opportunities to growers,” she said. “Anything to add value to a crop and new opportunities is positive.”

photo of azania andrews

Azania Andrews

Organic barley grower certification takes three years and a lot of documentation to prove that pesticides and herbicides weren’t used on the crop in that period. Anheuser-Busch is promising to buy the transitional barley grown during that three-year period, as well as the organic barley at a premium after the certification process is complete, Andrews said. She did not say what the premium would be.

Anheuser-Busch’s team of 15 agronomists will help the six Idaho farmers transition to organic barley, Andrews said. That team also identified Idaho farmers with whom the company already had a relationship to gauge their interest in transitioning to organic barley. Some of the six have grown organically before, while others have not, she said.

“We started down the path of regenerative farming several years ago,” said Dan Lakey of Lakey Farms LLC in Soda Springs, which has been growing barley since its founding in 1945. “We haven’t yet started growing organic, but we feel that we need to grow the type of food that consumers demand, not what we feel they should consume. There’s an increase in demand for organic, locally grown, nutritionally dense food. Contract for Change gives us the opportunity to take that a step further with organic malt barley, and fits right in line with our aspirations and goals for the farm.”

Michelob Ultra Pure Gold is the only organic product made by a major brewer, though some craft breweries make organic beer, Andrews said. The brand ranks sixth in growth, with sales up 220% over the previous year, she said.

Organic beer also requires that other ingredients, such as hops, are organic, but Anheuser-Busch is not creating a similar program for hops at this time, Andrews said.

“As we learn and evolve, we may move to other ingredients in the beer,” she said.

Idaho was the second-largest producer of hops in the U.S. after Washington in 2018. Oregon came in third.

About Sharon Fisher