Bringing barley back to the Michigan agricultural economy

Due to the increasing demand for locally-sourced products in everything from the salads we eat to the beer we drink, barley, produced for malt, is being revisited as a potential crop for Michigan agriculture.

In the quest for an all-Michigan beer, craft brewers in the state are constantly challenged with acquiring quality malt that has been processed in-state with Michigan-grown barley. Barley acres are quite limited in the state, and what is grown is marketed as livestock feed. Furthermore, very few malting operations, or malt houses, exist in the state. Historically, Michigan produced upwards of 300,000 acres of barley (whereas only 8,000 acres were harvested in 2013), and multiple malt houses and brewing operations provided opportunity for in-state malt production. That infrastructure has since disappeared, but the hope still remains.

Michigan State University Extension, in partnership with Michigan State University AgBioResearch, was recently awarded a grant to explore the agronomic potential of barley and the feasibility of processing that barley for malt in northern Michigan. These funds, awarded through the MSU Project GREEEN grant program, will allow for variety testing at four sites through the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula to identify which varieties are most productive, both in terms of yield and quality. These trials will be located at the Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center in Chatham, Michigan, and at three separate on-farm cooperator sites in Schoolcraft County (Cooks, Michigan), Leelanau County (Empire, Michigan) and Presque Isle County (Posen, Michigan). MSU Extension Staff cooperating on these trials include Ashley McFarland, Christian Kapp, Jim Isleib, Rob Sirrine and James DeDecker, respectively.

Twenty-three different varieties will be tested that were selected based on their adaptability to the region and malt potential. Upon harvest, samples will be analyzed for yield, test weight, moisture, protein, color, kernel plumpness, germination rate and capacity, RVA (sprout potential) and DON (Deoxynivalenol/Vomitoxin contamination) according to the American Malting Barley Association standards. Those interested in taking a look at the variety trials are welcome to attend field day events that will be hosted in conjunction with the trials—Saturday, July 26, 2014 at the Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center and a field day at the Posen site with date and time yet to be scheduled.

Another component of the grant is to commission a feasibility study for a small to mid-sized malthouse to be located in northwest Michigan. This will be done in partnership with the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce and led by the MSU Product Center. A critical component to increasing barley acres in the state is access to in-state processing, which at this time, those options are quite limited. Many farmers and entrepreneurs alike have questioned whether or not malting barley and malt production are feasible ventures in the region, and partners hope that with this study, that question will be answered.

Follow the project’s progress at the Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center Facebook page