In 1941, the US entered World War II. The following year, in the United States, 17 million acres were planted to barley. At the time, barley was grown as animal feed and for malting. (Malting is the process of turning barley seed into malted barley. Malted barley is the major ingredient in beer and some distilled beverages.) As today, a tiny amount went to human consumption and industrial uses. And of course, some amount of barley grown every year supplies farmers with seed for the next year. As it turns out, after years of increases in barley acreage since the mid 1800s, 1942 was the peak of barley production in the US.
After 1942, production bounced around before landing at around 8 million acres planted in 1987. From there, the numbers began to slide consistently, with barley acreage losing over 300,000 acres per year. (Numbers from the Nation Barley Growers Association.) Last year, only 2 million acres of barley were planted in the US. In addition, barley stocks — stored grain held in reserve — were at or near historic lows.
Acreage in Montana and Idaho, two major barley growing states, has seen only modest declines in the past two decades. In contrast, Minnesota and North Dakota have seen production fall sharply. The number of bushels produced Minnesota fell by roughly half from 1991 to 2000, then stabilized. From 1991 to 2011, barley production in North Dakota — until recently the top barley-growing state — fell from more than 135 million bushels per year to less than 20 million.
Through much of the period from 1942 to present, the US was a major exporter of grain. However, our barley exports dwindled and, by 1987, accounted for only a small percentage of the barley being grown. Today, our exports are effectively zero — the result of improved agricultural capabilities in countries we used to export to.
Likewise, the use of barley as animal feed has dwindled to almost nothing. For a brief time in the 1980s, over 300 million bushels per year were sold as feed. In the 1990s, the numbers hovered around 200 million bushels. Today, they are on the order of 50 million bushels per year.
In the past, some barley was grown explicitly to be feed barley. There were specific varieties of feed barley it was fertilized fairly heavily so that its protein content would be high (14% or more). This made it more nutritious to livestock and hence more valuable at market. In contrast, in order to be useful to brewers, malting barley must be of a malting barley variety and of fairly low protein content (below 12%). As such, applications of fertilizer — especially nearing harvest — are light.
In the past, if a farmer’s crop of malting barley did not meet specifications, he could still sell it (at a reduced price) as feed. Today, that would be impossible as very little feed barley is being purchased. In fact, in a recent conversation I had with David Kuske of Briess Malting, I found out that basically all barley grown in the US is grown under contract to maltsters. There is no “spot” market for US barley, so farmers are (understandably) reluctant to grow barley unless they have a guaranteed buyer. (A spot market is a market where commodities are bought and sold from stocks on hand. Essentially no farmers are growing barley and waiting to see what they can get for it at harvest time, which is common for many other crops.)
Barley has always been planted on marginal farm land. The most fertile growing regions in the US — which include the “corn belt” and “wheat belt” running through the American midwest — grow wheat, corn, and soy. Barley is largely planted north of the corn and wheat belts, where growing seasons are shorter and the land is (frequently) less fertile. North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Minnesota are the four of the biggest barley producing states of the past several decades. Colorado and Wyoming also have significant acreage. (The American Malting Barley Association website has information on which varieties are planted in which states. Basically, 6-row barley is planted in North Dakota, 2-row elsewhere.)
These days, new varieties of GMO corn and soy beans — crops that command higher prices than barley — can be grown in many regions where they could not before. North Dakota used to be a nearly endless field of barley; now it’s mostly planted to corn. This is due to new corn varieties with shorter growing seasons and increased drought resistance.
In order to ensure that barley is grown for beer production, maltsters must enter into “act of God” contracts with farmers. This means that the maltster agrees to pay a competitive price for the barley, and the farmer gets paid even if his or her barley crop fails (for reasons beyond their control). In regular agricultural contracts, the farmer would need to buy the commodity he was supposed to raise in order to fulfill his contract. For example, if the buyer contracted for 5,000 bushels of wheat at 4 dollars a bushel, the farmer would have to deliver 5,000 bushels to the buyer — even if his crop failed and he had to buy that grain at 5 dollars a bushel on the spot market. However, without a spot market for barley, and with more lucrative crops available to farmers, maltsters have to contract for the barley and allow for the realities of the market.
The 1940s was the beginning of what became known as the Green Revolution. Starting at this time, improvements in agricultural practices led to great gains in farm productivity. To pick one example, rice production in India went from 2 tons per hectare (in the 1960s) to 6 tons per hectare (in the 1990s). This caused the price of rice to drop from $550 ton to $200 ton (from the 1970s to 2001, a slightly different time frame). In the 1970s, the idea that the population would outstrip our food-producing capability, leading to a worldwide famine, was considered seriously. Today, thanks to the Green Revolution, obesity is a far greater health concern that famine in industrialized countries.
Unfortunately, barley did not benefit from the Green Revolution to the extent that other major crops did. The USDA reports that in 1942, farms in Montana yielded around 30 bushels per acre. This has increased to around 50 bushels per acre today (and I have seen claims of 60–80 bushels per acre currently for some other growing regions). This is a sizable improvement, but let’s contrast this to corn. When I was a kid in the 1970s, my grandfather grew corn on his farm in Iowa. Back then, Iowa corn farmers were yielding about 70 bushels per acre. Today the number is around 220 bushels per acre. And, although commodity prices vary, the price of corn is usually higher than the price of barley. (Corn prices have fallen recently, however.)
So, although barley farmers are yielding more per acre, this is not offsetting the massive losses in acreage. Nor is the increase in productivity keeping pace with other crops.
In addition, seed manufacturers pay relatively little attention to barley, and that’s likely to continue to be the case. In particular, US maltsters have no interest in agricultural companies developing GMO barley varieties, fearing rejection by consumers. So, the very technology that helped other crops encroach on barley-growing regions won’t be able to help barley find new growing regions.
What Does This Mean for Brewers and Beer Lovers?
For those of us who brew and enjoy beer, is this anything to worry about? Not really. One constant throughout all of this has been the barley used for malting. The amount of barley grown for malting each year hasn’t changed too much in the past few decades. As brewers, it really doesn’t matter to us if feed barley is no longer grown or if exports have declined to zero. What we require is a source of malting barley. Maltsters work closely with growers and have long been aware of the general downward trend in barley acreage. They began contracting before availability became a problem. So, there should never be a “surprise” shortage of malt, as there was in 2008 with hops. (And even that wasn’t a total surprise to those in the know. I heard Ralph Olsen, then of HopUnion, warn that it was coming in the years prior the shortage.)
As Kuske mentioned when I talked to him, maltsters have a pretty good idea of how much demand there will be for malt each year, and they contract with farmers to deliver adequate amounts of barley. To hedge against crop failures, they contract for a little more than their projections require. And, there are still modest amounts of barley stocks available. Kuske also mentioned that Briess has recently purchased a large barley storage and processing facility in Wyoming, to handle 2-row barley grown there and in Montana. So maltsters are — as you would expect — aware of the situation and taking steps to keep the malt flowing.
In a year with a normal amount of crop failures, the beer supply will be fine. In a year in which crop failure is more extensive than predicted, some barley could be imported to make up the deficit. Canada, for example, grows a fair amount of barley. However, in the case of a terrible growing season covering most of the northern part of the United States (and into Canada), the availability of barley could fall below demand.
On balance, unless the US experiences a major weather disturbance that disrupts barley crops from Idaho through Minnesota, brewers will continue to have a supply of barley malt and beer drinkers will have their beer. In the case of a very poor growing season, however, there could be malt shortages as there is no pool of barley for maltsters to draw from if their contracted crops are not delivered. In short, the sky isn’t falling — but out of an abundance of caution, you might want to look up occasionally.