Malted barley harvested in southwest Virginia
JONESVILLE, Va. — The harvest of a new line of malt barley here in June is bringing hope for a new cash crop to Southwest Virginia where the double whammy of declining tobacco production and the mining industry has hurt the area.
The harvest is the culmination of 10 years of work within Virginia Tech’s Small Grains Breeding Program to develop a malt barley suitable for the region’s growing conditions. It is tied to efforts of Virginia Cooperative Extension, a task force promoting agritourism here, the Virginia Department of Mining, Minerals and Energy and two farmers.
Dr. Wade Thomason, Virginia Tech grain crops Extension specialist, and Amy Fannon Byington, Lee County Extension agent, talked, in individual telephone interviews, about the project they see bringing economic growth to a niche group of farmers here and spreading its benefits throughout the local economy.
Thomason said the research was driven by the dramatic expansion of craft breweries and distilleries in Virginia.
Grown to brewer specifications, malting barley often commands a premium over general commodity barley.
The area itself, with open spaces, disignated for hiking, ATVs and other outdoor activities and natural beauty, is increasingly attracting people to the region.
“This is a very enjoyable part of the state,” he said.
He said at the end of the day these visitors may want to relax and enjoy a local product. He envisions this being locally brewed beer from locally grown malt barley.
Thomason said this year’s harvest of 25 acres on two farms had consistently high malting quality required by malters and brewers.
Byington and a small portion will be sent to Louisville, Ky., to be stored, cleaned and prepared for brewing in Asheville, N.C. The remainder will be used by a local farmer for cattle feed.
Thomason said he was looking for a barley that would germinate uniformly and produce plump kernels. It needs a high starch content and a moderate protein content. The grain needs enzymes that will degrade the starch to turn it into alcohol.
The search for these qualities led to a world-wide search for the genetic material that would enable the Virginia Tech scientists to develop a barley with the genetics and find the proper management techniques that help it grow in Virginia. They had to find out how to do this economically as well.
The burley tobacco growers in Southwest Virginia came to mind as grower prospects for several reasons, Thomason said.
They are used to hard work and of taking care of a high-quality crop. In addition, grain is already grown in the area so the farmers have the combines and other equipment needed for growing barley.
It also offers the possibility of livestock grain and straw, a product that is scarce in the area.
The next step in making malt barley as a local resource, developing facilities in which to store, clean and market it is driven by the mining, minerals and energy department, which is seeking grants locally for handling the barley.
Byington said she recruited the two farmers and worked with them in getting the barley planted, sprayed and harvested. She said they planted the crop in October and harvested in June. The barley has been followed with soybeans.
Thomason is partnering with the Mt. Empire Community College for students to get experience in the management of grain handling.
While the malt barley seems to offer a big return on small acreage- one 35-gallon barrel of craft beer uses 1.5 bushels of barley, he reported-the potential to grow the economy reached farm beyond the possible 20 farmers expected to begin growing the crop.
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