By John O'Connell
BONNERS FERRY, Idaho -- Several northern Idaho growers are harvesting contracted acres of human food barley, a new niche market for their area they anticipate will expand substantially in the next few years.
Food barley varieties are bred to be high in beta glucan, a water-soluble fiber important for nutrition. Tim Dillin, Idaho barley commissioner for northern Idaho, said the burgeoning food barley industry offers another lucrative option for growers in his district, who often struggle to produce malting barley with low protein, an important quality in beer making.
Dillin estimates there are more than 1,500 food barley acres in Boundary County, Idaho, most of which are under contract for export into the Asian market by Washington-based McKay Seed Co. or Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative, which has a location in Genesee, Idaho. He raised 150 acres this season of the WestBred food barley variety BG 006 for PNW Farmers Coop and plans to increase his food barley acreage next season if all goes well.
"I think those acres here in Boundary County are probably going to expand next year," Dillin said.
Dillin also planted BG006 three years ago for the open market, averaging a lofty 136 bushels per acre, but sold it as feed when he found no food barley buyers.
"I'm expecting every bit as good a yield on it this year," Dillin said. "I don't think we've ever had a feed barley that's come close to that."
He believes promising high-beta glucan spring lines under development at the Agricultural Research Service in Aberdeen, Idaho, and a winter food barley line that survived this season in experimental test plots on his farm, should further increase interest in food barley.
Last October, Dillin and Sam White, chief operating officer with PNW Farmers Coop, participated in a 10-day trade mission, sponsored by the Idaho Barley Commission with assistance from the U.S. Grains Council, seeking to tap food barley markets in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.
White said his company intends to send interested foreign buyers samples from the food barley it obtains this season, hoping to entice small purchases for trials that could result in larger orders later. White said his company has much of its food barley acreage under contract with foreign buyers already. His company sold some food barley into Japan a few years ago but didn't continue food barley because of internal disagreements among Japanese buyers.
Bryce McKay, marketing director with McKay Seed, said his company has contracted for food barley from Washington growers for several years. Most of his company's food barley has been shipped to Asian countries.
"The food barley varieties we are using do well under high rainfall or irrigation. Some of the northern Idaho areas have been really productive, and we're excited about going there for more," McKay said.
Idaho Barley Commission Administrator Kelly Olson said northern Idaho is well situated geographically to ship to Asia. The commission also had seed of the promising University of Idaho food barley variety Transit planted this season in eastern Idaho to send as samples for companies in the U.S. and Asia. She said a major U.S. food manufacturer is developing products for its own Transit food barley program.
"Hopefully, 2014 will be a much bigger scale-up in commercial production, but 2013 was a good start," Olson said.