Barley boosts grain economy hope
Westside researchers breeding a wide variety of the crop
By STEVE BROWN
TACOMA, Wash. -- The growth of craft bakers, brewers and distillers in the Pacific Northwest hold promise for a revitalized grain industry west of the Cascade Mountains.
Researchers at Washington State University and Oregon State University described their ongoing work at the Cascadia Grains Conference.
"We're breeding for color, for beta glucans, hulled or hull-less, kernel hardness, protein, starch type, test weight, yield, agronomics and disease resistance," said Brigid Meints, a graduate student at OSU.
Beta glucan, or soluble fiber, helps with controlling cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes.
Some of the variety development at OSU is funded by the Oregon Wheat Commission and the Idaho Barley Commission. In addition, the university is developing recipes for barley-based foods and a web-based resource for local processing and preparation.
Himalayan varieties of food barley are being grown in Corvallis, Ore., Mount Vernon, Wash., and Pullman, Wash.
The "shining star," she said, is a variety called Streaker Naked barley, which is being grown in Junction City, Ore., and Aberdeen, Idaho.
"We're testing for food qualities similar to wheat varieties," she said. "And it would be sort of cool to have purple barley in your beer."
Brook Brouwer, a Ph.D. student at WSU's Mount Vernon research center, grows 36 different varieties under different conditions to study yield and quality.
Barley will be successful on the westside only if it can mature early, adapt to organic production and resist stripe rust, scald and lodging.
There is plenty of demand for malted barley, he said. Western Washington alone has 135 breweries and brew pubs as well as 60-plus craft distilleries.
Some of the questions Brouwer is looking into: "Does barley with a view of the water produce unique malt? Are there specific regional differences?" The westside has many microclimates, he said, so he's studying how variety and location influence flavor and nutrition.
Also working at Mount Vernon is Karen Hills, with the King County Conservation District.
She found plenty of demand when she surveyed bakers west of the Cascades to gauge their interest in regionally grown grain. The respondents were nearly all independent bakers, and 61 percent said they are interested in pursuing Western Washington wheat. A key concern to them is consistent quality, reliable supply, flavor and nutritional value.
"The grain sector offers a blank canvas," she said. Increasing the scale and efficiency of production will make local grains competitive.
The westside was once recognized as the best grain-growing region in the world, said WSU Extension's Lucas Patzek. Most production is now on the eastside, and westside farmers grow it mostly in rotation with higher-value crops.
"Oregon, Washington and British Columbia all have similar conditions," he said. "Also there's a large foodie market and lots of locavores."
If barley and wheat become more high-value crops, Meints said, they will be more than just rotation crops.
Growers in Oregon's Willamette Valley are struggling to find rotation crops in general, and she's trying to get them to grow barley instead of grass seed.