Palmer Barley

Mary Palmer Sullivan, vice president of the Washington Grain Commission, stands in a field of Palmer, the new Washington State University barley variety named for her.

VALLEYFORD, Wash. — Mary Palmer Sullivan calls herself the “Barley Babe.”

She worked exclusively on barley at the Washington Barley Commission beginning in 1988. It merged in 2009 with the Washington Wheat Commission to become the Washington Grain Commission, where she is now vice president.

This year on her small farm, she grew Palmer, a new Washington State University barley variety named for her.

“I just wanted to name the last barley I’d release after her,” said Kevin Murphy, outgoing WSU barley breeder.

Murphy was the WSU barley breeder for eight years. He is transitioning into a new position, as associate professor of international seed and cropping systems. Robert Brueggeman is WSU’s new barley breeder.

“Mary has been a real champion of barley farming, breeding, beer, malt barley, food barley — all the specialty types of barley,” Murphy said. “She realizes the importance of barley in farming rotations and wants to see more barley out there.”

When Sullivan first started, Washington farmers grew more than 1 million acres of barley. Today, it’s down to roughly 105,000 acres, she said.

The problem, she said, was the price of barley, currently at $140 per short ton, or 2,000 pounds.

“It’s difficult to promote something that people are not making any money on,” Sullivan said. “If it doesn’t pencil out, growers aren’t going to grow it.”

Sullivan is raising about 1.5 acres of Palmer on her 8.5-acre farm. Murphy said she’s helping provide enough to test its malting characteristics.

Murphy is targeting Palmer for the craft malt and brewing market, tailoring it to meet the craft brewing association’s needs. It yields well, he said. Acreage will likely begin on a small scale.

Craft beer’s market share is relatively small, roughly 12% of total production, but more than one-third of barley is destined for craft malt, Murphy said.

Many barley varieties are bred for larger operations. It’s “somewhat” unusual to breed a variety for the craft market, he said.

Palmer is currently being raised to increase breeder seed. Next spring, it will raised for foundation seed.

It is slated to be available for growers in 2021, Murphy said.

An avid WSU alumna — her barn bears the university’s logo — Sullivan would like to see a company develop a WSU Cougar-themed beer or whiskey using local ingredients. She believes it would prove popular for the school’s dedicated fans.

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