Ranking 'bittersweet' as growers work to reverse decline

By JOHN O'CONNELL

Capital Press

A 2011 barley harvest that was already sufficient to make Idaho the new national production leader was underreported by a bushel per acre, according to revised estimates from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.

NASS agricultural statistician Brad Early explained the previous estimates, released in late September, used data gathered before many Idaho farmers had completed their barley harvests.

According to the adjusted numbers, Idaho farmers harvested 500,000 acres, yielding 46.5 million bushels. Washington's barley yields were also increased by the revised numbers, up to 8.51 million bushels from the earlier estimate of 8.28 million.

The No. 2 barley production state this year, Montana, reported 31 million bushels harvested from 620,000 acres.

North Dakota, historically the nation's top barley-producing state, finished third following a dismal harvest impaired by cold and wet conditions. North Dakota farmers harvested 16.45 million bushels from a record low 350,000 acres. Their yields also dropped from 65 bushels per acre to 47. Idaho farmers reaped 93 bushels per acre this year.

Nationally, harvested barley acreage was at its lowest level since 1881, Early said.

Officials within the Idaho barley industry anticipated the Gem State would become the new national barley leader in March, when the first reports were released specifying acreages that growers intended to plant. They say earning the distinction, however, is bittersweet.

"Yes, Idaho has become the largest barley producing state, and we're pleased with the outcome for Idaho, but we don't necessarily brag at this ranking because it's come at the expense of a state that's suffered some very difficult conditions," said Kelly Olson, administrator of the Idaho Barley Commission. "North Dakota could very easily come out on top next year."

Barley commissioner Dwight Little, of Teton, added: "It bodes for the fact that the total acreage in the U.S. is decreasing. As genetically modified crops -- soybeans and corn -- with biotech abilities have moved into areas where they weren't able to be produced, it's taken barley acreage away."

"Barley is starting to look more like a specialty crop than a conventional crop."

At least in Idaho, Little anticipates barley production will increase next year. He noted Idaho malt barley growers are now receiving about $14 per hundredweight.

"There are a lot of growers putting the pencil to it to see if they're going to grow wheat or barley or alfalfa," Little said. "In our area here, malt barley at current contract offers is competitive with other commodities out there. I'm optimistic about Idaho's future."

Ultimately, rankings mean less to Olson than reversing a national trend of declining barley production.

"I think all of us in barley recognize we have a lot of work to do to rebuild production in this county, and it's something we all need to work on together," she said.

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