New Idaho Barley Commissioner specializes in growing food barley segment

A field of food barley grows in McKay Seed's territory of Northern Idaho and Eastern Washington. The company has seen rapid growth in demand for food barley from Japan, which blends it with rice.

BOISE — The newest member of the Idaho Barley Commission specializes in a small but growing market segment he believes has enabled barley to remain a viable option in Northern Idaho.

Wes Hubbard, of Bonner’s Ferry, started his three-year term on the commission July 1, replacing Tim Dillin. Hubbard, along with his brother Mike, raises 500 acres of food barley, bred to be high in a heart-healthy soluble fiber, beta glucan.

Hubbard said meeting malt barley specifications is tough in his region, where there’s more natural precipitation to complicate irrigation management. Though feed barley was once common in the region, Hubbard said it’s not economical at the current price. He explained barley for the human food market grows well in his area, commands a decent return and has benefited from strengthening demand — especially in Japan. Furthermore, food barley isn’t prone to tipping, or lodging, in fields, and the short stubble facilitates direct-seeding of fall grains.

“We can have options for growing barley that are profitable for us,” Hubbard said.

Hubbard, in his third of raising food barley, said the crop’s yields are relatively low, but he hopes production will rise as he gains more experience.

Dan McKay, CEO of McKay Seed, bought food barley from five growers in the Kootenai River Valley this season. His company and Highland Specialty Grains bought the WestBred barley program about three years after Monsanto acquired the company. Hubbard raises the Highland food barley variety BG 012, which McKay explained is hull-less and has 7-8 percent beta glucan content. The Japanese pearl the barley and blend in about 20 to 30 percent with rice, giving a boost to a popular Asian commodity with little nutritional value of its own.

“(Food barley) has become more popular as the Japanese have become more health conscious,” McKay said.

McKay has seen rapid growth in food barley demand since the Japanese enacted an official food barley health claim, followed by the airing of a Japanese television program extolling the health benefits of food barley. But contracting was nearly complete when the Japanese sought to increase food barley purchases, and Boundary County growers had already bought canola seed to plant. So McKay turned to growers serving his Rosalia, Wash., facility to fill the extra demand.

For the domestic market, Ardent Mills produces a high-fiber food additive called Sustagrain from Highland food barley varieties bred with 17 to 18 percent beta glucan. Another variety with 10 to 12 percent beta glucan, BG 203, will soon be used by an undisclosed customer for making breakfast cereal, McKay said.

Hubbard, who will continue a term on the Idaho Oilseed Commission through 2018, also raises wheat, canola and 750 acres of timber on his 1,750-acre farm. He’s been Boundary County Director of the Idaho Grain Producers Association for the past 11 years. He and his wife, Jolene, have two sons, Ethan and Dalin.

Hubbard credits the Barley Commission with laying the groundwork to build the food barley market and believes opening new markets for all classes of barley will be one of his primary duties as a commissioner. He also believes the Commission helped make Idaho the top barley producing state.

“There’s not such a huge market for malt barley in Southern Idaho by accident,” Hubbard said. “I think that’s been as a result of some hard work by a lot of people, including our Commission and (administrator) Kelly Olson.”

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