Overcoming perception key to bright future for food barley

Bryce McKay, commercial manager for Highland Specialty Grains in Moses Lake, Wash., discusses the growth and potential of food barley Nov. 16 at the Tri-State Grain Growers Convention in Portland.

PORTLAND — With three times the fiber of oatmeal and a wide assortment of health benefits, barley has the potential to permanently change American food, says Bryce McKay with Highland Specialty Grains based in Moses Lake, Wash.

But first, McKay said the industry needs to shift public awareness of barley as a key ingredient in beer, to a key ingredient in meals.

McKay outlined efforts to boost the profile of food barley during a presentation Nov. 16 at the Tri-State Grain Growers Convention, a gathering of farmers from across Oregon, Washington and Idaho. This year’s event was in Portland.

U.S. barley production grew year over year to 153 million bushels in 2018, up 8 percent from 142 million bushels in 2017. Idaho was easily the largest producer by state, with 53.5 million bushels or about 35 percent of the entire crop, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. Washington harvested 4.8 million bushels, while Oregon totaled 1.3 million bushels.

In November 2013, Highland Specialty Grains took over the barley breeding program formerly run by WestBred, a subsidiary of Monsanto. McKay, the company’s commercial manager, told growers at the convention he expects a 10-plus percent increase in barley acres next year.

Overall, McKay — who also serves as director of marketing for McKay Seed Co. in Almira, Wash. — said barley exports are growing tremendously, especially to Japan, where the market has quadrupled over the last year.

However, a recent setback rattled some nerves after Japanese officials partially banned imports from Australia earlier this year, detecting high levels of the pesticide azoxystrobin in shipments, he said.

“That was something we had never faced before,” McKay said. “As the market has grown, there have been more and more regulatory implications, which makes sense. ... Obviously, this is for human consumption. That means safety is the most important factor.”

As for developing the domestic market, McKay is bullish. He said barley cereals, grain blends, pilafs and frozen foods may all prove popular with American consumers, especially given USDA claims it can help fight diabetes and lower the risk of heart disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports about 610,000 people die of heart disease in the U.S. every year, making it the leading cause of death for both men and women.

“Changing your diet and incorporating something like this starts to make a lot of sense,” McKay said. “That’s where I think we start to see a lot of interest rising.”

The challenge, McKay said, is overcoming perceptions. He said industry leaders are working with nonprofit organizations to tout barley’s health benefits, and get the grain onto school lunch menus.

“One of the main aspects of this is getting people to think about barley as a delicious addition into their diet,” McKay said.

So-called “naked” varieties of barley, bred to strip away the indigestible hull normally on the grain, may provide an additional degree of efficiency, McKay said. In January, Oregon State University announced it is leading a three-year, five-state project to test new varieties of naked barley, with $2 million in funding from the USDA Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative.

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