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Putting barley to the test

Agricenter International researchers Bruce Kirksey and Shane Carver gather data on growing malting barley in the Mid-South region
Story and photos by: Sarah Geyer 5/24/2019


Agricenter International researchers Shane Carver, left, and Bruce Kirksey, right, are conducting trials to determine the best variety and management practices for growing malting barley in the Mid-South. With Tennessee’s booming craft beer industry, the specialty crop could be a profitable option for the region’s farmers.
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With 94 craft brewers and 40-plus distilleries and counting, Tennessee’s craft beer industry is booming.

Combine those numbers with the growing demand for locally sourced food, and many regional farmers are asking the same question: Could growing malting barley, one of the main ingredients in craft beer production, be a profitable crop option?

Two years ago, researchers at Agricenter International decided to help find the answer.

“Because the crop has traditionally been grown in cooler climates, there’s very little research on seed varieties suitable for the hot, humid weather in the South,” says Dr. Bruce Kirksey, director of research at the 1,000-acre, nonprofit farm dedicated to advancing knowledge and understanding of agriculture. “So we knew our first objective was to identify which varieties would grow in our region.”

During his preliminary research for the project, Kirksey learned the University of Minnesota was beginning a national winter malting barley variety trial. He applied to join the trials and was accepted, making Agricenter the university’s southernmost participant.

“It’s a small test plot, about a half acre,” he says. “A real benefit is that we get to use the data we collect for them, too.”

Kirksey and his associate director of research, Shane Carver, also wanted to conduct their own variety trials. Taking advantage of Agricenter’s newly created Organic Resource Center, the team decided to vary their trial environment from the university’s and plant the plot on certified organic farmland.

Data collected from these two variety trials identified three varieties suited for the region’s climate.

With this information, Kirksey and Carver were ready to research best management practices for these varieties, which meant expanding their plot from 10 acres to 100. And 10 times the acres meant 10 times the seed. Luckily, says Bruce, he was able to purchase two of the varieties, Flavia and Calypso, locally from Mid-South Farmers Cooperative.

“It’s true that if you can grow wheat, you can grow barley,” says Kirksey. “But with malting barley, you’re growing for quality and not quantity. Brewers want uniformity in kernel size, which means careful management,

especially with fertilizer.”

With that in mind, for their first year with a 100-acre test plot, Kirksey and Carver chose to focus on fertility research.

The researchers won’t stop collecting data after this crop is harvested in late July. They’ll gather information for potential growers from the brewers, too.

“We’re still figuring out the best method for getting it malted and bagged,” says Kirksey, “We want to send it out to different breweries and find out if our product meets their

expectations for a good malting barley.”

For their second year with a 100-acre test plot, the pair will begin a multi-year planting date study.

“We want to see how the varieties do with later planting dates, so we’ll plant every two weeks beginning sometime in late September,” says Carver. “Hopefully, we can plant into mid-November. Being able to see if varieties planted that late can survive will be really helpful information for farmers who might double crop their malting barley.”

With two or three more years of research, the two men anticipate completing the study and releasing their findings publicly for

interested growers.

“We’ll include what worked and didn’t work for us and how they can apply that information to their operations,” says Kirksey. “After that, we’ll stop growing malting barley and move on to something else. We want to educate our growers, not compete with them.”

From the field to the fundraiser

After the first harvest of their small trial plots of barley, Bruce Kirksey and Shane Carver weren’t content with just gathering data; they wondered if their crop would produce a quality product.

That meant the barley needed to be malted and then sent to a brewery. However, with the nearest organic malting house in Michigan, the cost to ship such a small quantity of grain wasn’t feasible.

They decided to find a Plan B last spring. That’s when their coworkers suggested the two researchers debut the final product in June at the Agricenter’s major fundraiser, Feast on the Farm.

Kirksey and Carver accepted the challenge. After lots of research and help from a home-brewing colleague, the two decided to malt the barley onsite by hand.

“It’s a lot like the old-fashioned way the malting houses used to do it, manually flipping it as it germinates,” explains Carver. “With the amount of barley we had, we figured we could do it ourselves.”

The researchers began the process by soaking mesh bags full of barley in water for 24 hours. They created a makeshift malting house in a building on the research farm, making sure to have a large, clean floor and circulating air.

“We spread out the barley on the floor and bought a new sprayer to keep it wet on top, flipping it twice a day as it germinated,” says Kirksey. “You have to be patient and watch the process closely because once the seed emerges and elongates, you want to stop the germination quickly.”

Carver jokes that the process was filled with trial and error, but the pair successfully malted and dried the barley, allowing enough time for a local brewery to produce two kegs of lager for the fundraiser.

“It was a hit,” says Kirksey. “The only complaint we had was the cups were too small.”

In fact, the researchers’ craft beer was so popular that the team has been asked to serve at this year’s Feast on the Farm on June 22.

“Last year’s event netted $113,000, and all of that goes to our education programs,” says Christine Donhardt, director of communications for Agricenter International. “It’s an important fundraiser for us and allows us to educate about 10,000 kids a year out here on the farm.”

This year’s event also marks the 40th anniversary of Agricenter International, and Kirksey and Carver are malting 200 pounds of barley harvested last year in preparation for the special celebration.

“I’m hoping we’ll have at least two or three kegs to serve this year,” says Kirksey. “I think we’ll have enough to go to a larger-sized cup.”

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