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Published August 22, 2011, 05:40 AM

ND losing top spot in barley production

SHEYENNE, N.D. — Barley always has been part of Mark Seastrand’s life. The crop was grown on his family farm when he was a boy, and the Sheyenne, N.D., farmer continues to raise it today.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Associated Press

SHEYENNE, N.D. — Barley always has been part of Mark Seastrand’s life.

The crop was grown on his family farm when he was a boy, and the Sheyenne, N.D., farmer continues to raise it today. But though Seastrand still likes barley, he’s not growing as much of the crop as he once did.

“Barley has to have the price to grow it. Without the price, we’ll find something else to grow,” he says.

Many North Dakota farmers, also attracted by better prices for competing crops, feel the same trial category. Barley’s industrial uses include applications in paper and pharmaceutical businesses.

Barley consumption by livestock has plunged through the years as producers increasingly substitute corn in their animals’ feed rations.

Barley consumption for alcohol has remained stable, despite the growing U.S. population. Malting companies are using barley more efficiently, getting “more bang for the buck,” Edwardson says.

Fewer acres, exports

U.S. barley acreage has been falling by an average of 312,000 acres annually since 1987, with most of the acres lost to corn and soybeans, the North Dakota Barley Council says.

U.S. barley production is declining, too.

It peaked in the mid-1980s at about 600 million bushels annually and has declined to an estimated 168 million bushels this year, according to information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the North Dakota Barley Council.

For every four bushels of barley grown in the United States 25 years ago, about one bushel is grown today.

U.S. barley exports also are declining, in part because Japan — once a major customer for U.S. barley — now is getting most of its barley from Australia and Ukraine, the North Dakota Barley Council says.

Ukraine, Australia, the European Union, Russia, Canada, Turkey, Argentina and Kazakhstan all exported more barley than the United States in the year ending Sept. 30, 2010, according to the U.S. Grains Council.

National perspective

Both the quality and availability of malting barley are worrisome for the brewing industry, says Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, a Boulder, Colo., trade group that represents U.S. brewers.

“It’s very much a concern,” he says.

He’s hopeful that rising malt prices will encourage farmers to grow more barley.

U.S. malting barley prices received by farmers averaged $5.01 per bushel in July, compared with $4.61 in June and $4.14 in July 2010, according to USDA.

One of the things working against the crop:

Barley, which isn’t a genetically modified commercial crop, competes with crops such as corn, soybeans and canola that receive substantial investment from the private biotech seed sector, says Mike Davis, president of the American Malting Barley Association.

The Milwaukee-based organization, which represents malting and brewing companies, works to ensure adequate supplies of high-quality malting barley through research and striving for equity in farm programs.

No joy in Idaho

Idaho barley farmers take no satisfaction in their state surpassing North Dakota as the nation’s top producer of the crop, says Dwight Little, a Teton, Idaho, barley farmer and chairman of the Idaho Barley Council,

“We watch very carefully what’s happening in North Dakota. It’s disappointing. It’s just amazing to see the decline in barley acres there,” says Little, who knows a number of North Dakota barley producers.

When North Dakota grows less barley, the entire U.S. barley industry suffers, Little says.

Less North Dakota barley hampers the U.S. barley industry’s effort to compete against crops such as corn for domestic feed grain sales and also makes it harder for the United States to compete for export sales with other countries that grow barley, he says.

Idaho barley growers are in a much different situation than their weather-dependent peers in North Dakota, Little says.

Idaho barley is grown on irrigated land, virtually always under contract for malt. Only rarely does Idaho barley fail to meet malt specifications, Little says.

Barley production in Idaho has remained stable, so the state’s pending status as the nation’s top barley producer is a reflection of North Dakota’s decline, not of what’s happening in Idaho, he notes.

Kelly Olson, administrator of the Idaho Barley Council, says growers there expected the state to take over the top spot this year after finishing a close second to North Dakota last year.

Barley remains a good fit in Idaho, which has avoided the weather-related production problems suffered by North Dakota growers, she says.

‘It’s a specialty crop’

Currently, about two-thirds of barley in North Dakota is grown by farmers under contracts with the malt and brewing industry, Edwardson estimates.

Barley, unlike crops such as wheat and corn which generally are sold on the open market, should be considered a specialty crop, or one grown under contract on a limited number of acres, he says.

Seastrand thinks so, too.

“From here on, it’s a specialty crop,” he says.

Long term, North Dakota should be planting at least 700,000 to 1 million acres of barley annually to support and maintain its existing barley infrastructure, Edwardson says.

It’s impossible to predict when or if barley acres will return to that level, he says.

“It all comes down to price,” Edwardson says.

Seastrand, despite his long and deep ties to barley, says he and other farmers are pragmatic about raising the crop.

“Barley’s price needs to be competitive. Acres will just continue to decrease until we get the price,” he says.