The heat last summer in Montana was brutal and unprecedented. Dry winds fanned wildfires across one million acres, ravaging grasslands in the eastern part of the state and scorching the timbered mountains west of the continental divide. In the tiny town of Power, which sits in the foothills of the Rockies, smack in the middle of the state’s grain belt, the smoke wasn’t as bad as elsewhere. But the relentless heat and lack of rain posed a serious threat to the area. This “flash drought,” as it became known, was devastating the crop that has driven the local economy for three generations: malt barley.
At the height of a northern summer, the sky lightens before 5 a.m. and doesn’t get dark until past 10 at night. That makes for a long day if you’re up at dawn to work in the fields. So by the afternoon on one scorching late-July day, the most efficient way for a reporter to meet Power’s barley farmers was to head over to Les’ Bar. Drinking beer in the dimly lit tavern didn’t just provide cool relief to the barley growers. The malt-barley brews provided a stark reminder of why they worked so hard in such arduous conditions.
One of them was Brad Schaefer, a wiry man in his early 60s who has been farming barley for 44 years. He ordered a tall one, then joined the other farmers. One of his fields had been evaluated that day by Anheuser-Busch, the brewer of Budweiser, Beck’s and Goose Island among many others. He told his friends the grains were judged to be uneven in size – the result of heat stress – which wouldn’t please the brewery giant or the malt-barley broker Malteurop, the two main buyers of Schaefer’s malt barley.
“Looks like feed to me,” he told the four men at the table. Instead of being used to make beer, his barley would be sold as animal feed, fetching about a third of the price.
Farming, in too many cases, can be described as a physically demanding form of gambling, but instead of playing against the house, the main adversaries are the weather and the market. Barley farming can be especially risky. While the costs of growing the crop are relatively low, the odds of a crop failure are substantial. In fact, barley growing is so risky that in many states, federal crop insurance, which protects against a crop failure or a price collapse, isn’t even available. Now, climate change is making this farming venture riskier than ever in Montana’s barley country.
“Malting barley is inherently different than other crops,” explains Collin Watters, executive vice president of the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee. “What you are hoping for, as a farmer, is a seed within a certain set of parameters that your customer, the malthouse, is calling for.” That’s because malting – which involves germinating barley to pump up its sugar levels before halting the process with heat at the precise moment – is exacting. And without high-quality malt, you can’t make good beer.
If the weather turns hot and dry – which is occurring more frequently – grain quality can be compromised. That’s one reason why barley acreage is trending down, both statewide and nationally.
“The decline of barley acreage across the United States has been a bit of a wake-up call for maltsters and brewers,” Watters said. “Without a consistent, reliable supply of barley in a changing climate, costs could skyrocket.”
The hazards of barley farming in a hot, dry climate were on full display last summer on the Fairfield Bench, a fertile plateau that meanders east from the Rockies and into the Great Plains, where Power (population 171) is located. But the rain stopped in July and the heat kept rising, desiccating the crop.
“This heat streak has been unprecedented,” Schaefer said, with a mix of awe and dejection. “It’s taken a real mallard of a crop and put the boots to it” – a great year gone bad, in other words, in the second-biggest barley-growing state in the nation.
Late-season storms can be disastrous, too. In 2014, one hit during what had been a great growing season. Crops failed and losses mounted. But the barley farmers’ gamble paid off in the years in between – so well, in fact, that MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch decided they had enough malt barley in supply and abruptly declined to renew about half of their contracts with Montana farmers. That highlights another kind of risk: Individual barley farmers are pawns in a global market.
Heart of Barley Country
The Fairfield Bench, or “the Bench,” as it’s known, became Montana’s original barley region thanks to a dam on the Sun River, which originates in the mountains above Power. Since 1929, water from Gibson Reservoir has flowed through canals on the gently sloping Bench, irrigating 83,000 acres of farmland. Since then, malt barley has expanded, not only for those with access to the valuable water but for those farmers entirely dependent on rainfall to grow the crop. Malt barley has defined the region.
“It goes back generations,” said Watters of Montana Wheat and Barley. “It’s been an important part of the community and the economy for a very long time.”
Barley took off statewide in the 1970s, when rising heat and humidity chased barley from its original stronghold in the Midwest, where it was replaced by corn and soybeans. (Corn carries a fungus that can infect nearby barley, producing a vomitoxin, which is about as nasty as it sounds, encouraging barley’s exodus.) Climate and disease kept pushing barley cultivation west, until it eventually hit the high plains east of the Rockies, where the grain flourished.
In 2017, Montana farmers planted 770,000 acres of malt barley for the beer market. That’s down from nearly a million acres in 2016, when the crop was worth $240 million, but it was still second in the nation behind Idaho in barley production. The heart of North American barley country now extends from Idaho through Montana and into Alberta, Canada, along the zone where the plains meet the mountains. These grasslands are suited to crops like barley, wheat, rye, and alfalfa, and to grass-eating animals like cows. In short, this landscape provides not only the base ingredient for beer, but also for burgers and buns.
Agriculture is Montana’s primary source of economic revenue, which is why the recent weather is so worrisome. On the high plains, it has become less predictable than ever, with periods of warmer, drier weather punctuated by violent storms.
These conditions are expected to get more extreme in the decades ahead. Climate scientists predict statewide temperature to rise 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2055. By that time, Power, Montana can expect 28 days a year above 95 degrees, according to Climate Central. Summers should get drier, and winters wetter, spurring new pest infestations and invasive species. It will also bring extreme weather events at unpredictable times, the scientists say.
Bright golden fields
Seated among the farmers at Les’ Bar was Erik Somerfeld, 47, a stocky farmer with a bushy mustache. He wore a Coors Light T-shirt, representing the local grain elevator with which he does business. But this year, he said, it didn’t look like he would have much to sell to the brewing company.
“Everything was looking great until the heat hit, and stuck on,” Somerfeld said. “Barley can handle some hot days if it gets cool nights,” but that wasn’t the case in July. The month would end up being the second driest and third hottest on record in Montana.
Somerfeld is a dry farmer, which means he depends on rainfall to water his entire crop. Before retreating to the cool interior of Les’ Bar, he’d taken me out to his fields, which occupy an irregular section of land northeast of town.
The first field was such a bright gold that I needed sunglasses to survey the crop, even with smoke from nearby wildfires dimming the sun. Somerfeld showed me the seed heads that form at the top of the plant, which contain the barley grains. They looked like they would yield mostly “mids” and “thins,” the smaller sizes of grain, Somerfeld said. Maltsters prefer a third category, called “plumps” – the fat grains that were in short supply after the summer drought and heat emaciated the crop.
“I’m hoping I can do something with [this crop], but right now it’s not looking so good,” he said. He could screen out the “thins.” But the insidious “mids” can’t be separated from the plumper seeds, which would reduce the value of the whole lot. The best-case scenario for a barley farmer is that a crop will go “right in,” meaning the grain gets dumped straight into the elevator without any fussing or screening involved. That wasn’t looking too likely.
In the next field, the seed heads were bent over, as if hanging their heads in defeat. Withered grains rattled in their husks. “There’s a chance, but I don’t know,” Somerfeld said. “It kind of makes a guy sick to come look at it.”
The farmers know something is happening to the weather, but the words “climate change” have become politically charged in a place where, like much of rural America, conservative politics dominate. Farmers will talk about the flash drought or the unpredictable rains, but for most, “climate change” is easier to joke about than acknowledge.
“At least climate change isn’t taking away our fried pork chop sandwiches,” said one farmer back at Les’ Bar. “Mother Nature is really [messing] with us,” concluded another between bites. “What’s a normal year even like?” asked another.
In the field, looking at his withering crop, Somerfeld was unequivocal about the cause of his damaged crop – “climate change.” But back at the bar, with his friends, his language changed. He dropped those taboo words in favor of “erratic weather” and “drier, hotter summers” – a not-uncommon conversational tactic in farm country these days.
Somerfeld moonlights as the secretary/treasurer of the Montana Farmers Union, which last year hired a team of economists, including University of Montana emeritus professor of economics Thomas Power, to estimate the impact of climate change on the state’s agriculture sector. The report predicted the cost of climate change to be $736 million per year, taking a 1.7 percent slice out of the state’s $44 billion economy. Among the dire predictions, Power estimates “a 20 percent drop in rangeland cattle production and a 25 percent decline in grain production by 2055.”
‘No Barley, No Beer’
Though they may disagree on what is making it so hard to grow barley, Somerfeld’s pickup sports a bumper sticker that’s easier for the farm community to get behind: “No Barley, No Beer.” And that isn’t hyperbole. Barley is the foundation of nearly every beer in existence: Making beer without barley is like trying to make wine without grapes.
“If you pick up a wheat beer, that’s still mostly barley,” says Scott Heisel, vice president at the American Malting Barley Association, Inc. “Their base note is barley, and they add wheat.” Even some gluten-free beers still use barley, then employ enzymes to remove the gluten.
Any grain can be malted by exposing it to moisture and beginning the process of germination. The seed converts dense carbohydrate starches to sugars, which the budding plant will consume. But when the sugar levels are right, and before the seed actually sprouts, the germination process is halted by gently roasting the grains. The result is slightly sweet malt that can jump-start the fermentation of grains into alcoholic beer. The process dates back thousands of years to the earliest cultivation of cereal grains in the Near East. But while wheat, rye, corn and even rice can be malted, barley is the undisputed king of malt grains. It germinates easily, quickly, and consistently, producing abundant sugars, and develops a rich flavor when roasted. All of which adds up to a tasty brew.
Heisel’s job is to ensure that America’s beer makers have an adequate supply of malt barley, and in his 35 years at the AMBA, this has been in question only once: the summer of 2014. Everyone I spoke with had their own story about the “sprout year,” as they called it in Les’ Bar.
One of the main reasons maltsters prefer barley to other grains is its ease of germination. But if it rains on a crop of mature barley in the field, the grains can sprout prematurely. And if that happens, the crop is worthless. These types of unpredictable and disastrous weather events are getting more common with climate change. The most recent occurred in 2014.
That August, a massive storm ripped up the Rocky Mountain Front, soaking fields in Idaho, Montana, and Alberta. Somerfeld and his neighbor Clint Andrews had already harvested their own crops, which they had planted early enough to avoid just such an incident. But farmers who planted a bit later were caught with ripe crops in their fields when the rain started pelting down. Andrews and Somerfeld raced to help them harvest the crop ahead of the storm.
“We were cutting as fast as we could, at a higher moisture content than we’d prefer, as the storm was rolling in,” Somerfeld recalled. Two inches of rain and sleet fell that day. It was a game changer. “We cut until the machines wouldn’t feed anymore,” he said.
When that storm hit, plant scientist Jamie Sherman had recently arrived at the Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology Department at Montana State University in Bozeman. Her research focus: to develop barley varieties that can help Montana farmers thrive, even in a changing and unpredictable climate.
“Climate change is making it riskier to farm,” Sherman, an assistant professor, said, as we toured a 10-acre field in which 20,000 varieties of barley were being grown and evaluated. “Our goal is to develop crop lines that will mitigate that risk.”
The diverse array of barley plants – ranging in hue from yellow to green to purple – is being evaluated for a long list of desirable traits, including disease resistance, drought tolerance, yield, protein levels, heat tolerance, and resistance to premature sprouting.
“There is not a single solution because there is not a single problem,” Sherman said. “We are trying to develop barley that is stable, even when the environment is variable.”
Surprisingly, perhaps the most desirable trait of all, one that is most sought after by barley breeders, is cold tolerance. Even though the climate is trending warmer, cold tolerance could help barley plants survive the winter and then be harvested before the summer heat and flash rains appear.
This schedule allows for an easy planting during a dry fall day. With rain or irrigation, the plant germinates and sets roots but then goes dormant in the cold winter months. As soon as the spring thaw hits, the plant begins growing again and can take advantage of spring rains to reach maturity before summer’s searing hot weather descends. Such a strain of barley would be analogous to “winter wheat” varieties, which are grown on the same cycle and rank as Montana’s top crop.
In theory, winter barley could have helped farmers dodge the sprout year of 2014 and the flash drought of 2017, because in both instances, the crops would have been harvested before those events hit. Overwintering barley would be a hugely important tool in the chest of most northern plains barley growers.
Winter barley is already being grown in milder climates like Oregon, where overwintering isn’t too much of a challenge, but finding a variety that can survive a Montana winter has so far eluded breeders. That’s where Sherman comes in; she is working with other breeders to identify elusive strains that can withstand the state’s winters.
This quest is being carried out in agriculture departments across the plains, Midwest, and Rockies. Part of the solution might be found in diverse barley varieties gathered a century ago by renowned Russian seed scientist Nikolai Vavilov. Born in 1887, Vavilov hoped to prevent the crop failures and famines he experienced as a child by creating the world’s foremost seed collection. He traveled throughout northern Asia and Europe collecting barley, wheat, and other grains, and established a world-renowned seed bank in what is now Saint Petersburg.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota secured barley samples from Vavilov’s collection two years ago, then shared these seeds with colleagues at other universities. Sherman believes it will take at least a decade to breed a winter-hardy barley for Montana. (Big brewers have their own breeding programs, too). First, she and her colleagues will have to identify the toughest, most cold-tolerant barley strains, then breed desirable traits into that genetic line. She’ll then test the new varieties in the field and in her malting lab, before conducting large-scale trials and eventually making the seeds available to Montana barley growers. Somerfeld told me that he would love to grow a winter barley, and hopes to participate in the trials.
As for Vavilov – who saved the seeds that might save beer – he ended up dying in a Soviet prison. He was sent to a gulag after an ideological run-in with a Stalinist regime skeptical of the evolutionary principles on which plant breeding is based. Eric Stockinger, a professor of crop science at Ohio State University, says Russia is still paying for that misguided persecution. “That is why we export wheat to Russia and not the other way around,” he said. “Vavilov was a genius. … The Soviets made a terrible mistake in condemning fact-based science.”
A Predictable Result
Outside of Les’ Bar, as the heat and light finally gave way to dim shadows and a cool breeze, Somerfeld relayed yet another climate-related concern with the barley crop. Putting on his hat as chief of the Power Volunteer Fire Department, he pointed out that barley fields present a special kind of fire hazard.
“The barley’s gonna be so dry when we cut them that the straw is going to turn to powder,” he said. The powder, which is highly combustible, collects on harvesters, raising the risk of fire. “If we get any kind of wind, a fire could jump the county roads. And this year, with the heat, I’m scared,” he told me at the time.
There weren’t any fires on the Bench last summer, but the harvest ended up being about as bad as was feared that July day in Les’ Bar. “Almost no dryland barley made quality,” Somerfeld told me a few weeks later, meaning none of the crop was fit to sell as is. Only one 75-acre field out of his 450 acres went “right in” at the grain elevator. Some of his fields yielded crops that could be salvaged, but others were a total loss. The irrigated farmers fared better in quality, though their yields were down, too.
While the barley fields did not catch fire, that risk may increase as the weather warms in the years ahead. It will be just one of the many climate challenges farmers will face. Hopefully, breeders like Sherman will help mitigate those risks and help keep malt barley viable on the Bench – and the beer flowing at Les’ Bar. “Going forward, barley sustainability is going to depend on a lot of the research that people are doing now,” Watters said. In the meantime, it’s going to be volatile for these barley farmers – and challenging for brewers as well.
Lead image: Clouds hover over part of Erik Somerfeld’s unharvested barley field. In a good year, this field can produce 70 bushels of malting barley, but in 2017 it produced only five, thanks to the “flash drought.”