Malting barley: A very special non-specialty crop

Malting barley is ineligible for specialty crop designation, which is a source of frustration for those working in the craft malting and beverage industries.

With the rise of malting barley production outside of major growing regions in the U.S., a debate has risen over the categorization of the crop. Currently classified as a traditional field crop commodity (Title I), malting barley is not eligible for specialty crop designation.

Specialty crops are defined in law as “fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture.” – United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Traditionally, this classification is reserved for horticulture crops that are intensively cultivated and range from almonds to watermelons, and Christmas trees to hops. Specialty crop designation would open the door for additional funding and support programs, one of which is the Specialty Crop Block Grant program managed by the USDA. However, earning that designation would mean losing eligibility in the various risk management and price support programs that are essential to the viability of the crop in the major growing regions.

Due to malting barley’s emerging status in Michigan, specialty crop designation was explored, in the attempt to broaden the support available for its development. Although barley is currently listed as an ineligible commodity, verbiage exists in the USDA definition that gives latitude to states to develop their own list.

Although a common definition of specialty crops across these agencies is desirable for USDA stakeholders and customers, it is also recognized that the mission of each agency is unique and so the application of a common definition might vary. It is also recognized that individual states may wish to modify the definition used by USDA to satisfy local or regional needs. – USDA

Unfortunately, however, even if the state of Michigan edited the list to include malting barley, the crop would still be ineligible for specialty crop block grant funding – a federal program, even though it is administered at the state level.  

A major concern within this emerging industry without specialty crop designation is the lack of resources to develop malting barley in minor growing regions. Furthermore, the challenges for farmers in the east are often much different than growers contracting in the major states out west. Nonetheless, it is important for the minority to be heard. For field crops like barley, commonly referred to as “commodities”, national and state industry groups are imperative for crop competitiveness. State commodity groups often provide funding support through “check-off” or membership assessments for research, marketing, and infrastructure development. Such support does exist for malting barley at the national level.

  • The National Barley Growers Association works directly to support barley farmers to “enhance and maintain the profitability of the U.S. malting barley industry”. It generates funding through the commodity groups managed at the state level and industry partners, but does not fund research. Unfortunately, for many of the minor growing regions, such as Michigan, the industry is too new and too small to support such a group.
  • The American Malting Barley Association is supported through memberships from maltsters and brewers whose mission “is to encourage and support production of an adequate supply of high quality malting barley for the malting and brewing industry…” In recent years, AMBA has engaged the craft community and supported research in minor growing states, including Michigan. Furthermore, the National Barley Improvement Committee organized by AMBA contains representation from the craft malting community, including Heather Darby (University of Vermont), Ashley McFarland (Michigan State University), Corey Mosher (New York barley farmer), and Andrea Stanley (Valley Malt, craft maltster). Each year this committee travels to Washington D.C. to lobby on behalf of efforts supported by AMBA.

The farmers, processors, and end-users of malting barley have become increasingly diverse in recent years, so the application of a traditional, industrial commodity model does not suit the crop well. Although specialty crop designation may be a hard sell, it is very important to stay engaged in the conversation both locally and at the national level to ensure viability of the crop and craft industry into the future.

If you are interested in learning more about malting barley research at Michigan State University, feel free to reach out to me at 906-439-5176 or I am the Coordinator of the Michigan State University Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center in Chatham, Michigan and a Community Food System educator with Michigan State University Extension

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