A rise in popularity of the North’s craft brewing industry is fuelling growth potential in a niche segment of the area’s agriculture sector.
Over three years, selected varieties of malting barley – a key ingredient in the beer-making process – are being planted at research stations in Emo, New Liskeard, and Thunder Bay, and in Algoma by the Rural Agri-Innovation Network (RAIN), to determine whether this could be a viable cash crop for Northern Ontario farmers.
“There's a huge demand from the craft brewery industry for locally produced malting barley so (brewers) can say that their product is both locally grown and locally produced,” said Emily Potter, who’s managing the project, which is being facilitated by the Northern Ontario Farm Innovation Alliance (NOFIA).
“The hope is that, because Northern Ontario's growing conditions are very similar to that of western Canada, that we will be able to grow it successfully here, too.”
Northern Ontario’s climate compares to that in the western part of the country, where the bulk of malting barley is currently produced. But growing it closer to home could reduce transportation costs, while also introducing a more lucrative crop for growers.
If the trials are successful, and Northern farmers can harvest a high-quality malting barley, Potter estimated it could come with a 20 per cent increase in profit, in comparison to feed-grade barley.
But there are challenges associated with the crop, which must meet stringent standards for the brewing industry.
Malting barley is a “finicky” grain that thrives in cooler temperatures, Potter said. A wet spring, followed by a hot, dry summer and a wet harvest can diminish the malting quality.
So to be viable, researchers will need to find varieties that can withstand challenging conditions while establishing best growing practices. Nutrient management – in particular, the role of nitrogen – will play a big factor in how the varieties fare.
“Nitrogen really increases the protein levels in the grain, which contributes to poor malt quality,” Potter explained. “But nitrogen also really increases the yield level, so we're looking at optimal nitrogen levels to see if we can get a good yield for the farmers, but also a good quality product at the end.”
Now embarking on the second season of the three-year trial, Potter said it’s too early to glean any early trends from the data. But by the time the project wraps up in 2020, researchers should have more precise information to help Northern farmers decide if growing malting barley is for them.
“After the three years, we're going to be conducting an economic analysis based on the results, so that farmers can have a better idea of what this might cost them and what the opportunities are from improved revenue from growing malting barley versus feed barley,” Potter said.
“There’s definitely interest and the market's definitely there, so there's encouragement from the industry from farmers to be growing this product.”