DAZEY, N.D. — Eric Broten stands in a field of ripening two-row barley. From the road, the crop appears to be almost ready for harvest. But close up, a major concern becomes obvious: mixed in with the nearly mature main barley heads are numerous green tillers, or additional stems on the plants' main stalks, that have produced heads of their own.
That creates a dilemma: If Broten waits too long to combine, some of the kernels from the main barley heads will fall off and be lost. But if he combines too early, the still-green tiller heads will complicate harvest and storage.
"Just tell me, how am I supposed to decide when to combine this?" he asks his visitors. "There's so much uncertainty and risk."
A little later, Broten stands in a field of six-row barley. Here, the barley heads' maturity is much more uniform, which promises an easier harvest.
"There's still risk (last-minute bad weather), but there's less that can go wrong," he says of the six-row barley field.
The contrast between the two fields reflects the challenges that face Upper Midwest barley farmers. For decades they've grown six-row barley that goes to make beer. That long experience plus barley industry support — six-row varieties developed specifically for this region, for example —allowed area farmers to get really good at raising six-row.
But changing consumer demand requires area farmers to increasingly focus on two-row barley, which they have little experience in growing and which is still being tailored to this area
'Two-row and six-row are very different crops to grow. A lot of what's true for raising six-row isn't true for two-row. Growing two-row is almost like starting over," said Gary Beck, a Munich, N.D., barley farmer who raises both six- and two-row barley and serves on the North Dakota Barley Council board of directors.
It's not that two-row barley is new; both two- and six-row have been around for thousands of years, barley officials say. But two-row is new to this area, so the expertise to grow two-row and the two-row varieties best suited for this region remain in development.
Both two- and six-row can be used to make beer. Their respective names refer to the number of rows of kernels around the head of a barley stalk. The two kinds sometimes are referred as "two-rowed" and "six-rowed."
If you're not familiar with barley — and even many area agriculturalists don't know much about the crop — here's a primer:
Six-row barley traditionally has dominated in the Upper Midwest. It accounted for about two-thirds of North Dakota barley acreage as recently as 2015. But this crop season, six-row accounted for an estimated 20% of the state's total barley acreage, with two-row accounting for the rest.
North Dakota typically ranks third in U.S. barley production, with Montana and Idaho taking turns in the top spot. The crop is grown in northwest Minnesota, too. Barley fares best in cool, dry conditions, which North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and northwest Minnesota typically provide.
Once, North Dakota led the nation in barley production. But a long wet stretch that began in the 1990s led to crop disease in barley and pushed barley production into generally drier western North Dakota and eastern Montana. The crop is still grown in eastern North Dakota, but not nearly to the extent that it had been.
In addition to its use in beer as malting barley, the crop can be fed to livestock (feed barley). The feed barley market is much smaller than it once was, but there's growing demand for barley as pet food. Both two- and six-row barley can be used in pet food.
Malting barley generally is grown under contract, rather than on the open market, and must meet specific quality requirements. If those aren't met — "if it doesn't make grade," as Broten said — the barley is sold as feed barley and fetches a much lower price. Even if yields are good, the lower feed barley price gives farmers very little, if any, chance of turning a profit.
The risk of not making malting grade is higher with two-row and makes two-row riskier to grow, Broten and Beck say.
Even so, brewers, especially ones that make craft beer but also major domestic breweries, increasingly expect farmers to raise two-row barley. Some beer makers say two-row barley produces a maltier flavor in beer. And two-row barley provides more malt extract, boosting efficiency and potential profits for beer making.
Scott Heisel, vice president and technical director of the Milwaukee-based American Malting Barley Association, said some of the two-row varieties being grown now in the Upper Midwest aren't particularly well suited for the region. After all, they were initially developed for other parts of the country where growing conditions are different.
"It kind of depends on the year, too. When it's wetter at harvest time, some of the two-rows don't do as well as the six-rows," he said.
Sprout damage to barley kernels, a greater concern in wet harvests, is an issue with two-row barley, too. So is so-called standability, or ability to avoid lodging. Both problems add to the risk of not making grade, an outcome that can reduce income from a two-row field to what Beck called an "unacceptable level."
Some two-row varieties designed for the Upper Midwest already are available and more are being developed to address growers' concerns, Heisel said
But developing new varieties typically takes 10-12 years, barley officials say.
So, "patience is the key," Heisel said
In any case, two-row barley is both the present and future of the industry, he said.
"I think that's the way the industry is going and that's what's going to happen," Heisel said. "There will be still a place for a little bit of six-row, but we aren't going to go back to it."
The American Malting Barley Association consists of brewers and malting companies nationwide. The group says it "strives to be the leader in improvement, development, and understanding of malting barley. We work with researchers, growers and federal agencies to ensure that the U.S. remains self-sufficient in malting barley production."
Recognize the risk
Barley buyers are very good at evaluating market prices for other crops that barley growers might grow and putting those prices into perspective with farmers' cash flow needs. That allows buyers to set barley prices just high enough to induce farmers to plant sufficient barley acres to meet demand, Broten said.
"They (buyers) don't have to shoot a real high price. (Barley prices) just need to be a little more profitable than corn or soybeans, and they know they'll get their acres," he said.
Farmers are even more interested in raising barley because the crop holds up relatively well in saline conditions. Years of wet weather have increased problems with saline soils in some fields, further enhancing barley's appeal, Beck said.
Nonetheless, many barley farmers in eastern North Dakota —where the climate can pose greater difficulties for two-row barley than in drier western North Dakota and Montana — are frustrated with the problems in growing two-row, Beck said
New varieties being developed should at least partially address those problems, but the varieties won't be available in the near future. As a result, barley production could move out of eastern North Dakota, Beck said.
Barley growers don't want that to happen, he and Broten said.
"Producers really enjoy to raise the barley. It's a good fit," Broten said. "It's the marketing of it and meeting the quality specs that are the big downsides of growing barley."
The downside is especially significant with two-row.
"There's risk with six-row, but there's more with two-row," Broten said. "We still like barley, but we don't like that additional risk."