Farm eyes growing barley for N.C. craft beer industry
With 170 breweries and brewpubs, it’s fairly easy to find a craft beer made in North Carolina. However, finding a craft beer made with all North Carolina ingredients is a challenge.
Perry Farm in Wake County is hoping to make the search a little easier. The farm is one of five that have partnered with Epiphany Craft Malt in Durham to grow malting barley.
Ronnie Perry and his son-in-law Tim Kuhls harvested their first crop of barley for Epiphany in June, hoping it would work for beer production.
For Kuhls, a homebrew hobbyist, malting barley seemed a great option for a sustainable specialty crop for Perry’s Farm. The Century Farm already grows wheat, tobacco and other row crops, so they already had the land and equipment, which made it easier for them to try producing barley.
Kuhls grew a 15-acre test plot of barley in 2015 and learned a great deal from the trial. Changes were made for the 2016 crop, which had its own set of challenges including hail damage, a late frost and lodging or displacement of stems or stalks from their upright position. Despite the challenges, Perry Farm averaged more than 50 bushels per acre, putting it on par with wheat.
“This has been a learning process,” Kuhls said. “We’re keeping it small while we are learning, but we are looking to scale up.”
The education continues for Perry Farm. After sending samples to the Seed Lab in Raleigh, tests showed the crop did not have a high enough germination rate to be used in malting barley. Kuhls is not deterred by those results, and said he is already reviewing best practices and researching different varieties.
“So goes farming,” Kuhls said. “We’ve got from now until November to figure out how to do it better.”
North Carolina produces about 15,000 acres of barley. In fact, the yield was so low that the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service stopped recording barley production estimates in 2016.
Wheat is a preferred small grain because it has been adapted to the Southeast and has higher yields than feed barley. But, the state’s growing craft beer industry and operations such as Epiphany Craft Malt could help revitalize barley production in North Carolina.
“It doesn’t make sense if it’s feed, but it makes a lot of sense if it’s a specialty crop,” said Kuhls. “Growing one acre of high-quality malting barley is like growing two-and-half acres of quality wheat.”
Sebastian Wolfrum, owner of Epiphany, has spent the past three years developing relationships with Kuhls and other local farmers.
A high-quality malting barley adapted for Southeastern climates is likely at least two years away. But, Wolfrum is already buying some barley from farmers in Chatham, Nash, Pasquotank and Wake counties. A handful of farmers also supply him with rye, wheat and other small grains for specialty malts. For Wolfrum, building relationships with farmers is important to his success.
“You can’t go to an elevator house and ask for 200 tons of barley. Nobody has that amount,“ he said. “It’s much more of a direct relationship.”
That relationship is also important for Kuhls, who sees barley as a chance to diversify his crops and make sure farming continues to be a viable option for his children.
“We’re committed to long-term success,” Kuhls said.