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Craft beer is driving demand for barley. Could farmers in southwest Virginia benefit?

Dan Brann is a barley farmer in Riner, Virginia. For eight years he's been selling barley to a malting company in Charlottesville. The barley in his hand was harvested in June and has aged in a grain silo for several months.
Roxy Todd
/
Radio IQ
Dan Brann is a barley farmer in Riner, Virginia. For eight years he's been selling barley to a malting company in Charlottesville. The barley in his hand was harvested in June and has aged in a grain silo for several months.

The craft brewing industry is driving up demand for barley, which can be used to make malt, one of the main ingredients to make beer. A new effort is underway to help more farmers grow malt barley in southwest Virginia.

According to the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild Association, there are currently over 300 breweries in the state, but very few use grains that were grown locally. Most malt barley is grown in the Midwest.

Dan Brann is one of just a few Virginia farmers who grows it. On his farm in Riner, in Montgomery County, he recently planted seeds for a new variety of barley designed by researchers at Virginia Tech called Avalon, specifically tailored for growing conditions in Virginia. Hundreds of small seedlings are sprouting on the hillside, surrounded by fields of his other major crop— pumpkins.

fields of barley.jpg
Roxy Todd
/
Radio IQ
Seedlings of a new variety of malt barley designed by researchers at Virginia Tech called Avalon, growing in Dan Brann's field.

For eight years, Brann has sold other types of barley to a malting company in Charlottesville. “Who knows where it’s gonna go in the future?” Brann said. “We all like to buy local as much as we can. Certainly the microbreweries have caught on. And I hope there will be an opportunity for some farmers to be involved with growing malt barley.”

At this time, Brann said he would like to see his malt barley sell for about $9 a bushel. Currently, the market is lower than that, and it's unclear how more farmers supplying malt shops would impact these prices.

In order to help more farmers scale up, they need more infrastructure to help them clean, market and ship their barley to local buyers, said Amy Byington, a Virginia Tech extension agent in Lee County. She's working on a project to build a new storage facility in Wise County, funded by a grant from the Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization Program.

Dan Brann holds barley beside a grain silo on his farm in Montgomery County.
Roxy Todd
/
Radio IQ
Dan Brann holds barley beside a grain silo on his farm in Montgomery County.

“It will have grain cleaners, it will have storage. It will have the capability to handle grain, which is our problem right now, we don’t have any infrastructure. All of it was basically destroyed whenever flour mills left our area.”

Byington expects the new storage facility to be open by the summer of 2024 and said it will probably be on a former mine site in Norton.
Farmers will be able to clean, sell and ship malt barley to malt shops in Virginia and North Carolina, to tap into the growing demand for malt among breweries, homebrewers and craft distilleries.

Dan Brann
Roxy Todd
/
Radio IQ
Dan Brann

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Updated: November 3, 2022 at 3:34 PM EDT
Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.