I have a bad blogging habit of procrastinating until I can present a single complete account of our process and outcome. As a result, my posts tend to sit in the drafts folder for months until I’ve collected all the relevant data and can muster the motivation to knock out a couple thousand words and a pie chart. Last summer we grew trial plots of three grains (amaranth, sorghum, flint corn) but none of them have made it onto the blog yet. I’ve decided to turn over a new leaf this year and report on our latest grain crop as it happens.
I’m fascinated by the process of growing grains, perhaps because it seems more like ‘real’ farming or because it requires specialized tools to harvest and process. Whatever the reason, my project grain this year is barley.
The case for barley
Barley is a pretty ideal grain for small scale growing. It produces large yields with minimal water and nutrient inputs and competes well against typical weeds. The resultant grain can be used as a livestock feed, consumed as a nutritious cereal or flour, or malted to make beer. My particular interest lies with malted barley.
There are two main types of barley: 2-row and 6-row. Two-row barley has only two rows of kernels down each grain spike. The kernels tend to be slightly larger and more uniform in 2-row, with higher levels of starch, lower levels of protein, and moderate enzyme levels. When making beer, the enzymes are used during the mashing process to convert the starches into fermentable sugars. Two-row barley is often used by craft breweries. Six-row barley is pretty much the opposite on each point: smaller kernels with greater yield, lower levels of starch, more protein, and high enzyme levels. You should grow 6-row barley if you plan to eat it, feed it to an animal, or sell it to the BMC Beer Monopoly.
On a totally unrelated note, the barley genome was sequenced in 2012.
Like most grains, it’s difficult to find a desired barley variety in appropriate quantities for home-scale plots. When I first looked for barley 3 years ago, I bought a 5 lb bag of Conlon 2-row Barley (a malting variety) from Johnny’s. Shipping barley seed over from Maine was kind of ridiculous since our nearby Oregon State University has a breeding program devoted to barley. They’ve created the Barley World website to promote their work and provide quick guides to growing their varieties at home. Now if only they sold the seed!
I didn’t want to turn our whole garden into a barley field, so I tilled up a new area just outside the garden perimeter. The plot ended up being 22′ by 67′, which is 1474 sq ft or almost exactly 1/30th of an acre. Sizing plots to be some reasonable fraction of an acre is convenient when calculating fertilizer rates. I read through the University of Idaho’s spring barley reference and compared each nutrient guideline against the results of our most recent soil test. As it turned out, our soil was more than sufficient for growing barley without modification. The one exception was sulfur, which leeches away in the winter rains. Conveniently, I had tracked down a bag of elemental sulfur last year to use in pH modifying the soil around our blueberries.
Inconveniently, a rodent chewed a hole in the bag during the winter and when I picked it up sulfur went everywhere. Now the dirt under our tractor port has been pH modified too.
The chart showed that I needed to apply one pound of sulfur to the barley plot. I didn’t want this to lower the pH any (it’s presently an acceptable 6.1), so I added six pounds of lime to my fertilizer dose for good measure. Somewhere out there a university extension has written a document about computing liming rates to correct for acidifying fertilizers, but I haven’t found it. I spread these 7 lbs using a portable broadcast spreader.
While most grain crops would also require some kind of nitrogen supplement to maximize yield, the existing tilled organic matter should be sufficient for our barley. Too much nitrogen causes high protein levels in malting barley, which leads to cloudy beer and can complicate the mashing process.
I suspect that April 9th is a little late to plant spring barley, but most guides say “as soon as the soil is workable.” It rains a lot here in the spring. Tough. Maybe next year I’ll plant in the fall when the weather is more predictable. I spread my 5 lbs of seed using the same broadcast spreader, making multiple passes to get an even distribution. This worked out to a planting rate of 150 lbs/acre, which is well above the recommended rate (85-100 lbs/acre). Then again, my seed was 3 years old. If any of it germinated I was going to be surprised. Barley likes to be planted about 1″ deep, but can tolerate deeper or shallower planting. To avoid feeding the birds, I buried the seeds by tilling the plot one last time on the shallowest setting. It rained the day after I planted and turned cold for a week. Barley is cool with that.
I wasn’t terribly confident that any of the seed would sprout. I considered my options for explaining the patch of bare earth to inquisitive neighbors. Tilling practice? Crop rectangles? Quadratic wildfire?
To my surprise, by April 18th there was a fuzz of green sprouts which were too uniform and succulent to be normal grass. A few days later, we were certain the barley was sprouting. As of April 24th, the plants are about 2 inches high and many have reached the two leaf stage. Less than 3 months until harvest!
I’m still not sure what I’m going to do with the barley if it matures. I’m sure we could hand harvest a plot of this size, but threshing is another matter. You really need a specialized machine for threshing, because the old method using a flail was extremely labor intensive. Our little 1/30th acre plot could yield about 100 lbs of barley. That’s enough grain to make 50 gallons of beer, which would be great while it lasted but what would we drink the other 11 months of the year?
- Barley World! – Just don’t try to buy their seed
- Spring Barley – Fertilizing guidelines from University of Idaho
- Development Guide for Spring Barley – Documents the barley life stages
- Barley Planting Guide – Australian and metric, but a good concise summary
- Grow Your Grains – Brew Your Own magazine’s guide to growing barley
- 100% Homegrown – A homebrewer’s detailed account of growing small scale barley