E-Malt.com News article: USA, MT: Montana barley industry, malt factories at standstill amid pandemic
Ranked second nationally for production, barley is one of the key crops grown in Montana every year. In 2020, before the pandemic hit, Montana farmers were expected to seed 10% more barley than the previous year, NBC Montana reported on November 11.
But now, 2019 crops are still sitting in bins after malt factories were ordered by the state government to shut down.
“Our average (bushel of barley) per acre was in the 50s," said Charles Bumgarner, chairman of Montana Wheat and Barley and family farm owner in Great Falls. "This year we were in the low 70s. We put up more storage to accommodate that. We put up another 5,000 bushels of storage (for the extra barley). Economically, we've got stuff sitting in the bins that should be delivered that we don't have the money for.”
Bumgarner is a fourth-generation farmer and owns a 6,000-acre farm from his parents.
“My great-grandfather homesteaded here, and my grandfather was actually born on this farm," said Bumgarner. "My son is working with us, and he is planning on taking over after I retire.”
In 2017, Montana produced 28.8 million bushels of barley. At roughly $4 a bushel, it brought in more than $115 million to Montana farming operations. Now, Bumgarner tells us, their barley is facing a big problem.
“Every other malt plant was having the same issue," said Bumgarner, unable to get a profit off already grown barley due to malt factories shutting down.
“At this point, it’s really a survival game," Matt Drew, head of marketing and sales at Montana Craft Malt. "Nobody wants to be sitting on grain for longer than they need to. The unfortunate part of all of this - and the farmers will tell you - that everything happened for them at the worst time. A lot of those contracts dried up as seed was going into the ground."
Bumgarner said he is one of the lucky ones. His family history in the agriculture business keeps their produce reputable and in demand.
"We've been raising malt barley for 30-plus years, so we have a history that we’re able to do that," Bumgarner proudly stated but noted that it's not practical anymore for farmers to rely on one product.
While Bumgarner says this is the first time he has held onto the grain for so long, he is still waiting to see if he can sell it to the malt factories as they slowly reopen. It's a decision made on cost, he said, because if it is sold as feed they just break even.
“The challenge with barley is that in some aspects it's fickle, but in other aspects, it's fairly predictable in terms of storage and shelf life," said Drew. "We are in one of the best barley growing regions in the world. The great thing about alcohol - about beer, about whiskey - is it's there during times of celebration. In times of hardships and troubles, it's also there."
Drew noted that, although he is expecting barley to come back into demand, they are seeing a shift in what is being requested by consumers.
"What we're seeing in the marketplace now is consumer behavior is changing," said Drew. "It was obvious we weren't going to come out of this in the same shape we went into it. The question is what exactly does that mean.”
It's a question growers are asking, as well. For now, Bumgarner holds on to the hope that his family barley will retain its demand and notes his 2020 barley contact is still active.
When asked about the future of his barley crops already harvest, Bumgarner says, "We're going to find out."
10 November, 2020