Organic Broadcaster

Research project develops naked barley varieties suited for organic production

By Constance Carlson

Naked barley is showing potential as a disease-resistant small grain that out-competes weeds and is in demand with health-conscious organic consumers. Photo by Brigid Meint

Barley has a long history in agriculture—it was first cultivated about 10,000 years ago—and has been used for feeding livestock, flour milling, bread baking, and beer production. Barley is the fourth most commonly produced grain in the world and the second most widely grown organic grain in the United States, according to 2016 statistics from the U.S. Food and Agriculture Organization. In addition to its diverse market options, barley has important nutritional aspects for human consumption; it’s a rich source of complex carbohydrates, especially beta-glucan which is a soluble dietary fiber that has been shown to reduce cholesterol levels. Beta-glucan from barley also has been shown to slow the release of sugar into the blood, which reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes.

The most common barley grains grown worldwide today are covered with a hull (an outer layer) that is firmly attached to the grain. That wasn’t the case in early human history. A few thousand years after barley was first cultivated, a natural genetic mutation resulted in a barley with a hull that falls off during harvest, an occurrence commonly called “free-threshing.” This mutant often goes by the name “naked” or ‘hulless.” As humans discovered that wheat works better in bread baking because of its higher gluten and that barley with hulls works better for beer production, naked barley got left behind.

Now, researchers from across the country are working to bring naked barley back. Even more exciting, they are developing it for organic production.

In 2017, Pat Hayes from Oregon State University (OSU) and a wide-ranging team of breeders, growers, educators, bakers, millers, maltsters, brewers, distillers, and seed companies from across the country were granted multi-year funding through USDA-NIFA-OREI (National Institute of Food and Agriculture-Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative) to test and develop breeding frameworks for new naked barley varieties specifically for organic production. The study, Developing Multi-use Naked Barley for Organic Farming Systems, spans three regions across the country: Pacific Northwest (Oregon and Washington), Upper Midwest (Minnesota and Wisconsin) and North East (New York). The study recognizes that organic producers need new crops and rotation options that have been developed within and for organic production. The study also recognizes that producers need viable markets for those crops in order to adopt and integrate them into their rotations. The long-term goal is to provide a wide range of stakeholders—from organic gardeners and producers to food companies, processors, and consumers—an alternative food crop that will be economically, nutritionally, and ecologically beneficial.

“Naked barleys have been around for almost 10,000 years but they haven’t gained the traction that we would like to see in the United States,” Hayes explained. “Plant breeders, bakers, chefs, brewers, distillers, animal feeders—we are all united in the goal to provide organic gardeners, growers, processors, and consumers with an alternative crop, food, and raw material that will be economically rewarding and sustainable.”

Organic Naked Barley
A key component of the naked barley project involves testing and selecting varieties in organic production conditions. Currently, most of the crops grown in organic production have been developed in high-input, conventional scenarios. Therefore, desirable traits are often selected in conditions in which organic farmers don’t operate. These varieties need improvement to better serve the complex needs of organic production; surveyed organic producers frequently state they need varieties that have disease-resistance and can compete against weeds. This is especially true in barley production, where weed pressure can significantly impact yield. Most organic farmers incorporate small grains into their rotations as a strategy for weed suppression, so the development of an organic small grain that can compete against weeds and has high demand in the marketplace would be a valuable crop and tool for organic producers.

Currently, there are naked barley varieties in various stages of development in the project, including a fall-planted naked barley variety released by OSU in 2016 named Buck. (Yes, as in “buck naked.” Scientists have a sense of humor, too!) Buck is adapted to the Pacific Northwest but has done well in field trials in the Upper Midwest, even surviving some Minnesota winters. Buck has been achieving high yields with less need for fertilizer and water than wheat. Regional on-farm trials with certified organic producers in participating states have been underway with various varieties throughout the project. These trials will generate agronomic and quality profiles of current and potential naked barley varieties. In turn, this data will be used to help growers and end-users make decisions about future production, market, and product development for naked barley.

As the breeding work continues, the grant team is also tasked with building awareness and testing varieties of naked barley with food processors, culinary professionals, brewers, maltsters, distillers, bakers, millers, and the feed industry. A significant market advantage for naked barley is its status as a whole grain in the consumer market. Barley varieties with adhering hulls must have the unpalatable hull removed by pearling, a process that removes most of the nutrient-rich bran and thus makes grain ineligible for “whole grain” status. Therefore, naked varieties can be used by companies to meet the demand for whole-grain foods in the market.

“Barley has unique fiber characteristics that are appealing to the health-conscious consumer and we expect the market for organic food barley will continue to grow,” said Brigid Meints, a postdoctoral research associate at OSU who was hired under the USDA-NIFA-OREI grant. “By combining the health characteristics associated with the whole grain status of naked barley with improved varieties bred for certified organic production, the value of naked barley to the producers, processors, and consumers becomes quite high.” For organic producers interested in meeting this market demand, naked barley doesn’t require producers to invest in a de-huller, which makes adoption of this crop into their rotation that much easier.

Another market to watch for naked barley is craft brewing. With the explosion of the craft beer market throughout the U.S., brewers are on the search for new and exciting flavors to serve their customers. Naked varieties may be able to provide not only new flavors, but also processing advantages. In traditional brewing, barley hulls act as a filter. Advances in brewing technology, including the use of mash filters, make it possible to achieve higher brewing efficiencies with naked barley which result in lower carbon and water footprints. Brewers without mash filters are still able to use naked barley in recipes by incorporating rice hulls as a natural filter.

The project has also been running micro-malting tests on naked barley to determine the best protocols for the malting process. The University of Minnesota team visited with a Minneapolis brewery, Modist Brewing, that experimented with naked barley. Modist teamed up with Rahr Malting to malt and analyze a small batch of naked barley for brewing. The result, called “Deviation #9,” was delicious according to everyone involved. Similar activities are happening with other grant partners throughout the project, with brewing recipes in development or already on tap.

Education and outreach are important aspects of the project and opportunities are available regularly in all of the regions, including field days and tours, culinary showcases and presentations at organic conferences. Representatives from the team presented a poster highlighting the work at the 2019 MOSES Conference. In the fall of 2018, the New York region hosted a “Brew and Bake with Naked Barley” culinary event in Brooklyn that brought together professionals in the food and beverage business who are interested in regionally grown grains. Attendees learned about the variety trials and tasted various products and beverages made from naked barley. OSU hosts a similar event every year as well.

Print and social media channels have been following the project and sharing information with audiences since its inception. Beth Dooley, a culinary professional and cookbook author based in Minneapolis, has crafted recipes that have been included in print articles, blogs, and TV segments.

“I find naked barley an easy grain to work with and have enjoyed sharing tips and recipes with various audiences,” Dooley said. “However, I’m most excited about the idea that this crop can be another important tool for our organic producers to use in their rotations that will support their economic and ecological production goals. That’s great news for everyone.”

The project also includes a public awareness program that incorporates K-12 educators. Seed samples and a small stipend have been provided to participating schools to manage experiments, organize field trips, and provide interactive learning experiences focused on naked barley. Students are collecting data and learning how to do basic research; the lead teachers have been posting descriptions and images of their work on the project website. Lastly, participating schools are also being matched with a culinary professional to demonstrate how naked barley can be prepared and consumed.

Consumers, brewers, and culinary professionals can find naked barley at select retail locations, but the goal of this project is to make it even easier to find, access and consume this nutritional and beneficial crop.

Although work on this grant project is expected to conclude in the next year, the regional teams are already in discussion about what the next steps are for the research and development of naked barley. The best way for farmers and others interested in staying informed about this project and opportunities in their area can be found at the OSU website. The Naked Barley Project Resources page on eOrganic includes a highly informative webinar. Finally, the project also has active Facebook and Instagram feeds filled with beautiful photos of the work, people, and products involved in this project (search “multibarley”), which is a great way to keep up-to-date on the work underway to bring this ancient and important grain back to growers, bakers, brewers, and consumers.

Constance Carlson co-directs Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems for the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP). She facilitates market development and commercialization opportunities for the crops within the UMN Forever Green Initiative.


From the September | October 2019 Issue


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