Day 317

In 1952, the Master Brewers Association of Canada (MBAC), in conjunction with the agricultural college of the University of Guelph, held a “Barley Field Day” for Ontario brewers at the university’s research farm. The purpose was to review the previous year’s barley harvest and the expectations for the present crop, and also to present some on-going research.

Today, the MBAC held its “60th Barley Field Day” at the university’s Elora Research Station, about ten kilometres north of Guelph. Thankfully, the extreme heat and humidity that has blanketed us for the past week had moved out, making for a pleasant summer day more typical of July in southern Ontario.

First up was the barley report from Matthew Letke of Canada Malting. The long and short is that the 2011 crop was very good for the most part except in certain parts of Manitoba. At the moment, the portents look good for the 2012 Prairies crop, although the crop in Ontario looks to be disastrous due to the on-going drought this summer. However, the amount of barley being grown in Ontario compared to the Prairies is very small, so it may have little effect on the total amount of grain harvested.

Further to the south, drought grips most of the American midwest and southwest, so all cereal grains are in danger.

Matt also pointed out a growing trend away from barley to other more profitable crops in most parts of the world, with the notable exception of Argentina and Australia. That sobering news brought the realization that malt prices may climb even higher in the foreseeable future as fewer farmers grow barley.

We also heard a fascinating presentation by University of Guelph researcher Dr. Duane Faulk. It turns out that if a seedling of barley or wheat emerges from the soil and senses reflections of light from other plants (usually weeds) within 10 cm, it immediately switches to a “race for the sun” survival mode, shunting resources from grain production to stalk growth in order to beat the rival plant upwards to sunlight. Even if the weeds are removed afterwards, the plant will not switch back to grain production, resulting in a tall spindly plant with fewer grains. The inference is that it’s vital for farmers to curb weed growth right at seeding time–apparently the switch to survival mode can happen almost as soon as the seedling sticks a shoot up into the air and senses a nearby weed.

Test plots of barley varieties

Test plots of barley. The golden-coloured plots indicate less drought-resistant varieties that have stopped growing due to lack of rain and are ready for harvest 4-5 weeks earlier than usual.

Then it was time for a wagon ride back into the fields to look at some of the research currently being done, as well as to see the test plots of various varieties of barley. It was sobering news to hear that the University of Guelph is cutting back on funding for cereal grain research, apparently because cereal grains are no longer an important cash crop in Ontario, and research on them is therefore less of a profitable exercise for the university. There will be a 61st Barley Field Day next July. There may not be a 62nd.

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