Conservation begins on the land. As the craft malt space continues to make inroads with beer, many of the farmers are showcasing their sustainability efforts. This helps drive deeper connections with clients and customers and shows what small batch farming can really do when it comes to meaningful growth.
ProBrewer contributor John Holl spoke with several farmers about their sustainability efforts and what they are doing to foster the growth of craft malts while being good to Mother Earth.
5th generation farmer and head maltster for Rabbit Hill Farms and Malthouse
Shiloh, New Jersey
“Shortening the food chain and reducing food miles is one of the quickest ways to make an ingredient choice more sustainable. So, of course, choosing a malthouse which is sourcing local grains and is located close to a brewery will have an impact on that brewery’s carbon footprint. In a broader sense, craft malt brings diversity to the malt supply chain.
Craft maltsters can connect brewers directly to farmers and help to inform purchasing decisions through connection and conversation.
Agriculture and agronomic practices vary by climate and region – the most sustainable approach in one area may not be the best choice in another. One of the things that is special about craft malt is the opportunity that it creates for learning about the producers at each level of the supply chain and their production techniques.
Craft Malt has also helped to begin the creation of a more resilient barley supply by diversifying the locations where barley is grown.”
Maltster and Sales at Red Shed Malting
“In our region, just getting more farmers to grow barley improves sustainability as it extends crop rotations. Acres are dominated by canola and wheat. In other regions of Canada and the United States it would be a similar story but corn & soy.
The more crops in the rotation the better as it breaks the cycle of disease and can help with nitrogen (in the case of adding pulses to the rotation). For Red Shed Malting / Hamill Farms, since starting the malt house we’ve added peas, occasionally grow oats, and this fall we are planting our first rye crop.
Fall planted Rye crops can be a challenge to grow in our area as we have a short window between harvesting our spring crops and when the first overnight frost occurs.
But the benefits of rye are numerous.
Great to have roots in the ground for a longer portion of the year. Plus, in the spring the rye will be able to outcompete almost all weeds, so it doesn’t require much for additional inputs.
We also work closely with breeding programs and industry to try and use varieties that yield more, so use less land to get the same amount of grain.
I was on a round table discussion about breaking variety lock-in challenges: Metcalfe and Copeland have dominated acres here for a couple decades, new varieties offer higher yield (more beers per acre!), but Canada’s export customers are resistant to change. We’ve been included on tours hosted by CMBTC that brought international barley buyers to look at fields with the new varieties of barley and see samples of it malted.
This, along with plenty of effort from many supply chain members, has helped.
Copeland and Metcalfe acres are starting to decline. Improving yields of malt barley is important to keep the economics encouraging farmers to grow malt barley as its constantly in completion with other cash crops, but also in competition with growing feed barley. At red shed, our small batch size has allowed us first crack at some of the new varieties and we’ve been able to get them into the hands of commercial brewers (and an exceptionally talented home brewer) who provide important feedback sooner than if the industry had to wait until there was enough supply to do a batch at one of the large, foreign owned malt houses.
In the malt house, reducing water consumption is something we look at. With our recent expansion we have added the ability to recirculate some of our wastewater to help with the transfer between the steep vessel and germination/kiln drum.
Prairie Malt in Biggar just completed a project that will allow them to go to a single wet cycle during steeping to reduce their water usage.
I think it’s worth pointing out that working with a local craft maltster reduces food (beer) miles considerably. In Red Shed and our customers cases we can grow the barley, malted it on the farm, and get it to our customers, often within a 150 km radius. This includes a fairly full lineup of specialty malts and other grains/malted grains like wheat, oats and rye. This reduces reliance on imported malts.
Lots of big food companies have made commitments to sourcing from farms using regenerative principals (which are sort of evolving from absolutes to practices on a spectrum).
Ag Canada also has some interesting maps on organic soil matter changes over the last couple decades, it shows how practices in western Canada (unfortunately not the case across the continent) have been good at improving SOM over time, a good measure of sustainability.”
Co-Founder. Communications at Root Shoot Malting
“We’ve been practicing regeneratively for the last five years, so we’re just now starting to see some of the results.
Generally speaking, we plant cover crops directly interseeded after barley and corn harvest to make sure we have a shield on our soil year-round.
We also rotationally graze cattle to help fertilize the soil and we apply organic liquids to help stimulate growth.
We’re also experimenting with deeper rooted crops (Kernza) to help keep carbon and nitrogen in the soil and Winter barley.”