The current state of Canada’s barley industry is grim.
“Barley’s piece of the pie is shrinking,” said Shannon Sereda, manager of market development and policy for Alberta Barley.
“It’s no longer in a dominant position like it once was in Western Canada.”
Barley acres across the Prairies have been in a long-term decline, Sereda said at the Western Barley Growers Association annual meeting last month — falling from 6.4 million acres in 2012 to just 4.9 million last year.
The sharpest decline was in Manitoba where barley has been largely replaced by soybeans and corn. But Alberta hasn’t been immune either, falling from 3.4 million acres in 2012 to 2.5 million acres last year.
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“Growers are moving away from barley to higher-value crops, like canola and wheat,” said Sereda. “The on-farm return on investment for barley has come under pressure when you’re making decisions against other commodities.”
There is “intense price competition” in both brewing and feed sectors, she added. The brewing industry has shifted more and more to adjuncts such as rice and corn to supplement malt and reduce costs. Beer makers are also sourcing lower-priced malt from other growing regions. Meanwhile, feeders are increasingly turning to wheat, oilseed meal, and corn.
“Barley’s share of the Canadian feed and brewing markets is shrinking,” said Sereda.
Barley is also lagging when it comes to yield increases. While average yields from 2013-17 increased 32 per cent compared to averages from 1998 to 2002, canola yields for that same period went up 57 per cent and wheat yields doubled.
“Yield increases are not enough to offset the lost acres, which is resulting in an overall decrease in barley production in Western Canada.”
Making barley ‘interesting again’
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
“The good news is that barley demand is steady and growing globally for both the feed and malt sectors,” said Sereda. “And since demand is growing, there are still opportunities that we can seize.
“There is still a reason to keep barley acres in the ground.”
Around the world, Canadian barley is synonymous with quality for both feed and malt, and Alberta is still a prime growing region for both, she said. Alberta Barley hopes to tap into some of those international markets, while boosting domestic demand, through its new market development strategy. The strategy — Getting to Growth: A Western Canadian Barley Action Plan — offers an in-depth look at the current state of the barley sector, while forging a path ahead for a healthy, sustainable barley industry in Alberta.
“We want to increase western Canadian barley production to secure the world’s supply of high-quality barley, while maintaining high-value markets and growing new opportunities,” said Sereda, who authored the action plan. “We want to make barley interesting again.”
The plan sets an ambitious target: Growing Prairie acres to the seven-million mark and average yields to 95 bushels per acre by 2028.
“It’s a growth target,” she said. “We wanted to set something ambitious that we could work toward as an industry, but that wouldn’t be unreasonable for most barley farmers.”
But in order to achieve those numbers, the barley industry will need to hit the three key objectives laid out in the plan: Improving the supply of high-quality barley through variety improvement and agronomic investment; maintaining existing and growing new markets; and improving acceptance of new varieties.
“A lot of this work is being done already, but in order to increase western Canadian barley production, we need to reinforce these strategies,” said Sereda.
And that’s going to require continued collaboration within the industry, she added. The next step is an industry roundtable in early April to determine how the value chain can work together to achieve the objectives set out in the plan.
“This really requires that all of the pieces work conjunctively,” said Sereda.
“I can’t say enough how important collaboration will be in realizing the vision that’s been set forth.”