Barley isn’t new to Lucas Rector.
His family has a couple of hundred acres of the small grain planted as a cover crop on their Washington County farm; they’ll harvest it in the spring for hay.
But 10 particular acres that Rector planted in October represent a shift, for the farmer and potentially for the region: The barley grown on this plot will be malted for beer and spirits as part of a project aimed at helping diversify the economy of Virginia’s far Southwest corner, where coal and tobacco, once the economic heavyweights, have faded.
“Tobacco is on its way out, whether we like to admit it or not,” said Rector, 26, whose family still grows some of the crop.
“If they weren’t growing 10, 20 acres, everybody at least had 1 or 2 acres, and you could make pretty good money on it,” he said. “Now in Washington County, there might be three folks growing tobacco, and I bet 10 years ago there was a hundred.”
Rector is one of six farmers in Lee, Scott and Washington counties who are growing a total of about 75 acres of barley for Appalachian Grains, a grain broker that connects growers with breweries and distilleries.
This is the third year of planting for the project, which already has provided malted barley to a handful of Virginia breweries, including Devils Backbone Brewing Co., Three Notch’d Brewing Co. and Michael Waltrip Brewing Co. The latter just last month introduced its 3 Ranges Appalachian Ale, made with Lee County grain.
Appalachian Grains is the brainchild of Will Payne, the director of InvestSWVA, a public-private business attraction and marketing initiative, and Will Clear, director of finance and project administration at Virginia Energy, formerly called the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.
The goals, they said, are to build on the region’s farming legacy with a higher-dollar crop and to offer brewers a unique – and more environmentally sound – product.
They also hope it will attract younger people to agriculture, both through what they believe is the “cool factor” of growing for the alcohol industry and through a workforce training program at the local community college that will be funded as part of the project.
“Retooling applies to agriculture as much as to manufacturing,” Payne said. “Specialty agriculture is a way to take these part-time farmers and create opportunities for full-time farmers.”
The project launched three years ago with two Lee County farmers and 24 acres of barley. It was a test run, Payne said, to see if the region could produce high-quality, maltable barley that brewers would want.
InvestSWVA funded that first year. In the second year, the project expanded to Scott County and added another farmer and a couple of acres of rye – and a $100,000 award from GO Virginia.
The third barley crop was planted this October, covering about 74 acres in three counties. It will be harvested in the spring.
In the interim, they’ve landed $500,000 from the Tobacco Commission and $2.5 million from the federal Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization Program, or AMLER, that will help fund the next phase of the project: building and equipping a grain terminal in the region.
An abandoned mine land property near Norton will be turned into a facility where grain will be processed, stored and distributed. The Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Facilities Authority will own the terminal, and Mountain Empire Community College will operate it. Some of the grant money will be used to fund workforce training programs at the school.
The terminal initially will handle barley, wheat and rye, and it could expand into soybeans, especially if farmers double-crop, growing barley in the winter and beans during the summer, said Craig Seaver, the authority’s coordinator.
Seaver said they expect the terminal to be operational by spring 2023.
Amy Byington, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in Lee County who’s been working with the project, said the terminal is a critical next step, since farmers now have to haul their barley as far as Cincinnati or Louisville for processing.
“We cannot grow it here sustainably if we don’t have that facility,” she said. “Right now, the only reason why we’re able to grow what we have been growing is because we have grant funds to help offset the cost of having it being shipped about four hours to be cleaned.
“If we have that facility here, then we can be economical at this.”
There’s a long history of growing barley and other small grains in Southwest Virginia, going back hundreds of years.
But as efficiency became more important in food production, grain production moved to the Midwest and West, where crops could be grown on vast tracts of land using large equipment, Byington said.
Farmers in those regions could grow grains more cheaply, she said, so areas like Southwest Virginia, with its hilly terrain, scaled back. And then regional grain processing facilities closed, making the business even less sustainable. At the same time, tobacco provided an attractive alternative to Virginia farmers.
But now, with the price of gas rising and consumers becoming more concerned about food miles and supporting local farming, the dynamic has started shifting back toward regional food systems, she said.
“We have to have the quality, and we have to be willing to do varieties and things that they can’t get easily out of the Midwest,” she said. She thinks smaller-scale farmers like the ones Appalachian Grains is cultivating will be well positioned to fill specialty orders.
Payne believes that Appalachian Grains will appeal to regional brewers who currently source barley from the Midwest or Canada but want to reduce their carbon footprint.
Bobby Rohla, the distillery manager at Devils Backbone, also sees the hyper-localness as a potential plus for brewers and distillers who are looking for unique flavor profiles.
In previous centuries, beer and spirits would have been made using barley that was grown and malted nearby, he said. Now that most of the grain comes from hundreds or thousands of miles away, that terroir has been lost, he said.
“Think about it in the context of wine,” he said. “Place matters. With malt, that’s also true. If you’re using different barleys from different places, you can actually capture some local character.”
Devils Backbone will use Appalachian Grains barley to produce both beer and whisky.
“What we want to kind of suss out of this product is a differentiation that really only exists because of that malt that’s coming from one place,” Rohla said. “If we take something that’s from the southwest of the commonwealth, we’re going to express something in that barley as it shows up in the malt that would be unlike anything else that you would find anywhere in the world.
“From a beer geek and whisky geek perspective, it’s really exciting.”
Project backers hope it will give younger farmers a reason to stay in the business, or get into agriculture in the first place.
“There’s a cool factor to growing something that’s eventually going to be in a craft beverage,” said Clear, who grew up around farms but said farming was never something he wanted to do himself – he didn’t want to own a dairy or raise cattle, and those were the options if you didn’t want to grow tobacco, he said.
To ensure that they can scale up the project, they want to build a land bank of up to 2,000 farmable acres, which would help connect farmers to available land and, they hope, make it easier for young farmers who might have the drive but not the capital to get started on their own.
Byington said that about half of the farmers she’s talked to about the project are in their late 20s and 30s, and the others are much older and have experience growing small grains. “They’re my dad’s age,” she said. “They remember growing up and it was like a cash crop for them.”
It’s possible that some younger farmers might be attracted by the cool factor, she said, but she sees another, more basic, draw.
“For the most part, I think farmers are attracted to anything that’s going to be sustainable and make them money,” she said. “Our prices are so depressed and all of our inputs are so high, so any bright spot is something. Especially something they don’t have to have a whole lot of labor in – it’s attractive.”
That’s what drew David Millsap and David Hensley to the project. Both have farmed their whole lives – Millsap is 62 and Hensley 75 – and while they’d slowed down some in recent years, they liked the idea of making a little extra cash off their land, without a lot of extra work.
Between the two of them, they’ve planted about 50 acres of barley for Appalachian Grains.
Hensley had some experience with barley; he’d tried growing it for malting some years back and had considered opening his own malthouse at one point. He even went to school in New York to learn how to malt. But back-to-back heart attacks scuttled that idea.
With even more microbreweries in business today than when he was making his plans, the niche market that he saw back then has just grown bigger, he said.
He and Millsap are looking at following the barley with soybeans in the spring, and they’ll be able to sell the barley straw for extra income as well. And Millsap thinks they might be able to do some custom work with their combine for farmers who don’t have their own equipment.
“Is it going to replace the same profitability of tobacco? Probably not, but it’s just a niche thing that we might be able to do,” said Rector, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in crop science from Virginia Tech. He works for Farm Credit and farms on the side with his dad.
“You can’t go out there and plant a bunch of wheat and expect to compete with some of these farmers in the Midwest, but something like malt barley that’s unique to the area, kind of a niche crop – I just thought it would be an opportunity for the area to see something, and I was willing to give it a try myself.
“Maybe it’ll work out. Maybe it’ll make a difference.”
Payne acknowledged the challenges of breaking into a well-established market. But he said he’s confident in the project concept, which was a winner in this year’s Entrepreneurship Cup competition at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where he’s an MBA student.
“You’re asking breweries and distilleries to change their buying, their purchasing habits, their culture of importing from outside the state,” he said. “We have to work twice as hard to ensure that we’re delivering top-notch quality grain so that we can scale the project.”