barley breeding lab

What do beer, cows, heart health, and research have in common? Barley.

“We work on what we think is important, but we also have our ear to the ground,” Dr. Jamie Sherman, a professor at Montana State University, told us about what projects they choose to pursue in her barley lab.

Sherman is the only barley breeder at MSU. And in a state like Montana, where barley is in our veins, our cow’s veins and our beer, it is easy to conclude she has a lot of projects on her list.

There is no short summary of her team’s projects.

A lot of research operates at the 30,000-foot view, providing information for policymakers and influencers, hoping they’ll listen. But Sherman and her team work directly with growers and maltsters around the state, breeding barley for the whole industry.

“We provide direct service to the people of Montana,” Sherman said.

Of course, she breeds for malt. If you’ve driven around the roads in Montana, you’ve seen the stickers: “No Barley, No Beer”. But her lab also works on the food side, since barley is very nutritious, particularly for your heart. One area with potential is purple barley, which has high protein and antioxidants. To top it off, they also work on forage barley for livestock.

“Each end-use requires very different traits that don’t overlap and are sometimes in conflict,” Sherman explained.

Her lab is breeding lines of barley that serve all the purposes of Montanans, but there is no magic bullet. They’re constantly working on different strains of barley for different industries.

With warmer, longer summers, Sherman has also started looking into winter barley. Similar to winter wheat, it would be planted in the fall and then get a great head start in the spring. Because of this, winter barley can be harvested about a month earlier.

From the looks of it, the number of above-90-degree days in Montana just keeps increasing. These high-heat days hurt the quality of barley, but winter barley could avoid the heat strokes that come at the end of the summer.

The catch? Winter barley needs to survive the winter and currently, there are no well-adapted varieties. But Sherman is hopeful that one day, Montana will be able to begin utilizing winter barley.

However, seeds may not be on the shelf immediately. It takes around 10 years for a line to come to fruition. Which may sound like a long time, but compared to many research fields, the fact that one of Sherman’s team’s ideas can go from the whiteboard to someone’s hands in 10 years is a feat.

It’s also one of the best parts of the job. Getting to see their lines of barley go to the fields, improving farmers quality and yield, is a wonderful part of the job, Sherman said.

Sample of the Malted Barley

A sample of differently roasted malts, that we got to taste test! (All are good!)

And these benefits don’t stop at the farmer. Montana is beginning to see a shift away from the brewing giants that started to dominate the industry a couple decades ago. Now, with around 68 breweries and 15 distilleries throughout Montana, contributing to the employment of more than 10,000 people, Montana’s beer is becoming an economic force.

With the rise of the beer industry, farmers are also able to add value to their barley crop by getting the equipment to malt their barley themselves and sell it directly to the brewer. The coordination among growers, maltsters, and brewers can still improve, but the opportunity is there. And in a proud state, all Montanans would take advantage of the opportunity to reach for a Montana-made beer.

Lab Director Hannah Turner showed us around the Barley and Malt Quality Lab, which not only runs tests for Sherman’s work but also can run tests for maltsters around the state. The process tests the quality of different malts, allowing local maltsters to better understand how to improve their process and the barley breeding program how to improve barley.

The barley industry knows that Sherman’s work is worth their investment. Her funders include the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee, the American Malting Barley Association and the National Brewers Association.

Montanans in the field bring problems to Sherman and her team. And she works on them. Why?

“So agriculture remains the economic force it is in Montana,” Sherman told us.

Maybe, after all, there is a simple summary of what she’s working on.

-Andie Creel

Special Thanks to Dr. Jamie Sherman and Lab Director Hannah Turner for taking their time to explain this process to us! You can find out more about their work here at http://montana.edu/barleybreeding.

Statistics and employment numbers are from the American Malting Barley Association.

Got something to say to Prairie Populist? Send news tips, story ideas and comments to editor@prairiepopulist.org. If you have something to submit, or an idea for a story you’d like to write for us, check out our Submission Guidelines here.

Share: