How has the Canadian malt barley industry changed over the past decade? How is the evolution of the grower/maltster relationship contributing to growth and success of the industry? To get some perspective, we asked Rahr Malting’s supply chain director Kevin Sich for his opinion. Sich has just celebrated his 10th anniversary with the Alix, Alberta-based company. He says the industry has come a long way in a short time.
Listen to our entire conversation on this podcast, or keep reading.
One of the biggest changes has been increased transparency throughout the supply chain. The end of the Canadian Wheat Board has brought about much clearer market signals, says Sich. “Maltsters, farmers and brewers have become more linked in the supply chain, which I think has been very positive.”
The emergence of the local food movement has also been good for the industry. Canadian malt barley has a strong reputation and that creates demand internationally, and in domestic and local markets where beer drinkers are looking for brews made from locally grown ingredients.
Good communication with local growers
Rahr Malting contracts about 80 to 90 percent of its barley in central Alberta. Sich says cooler nights and the absence of disease helps produce strong yields in this area. Rahr deals directly with growers to contract 100 percent of its malt barley needs. Sich says building grower relationships and supporting these growers are keys to success. “It's not like we're out there trying to tell farmers how to farm. They may have another third-party crop consultant. We just like to work with them in getting the best outcome on the barley.”
Building good communication is also important because there can be some difficult conversations, says Sich. “You get to know each other’s business quite well. Sometimes there’s a tough call when you do not accept their barley and you have to tell them it's rejected and it's going to feed.”
Sich is often asked how some growers seem to make malt every year while others struggle to hit the standard. He believes growers who consistently achieve malt do so because they make the crop a priority. “A lot of these growers look at barley as one of their main crops, and it's one of the first things they’ll put in the ground so they can harvest in August. Some growers will seed canola first, then the wheat, then maybe put the barley in on the May long weekend, and maybe they don't get the success that they were hoping for.”
Traceability helps meet market demand
Sich believes Rahr offers a solid contract, including an Act of God clause that provides protection for growers. In return, Rahr is looking for growers who are committed to delivering a high-quality crop as well as helping the company deliver a traceability program that more and more buyers are seeking.
To work with Rahr Malting, Sich explains, the company requires growers use certified seed, or one year off certified, and provide crop records, including land locations and seeding and harvest dates. “People want to know where their beer's coming from. Having those crop records is becoming just a part of doing business. We've been the first malt company in Canada to do it, and I think we're a little ahead of our time.”
Sich says Rahr is committed to guarding the confidentially of its growers’ data and believes they’ll be able to soon provide valuable management insights gleaned from grower data.
With five years of data, “we're starting to come up with our own in-house best management practices,” says Sich. Trends are emerging from the data that could help more growers make malt. This includes identifying optimum seeding dates for different regions. For example, what if growers who seed the first week of May have a 90 percent acceptance rate, and growers who plant May 20th have a 60% approval rate? That’s valuable information for growers and that’s where Rahr and the industry is headed, says Sich.