Barley in the vanguard of new-look supply chain

The malt barley market and its quality assurance requirements may be a pointer to future producer–buyer relationships for most grains as consumers demand more information on how food is grown

Photo of Andrew Weidemann

Andrew Weidemann with barley from Silo 32 – his storage for Crown Lager.

PHOTO: Melissa Powell

The unprecedented level of discussion and activity around on-farm storage reflects a fundamental restructure of the grains supply chain, says leading Victorian grower Andrew Weidemann.

Mr Weidemann has been part of a barley quality assurance process with an inbuilt trace-back program for maltsters for over a decade and sees this as the beginning of a requirement that will eventually affect all grains and growers.

“We are going to see more and more requirements by the market to provide detailed information about how we grow our grain, particularly on the chemicals we use and how we use them,” he says.

However, he says this in turn provides opportunities: “The real skill for the grower will be to extract value from the response to this demand.”

Mr Weidemann says malt barley has been in the vanguard of what is likely to become common across most grains in terms of quality assurance and traceability. At the moment he says he and growers like him have been enjoying a premium for malt barley delivered with detailed production records because they are “early responders”, but he says it is clear this record-keeping requirement for ensuring product integrity is going to become the norm.

“However, in the future we won’t be doing it to try to earn a premium, but to stay in the market.”

Mr Weidemann, one of the architects of the best-practice guide Growing Australian Grain, says there are markets that are becoming increasingly sensitive to agricultural chemicals and the industry has to find ways to address this, “accepting also that at the end of the day in some situations we might not be able to provide what they want”, he says.

“For example, there is an increasing expectation that food, including barley for beer, can be grown organically, which is unrealistic.”

This points to the need for a more informed audience at both ends of the supply chain. Overall, however, he sees a more direct link between production and consumption as opening up opportunities for growers and trade.

He points to more farmers learning how to develop their own markets, and buyers, particularly from Asian markets, coming here to deal directly with growers.

“When breeders catch on and start developing specific varieties for specific markets, we’re going to see an increasingly sophisticated grower–market interaction. We could even see grain from specific soil types married up, through breeding, with specific markets.”

Barley lead

Mr Weidemann, who is chair of Grain Producers Australia and farms at Rupanyup 300 kilometres west of Melbourne, has become a central figure in this trend through his involvement with malt barley quality assurance programs. This includes the traceability program run by Carlton and United Breweries (CUB). The brewery ran a marketing campaign linking its premium beer, Crown Lager, with “Australia’s finest-quality barley”, with the claim underpinned by growers adhering to an assurance protocol. The trace-back component of this includes the barcode on a bottle of beer identifying the actual barley batch used.

“The traceability program with Crown Lager actually started back in 2004 when we were asked by Barrett Burston Malting to develop an identity preservation solution to satisfy their clients, the Sapporo and Asahi breweries,” Mr Weidemann explains.

“The brewers’ consumers were already wanting to know exactly where their food was coming from, including the grain going into beer. For us this meant providing records showing that only registered safe chemicals were used for growing the barley.

“These were basic principles but they drive just about everything we do today. It also meant that when the Crown Lager promotion was developed we already had quality assurance and traceability protocols in place.”

Mr Weidemann says he manages this electronically using Paddock Action Manager software. All the diary records and grain sample records are submitted electronically at the point of sale and this record stays with the grain throughout the brewing process, culminating in the barcode identity.

“It was a case of the brewer responding to its consumers, which in turn required a response from us, the growers.”

It has been a fascinating journey interweaving these changing market demands with on-farm management and new varieties.

Nitrogen and varieties

“From our 300 millimetres of growing season rainfall we would normally produce 4000 to 5000 tonnes of barley on our farm,” he says. “We were using Yield Prophet® in the early days to educate our nitrogen and moisture management. Now it comes down to marrying our rainfall records with the moisture and nitrogen that we know is in the ground.

“Varieties react differently to nitrogen and that has proved to be a big part of the skill of growing malt – managing your varieties and your nitrogen applications.”

Mr Weidemann says the barley initially used for the Crown Lager program was Gairdner: “It gave us 10.5 per cent protein with less than three per cent screenings and a high test weight. Now the maltsters are looking more towards Westminster as the base variety, although we have been concentrating on Baudin and, lately, Flinders.

“The brewers are looking for a barley that fits into their processing, and every brewer is different. Westminster and Gairdner were popular because they covered most bases,” he says. “But brewing is changing and as a grower I think I am better off concentrating on the new varieties that deliver high-quality grain and high yield.

“From that perspective, Flinders is the best barley I have ever grown, less than one per cent screenings. The other new variety looking good for similar reasons is La Trobe. But we are already looking further ahead with a new variety (now in trials), which we expect may well replace Flinders in about four years’ time.”

Mr Weidemann says the knowledge he is able to accrue on varieties is important for both himself as a grower, and for his customers.

“Keeping at the cutting edge of new varieties is actually part of the relationship we have with CUB, Barrett Burston Malting, and Malteurop Australia. We undertake variety development with them. This involves going right along the supply chain asking how different varieties are working for different end users because there is no point growing something the market doesn’t want.”

He also cautions growers against trying to keep negotiations focused on price.

“The hard work, and the critical work, is developing the confidence of the end user. If you are focused just on trying to extract the highest price, the relationship is over before it has begun. You must be focused on the quality being sought and on delivering what you say you will deliver. That also means fixing issues if they arise. If you do this successfully, price will follow.”

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