Barley, one of the world's oldest cultivated crops, blankets the rolling landscape of eastern Idaho like softly waving fur. A large portion of it is destined to be processed into malt, the key ingredient in beer, and several large malting facilities are located nearby. Among them is a 220-foot high Anheuser-Busch facility in Idaho Falls which processes millions of bushels of barley a year from close to 400 independent growers into malt destined to become Budweiser and Bud Light at AB's many distant breweries.
The key stakeholders in AB's barley supply chain are the growers, and maintaining good relations is a full-time pursuit. It also includes a shared incentive to look at crop sustainability -- particularly as it pertains to resource consumption and productivity. This relationship shines most obviously at AB's annual "Grower Days" celebration in Idaho Falls which attracts hundreds of growers to learn about new efficiency techniques, swap best practices, and in general give growers a chance to interact with each other and have direct dialogue with their largest customer.
I was invited to drop in to the festivities last week and learn a thing or two about barley and the efforts AB is making to make the crop more sustainable. But what most impressed me was the level of interaction the company put forth with its customers -- the growers. It wasn't just a show of appreciation; it was fairly rigorous interactive session where AB discussed its research into new barley strains and listened to grower feedback.
It began in the test fields that surrounded the malting facility -- carefully laid-out rectangles featuring different crop strains, different watering conditions and different levels of inputs like fertilizer. A crowd of at least 100 people was gathered around impassioned speakers, carefully describing the nuances of each test plot. Some strains, I learned, were better suited for dry-land growing (without using any irrigation at all) and others fared better with a steadier supply of water -- not always a possibility in arid eastern Idaho. Others were known to be more resistant to certain insects or to be hardier in the event of heavy winds.
The data that AB collects about crop performance isn't only coming from their own test plots. The company has also installed portable weather stations called "AgriMet Stations" at farms around the region that gather detailed info on a host of different metrics: evapotranspiration, wind speed, temperature, humidity, other weather-related data and so on. The overall goal, in all cases was to find the perfect set of varietals for the multitude of microclimates and other differences among farms.
The result of this and other efforts is the planting of specially-adapted winter barley, which uses an impressive 25 percent less water than regular varieties. That's more than 1.5 billion liters a year that doesn't need to be diverted or pumped out of the ground for irrigation.
None of these accomplishments would be possible, however, if it were not for cross-farm collaboration and the willingness of farmers to share data with each other and with the company. Additionally, the company's willingness to fund the Agrimet Stations and the research into different barley strains and growing conditions creates a perfect platform for a win-win scenario.
It's no wonder so many farmers turned up to interact with the company at grower days. The combination of fun and appreciation with hard-nosed research and education made for impressive stakeholder engagement and, hopefully, continued efficiency for the sake of sustainability.
Image credits: Nick Aster
Note: Travel expenses to Idaho Falls were covered by Anheuser-Busch
Video: Learn more about AB-inbev's Smart Barley Program
Nick Aster is the founder of TriplePundit. Prior to launching 3p, Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years, and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He also worked for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging. Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.