Barley in Drought = Beer in Doubt

Raise a glass and propose a toast to Western barley farmers… because the future of your affordable, refreshing pint may be a bit shaky.

The rundown: With record heat waves and extremely dry conditions hammering the Northern Plains and Western U.S., 80% of the country’s barley crop, the grain used in brewing most beers, is in drought.

Barley condition by the numbers:

  • 1% of Washington’s crop rated good to excellent.
  • 14% of North Dakota’s crop rated good to excellent.
  • 39% of the total U.S. crop rated poor to very poor.

With 2021 now registering the worst barley conditions on record, the poor yield is expected to create supply issues with brewers and raise prices for consumers.

Just getting started: Experts say these problems won’t be short-lived, noting that climate change will have long-lasting effects on the brewing industry. And that scary notion has some brewers vowing to go green… even before St. Patrick’s Day.

Heineken says they will go carbon-neutral by 2030 and ask the same of their supply chain by 2040. Carlsberg (a behemoth Denmark beer company) is investing in seagrass meadow carbon sinks along the UK’s coastline.

Oh, and this: If you’re wondering what climate-change-in-a-can might taste like, the Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing Company’s “Torched Earth Ale” is a carbon-neutral beer made with ingredients like dandelions and smoke-tainted water (gag).

It’s designed to not taste great and, according to the company, uses “the kind of ingredients that would be available in a climate-ravaged future.”

We’ll take their word for it.

Berries and Cherries Baking in Northwest

If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the… whole U.S.?

Hot drought conditions have been dominating row crop headlines. But specialty crops are also getting hot, hot, hot while tens of thousands of workers are harvesting as much as 10 million pounds of fruit a day in the Northwest.

Record heat in the Northwest is throwing shade on berry and cherry harvests. This week, cherry farmers started harvesting at night to avoid the scorching 100-plus-degree weather. Farmers are using sprinklers and netting to reduce heat damage.

Cherries on the outer edges could see damage, but other than that, farmers are predicting the heat will have little impact on their crop.

Put it in perspective: Last year’s cherry crop reached 19.8 million cartons, and the Northwest Cherry Growers are projecting a 17% increase to 22.4 million 20-pound cartons. Cherry harvest is bringing the heat of its own.

Raspberries, on the other hand, are having a much more difficult time with the heat wave. Normally produced in cooler coastal areas where heat waves arrive after berry harvest, berry crops can face quality issues in the heat. Growers say they’ve already seen damages to their raspberry crop; meanwhile, blueberries seem to be sweating it out okay.

Apple harvest is still a few weeks away, but concerns for sunburnt, unmarketable apples are growing as well.

Time will tell how baked the Northwest fruit will get.

Grapes’ Robotic Revolution

Some grape news for producers battling labor shortages in wine country: robots.

UC Davis’ new guidelines for robotic pruning, canopy management, and harvesting of wine grapes point towards a “touchless” future for viticulture. Machines can tackle pruning, leaf removal, shoot thinning, and trunk suckering, saving nearly $1 per vine in labor costs on their experimental farm.

By the numbers:

  • 90% of U.S. crushed wine grapes are mechanically harvested
  • Mechanical pruning can save 60-80% of labor costs per acre
  • 2x the color – read: quality – was found in one study of merlot grapes

And grape growers are here for the robot revolution. They’ve long expressed concerns about labor as vineyards grow larger and workers become scarce.

Soundbite: “Our estimate is we have two-thirds less people working in wine grapes now,” said Prof. Kaan Kurtural, of UC Davis.

The pressure is on for technology like robotics, artificial intelligence, and automation to fill that labor gap. And researchers say that’s within reach – plus changes could lead to skilled, high-wage jobs for folks operating the advanced machines.

Will wine connoisseurs notice a difference? If it’s man against machine, recent advancements make it hard to tell a difference between hand-harvested and mechanically harvested grapes. However, some grapes, like Pinot Noir, require special handling and aren’t suited for mechanization.

But on the whole, mechanization makes sure there’s no wine left behind.

Hemp Hindered

When states began legalizing the cultivation of hemp in 2018, many farmers were optimistic. The versatile crop was making waves as the new ‘value-add’ opportunity for traditional row crop farmers.

But producing hemp has been an uphill battle for most.

The issue: Part of the trouble is hemp’s association with its psychoactive cousin – marijuana. By law, hemp has to contain less than 0.3% of THC, the substance that legally kicks it to marijuana status. Plus, hemp has been illegal to grow for the past 80 years. So, it kind of has a bad rap.

But that’s just the beginning. Hemp farming is also complicated by:

  • Stringent licensing and testing requirements
  • Difficult registration process
  • FBI background check

Add in COVID-19, high production costs, and questionable seed suppliers… and the industry isn’t buzzing nearly as much as it was a couple of years ago.

In 2018, it seemed Texas farmers would capitalize on hemp legalization, but it hasn’t caught on quite as expected. The hemp varieties haven’t taken to the climate, and the price is similar to what they can get for cotton – a much more low-key, traditional crop. And crop insurance for hemp is a bit, well, nonexistent.

Meanwhile, in Kansas, the number of hemp licenses issued in 2021 is less than half of the 2020 total.

Unlike its famous cousin, hemp isn’t hitting any highs at the moment.

Ivory Coast Cocoa Crop Looks Less Than Sweet

Life is like a box of chocolates…and the Ivory Coast really didn’t know what it was going to get.

This year’s rainy season has been unusually dry for the past month, and it’s threatening the April-to-September cocoa mid-crop. The heavy downpours that normally characterize April to mid-November in this region are nowhere to be found, dampening farmers’ hopes for the crop. In fact, last week’s rainfall in the city of Soubre was 46.2 mm below the region’s five-year average, according to Reuters data.

In other regions, rainfall was equally MIA.

Why does the Ivory Coast cocoa matter so much? Well, the country produces about 40% of the world’s cocoa beans. And it’s not just this year’s crop in jeopardy: The dry spell could also spell a delayed crop next year.

Big picture: The world eats a lot of chocolate, to say the least (worldwide production averages about 4.7 million tons per year). But cocoa is also the Ivory Coast’s largest export, and the industry employs more than 6 million people.

The silver lining is the Ivory Coast has discovered an innovative way to utilize more of the cocoa plant. What would normally be waste is turned into renewable fuel — which not only helps produce electricity, but also sparks a new revenue stream for the 600,000 cocoa farmers in the country.

That news, at least, is pretty sweet.

When Your Pinot Has ‘Smokey’ Notes…

A recent legal squabble in wine country is giving ‘smoke tainted’ grapes a lot of attention.

Langtry Farms LLC is suing the owners of Torick Farms LLC, a grape-growing company, for delivering grapes that were allegedly free of ‘smoke taint’ despite being harvested in the thick of last fall’s wildfires.

But not so fast… The vintner claims the grapes were damaged and ultimately ruined nearly two dozen oak tanks and barrels.

Why this matters: Wildfires are becoming the norm for California’s North Coast wine industry. This year’s fire season is already expected to begin early with the region’s super dry status.

Last year alone, wildfires caused a $3.7 billion loss in the wholesale value of wine in the U.S., where 95% of wine grapes grown are in California, Oregon, and Washington.

But there is hope. With nearly two decades of battling smoke taint, Australia is working on a magic bullet that could cork the dreaded problem.

How it works: A woven carbon-activated hood is placed over grape clusters. The hoods allow ventilation but trap any smoke particles. Early trials showed the grapes had 97% protection from smoke taint. Talk about a next-level aerator.

What lies ahead: Between Australia’s game-changing research and a potential $8 million USDA grant to research smoke taint further, wine connoisseurs and grape growers should see some light at the end of the smoke-filled tunnel.

The French Ice Queen – Mother Nature

Oh, snap. Cold snap, that is.

We noted last week that farmers in France were feeling the latest temperature drops in their bones and their fields. Unusually warm temperatures in March caused vineyards and other crops across France to bloom. Then Mother Nature said, “Au revoir,” and released below-zero temperatures.

That’s “pas bon” (translation: not good)

Devastating to budding crops, the French frost has affected every wine-producing area in France. For many winemakers, the 2021 harvest is ruined, some reporting 90% of their crop destroyed. And not only are grapes affected, but also peach trees, nectarines, apricots, and sugar beets.

A farmer told French radio, “It literally turns your stomach, when you spend the morning in the vines and see the frozen leaves, which after two or three hours in the sun have gone grey or black.

Save the grapes!

Vineyard farmers are trying whatever they can to save their crops. Some are spraying their vines with water to form a coating of ice around the buds to try to protect them from frost, while others have lit paraffin lamps as a method of keeping the vines warm. Others even lit bales of hay on fire.

Primetime: France’s Prime Minister has declared the cold snap an agricultural disaster, prompting the need for relief funds.

But farmers are also asking for bank loan payments to be put on hold and improvements in insurance for grape growers – only a third of French winemakers are insured.

Blueberry Tinkering

The U.S. blueberry industry is booming.

USDA figures from 2019 pegged total U.S. harvested acres up 15% from 2018, with total production growing 21%, to 673 million pounds. A decade-long sprint to grow the domestic crop has acres up 60% from 2009.

And most producers are eyeing up the fresh market sector, with fresh berries cashing in at $2.03/lb, more than four times the $0.50/lb that processed berries will fetch on their way to jams and syrups.

But that doesn’t come without some berry big challenges.

Fresh berries have traditionally been hand-picked, and naturally, that means you need a lot of hands in the fields, a tough task in growing regions where farm labor is tough to come by.

Enter the machines. The rapid adoption of testing and trialing machine harvesters has become the norm. But they, too, have barriers.

With blueberry plants scaling up to six feet tall, berries encounter multiple ‘drops’ as they are harvested through the machine. With drops of 12-inches or more creating a chance of bruising, producers often test G-force safe zones with various landing pad materials to minimize crop damage.

And mums the word: Many growers won’t discuss their machinery or harvest solutions because they want their brand associated with ‘hand-picked’…even if their crop isn’t.

The final verdict: More than just the machines themselves, other factors matter too, like proper harvest timing, ripe picking temperatures, and nailing the right machine speed by variety. When you add incoming improvements in genetics and pruning, machine-harvested quality could mirror hand-picked in the not-too-distant future.

Prickly Pear Delight

Cash crops might be getting a new family member in the coming years, and they might want to prep for the big, warm hug from cousin cacti.

According to researchers at the University of Nevada, there’s a notion the low-maintenance cactus pear crop could provide fuel and food in places previously inhospitable to sustainable crops.

Prickly potential: The five-year-long research has shown the prickly pear cactus uses up to 80% less water than other crops to produce fruit. While crops like soybeans, corn, and wheat are a little pricklier about moisture, cactus plants are better equipped to withstand drought. With 42% of land area around the world classified as semi-arid or arid, the cactus’ potential could be sharp.

Carbon catchers: The cactus pear also works to succ(ulent) carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it in a sustainable way.

Growing the cactus in areas that aren’t suitable for other crops can also help expand bioenergy production. And it can be used for human and livestock consumptionCraving prickly pear cactus jelly yet?

Sticking to it: Further research is in the works to learn about a stunting disease and look at which genetic traits provide the greatest production.

Looking Back at 2020 and Thinking…

We teased it on Tuesday, but bananas truly had a bonkers 2020.

Rewind: Supplies tightened due to late-2020 hurricanes that hit Guatemala and Honduras, wiping out 27% of Honduras’ production alone. The $19 million financial hit had global implications as both countries sit within the top three U.S. banana suppliers.

An initial 15-20% dip in weekly supply to the U.S. could not have come at a worse time. Even while foodservice demand died down due to the pandemic, retail was strong, continuing to use bananas as a loss leader to get folks to the grocery.

Strong demand. Lower volumes. You know where this is going. Banana prices were going bananas.

Increased costs for inputs like carton boxes and freight rates driven by the pandemic were the cherry on top of the whole banana system’s price predicament.

But wait, there’s more. Since then, producers have seen spot market pricing that is 50-55% over last year. You would think more bang for their bananas would make a fruit farmer happy, but the price peaks have discouraged banana purchases and created severe volatility in the market, which is a hard peel to swallow.

Crop recovery in Guatemala and Honduras could take at least a year or more with multimillion-dollar investments needed to replant the farms devastated by flooding and wind damage.

Looking ahead: For the near future, banana buyers will continue looking to Costa Rica, Ecuador, Colombia, and Mexico to fill their orders.