VERONA — Sprawling across about 570 acres, the West Madison Agricultural Research Station is unique among Wisconsin’s agricultural research stations. It’s surrounded by development and is home to the University Display Gardens; it is also the site where most of the feed and bedding for UW-Madison’s herds is grown and now boasts impressive plots of naked barley varieties included in a research project that spans five states.

In 2017, five universities received shared funding from an Organic Research and Extension Initiative grant, part of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture program, to test naked barley varieties and provide organic gardeners, growers, processors and consumers with an alternative material that could be economically rewarding and sustainable, particularly in the areas of food, animal feed and malting/brewing.

Barley is a major cereal grain commonly used in animal feed; barley typically has a hull, which has dictated how the grain is sold. However, “naked” barley, or “hull-less” barley, could present new opportunities as it can be directly processed as its hull does not need to be mechanically removed.

As part of the grant, the development, assessment and participatory breeding of naked multi-use barley is being conducted in five representative regions: the Pacific Northwest, headed by Washington State University and Oregon State University; the Upper Midwest, headed by UW-Madison and University of Minnesota; and the Northeast, headed by Cornell University.

Representatives from each university were in Verona last Friday, June 28 to discuss preliminary results from their trials and to visit UW-Madison’s fields of barley, dodging rain showers to walk amongst 20 genotypes included in their spring regional trial and more than 200 genotypes included in a diversity panel, grown to study genetic data to improve barley for organic systems.

“This is probably the most diverse grouping of barley that you’ll ever see,” said Brigid Meints, a postdoctoral research associate at Oregon State University.

Meints has been hired under the grant to help with the project, which aims to study organic naked multi-use barley for whole grain nutrition, animal feed and malting and brewing markets. Along with research, outreach has been another key component to the project, with Lane Selman, an agricultural researcher at Oregon State University, taking the lead on outreach.

Selman and Meints have been attending numerous events to promote and spread the word about barley, including an event in Oregon that highlighted olive oil and barley used in baked products. Three-hundred people were exposed to barley at a recent “Grain Gathering” in northern Washington, where bakers, chefs and consumers came together to learn more about grain. This particular event featured a “noodle-making school,” where participants were taught to make homemade pasta using barley flour.

In the future, Selman aims to get more information on barley into cookbooks, encouraging chefs and bakers to use barley products. She is also seeking more individuals to teach classes on using barley and its products, and also plans to attend more upcoming events to promote barley.

In Madison, Lucia Gutierrez, an assistant professor in the Department of Agronomy at UW-Madison, shared how she has been trying out different ways to connect school-aged students with barley, particularly the naked barley varieties being grown. She recently invited fifth-graders from an area school to the university greenhouses to plant their own barley and discuss the science behind it.

“It was fantastic,” she said. “The kids were engaged with the activity and were thoughtful when reviewing the results.

“It is important to get them to learn, eat and connect to the science in their classroom,” she added.

The fifth-grade activity was so successful that a sixth-grade teacher also approached her for an activity focusing on genetics and barley.

“Education is very important and so is getting those kids exposed to agriculture early,” Gutierrez said.

Julie Dawson, an assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture at UW-Madison, spoke to attendees of the field day on how she has been studying the end uses for multi-use naked barley. Although her work is preliminary, she shared how she worked with Madison Sourdough to create four different kinds of pita breads using four different barley varieties, and recorded the observations from bakers and consumers alike.

“I hope to have more useful information next year for (barley) breeders,” she said.

Another representative from the project spoke about how he sees huge potential for flavor and economic benefits with naked barley in the brewing industry. While much research still needs to be done in this area, brewing trials have been authorized to start at Oregon State University through their malting program.

Poultry feeding trials have already started at Oregon State University as well, with one researcher looking into the effects of feeding naked barley to chickens.

Anyone interested in keeping up with the Organic Naked Multi-Use Barley Project is encouraged to visit eorganic.info/barley for updates, recipes and resources, including presentations given by those involved with the project. As more data emerges from the research, the organizers also plan to add research articles to the website.