You've heard this shouted like a dire warning. You've read it from respected sources. The gist is:
Hop bines and barley fields are being ripped out, replaced by rows of corn—acres and acres to to be churned up and distilled into ethanol.
To date, however, I have not seen evidence or statistical analysis proffered to support this assertion. Quite frankly, I believe it to be somewhat of a canard.
Hops have been over-planted for years. The glut kept hop prices low.
Thus even before the recent spike in government ethanol subsidies, hop farmers had begun to move to other crops. In 1950 there were 515 hop growers in the US. In 1990, there were 120; in 2006, there were 75. 1
So, in 2007, there were fewer acres devoted to hops. In addition, there were bad harvests in hop-growing areas throughout the world, there was an exchange rate favorable to exports (but unfavorable for imports) , and there was a hop fire in the Pacific northwest which destroyed 4% of the US crop. Hop prices jumped.
With prices higher—and more so on the spot market—over their level of a year earlier, why would any extant hop farmer willingly forgo that potential bonanza for a lesser financial return from corn? If anything, I would expect to see an increase in hop acreage over the next 3 years.
Now, let's examine barley: are farmers ripping up their fields to grow corn?
The barley belt—particularly for malting barley—lies north of the corn belt. The majority of barley is grown from the Dakotas north; corn, south. 2
US corn has been subsidized by the government for years, in effect promoting corporate agri-food-business. Even so, as late as 2005, the typical Iowa farm would barely earn more per acre for corn than its costs to grow it. 3
The bio-fuel mandate has indeed caused the price for corn to increase dramatically. However, the price for malting barley—traditionally greater than the threshold for both food and feed corn— has also increased, and remains above the price for corn. In great measure, this price increase has been caused by poor weather conditions. Many barley farmers have turned their drought-seared fields over to their ruminants, not to husks of corn. 4
So, this question: Why would barley farmers willingly switch from barley to corn in areas not normally suitable for corn and for financial return lower than for malting-quality barley?
At present, I believe that this ethanol-fuled idée fixe may have begun as a promulgation of a political point of view. It has since been repeated enough by other well-meaning observers to have become perceived truth.
I don't buy it.
But if I'm wrong?
I'll drink a big, fat, over-hopped beer ... and I'll drink it like I like it.
- Hops down, prices up
- Hop Crop Drops A Lot
- Barley bad too, in Europe
- more on hops cost, shortage
- Barley and hops lose to ethanol?
- Response to Ethanol Fallacy
- US hop harvest INCREASED in 2007
1 [Ian Ward, The New Brewer, Vol. 24, No.6]
3 [Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Penguin, 2006, p.53]
4 [Ian Ward, The New Brewer, Vol. 24, No.6]