To Save Water, some Arizona farmers are turning to beer

CAMP VERDE, Ariz. – The Verde River, which flows through central Arizona, is a critical source of water in this arid state. So, The Nature Conservancy in Arizona looked for a strategy to reduce demand on the river, especially in low-flowing summer months.

The answer is beer – or at least, the barley that goes into making beer. Barley is planted in winter, then harvested in June, so it doesn’t require as much water during Arizona’s driest months.

But Kim Schonek, Verde River Program director for The Nature Conservancy says barley isn’t a very high-value crop.

“A farmer isn’t going to make the choice to grow a crop that pays less just because it uses less water, as long as that water is available to them,” she explains.

So, The Nature Conservancy worked with a local entrepreneur to open Arizona’s first malt house. Malting is the process that gets barley ready to be made into beer, and barley used for beer sells at higher prices. Schonek hopes having a malt house right in the Verde Valley will give farmers an incentive to grow more of the water-wise crop.

Schonek says several of Arizona’s craft breweries have already expressed interest in buying barley that’s locally grown and malted. And two farms in the Verde Valley have already started growing the grain.

Schonek estimates if 10 percent of Verde Valley farmland was converted to barley from other crops like corn that demand more water, that would keep about 200 million gallons of water in the Verde River during the summer months.

“This is an opportunity for us as Arizonans to step up and manage a water supply in a way that’s beneficial for us, as the people that live in the watershed and the people downstream that benefit from it,” she says.

The malt house started operations this spring, and Schonek says the first batch of Arizona-malted barley should be finished at the end of this week.