An important river in the Colorado River system, where the Conservancy is working with local agricultural producers and communities to increase river flows.
The Verde River An important river in the Colorado River system, where the Conservancy is working with local agricultural producers and communities to increase river flows. © Rick Triana Photography

Stories in Arizona

Brew a Beer, Help a River

Farmers help Verde River flows by switching to planting barley, which grows in the spring when there's more water in the river.

When it comes to protecting Arizona’s scarce water supplies, all options should be on the table. It’s a happy coincidence when some of those options involve beer.

What if farmers switched to a low-water-use, cool-season crop like barley, and local brewers used malt from this locally grown grain?

In the Verde Valley, this effort is gaining traction.

The Benefits of Barley

The idea germinated in 2015, when The Nature Conservancy was working with local farmers to adopt irrigation practices that would use less water from the Verde River, one of Arizona’s last flowing rivers.

“We wondered,” said the Conservancy’s Kim Schonek, “if local farmers would grow barley and whether there would be a market for that crop.”

Barley — which can be also used in cereals, baked goods and livestock feed — requires less water throughout the growing season than traditional crops like corn and alfalfa. The peak water use for barley is in March, when the Verde River experiences peak flows. For corn and alfalfa, the peak water use is in June, when the river is most stressed.

“When the river is stressed in the summertime, its low flows fractionalize the habitat for fish and wildlife,” said Schonek.

Barley growing at TNC's Shield Ranch in Arizona.
Barley Barley growing at TNC's Shield Ranch in Arizona. © TNC

Testing the Concept

Schonek asked Hauser Farms in Camp Verde to grow a test-crop. Zach Hauser planted 15 acres of Harrington 2-row malt barley at the Conservancy’s Shield Ranch in February 2016 and harvested the grain in late June. Both the yield and the quality were good.

Blacklands Malt in Austin, Texas, agreed to malt some of the barley, and in late August, the Conservancy was the owner of two tons of beer malt made from local grain.

The Conservancy distributed the malt, the base ingredient in beer, to select craft brewers in Arizona to confirm that high-quality beer could be produced with the local malt. The results were positive.

Growing the Market for Malt

In February of 2017, the Hausers planted 144 acres of barley. And now, an effort is underway in Camp Verde to develop a malt house which would purchase the barley, process it into malt and sell it to craft brewers.

“We wanted to create a market solution for declining flows in rivers and streams,” said Chip Norton, one of the leaders of the effort. He and co-director Steve Ayers are working pro bono to develop the malt operation, which they’ve named Sinagua Malt.

“Sinagua” in Spanish means “without water.” Sinagua is also the name of the prehistoric people who lived between present day Flagstaff and the Verde River.

Local brewpubs are popping up everywhere in Arizona, and many are interested in using sustainably grown, locally sourced ingredients. Supporting our rivers is a natural for breweries, because they require lots of water. Beer is 95 percent water.

The Conservancy is considering a low-interest loan to help finance the malt house. The loan would replace incentive payments the Conservancy was providing to farmers to convert to low-water-use crops.

“This is an opportunity to add value to our agricultural community, grow industry and protect the river,” said Ayers.

If the effort succeeds, each cool sip of beer could help add flow to the depleted Verde River.