Once upon a time, barley was the top crop here in Ventura County. For decades, sixty to eighty thousand acres were grown here.
Today, barley hardly shows up in our county at all. I happen to grow a little. But I don’t eat it. I don’t even harvest it for our friends in Ventura’s growing microbrewery scene.
I know this seems wasteful. There’s a drought on… I’m aware of that. Yet, I’m growing a crop with no intention of harvesting it. Crazy.
Perhaps, but perhaps not. We grow barley as part of our orchard covercrop, along with ryegrass. As a covercrop, it is there to support our cash crops: lemons, avocados and figs. An orchard floor is a tough place… it gets walked on, driven on, mowed… it’s working land. So one reason I don’t harvest the barley is simple: not that much survives until it would be ready to harvest.
But that unharvested barley and rye are not wasted. They return a few thousand pounds of biomass to every acre of our orchard every year. That biomass is essential to the carbon content of our soil, which has been improved through farming, not depleted. The increased organic content of our soil and open structure improves water infiltration and retention. We are more efficient users of water because we have the “unused crop”, not despite it.
Unharvested grains reseed themselves more economically than sowing new seed every year. In short, the barley I grow is worth more to me as seed than it is as food. Natural reseeding also allows the soil structure to remain undisturbed for two or three years at a time.
There may be a day when orchard covercrop barley will provide the malt for my favorite brewers…that would be fun, but for now, I need the barley to nourish the soil, not me.