The Roundup -

Breeding Barley with Blake


Dr. Blake discussed barley varieties at the 2013 EARC Field Day in Sidney.

Barley is a term that many of us correlate, depending on its use, with food, feed or drink; barley malt being the most widely used form world wide. It is part of the grass family and one of the most popular cereal crops. While grown in many regions, barley is a tender grain that must be handled with care, especially to earn improved malting qualities. That means more taste variances for us to sample at the local pub and the enhanced benefit of food production that comes from the genetic research.

Dr. Tom Blake of the Department of Plant Sciences & Plant Pathology at Montana State in Bozeman has taken this science of the barley grain and made it his life’s passion. For nearly thirty years Dr. Blake has performed his research at the MSU breeding barley program and has focused on the development of malting, feed, food and hay varieties that better fit the wet climate of Montana while perfecting the genetics for a more heartier and flavorful grain. “Montana is the best place in the US to do barley breeding,” says Dr. Blake.

Dr. Blake grew up on an olive orchard near Oroville, California. The idea of becoming a scientist even then peaked his interest and he spent time at Davis being the “guinea pig” tested on before turning to genetics as his specified field of study. He received his Ph. D. in 1982 from Washington State. In 2002 and 2003 Dr. Blake traveled for the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), overseeing many projects designed to increase agricultural production to deprived regions in Syria and Afghanistan.

But alas, at the end of the year Dr. Blake is planning on retiring from MSU. However, for the Dr. and his wife Dr. Victoria Blake, yes two doctors under one roof, barley may have weaved its way into their genetics. Together in their spare time they started a company called Western Feedstock Technologies and have built a small scale malting system that will begin testing in the coming weeks. “I’m trying to resurrect a lot of old barley varieties that folks think make really good-tasting malt, as well as rye and hulless oat varieties. If all goes well, we will teach craft brewers and distillers how to make their own distinctive malt from Montana-grown barley and specialty grains, and will supply craft brewers and distillers with equipment, training and grain”.

Dr. Blake says that if it works, it will produce around 200 lbs of malt estimated every two days or so.

Dr. Blake presented at the Western Triangle Agricultural Research Center Field Day that in Conrad, MT as well as the EARC Field Day in Sidney last July. He says,“Malting barley is a great research target because malt biochemistry is complex and interesting. It’s been a lot of fun”.

For more information about barley breeding programs contact your local EARC extension office or visit to learn more about Dr. Tom Blake’s work.


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