State Program Boosts Skagit Valley Ag

By Steve Brown, October 24, 2013, Capital Press


Almost all the pieces are in place for a specialty malting facility in Northwest Washington: barley varieties developed specifically for regional microbrewers, distillers and bakers; farmers to grow them; and equipment to malt the barley.


Economic developments that capitalize on collaborative efforts are the focus of Innovation Partnership Zones, a program created in 2007 by Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and the state Legislature.


The Skagit Valley was recently designated as an IPZ focused on value-added agriculture, and in announcing the designation, the Port of Skagit pointed to barley malting as an example of that collaboration.


Several years ago, scientists at Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Research Center started growing thousands of barley varieties, then testing them to see how well the crops performed and how they suited the needs of end users, who then chose which ones they wanted farmers to grow.


Wayne Carpenter, founder of Skagit Valley Malting and Brewing Co., said he has started shipping test materials to the brewers, distillers and bakers.


“We’re just waiting for USDA approval.”


Besides barley, the cider industry and biodigester projects are being considered.


“The goal of the IPZ is to commercialize WSU research with the private sector while developing a trained workforce for these enterprises,” said David Bauermeister, executive director of Northwest Agriculture Business Center. “New business activity will support the viability of Skagit Valley agriculture while creating quality jobs for our residents.”


Also involved in the partnership are the Port of Skagit, City of Mount Vernon, Skagit Valley College, Skagit County and the Economic Development Association of Skagit County.


The IPZ designation didn’t come with funding, as it did in the program’s first few years, Bauermeister said, “but it’s a tool to use for working together, and it helps in grant applications.”


Patsy Martin, executive director of the Port of Skagit, said, “Agriculture is the fabric of our past and present here in the Skagit Valley. We want to ensure farming remains viable in the future as well, and the IPZ is a tool we can use to make that happen.”


“It’s fun,” Carpenter said. “So many people see the benefit of cooperation with farmers and the university. Everybody seems to be winning in this deal.”


Skagit Valley farmers have grown grain to break disease cycles and to enhance the soil, but the crop sells for far less margin than tulips and high-end potatoes, major products in the valley’s economy.


“Grain grows well, but there’s no profit,” he said. But growing conditions produce a low-protein grain, which is ideal for malting barley.


Most microbrewers adhere to the German Beer Purity Law, which originally declared beer must consist only of water, barley and hops. “So with all these varieties available, it allows us to look at lots of barleys, lots of flavor profiles, experimenting with what brewers would be interested in.”


Researchers, farmers and brewers have also had to devise ways of handling grain, including the ability to harvest to keep the grain alive so it can germinate, part of the malting process.


The commerce department also designated new IPZs in Willapa Bay (sustainable advanced manufacturing) and Vancouver-Camas (digital technology) as well as the redesignation in Kittitas County (alternative energy sources). The designation lasts four years and can be extended.

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