Among the once-mighty foods that have fallen from grace, barley may have fallen the hardest. Kevin Murphy (’04 MS, ’07 PhD) and Mary Palmer Sullivan ’88 are trying to change that.

Barley was there at the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, spreading throughout the Old World from the Fertile Crescent between western Asia and northeast Africa. It fueled the gladiators of Rome, known as “hordearii,” or “barley men.” It gave us the English word “barn.” It gave us beer, too, starting some 8,000 years ago in the Middle East and migrating into Europe and throughout the world.

And it’s a survivor.

“Barley is arguably the most widely adapted cereal grain species,” writes Steven Ullrich, retired Washington State University barley breeder, “with production at higher latitudes and altitudes and farther into deserts than any other cereal crop. It is in extreme climates that barley remains a principal food source today.”

But outside of climactically challenged places like the Himalayas, Ethiopia, and Morocco, barley has been edged out over the past two centuries by wheat and rice. In Washington state, the nation’s fourth-largest barley producer, some 90 percent of the barley grown is for feed. Only 2 percent is for food, with the rest used for malting. The state’s barley production has been dropping since the 1980s, from about 1 million acres to one-fifth of that in recent years.

Which is too bad. As a food, barley is low in fat and rich in minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber. The presence of beta-glucan, a soluble fiber, can help reduce heart disease by lowering cholesterol levels.

Barley is good for farmland, too. Farmers in eastern Washington, where the bulk of the state’s barley comes from, typically rotate crops of winter wheat, spring wheat, and a legume, says Murphy. When they follow winter wheat with barley, it reduces the fungal disease stripe rust and helps suppress weeds. It can also increase the yield of subsequent winter wheat crops.

The problem is, wheat typically pays better than barley. So while Washington farmers routinely plant more than 2 million acres to wheat, they’ll plant fewer than 200,000 acres to barley, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

“We hear from growers that they would grow barley in a heartbeat if they could make a profit off of it,” says Murphy. But when feed barley prices are low, that’s difficult to do, he says.

Over the decades, WSU barley breeders have produced several successful, if not legendary, varieties. Bob Nilan had the high-yielding “Steptoe” and Ullrich had “Bob,” a rust-resistant variety named for the “Barley Bobs,” Nilan and Bob Eslick ’39, a Montana State University barley geneticist. Murphy has put out “Muir,” named in part for Carl Muir (’53, ’55 MS Agronomy), the technician who helped Nilan develop Steptoe, and “Lyon,” for Steve Lyon (’79, ’02 MS Crop Science), the senior scientific assistant at the WSU Mount Vernon Research Center.

But most WSU barley varieties have been for animal feed, which brings a lower premium than food barley. Murphy is now looking at six different food lines high in beta-glucan that are about to get into taste tests from an “A” team of bakers and chefs who work closely with Stephen Jones, director of the Mount Vernon Center and its Bread Lab.

“They’re going to do whatever they want to do with it: bake it, cook with it, make it in salads, whatever they want to do,” says Murphy. “And then they’ll compare them with each other, rate them, give us full evaluations, taste, flavor, sensory, smell, all that kind of stuff… We already know they do really well in the field. But from those six, we still have to pick one or two that we can release.”

Sullivan, executive director of the National Barley Foods Council and vice president of the Washington Grain Commission, has been trying to get people to eat more barley for a quarter century. At one point, she thought the beta-glucan issue would help drive increased consumption of barley, much as it had for oats. In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration approved a rule letting manufacturers of dry milled barley products with enough soluble fiber say their product, “as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

Sullivan thought that would be “the silver bullet” for barley sales. It wasn’t.

“I’m ultimately more hopeful about the malting side and the opportunities with craft brewers,” Sullivan says.

Malting barley fetches a better price than feed barley, but in the past it has had to meet American Malting Barley Association standards preferred by the nation’s largest brewers. But smaller craft brewers are willing to go outside those standards and are looking for distinctive, local flavors. They also use more barley-fueled malt than larger brewing companies.

The state’s young craft distilling industry needs malt too, and has to buy half its raw ingredients under a rule aimed at helping farmers and the Washington economy.

Just as he is doing with bakers and chefs, Murphy is planning to have maltsters and brewers sample malts made from several lines from his test plots.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am about that,” he says. “We’ll be able to breed barley varieties that are specifically adapted to certain regions of Washington that will go to Washington or Idaho or other Northwest malt houses and then go straight to specific brewers. And brewers can pick varieties that they like. I think it will really open up the market and the acreage.”

Meanwhile, eat more barley. And drink more barley, too.

“I work on increasing the demand for malting barley every night at my house,” says Murphy, whose office door sports a “NO BARLEY, NO BEER” sticker. “I think a lot of people do.”