Schumer Pushes Crop Insurance For Malt Barley Farmers

Sen. Schumer and Horrigan talk to the press at Southern Tier Distilling Company in Lakewood. P-J photo by A.J. Rao

LAKEWOOD — Let’s face it. Beer relies on a hearty crop of malt barley to exist.

Without it — if disease or a freak act of nature were to damage those crops, for instance — farmers and the craft brewing companies that rely on them would undoubtedly take a hit.

Such was the case made Wednesday by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who visited the Southern Tier Distilling Company, located at 2051 Stoneman Circle in Lakewood.

Schumer, who praised the company and its efforts to make Upstate New York the “Silicon Valley” of craft distilling, argued that federally-backed crop insurance for New York’s malt barley farmers was essential. For not only is the crop susceptible to severe weather and disease, but it is expected to increase in demand as the state’s distilling and craft brewing industry continues to burgeon.

Moreover, with the passage of the state’s Farm Brewing Act in 2013, licensed brewers will be required to source 60 percent of their ingredients from in-state farms by 2019 and no less than 90 percent by 2024, further increasing malt barley demand.

While Schumer called this a “great boon” to the state’s producers and agricultural industry, he noted some producers may forego planting the crop if they have no access to insurance.

“Craft breweries and distilleries, like the ones here in Lakewood, pour local products and jobs into our economy, which is why it is important that we continue to support this industry by providing them with every available tool necessary to continue to grow,” Schumer said. “But the lack of federally-backed insurance for malt barley is preventing farmers from planting this crucial crop. Without protections, the risk is just too high for some, and that could prevent our malt houses, craft breweries and distilleries from meeting the requirements of New York’s Farm Brewing Law.”

Currently, only four counties in New York have such coverage — Genesee, Ontario, Otsego and Cortland counties.

A national malt barley crop insurance option was made available in 2011, but only a fraction of New York was covered because malt barley was not “historically farmed” in the state.

Schumer said New York’s growing reputation in beer and craft distilling should change this.

“I urge (the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s) Risk Management Agency to continue to expand its malt barley crop insurance program across the state while engaging with the New York state malt barley industry to allow for this crop insurance product to thrive statewide,” he wrote in a recent letter to USDA acting secretary Mike Young.

“Additionally, to help expedite this effort, I ask that the National Agricultural Statistics Service invests resources into their surveys of New York malt barley production to aid in the data driven expansion of this insurance available to New York farmers.”

Schumer said an expansion of coverage to all of Upstate New York would not require any legislation, simply an order from Young.

The Southern Tier Distillery opened last August and is housed where the original Southern Tier Brewery used to be. Five years in the making, the facility has hundreds of barrels full of vodka, London dry gin, citrus gin, American whiskey, their exclusive smoked bourbon and a New York State-maple based rum. The distillery is a sister company to the Southern Tier Brewery, which opened its doors in 2002 and is now a driving force in the craft brewery industry in New York.

Southern Tier uses 100 percent New York State-sourced base ingredients and goes through 4,000 pounds of malt barley each month. Schumer stressed that supporting the farmers and distilleries will help ensure this growing industry continues its momentum.

Schumer was joined Wednesday by Vince Horrigan, Chautauqua County executive, and representatives of the Southern Tier Distillery.

James Waltz, head distiller at Southern Tier, said it was “fantastic” for Schumer to put a spotlight on the local brewing and distilling industry.

“There are a lot of factors out of a farmer’s control … so to get the insurance they need — and deserve — to make a living … I think that’s important,” Waltz said.