Initiative to bring rye back to Kentucky

WOODFORD COUNTY, Ky. (WTVQ) – An initiative to bring rye back to Kentucky is underway but more help is needed from local distilleries.

Commercial quality rye was once widely cultivated in the state, but during the past several decades production has almost entirely ceased. It’s why there’s an initiative to bring the grain back to Kentucky.

During a news conference Tuesday, Woodford Reserve officials announced American Farmland Trust (AFT) will be moving into Brown-Forman on Main Street in Louisville.

Barbara Hurt, Executive Director at Brown-Forman, says AFT joined the conversation in 2019. Hurt says the initiave would not only provide farmers with an additonal cash crop but also have a positive impact on the environment.

Walnut Grove FarmsUniversity of KY, and KY Small Grain Growers Association have been working together for over thirty years to bring added commercial value to cover crops, according to DendriFund. In the last several years, they have taken on research and development of rye as a commercial cover crop with additional support from DendriFund, Brown-Forman, and American Farmland Trust.

Billy Van Pelt, with American Farmland Trust, says the announcement comes during AFT’s 40th anniversary and, “Builds the foundation for the next 40 years.”

Van Pelt also says involvement from local farmers has increased from seven farmers last year to 26 this year.

According to Van Pelt, 21 unique counties are represented in this initiative which spans all geographic regions of Kentucky, “This is a big increase from last year where farmers from five unique counties represented the initiative.”

The initive, according to Van Pelt, has increased 320% – going from 334 acres grown last year to 1,449 acres of rye-growing this year. The goal is to work collaboratively with partners to increase visibility and promote the project.

Van Pelt says it’s an exciting opportunity for Kentucky farmers to share new market opportunities to promote a small grain economy and protect the states’ agriculture landscape. Their goal is to have 10,000 acres in rye production by 2030.

“Given the boom in bourbon, its time to bring rye back,” said Chris Morris, master distiller at Woodford Reserve.

Morris says the climate in Kentucky makes it tough to grow rye, “It’s a European grain imported by early settlers and didn’t grow here.”

Elizabeth McCall, assistant master distiller at Woodford Reserve, says they took part in this on a smaller scale five years ago and have now committed to producing at least another five years, continuing research on flavor impact, “We have found it hasn’t had any kind of negative impact or anything that’s really been an issue with our production process.”

McCall adds that it’s a way to minimize the carbon footprint by sourcing rye grain from Kentucky while also supporting local farmers.

“We’ve had trouble with pollination with the rye kernels which we think is attributed to the temperature,” added Sam Halcomb, a participating farmer. “We are making progress over the last five years.”

However, McCall says they need other distillers to get involved to support the initiative and make it “normal practice”. Any distillers interested can reach out to Van Pelt by emailing bvanpelt@farmland.org or calling 859-983-8118.

For more information on American Farmland Trust, click HERE. To read more about the DendriFund, click HERE.

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