Abstinent Mormon farmers grow barley for beer

By John Miller
Associated Press Writer / September 8, 2010

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BOISE, Idaho—Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo might seem like an unlikely person to be pushing a bill to cut federal taxes on small beer-makers: A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he abstains from alcohol.

But Crapo's effort, with senators from Oregon, Massachusetts and Maine, illustrates the deep bond between Idaho Mormons and the beer industry.

Mormon farmers raise barley for Budweiser and Negra Modelo beers, and last year, Mormons in the Idaho Legislature helped kill a plan to raise beer and wine taxes to fund drug treatment, fearing it could hurt farmers.

Crapo touted the tax cut for brewers during a recent appearance at the Portneuf Valley Brewing Co. in Pocatello and said his position is simple: He won't impose his own religious beliefs on others, especially when it could affect a growing industry.

"The (Idaho) wine industry is growing, too," he told The Associated Press. "I'll probably get asked to help the wine growers out. And I probably will."

Most Idaho barley is grown in the southeastern part of the state, where more than 70 percent of the population belongs to the Mormon, or LDS, church.

Church founder Joseph Smith offered this revelation in 1833, "Strong spirits are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies," and members have practiced abstinence since.

But the church, which declined to comment for this story, doesn't demand everybody quit drinking.

While teaching members to avoid alcohol, it urges public policies that establish "reasonable regulations to limit overconsumption, reduce impaired driving and work to eliminate underage drinking."

In Utah, the Mormon heartland to Idaho's south, policymakers also appear to be softening. Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Mormon, and the Legislature normalized liquor laws last year, breaking up a 40-year-old system in which private clubs were one of the few places patrons could buy hard liquor.

Even so, Idaho's Mormon barley farmers acknowledge an ambiguity in what they grow.

"I've often wondered about the correctness of doing it," said Scott Brown, president of the Idaho Grain Producers Association and a Mormon who grows barley on 5,000 acres near Soda Springs. "But somebody is going to grow it, whether members of the LDS church do."

Idaho is the No. 2 barley growing state behind North Dakota, and three-fourths of the nearly 50 million bushels produced by its farmers last year went to malters -- and beer.

Crapo's bill would cut the federal excise tax on brewers' first 60,000 barrels of beer in half to $3.50, saving brewers up to $210,000 a year. While Idaho has just 17 craft breweries, signs of its beer industry are impossible to overlook.

Anheuser-Busch's barley malting plant outside Idaho Falls juts into the sky, and Grupo Modelo, Mexico's largest brewer, completed an $84 million malting facility in Idaho Falls in 2005. Great Western Malting Co. has operations in Pocatello that supply brewers and distillers worldwide.

Coors has bought barley from Idaho's Mormon growers for going on four decades.

Many are descended from Mormon pioneers who pushed north from Utah after the 1850s and put down roots near the upper Snake River, in the western shadows of the Grand Teton mountain range. With cool nights and a short growing season on land a mile above sea level, the area is suited for fast-growing, hardy barley.

Idaho farmers also use ample irrigation, which makes their crop more predictable for brewers than barley from Montana or North Dakota, where many farmers don't irrigate.

With the brewers offering good prices, the crop just makes sense, said Kelly Olson, Idaho Barley Commission administrator.

"I know of some LDS growers who won't raise malt barley, because they know it's ultimately destined for malt brewers," she said. "But by and large, most farmers make planting decisions based on economics."

Still, Mormon scholars said there's a tension for those aiming to balance LDS principles and economic pragmatism.

The ethical question, said Armand Mauss, a professor emeritus in sociology and religious studies at Washington State University, is this: "As long as the personal behavior and beliefs of the church member are in accordance with the teachings of the church, is he free as a church member to engage in commerce which is legal but which has the effect of promoting behavior that the church disapproves of?"

Clark Hamilton, a Mormon farmer originally from Utah, was harvesting 3,000 acres of barley near Ririe last week. The golden, rice-sized cereal grain was destined for companies that make Natural Light and Corona beers. He's heard the question before.

"People will look at me and say, 'You're a Mormon, why do you grow barley?' " he said. "I just don't have a problem with it. I don't think people who drink beer are bad."