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Hordeum vulgare, barley, is an annual grass in the Poaceae (grass family) that originated in the Middle East and is one of the earliest known crops (domesticated and cultivated in the Mesopotamian region 10,000 years ago) and is now grown in temperate regions worldwide. It is the 4th most widely cultivated cereal crop, after corn (Zea mays), rice (Oryza sativa), and wheat, (Triticum species). Although historically an important cereal for human consumption, it was replaced in many uses by wheat, so that a large proportion of harvested barley is used for animal fodder and for making malt for beer (the malt is also used to distill whisky and other alcoholic beverages), with a relatively small amount used as a cereal grain.

Barley, which is often grown on land that is too cold, poor, or saline to cultivate wheat, grows up to 1.25 m (4 ft) tall, with flat leaf blades, 0.5 to 2 cm (0.25 to 0.65 in) wide. The spikes (heads or ears of grain) are dense and up to 10 cm (4 in) long. Spikelets (which contain the individual grains) usually come in threes, although there are variations with two rows (in which only one of the three spikelets on each side of the head develops into a grain) or six rows (two sets of three spikelets form grains). Barley, which has varieties that can be sown in the spring or fall, matures quickly after a short growing season.

Barley is a nutritious cereal grain that is high in vitamin B5 and the amino acid lysine. It is ground into flour and used in breads and cereals, or it can be pressed into flakes, or cooked whole (pearl barley is used in soups and stews, as is pot barley, which has been polished to remove the husks) or in the form of groats or grits (which are polished and then cut). To produce malt for brewing beer, the barley is first germinated, to convert the starches into sugars, then dried quickly to stop the process. The malted barley may then be used to make products including candies, such as Whoppers, and beverages, such as Ovaltine, or it may be further processed by fermentation, to convert the sugars into alcohol to brew beer, or to distill into whisky.

The FAO estimates that total global commercial production of barley in 2010 was 123 million metric tons, harvested from 47.9 million hectares. Germany and France were the leading producers, followed by the Ukraine, Canada, and Australia, but production is spread fairly evenly across many countries. The U.S. ranked 8th for its 2010 barley harvest. Within the U.S., important barley-producing states are in the Great Plains (North Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Colorado, Wyoming, Oregon, Minnesota, and South Dakota) and the Atlantic seaboard (Virginia and Maryland).

(Anderson et al. 2002, Bailey et al. 1976, Flora of China 2006, van Wyk 2005, Wikipedia 2012.)


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