Corn (or maize) is a dominant crop in the U.S. and a primary grain used to produce whiskey. Rye, wheat and barley are also important ingredients but more difficult to source from local growers. These grains – which can be grown as cover crops – are often grown in the same fields with corn during complementary growing seasons (depending on the region) and can provide solutions for keeping more acres under living plant cover all year. Soil left bare can result in erosion and nutrient run-off into waterways, degrading soil health and water quality. There is an opportunity for farmers to use cover crops as part of the field rotation in addition to other practices. Kentucky farmers have long been on the leading edge of innovative soil health practices. In the 60s, Kentucky farmers were first in no-till adoption which is now a common practice across the state. Since the 90s, they have conducted cutting edge research to advance profitability of wheat production in partnership with the milling industry which now provides winter cover to over 10% of corn and soybean fields in Kentucky. This spirit of innovation continues in Kentucky now with work on rye commercialization started about five years ago intending to improve farmers’ profitability, soil health, and environmental quality while supporting local economies and businesses such as brewers, bakers, and distillers who all seek the unique flavor rye imparts in their products.

Promote the use of cover crops in between corn and soybean crop rotations, with an eye toward those offering both soil health and economic return. Benefits will include improvements in long-term soil health, water quality, and farmer income, while reducing GHG emissions through carbon sequestration and reduced transport of rye from Europe and Canada to Kentucky for use in the bourbon, beer, and bread industries.

Todd Barker
Kelly Kowalczyk

(with potential for expansion into adjacent states)

Commercial quality rye was once widely cultivated in Kentucky, but – during the past several decades – production has almost entirely ceased to support programs for corn and soybean production. Bringing rye back to Kentucky as a commercial cover crop is building farmer and stakeholder excitement and awareness to the benefits of cover crops in general, engaging end-user business interest and support, improving regional soil and water quality, as well as contributing to the global conversation on solutions for carbon sequestration and reduction of greenhouse gases. It also broadens traditional thinking about how a single crop, such as corn, can be more sustainable when the entire field and seasonal rotation is considered.

Walnut Grove Farms, University of KY, and KY Small Grain Growers Association have been working together for over thirty years to bring added commercial value to cover crops. 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.

DendriFund is proud to be a part of this joint action as we believe it creates ripple effect:

New partners and financial supporters are wanted as we expand this program to build broader supply and demand stakeholder networks – including bourbon, beer, and bread end-user, private and foundation investors, researchers, associations, and other interested supporters. American Farmland Trust (AFT) is taking a lead role to organize a multi-stakeholder group to accelerate the commercialization of KY grown rye with ambitions to impact at least 27 farmers with about 3,000 acres of rye produced and sold in Kentucky. For more information, to join in partnership, or to donate, contact Billy Van Pelt, AFT Director of External Relations-Southeast, at or at 859-983-8118.

More information can also be found on Todd Barker’s blog on the Rye Initiative. Courier-Journal article (July 18, 2019), "Could Kentucky-grown rye whiskey challenge our insatiable thirst for bourbon?".

You can also watch this panel discussion facilitated by DendriFund board director, Todd Barker, from the Southeastern Grain Gathering (SEGG) organized by the University of KY.