Idaho Senator Mike Crapo might seem an unlikely person to be pushing a bill to cut US federal taxes on small beer-makers: A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), he abstains from alcohol.
However, Crapo’s effort, with senators from Oregon, Massachusetts and Maine, illustrates the deep bond between Mormons the northwestern state of Idaho and the beer industry.
Mormon farmers grow barley for Budweiser and Negra Modelo beers, and last year Mormons in the Idaho Legislature, where they comprise more than 80 percent of legislators, helped kill a plan to raise beer and wine taxes to finance drug treatment, fearing it could hurt farmers.
Crapo promoted the tax cut for brewers during a recent appearance at Portneuf Valley Brewing in Pocatello, Idaho. He said his position is simple: He will not impose his own religious beliefs on others, especially when it could affect a growing industry.
“The [Idaho] wine industry is growing, too,” he said. “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 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 ever since.
While teaching members to avoid alcohol, the church also supports public policies that establish “reasonable regulations to limit over consumption, reduce impaired driving and work to eliminate underage drinking.”
In Utah, the Mormon heartland south of Idaho, policymakers also appear to be softening. Utah Govenor Jon Huntsman, a Mormon, and the Mormon-dominated legislature normalized liquor laws last year.
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. “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 thus beer.
Crapo’s bill would cut the federal excise tax on brewers’ first 60,000 barrels of beer in half to US$3.50, saving them up to US$210,000 a year. While Idaho has just 17 craft breweries, the 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 a US$84 million malting facility in Idaho Falls in 2005. Great Western Malting has operations in Pocatello that supply brewers and distillers worldwide.
Many are descended from Mormon pioneers who pushed north from Utah after the 1850s and put down roots near the upper Snake River. With cool nights and a short growing season on land 1.6km 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 do not.
With the brewers offering good prices, the crop just makes sense, Idaho Barley Commission administrator Kelly Olson said.
“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 is 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 1,215 hectares of barley near Ririe last week destined for companies that make Natural Light and Corona beers.
“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.”
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