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Hard white wheat outlook improves

Consumers like it. Millers
like it. Foreign buyers would like more of it. But U.S. wheat growers have been
reluctant to expand their hard white wheat acres.

Many haven’t forgotten what
happened the last time hard white wheat grabbed headlines. Growers who took a
chance on the new crop found meeting the protein requirements difficult. Even
if protein levels met a buyer’s specifications, producers couldn’t get the
wheat to that buyer because country elevators didn’t want to handle a
low-volume class of wheat that had to be segregated.

But that was 25 years ago,
and times have changed.

Chris Cullan’s family passed
on the chance to grow hard white wheat when it first came to western Nebraska
in the 1980s, but they added hard white to their crop rotation five years ago.
Early varieties just didn’t yield as well as the hard red varieties growers
were accustomed to.

During the intervening
years, wheat breeders worked to eliminate yield drag and to improve end-use
quality traits.

“Yield pays,” says Cullan. “The
first thing any producer looks at when choosing a variety is yield and the
ability to turn that bushel into dollars.”

Gordon Gallup, who farms
near Ririe in eastern Idaho, agrees. He has grown hard white wheat nearly every
year over a decade. Yield drag has not been an issue on his dryland farm, but
he has seen his neighbors with irrigated land struggle with hard white
varieties when they try to plant after harvesting potatoes or sugar beets.

While growing hard white
mimics growing hard red, fertility management is key. Most hard white end users
want at least 12% protein. Top-dressing with nitrogen (N) at flowering is
critical to reaching that goal, says Juliet Windes, a University of Idaho
Extension cereal specialist. N application amounts depend on yield goals and environmental
growing conditions that year, but timing is key.

Still, weather conditions
can thwart even the most careful managers. Growers with hard red spring wheat
that doesn’t meet protein specs can blend it with other hard red spring wheat
and find a market for it.

With only about 8 million
bushels of U.S. hard white spring wheat grown and 18 million bushels of hard
white winter wheat grown in 2009, there’s little opportunity to blend
poor-quality wheat. That’s what growers who took a chance on hard white wheat
30 years ago remember.

With less room for error,
variety selection and fertility management are critical to a grower’s success.
But for many, marketing remains the biggest stumbling block to raising hard
white wheat.

“If you can raise hard red,
you can raise hard white wheat,” says Gallup. “But you’ve got to have a market
for it.”

He recommends starting by
making sure your local elevator will handle hard white wheat. “Make sure they’ve
got room for it, that there’s enough volume they want to handle it,” he
explains. “If you can get your local elevator to work with millers, you can get
it marketed.”

Still, many producers would
like a premium to grow this alternate crop. Mark Darrington, who farms in
southern Idaho, is among those who would like to grow hard white but who want a
premium for it.

“If millers would put a
quarter per-bushel premium over hard red, they’d get all the hard white they
want. But they’d rather stick with the hard red price and be short of hard
white,” Darrington says.

As Americans have embraced
the USDA’s new food pyramid that stresses whole grains, consumers are
discovering that whole grain breads and noodles made from hard white wheat are
less bitter than those made from red wheat. Products made from hard white wheat
are also lighter in color.

Millers and bakers like to
use hard white wheat because it yields around 3 percentage points more flour
than red wheat during the milling process. And bread made from hard white wheat
requires less sugar because of the lower phenolic compounds in the bran.

California is the largest
hard white wheat producer, but growers can’t keep up with demand from regional
millers. That’s opened the door for producers in western states to meet that
spillover demand, especially Idaho, says Blaine Jacobson, administrator for the
Idaho Wheat Commission. Hard white wheat is the fastest growing class of wheat
grown in southern Idaho.

Because of the spillover of
demand from California, more and more Idaho elevators are willing to handle
hard white wheat. Gallup works with one in Blackfoot that accepts hard white on
a daily basis. Several mills in nearby Utah also accept hard white wheat.

For the Cullans, the lack of
a local market initially held them back from raising hard white wheat for seed.
But the Nebraska Wheat Board, U.S. Wheat Associates, and the University of
Nebraska along with local elevators and seed companies held a series of town
hall meetings to promote hard white. Once producers knew local elevators would
handle hard white if they chose to grow it, they felt more comfortable seeding
it.

Even foreign buyers are
interested. When the Nebraska Wheat Board brings trade teams to Cullan’s farm,
he puts out jars with samples of the 11 different varieties he grows (two white,
nine red). Invariably, the visitors will pick up a jar of white wheat and ask
how much is produced, if it’s available, and at what cost.

The problem is that domestic
demand is gobbling up all the hard white wheat U.S. growers are producing. It’s
the top reason Cullan thinks growers should take a second or even a third look
at including hard white into their rotation. That’s especially the case in
Nebraska, where a half of the wheat is exported.

“We exist in a global
economy,” Cullan says. “To be a supplier of choice, we have to be able to
provide buyers their first choice or we become the market of last resort. That’s
the only real reason to raise hard white wheat.”

By Cindy Snyder

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