As wheat harvest moves across Oklahoma and into Kansas, some members of the grain industry are looking ahead at the potential to diversify the market by growing hard white wheat further east than its ever been grown successfully before.
White wheat lines have been in Oklahoma State University’s breeding program since 1994, when Kansas State University first provided a donation of white wheat germplasm, according to the head of OSU’s wheat improvement team, geneticist Brett Carver. However, white wheat was never a realistic option for growers east of the panhandle due to its susceptibility to sprouting in the head prior to harvest.
Now OSU is introducing Stardust, a variety with enough sprouting resistance to make white wheat production viable for the first time across a much larger area.
“I think as breeders it’s our responsibility to be ahead of the game,” Carver explained during the popular annual wheat tour at the North Central Research Station at Lahoma. “I think the market for whole wheat products is going to stick. I think we have a culture that’s changing, and if we don’t position ourselves right, other producers of white wheat around the world, such as Australia and Canada, will supply that market with glee.
“I’ve heard a lot of interest, not just from producers, but from those who handle the grain,” Carver continued. “The interest has always been there from foreign markets. What has changed the dynamic is the increasing production domestically of whole grain products. People tend to want the lighter-colored bran. White wheat just seems to be a natural fit.”
Interest in hard white wheat has waxed and waned over the last 30 years. Now that Colorado State University has demonstrated success at commercializing white varieties capable of bringing consistent premiums from Ardent Mills, the world’s largest flour miller, a ripple of renewed attention is spreading through the grain industry, Carver said.
“I think more mills out there see that success, and the competition creates demand for varieties that are adapted all across the Great Plains. I think as breeders it’s our responsibility to be watching what’s happening and be ready to jump. That’s why you see us introducing Stardust,” he said.
The Oklahoma Wheat Commission estimates that 4 million bushels of white wheat already flows into northwest Oklahoma from other states to satisfy the ADM flour mill in Enid.
Joe Neal Hampton, the long-time executive vice president of the Oklahoma Grain and Feed Association who recently assumed management responsibilities for the Oklahoma Wheat Growers Association, said he believed there was a niche for white wheat to work as a specialty crop in Oklahoma.
If farmers could get 70 cents a bushel more for it, they would give white wheat a look, added Joe Peeper, who produces certified seed wheat near Enid.
“You would need a good, solid contract, but it’s worth checking into,” he said.
At a time when many country elevators are consolidating, Brady Sidwell recently purchased a privately owned grain elevator in Kremlin, Oklahoma. A graduate of OSU’s international marketing program, he has worked for a large international food service company and is now in the process of retooling his family’s farm as a seed, feed, risk management and grain origination enterprise.
“I come from the food business, and I do know white wheat has potential,” Sidwell said. “Traceability is big deal too. The key that is lacking right now is creating the infrastructure between the mills and the farmers.
“Maybe there’s something we can do to add value,” he added. “I’m not going to be turn-and-burn like a large scale elevator operator can be. I want to focus on some of these specialty items.”
The alternate reality is that any move to diversify into more specialty marketing streams is likely to test a grain handling industry already being pushed to the limits of its capacity by large inventories and sluggish prices.
Tanner Ehmke, a senior economist with CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange Division, recently authored a report noting that low prices coupled with high volatility, ample grain inventories, slow farmer selling and an anemic export market are all factors compounding concerns among co-op managers that storage space could run short this fall.
Storage and handling limitations likely explain why white wheat remains a small fraction of the overall trade volume, making up less than 3 percent of all hard wheat production in Kansas and Oklahoma.
John Fenderson, southern region commercial manager with WestBred, a wheat seed company owned by Monsanto, said white wheat might have trouble gaining traction in Oklahoma. WestBred markets its own white variety Aspen and has several other white releases in the pipeline.
While there are solid markets for white wheat in certain pockets of western Kansas and eastern Colorado for use in items like pizza dough and even beer, Fenderson said the overall size of the white wheat market barely budged during his 35 years in the seed business due to the difficulty of keeping it segregated from the more common red in the supply chain.
“Oklahoma’s grain handling facilities have less capability to segregate grain than those in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and even in those states, a lot of the grain elevators don’t want to mess with it,” he said. “So then you get back to the importance of identity preservation using on-farm storage. But Kansas has five times more on-farm storage than Oklahoma.”
Mike Schulte, the executive director of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission, admits the idea wouldn’t fly 10 years ago but said the business environment is changing.
“There’s more on-farm storage going up than there ever has been before, and producers are looking at what they can grow on their farms to add more value,” he said.
In the prior decade, most white wheat demand was based on Asian markets that wanted it mostly for pasta and noodles. That market is typically supplied by the Pacific Northwest. By contrast, Oklahoma’s wheat travels south to Gulf ports. For that reason, Oklahoma’s industry is especially sensitive to demand from Mexico, Latin America and South America, where white wheat is increasingly preferred for making bread and tortilla products, Schulte said.
Central and South American markets have become even more important to Oklahoma farmers as less U.S. wheat gets shipped to the Middle East and Africa, with Russia and Australia now the dominant suppliers in that region, he added.
“The signal we are getting from buyers is that there’s a great opportunity for white wheat to work this time,” he said.
Oklahoma wheat officials have begun meeting with grain handlers and marketers to determine how existing infrastructure might be used to handle white wheat in the future, Schulte said. Farmers could find themselves driving an extra 25 miles to reach a delivery point for white wheat, but if premiums are anywhere near the 80 cents to $1.20 a bushel reported in parts of eastern Colorado, it might be worth it, he said.
In the current price environment, if a premium market does begin to emerge in north central Oklahoma, interest would likely extend up into Kansas, said Doug Shoup, K-State’s southeast area agronomist.
“Typically we’re just too wet to grow it,” he said. “It would have to get a lot easier to grow for them to be interested. But if something like this comes along while the wheat price is less than $4 a bushel, farmers are going to look at any angle they can to make a little bit more.”
Scant seed supplies have limited testing in Kansas wheat trials to just a handful of locations so far.
The variety is on his radar screen, said Romulo Lollato, K-State wheat extension specialist, but he added, “We probably won’t have a lot of information on it yet this year.”
(Source – http://www.farmtalknewspaper.com/news/new-white-wheat-release-sparks-interest/article_111397c0-323c-11e6-8c07-b3d1f3a83570.html)