With the majority of Washington’s 2.2 million acres of wheat planted under dryland conditions — that is, dependent on precipitation — Mother Nature is usually a crucial ally of wheat farmers. Except when she’s an adversary.
In the past two years, a shortage of spring showers and record-breaking high temperatures during the growing season ravaged all classes of the state’s wheat crop. Production in 2014 was the lowest in 21 years, since freezing temperatures killed the winter wheat crop in 1991. The 2015 crop was only marginally better.
But total production is only one part of the wheat growing equation in Eastern Washington. Soft white wheat, the flagship of wheat production in the state, is a low protein class as opposed to hard red spring wheat mostly grown in the northern tier of the U.S. or hard red winter wheat, mostly grown in the Midwest. The latter two wheat classes are used to bake bread. Soft white is used to make cookies, crackers, noodles and cakes. It does not need high protein, which is an indicator of gluten strength.
Most of our Asian customers specify their soft white to come in below 10.5 percent protein (some specify protein levels as low as 8.5 percent).
If you’re a cereal eater, chances are that’s where you have eaten soft white wheat. But most cereal manufacturers are in Michigan and Ohio, and those states have their own small soft white and soft red wheat crops. Here in Eastern Washington, upward of 90 percent of our soft white is exported to places like Japan, Korea and the Philippines, which happen to be our top three customers, along with more than a dozen other countries throughout the Pacific Rim and Latin America.
Most of our customers operate sophisticated, technologically advanced mills built within the past 20 or 30 years. They like Eastern Washington’s wheat for its high quality, but most of all, they praise its consistency. Then come two back-to-back years of drought and record high temperatures that caused soft white’s protein levels to rise like the thermometer.
Protein is a crucial factor in soft white wheat sales and typically the lower the better. Consider that a cookie made with 12 percent protein soft white will not spread as much as a cookie made with 9 percent protein. It’s not a big difference, probably a few centimeters. Nevertheless, it can affect everything from packaging to mouth feel.
Most of our Asian customers specify their soft white to come in below 10.5 percent protein (some specify protein levels as low as 8.5 percent). Given the fact that in 2015 there were some soft white protein levels coming in above 15 percent, there was a lot of concern whether we could give customers what they wanted.
The wheat industry has multiple goals in any given year and the target is always shifting. That requires our partners all along the grain chain to be proactive when problems arise. Rather than a business-as-usual approach, country elevators learned from their high protein experience in 2014 and begged, borrowed and purchased the requisite number of protein analyzers to check every load of grain that came across their scales. By doing so, companies across the state were able to segregate high-protein wheat from the medium- and low-protein stuff.
It’s not accurate to say the action of the country elevators saved the 2015 wheat harvest, but it certainly saved the crop from becoming an even bigger marketing nightmare. Through their judicious use of protein analyzers, rather than a generic crop of hard-to-sell and higher-than-normal soft white wheat protein values, we wound up with a segregated crop that is better able to provide customers with the “just right” product that will work for them.
Mother Nature is a good partner most of the time, but when she’s not, it’s great that we have the technology — as well as forward-thinking country grain elevator managers — to pull a rabbit out of the hat.