Farmers are used to attending wheat variety trials that allow them to compare how varieties perform in the field by observing test plots planted side-by-side.
Rarely do they get the chance to see, taste, and smell how those same varieties compare when milled into flour or baked into bread.
Some farmers recently had that opportunity during a special wheat quality workshop and tasting event led by Mike Schulte, the executive director of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission and hosted by the Oklahoma State University extension service in Canadian County.
Schulte set the stage by explaining to farmers how the marketplace is changing in ways that make wheat more of a specialty item.
“I’ve had probably four small mills in downtown Oklahoma City contact me wanting to buy locally grown wheat in just the last few months,” Schulte said. “It will be interesting to see what kinds of opportunities might exist in the future.”
The commission is also working with Chris Becker, an Oklahoma City pasta entrepreneur, to make noodles out of locally grown hard red winter wheat.
“We weren’t even sure it was possible,” Schulte said. “But it was very interesting. While the color is not necessarily something you would want, the texture is actually smoother, and the flavor profile has less of a dense heavy taste. Now we’re working together with him on taking this to a larger production model.”
It’s not just small craft millers and bakers that are interested in sourcing grains directly from growers, however. The idea is trending among large commercial milling companies too.
Denver-based Ardent Mills, the largest flour miller in the country with 42 manufacturing facilities and an identity-preserved production program that involves more than 300 farmers, has been pushing the concept.
“Bringing innovation to bear is important to us,” said Dan Dye, the firm’s CEO during a keynote presentation he made earlier this year as part of a panel at the Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture.
In March, the company announced it was launching a new business unit dedicated to “exploring and providing food companies and foodservice operators with ‘next’ grains and unique plant-based ingredients,” including heirloom wheat like emmer, einkorn, and spelt, but also rye, barley, pulses, millet, quinoa, and sorghum. Called “The Annex,” it is led by a team of young professionals who are open to creating custom grain sourcing programs for customers.
“We’re excited about the possibilities,” Dye said in announcing the new venture. “It’s a big step based on a simple, powerful idea: good food matters to everyone, and it should be available to everyone. We look forward to working closely with our partners big and small as we dream together about where that idea is headed next.”
Schulte pointed to Ardent Mills but also to upstarts like Indigo Ag, which is partnering with the country’s largest independent miller, Grain Craft, to bring identity preserved wheat to the market, mirroring the smaller millers and bakeries looking for ingredients with a story.
He said the preferences of millenials, the generation born during or after the 1980s, are driving many of the changes in the market. Among other things, they prefer organic products, he said.
Some farmers in the region are already tapping into that. Schulte mentioned one 5,000-acre Northwest Oklahoma wheat farmer who converted a third of his acreage to organic production, which is grown under contract for Ardent Mills. The farmer uses legumes like field peas to add a natural source of nitrogen to his fields and has been pleased with how his crop rotation is working, Schulte said.
Export markets become more discriminating
Fully half of all U.S. grown wheat is exported, but the export market is increasingly particular too, Schulte said.
Thirty years ago the typical contract specification was for #2 hard red winter wheat with 11.5% protein and one percent dockage. Now the export buyer is more likely to demand wheat with 12% protein, 0.6% dockage and a pound and a half better test weight than before, Schulte said.
Buyers are also looking for “consistency of functionality” as demonstrated by increasingly sophisticated tests for mixing, handling, absorption, and baking characteristics, he added.
If a variety doesn’t have desirable milling and baking attributes and is grown in large enough quantities in a local area, it can put the local market at a disadvantage, he said. When that happens, the basis — the difference between the cash and futures price — widens. That has happened in Oklahoma in the past with a variety called Big Max and more recently in Central Kansas with the popular Everest variety.
Overall, wheat’s milling and baking qualities are getting more attention from breeders, agronomists, and farmers, he stressed, as quality becomes more important in markets domestically and around the world.
“Change creates opportunity,” he said.
Overview completed, it was time to “break bread.” Farmers went through the line, tasting and studying the differences in loaves made from seven different varieties, some already widely grown, others representing experimental lines from OSU’s wheat breeding program. The samples were baked at the new in-house baking laboratory the wheat commission began operating last year at its new headquarters northwest of Oklahoma City.