Potentially marking the dawn of a new era in wheat quality, Grain Craft LLC is expanding a pilot program in Kansas and throughout the Southwestern United States allowing bakers to replace high-priced spring wheat with high-quality, segregated, preferred varieties of hard red winter wheat.

Grain Craft recently completed a successful test with a baking partner of flour milled from the preferred varieties and has been given the green light to expand the program to other locations operated by the baker.

Grain Craft believes the program holds the potential for widespread adoption in the milling industry, building a stronger chain from the breeding community, to growers, grain elevators, millers and bakers, as well as the grain export industry.

A motivation for the program has been the inability of bakers in recent years to bake good quality pan bread and buns using flour milled entirely from hard red winter wheat. Instead, blends of 75% hard winter and 25% hard spring have been common. Spring wheat prices recently have been about 80¢ a bushel higher than hard winter, even before accounting for the higher transportation costs for shipping spring wheat 800 miles or more from the Upper Midwest.

Most years, the baking quality of hard red winter wheat varieties grown in the Southwest vary widely. Most of the harvested wheat is commingled at grain elevators, so milling flour from the better varieties has been difficult.

Grain Craft in recent years has been partnering with growers and grain elevators to segregate a select group of 33 high-performing wheat varieties, paying growers a premium as an incentive.

The premium, which will be paid by the company’s baking partner, along with the segregation of the preferred varieties have the potential to be a game changer for US wheat quality, said David G. Green, executive director, Wheat Quality Council, Lenexa, Kansas, US.

“The industry has always known we need to get the farmer involved in planting high quality varieties for the industry,” he said. “Until now there has not been a mechanism to reward farmers for growing specific varieties. So, these types of programs are a major first step in trying to get better varieties planted by the farmer. I think it is a big deal.”

20 years in the making

For Grain Craft, the successful test in Kansas marks the culmination of an effort dating back almost 20 years, said Alan Koenig, chief supply chain officer.

The program was launched not in the hard winter states, but in the Intermountain region. Grain Craft started the preferred variety program at its Blackfoot, Idaho, US, mill in the early 2000s. In the mid-2010s, the company began exploring ways to expand the program in Kansas, hoping to make flour milled from preferred varieties available to more baking customers.

The Idaho project was kicked off in 2001 by Reuben McLean, senior director of quality and regulatory for the company, based in Idaho.

McLean, who has a background in wheat breeding, began working at the Blackfoot mill (owned then by Pendleton Flour Mills) that year and became frustrated that very little high-quality hard wheat was grown in the Blackfoot draw area. While Idaho produces about 100 million bushels of wheat per year, soft white wheat accounts for the majority of the state’s production.

“We were importing most of the wheat for Blackfoot from Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, wherever we could get quality,” McLean said.

McLean began working with public and private wheat breeders to communicate the need for top quality hard red winter and hard red spring wheat. A preferred variety list was developed with the quality attributes that Grain Craft sought.

“And that’s what got planted and produced for our mill in Blackfoot,” McLean said.

By 2003, Grain Craft was able to buy a large percentage of its grind locally, a figure that reached 100% by 2005.

“It was a win-win for everybody,” Koenig said. “It’s a win for us since we are now able to originate 100% of our grain within a 200-mile radius and a win for the farmer because he now has another crop he can grow. Wheat is a great rotation crop for the potatoes in Idaho, and it was good for the breeders and the seed salesmen out there. Now they have another income source.”

Idaho’s wheat growing environment is atypical in that it depends nearly completely on irrigation. Many parts of the state generate wheat yields above 100 bushels per acre, double the national average. Because it relies on irrigation, quality tends to be very consistent. On-farm storage is plentiful, making identity preservation practical.

The resultant flour quality has been excellent, Koenig said, and the program’s success created a different kind of problem for Grain Craft.

“We were, and still are, shipping flour to places that can be logistically challenging,” he said. “The quality of the wheat produces flour with desirable baking characteristics, and we ship it to California, the East Coast, areas across the entire US.”

Expanding the program

With the creation of Grain Craft in 2014, the decision was made to launch a preferred variety program in Kansas. Simply replicating the Idaho model was not a possibility, McLean said.

“Hard red winter wheat production in Kansas and many other Southern Plains states has been a big eye opener for me,” he said. “For these growers, varietal selection has been all about yield. The term ‘baking quality’ seemed to be somewhat of a new concept.”

Meanwhile, unlike Idaho, agronomic factors play a large part in quality outcomes. In certain years, weather conditions allow nearly all varieties to generate good to excellent baking quality.

Even when growers plant wheat varieties with good milling and baking quality, keeping the wheat segregated in the hard winter states is a major challenge, a challenge made more difficult in recent years by rail freight rates that seek to maximize how much wheat is loaded and shipped in 100-car trains, rather than in 5- or 20-car units. The rate changes have made it more difficult for millers to scout and select and gather wheat with optimal quality. As a result, flour milled from hard red winter and available to bakers tends to represent “an average of the crop.” A rail carrier preference to ship as much of the crop as possible to the Gulf for export makes it even more difficult for millers and bakers to pick and choose when it comes to wheat procurement.

When the Grain Craft team began to explore launching the preferred-variety program, Koenig; McLean; E.G. Herl, vice president of grain and logistics at Grain Craft; and a prominent baking executive spent an afternoon in 2014 with the Kansas Wheat Commission in Manhattan, discussing how enhanced wheat quality would eliminate the need for mills grinding hard red winter wheats to include the more expensive spring wheat in their milling blends.

Koenig said, “We have this nice long 2½-, 3-hour meeting, and when we walked out they said, ‘Thank you for coming. It’s refreshing to have an end user spend this much time with us talking about our wheat quality research. This kind of feedback is essential.’”

Grain Craft began working with breeders throughout the Southwest to test varieties and introduced a preferred variety list in 2014.

Momentum for the program was slow to develop, Koenig said. Participation in the program grew dramatically in 2016, when Grain Craft began advertising the initiative and paying a premium for the preferred varieties.

“Finally, we just drew a line in the sand and we ran an ad in The Wheat Farm/Row-Crop Farmer magazine with a tagline that says ‘Grain Craft is all about quality and quality flour starts with quality wheat,’” he said. “We published all the varieties Reuben tested that we liked, and boom, right away all these breeders are asking, ‘How do I get on your list?’ Not long afterward I was at a National Grain and Feed Association meeting and someone asked me, ‘How does it feel to be the most talked about guy in the state of Kansas?’”

Koenig said the advertisement helped start a conversation, which is exactly what Grain Craft was seeking.

“We’re getting more and more farmers calling us direct wanting to be part of our program, which is pretty awesome,” he said.

Long-term goals

Longer term, the company would like to supply its hard winter mills all over the country with preferred varieties.

“We’re the largest miller in the state of Kansas now with the Cereal (Food Processors, Inc.) acquisition, and we take our role very seriously,” he said. “And we have mills in California, Alabama, Georgia and a little bit into Ogden that use Kansas wheat.”

He said the company hopes that 50% of the hard winter wheat milled by Grain Craft will be segregated preferred varieties within five years. Additionally, Grain Craft believes the program will expand throughout the milling industry.

“We’re in this not just for us and our customers,” he said. “We think this is the right thing to do for the industry to get all the quality up — not just domestic use but for export use.”

To participate in the program, growers must bring receipts to the wheat buyer demonstrating that certified seed of the preferred varieties was purchased.

“They have to prove that they’re using certified seed and kept it segregated all the way from the farm to our mill in order to receive that premium,” Koenig said.

Six of the top 10 varieties grown in Kansas in 2020 are on the Grain Craft list, up from 3 in 2014.

Those six varieties account for 23.9% of all wheat acreage planted in Kansas for harvest in 2020. Included on the list is SY Monument, the top Kansas variety in 2020, seeded on 9.7% of Kansas wheat acreage. The complete Grain Craft list includes 16 varieties planted on at least 0.4% of Kansas acreage and accounted for 34% of all Kansas seedings.

Whether other bakers choose to partner with Grain Craft or other millers in a preferred varieties program, the increased plantings across the Southwest of the preferred crops will confer benefits to bakers broadly, Koenig said.

“They (bakers) are already benefiting,” he said. “We have this network, but there are preferred varieties being grown that are coming into the system every day. However, if there are others who want to formalize a relationship and a program, absolutely, we’re interested. But we’re making people aware of what we are trying to do overall.”

Even more importantly, deepening the connection up and down the chain from growers to bakers has the potential to facilitate tremendous positive change, Koenig said.

“This IP (identity-preserved) model has greater potential than just higher quality wheat,” he said. “When you start thinking about connections with a grower network, other important initiatives including sustainability, soil health and many other contributing factors become natural steps and easier to impact on a commercial scale. When you think about the industry in the future, say 10 years from now, I think there are opportunities we don’t even know about today that are going to surface.”

While the Blackfoot experience was different than what Grain Craft has encountered in Kansas, McLean said the Idaho model demonstrates what is possible.

“For wheat producers here in Idaho, quality is a part of every conversation they have about wheat,” he said. “Until just a few years ago, and I think even sometimes today for the Kansas wheat producer, quality is not always part of that conversation. That quality is critical to end users.”

Koenig added, “Our goal is to have half our grind in five years with our preferred varieties.”

Preferred varieties have not come at the expense of lower yields, Koenig said.

“What we’ve found is producers are actually getting higher yield,” he said. “They’re doing the right things already. They are strip tilling, no till, fertilizing. They have the agronomist out there checking the fields. They’re out there maximizing their yields already. If they’re buying certified seed already, they get the right variety and get paid for it. Why not? Our goal is for the producers to get paid for both yield and quality.”

Overseas interest

McLean said interest in a preferred variety approach goes beyond the domestic US milling and baking industries.

“I have contacts with US Wheat Associates, and they have been very complimentary of Grain Craft for stepping forward with a list of preferred varieties for quality,” he said. “One of the things that I think US Wheat has heard loud and clear from their overseas customers is that there has been somewhat of a decline in the quality of US wheat. They have to be able to bake, whether that’s a loaf of bread, a tortilla or whatever the case may be.”

Steve Wirsching, vice president and West Coast office director for US Wheat, Portland, Oregon, US, said his organization has been working with growers for years, urging them to grow varieties with good milling and baking qualities. For many years, in consultation with the Tri-State Grain Growers (Washington, Oregon and Idaho), US Wheat has published a preferred variety list, designating varieties either as most desirable, desirable or acceptable. Most wheat grown in the Pacific Northwest is exported, and leading customers, including Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan, are very quality-conscious buyers, he said. A gradual improvement in wheat quality has been noted, Wirsching said. Through the initiative he has worked with McLean for many years.

“We at US Wheat really support Grain Craft’s efforts,” he said. “I really appreciate what they are working toward, and we would encourage other millers to launch similar programs.”

L. Joshua Sosland is editor of Milling & Baking News, a sister publication of World Grain. He may be reached at [email protected].