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Published February 03, 2014, 09:32 AM

Northern Crops Institute promotes region's fare

The Northern Crops Institute in Fargo, N.D., offers farmers an opportunity to showcase their changing crops to a changing world.

By: Mikkel Pates, Ag

FARGO, N.D. — The Northern Crops Institute in Fargo, N.D., offers farmers an opportunity to showcase their changing crops to a changing world.

NCI promotes crops grown in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana worldwide, with private and government support.

Mark Weber leads a staff of 11 people, including assistant director John A. Crabtree, who has held that post since 1984.

The annual budget is about $1.9 million. About half comes from producers themselves through check-offs, and the other half from state governments in the Dakotas and Minnesota and commodity organizations in Montana. The NCI hosts representatives from 25 to 30 countries, as well as trade teams and other visitors.

It has a collection of more than 100 flags and displays them for any expected visitor.

Building on the base

Initially, NCI’s focus was squarely on cereal grains — primarily wheat. Wheat remains an important focus for NCI, Weber says.

“We’ve got some of the best wheat quality in the world in terms of protein, so it’s become more of a blending wheat to blend up to meet bakery requirements.”

In the past three years, the NCI and U.S. Wheat Associates — a nonprofit trade association representing American farmers in international markets — have launched the “Contracting for Wheat Value” short course.

As part of the course, visiting millers from Southeast Asia or elsewhere bring their own samples of wheat from non-U.S. sources — competitors, mostly Australia and Canada. NCI mills them all and runs tests for absorption, viscosity and dough strength and compares those samples to hard red spring wheat from this region.

“We bake them, test the loaves for height, crumb structure and taste, and we ask the participants to rank the breads in a blind test,” Weber says.

Not surprisingly, the local products come out well.

Steve Wirsching, vice president and director of the West Coast office for U.S. Wheat Associates in Portland, Ore., says NCI trains wheat buyers to realize the full value of wheat grown in NCI states — “which happens to be the best wheat in the market today.”

The Southeast Asian market is key for U.S. wheat states because of increased incomes there, and an increased demand for high-quality products. Southeast Asia typically gets its wheat from Australia, which doesn’t grow the high-protein wheat produced here.

Anecdotal stories of success are out there. One Indonesian participating in the 2012 class was building a brand new flour mill, Wirsching says. After going home, the miller bought a $9 million boat load of dark northern spring wheat — about 1.1 million bushels.

This year, a Vietnamese miller went home to purchase a “combo” shipment that included a large portion of dark red northern wheat.

“These are purchases that probably wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t traveled halfway around the world to attend a short course,” Wirsching says.

The soybean wave

A seismic shift in NCI’s role came with the rise of soybeans, a revolution fueled by shorter-season varieties and Roundup-ready traits. With rising incomes in Asia and an increased demand for milk, meat, eggs and farmed fish, the Upper Great Plains has a huge opportunity.

Along with that, there’s been an explosion in building high-volume shuttle train terminals, and an improved rail infrastructure, as well as expanded ports in the Pacific Northwest. That stands in contrast to the Mississippi River system that has been hampered by the declining condition of the locks-and-dams.

“I believe this puts us in an advantageous position,” Weber says. “The Upper Midwest is becoming a bigger player in the soybean picture.”

NCI offers an array of soybean courses. It hosted feed manufacturing teams from Indonesia and China in the past two years. It has also hosted specific courses geared toward food-grade soybeans.

“I would say we’ve gotten a lot more aggressive in working with the three state soybean councils and at the national level with the U.S. Soybean Export Council,” Crabtree says.

There were soybean courses as early as the 1990s, but they are much more common now. Commodity groups have wanted to see more groups emerging and promoting the crop. NCI has provided programs, but also offered technical assistance on its campus and abroad.

Assessing the need

NCI provides two types of programs for feed manufacturing — one for the student or next generation coming into the milling industry, and another for the line workers, helping them understand how what they do affects the feed.

In late September, Weber traveled to Southeast Asia. He and Kim Koch, NCI’s Feed Processing Center director met with mill managers and procurement people, some of whom had visited NCI earlier.

It’s hard to educate people without having a relationship, Koch says.

“Every feed mill we went to, I ended up doing ‘seminars’ on feed manufacturing technology,” he says. “They were not scheduled.”

Among the major needs is improving risk management, Weber says.

“There’s a learning curve they have to overcome — understanding the difference between buying on the spot market and using hedging principles,” says Bill Wilson, a North Dakota State University agricultural economist and regular lecturer at NCI.

There are tangible signs of success. One visiting buyer for Sojitz Corp., a Japanese trading company, had been buying containers of soybean meal — the equivalent of 870 bushels of soybeans. After an NCI visit two years ago, the company has converted to bulk shipments and has a goal of buying one vessel a month — each holding the equivalent of 1.5 million bushels.

The expansion of corn production in the region is just as dramatic as in soybeans, but Weber and Crabtree agree that the promotion focus isn’t the same. Much of the corn is either used locally or already is exported west, or goes into ethanol plants. NCI has been involved in NDSU’s nutritional tests for dried distiller’s grains.

A finger on the pulse

Another growth area for NCI work is pulse crops — dry edible beans, peas and lentils. Expansion is coming in eastern Montana, western North Dakota, and increasingly in South Dakota. The crops fit with the moisture cycle and add nitrogen to the soil for subsequent crops.

“In Montana, they’d like to raise more pulses because they can harvest them in late June or early July,” Weber says. “You don’t need that later-season rain to make the crop. They’re interested in that instead of summer-fallow.”

Instead of selling just bulk unprocessed commodities, the industry is shifting toward higher-value ingredients. NCI has done more promotion of pulses, with work supported by checkoff dollars. It has done product development work in the laboratory, working to incorporate pulse flour into bakery and snack products, for example.

“Now, we’re providing assistance for making fiber, flour, proteins and starches from these crops to be used as higher-value ingredients,” Weber says. These are what are known as “functional ingredients” and show up in bakery, snack and pasta items.

Private partnerships

Rachel Carlson, an NCI food technologist was taking hamburger buns out of a proofing oven — used in the final dough rise before baking. The buns were in a test for a private client company. Elsewhere in the lab were extruded puffed rice cereals, or cheese-flavored snack curl products.

Weber and Crabtree declined to say for whom the products were being tested or what general kinds of ingredients are in them. In the same project, a company is contracted for work involving a lab-sized “cold press” that NCI acquired six months ago to extract oils for use in snacks and buns. Some of those oils are traditionally removed with the help of hexane gas. This oil is removed mechanically, so the meal has greater protein content.

“I can tell you they’re from products grown around here,” Crabtree says, smiling.

NCI gets roughly 5 percent of its revenues from private development work. It works with about 10 to 15 companies a year, Weber says.

NCI can enter proprietary agreements with private companies to test products or help develop them with its specialized lab-scale equipment. It has done work for Dakota Growers Pasta Co. (now owned by Post) and other regional and national companies. Some companies have agreements that keep them confidential for several years.

It’s the one thing they can’t talk about.