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SEIZING AN OPPORTUNITY : North Dakota growers believe white wheat works best

Choosing the perfect crop is an art most farmers learn over time. Countless factors go into the decision, including land and location, input costs, market conditions and weather expectations.

Choosing the perfect crop is an art most farmers learn over time. Countless factors go into the decision, including land and location, input costs, market conditions and weather expectations.

This year, through a combination of careful planning and unexpected benefits, white wheat growers are among the happiest farmers around and perhaps even more optimistic about the future.

Dakota Pride white wheat

Cando, N.D.-area farmer Terry Borstad has been raising white wheat since the Dakota Pride Cooperative began contracting acres for it in 2000. He says even without the FSA incentives, which expired a couple of years ago, he still gets premium prices for his crop when it's delivered to the North Dakota Mill.

That's partly because his wheat is identity preserved.

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"With Dakota Pride, we require that growers plant certified seed," Borstad says. "It's a full production. We don't let the growers save any seed back for next year so we can maintain the purity.

Yield potential

But Borstad's fascination with white wheat goes beyond his co-op membership.

"My yields have been better than my (red) spring wheat," Borstad says. "I think it's just a characteristic of the crop.

"I had one field I raised for seed production a few years back where we made 85 bushels. In this area, that's just tremendous. That's why I like white wheat."

Leland "Judge" Barth, Dakota Pride's executive director, says other white wheat growers are feeling the excitement. He says the crop has made it "fun again for growers, and it's been a while since that was the case, especially in eastern North Dakota."

Barth says last year's scab problems made some growers reluctant to plant wheat, including white wheat, this spring. But for those who took the chance, it seems to have paid off.

"Those who decided to grow white wheat are very happy because of the lack of disease," he says. "At this point, the crop looks very good."

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According to Borstad, white wheat at first glance looks more like durum than hard red spring wheat.

"A few years back, I took a sample in to our local elevator to have a moisture check on it. When he got done, I asked if he used the spring wheat chart or the durum, and he said, 'well, durum, of course,'" Borstad chuckles.

It's not all that surprising that some North Dakotans don't know what white wheat looks like. Bill Berzonsky, a white wheat specialist with North Dakota State University's department of plant sciences, says red wheat got a foothold in the region more than a century ago, mostly by accident.

"When our ancestors came and settled here, the wheat they brought with them from overseas were red, and by tradition, those were the ones grown here," Berzonsky says, adding that happenstance easily could have gone the other way.

Today, Australia is the world's largest producer of white wheat. According to Berzonsky, U.S. research started in the Southern Plains, but it's slightly different from the work being done at NDSU.

"Several researchers from Kansas and the surrounding area went overseas on sabbatical," Berzonsky explains. "They happened to observe that white wheat was being grown in other parts of the world. They also observed that users of spring wheat tended to prefer it for many of its characteristics."

But Berzonsky says research in the Southern Plains primarily has focused on winter white wheat, creating an opportunity for North Dakota to study spring white wheat varieties.

"Some breeders and growers in the Plains area are telling me that their white wheat varieties are better agronomically and producing higher grain yields than, or at least very competitive with, red winter wheat in their areas.

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"That's what we're striving for in white spring wheat because in the end, how can growers decide to try white wheat instead of red wheat if it's not competitive?"

Weather impact

This year's hot and dry growing conditions in North Dakota have been good for most wheat farmers, including white wheat growers such as Borstad.

"At least on this farm, this year we've had less disease than we've had in several years," Borstad says. "We expect the quality to be pretty good."

Berzonsky agrees. "I'm just now looking at some of the lines we're testing this year, and I'm pretty excited about these," he admits.

But as a researcher, Berzonsky's goal is not to avoid disease because of unusually dry weather. It's to create and test varieties that will resist disease under typical growing conditions.

"I think some of the lines I'm excited about have some disease resistance, but until they're tested under other conditions, you never know," he says. "We're trying to push things as fast as we can without significantly cutting corners for what the growers would need."

NDSU's progress

Berzonsky has been working on white wheat development since he was hired at NDSU in 1998. He says it typically takes at least 10 years to develop and properly test a new crop variety.

NDSU has been growing white wheat test plots throughout the state, including several research extension centers and the agronomy seed farm in Casselton, and even into Montana.

In those far western areas, they're working on sawfly resistance. The sawfly is a small wasp that lays eggs in grasses, including crops such as wheat. When the larvae hatch, they feed on the stem, reducing crop yields.

"We've tried to develop a solid stem wheat to give growers in these areas an option," Berzonsky says. "Right now, there are some solid stem varieties out there, but no real white wheat released that I know of with that particular trait."

In wetter areas, white wheat can be prone to pre-harvest sprout problems. Mature grain, when exposed to moisture, acts like it's just been planted. As it germinates, enzymes are activated, using up the grain's endosperm and lowering the value of the grain.

Millers and bakers test for the enzyme damage with a "falling number" test. A plunger is placed in a pot filled with hot water and ground-up grain. The higher the enzyme activity level, the less viscous the solution will be, and the plunger will fall faster, indicating lower-quality grain.

"It's always been a breeding problem, and if we really wanted to target that area, we should be able to address that somewhat with the breeding program," Berzonsky asserts, but adds that sometimes, you have to look at the bigger picture.

Location, location, location

"Some of the initial releases we make at NDSU might be more suited to drier areas like western North Dakota, not just because of the pre-harvest sprout situation, but also we see more scab and some other diseases in wetter areas," Berzonsky continues.

"The dilemma we're always faced with is, should we try with the breeding to overcome the problem, with manipulating genetics, or are you better served by just targeting the geographic areas they might be better suited for."

A classic example of a variety with much promise but many problems is Snowbird, developed in Canada. Under ideal growing conditions, it has produced decent yields and good quality, but Berzonsky says it was vulnerable to disease and "never really took off."

Near Cando, Borstad raises Lolo, developed by university researchers in Idaho.

"Why would you ever want to name a variety Lolo?" Borstad laughs. "It should be High-high."

Berzonsky says Lolo's success seems to be tied to the weather.

"It seems to give good yields, but there's been some years that have been hit and miss. It wasn't really developed for this region," he explains. "It was developed for dry areas, possibly even under irrigation, but under the right conditions it does pretty well.

"It is a little on the late side," he adds.

2006 production

This year, Dakota Pride Cooperative has just a dozen growers contracted to bring white wheat to the North Dakota Mill. Borstad himself is raising only 250 acres of the crop on his land, but believes the future for white wheat looks bright.

"Our growers are from all over," he says. "I'd say wherever you can grow wheat, you can grow white wheat. If they grow white wheat successfully in the Red River Valley, you should be able to grow it anywhere."

And Borstad believes the market for white wheat spans the globe. He's visited the Orient twice promoting the commodity.

"We think of China only wanting rice, but they're importing spring wheat," Borstad says. "And what they're really interested in is quality."

Borstad admits Australia has a shipping cost advantage because it's so much closer to the Orient.

"But what we're striving for in Dakota Pride is quality, and still, quality sells," he quickly points out.

Export vs. import

Looking at the broader picture, Berzonsky says half of all U.S. spring wheat produced goes into the export market. Taiwan, a major trade partner, has purchased red wheat in the past, but Berzonsky says that could change.

"They've been telling us for a number of years now that they would love a white wheat. It has the same quality high protein, but would probably work even better because of the color and some other characteristics."

But Berzonsky says demand in the United States for products made from white wheat might hamper the nation's ability to satisfy the export market.

"If production starts to rachet up and we reach a critical mass, my impression right now is that the domestic market would take every bit of white wheat they could possibly get," he predicts. "That's how much demand there seems to be for it right now."

In the United States, white wheat is used to make whole grain breads that look, and some would argue taste, like white bread. ConAgra uses the white wheat product UltraGrain to make Sara Lee Soft and Smooth bread, which reportedly has twice as much fiber as normal white bread.

In addition to its "stealth health" benefits, white wheat also may be more profitable for growers and millers.

"The feeling among millers is that if you adjust your roll in the proper way, you'll get more flour from white wheat," Berzonsky says.

North Dakota Mill

Mills in Kansas and Nebraska have been processing white wheat for years. The North Dakota Mill just got into the business four years ago. Manager Vance Taylor says as varieties became available to growers in the region, their customers started showing interest.

"We've been working with Dakota Pride since creation," Taylor says. "It's a great organization and we work really closely with them."

The mill contracted Dakota Pride growers to raise 5,000 acres of white wheat, and Taylor expects to process about 200,000 bushels from this year's crop. That's still just a fraction, perhaps 1 percent, of the mill's total annual production.

"We could split white wheat into two different areas," Taylor says. "We have Chinese noodle customers that we work with domestically, but our main opportunity is for white whole wheat flour being used in a lot of different products across the U.S."

Taylor agrees that with proper milling, white wheat can produce a higher percentage of flour than hard red spring wheat.

One last hurdle

If mill managers are pleased with the commodity and customers continue to be curious about the product, the remaining challenge is finding a white wheat variety that will consistently produce for growers.

Berzonsky is confident his research eventually will help solve that problem. In addition to his work with the university's research extension centers and test plots, he recently created a uniform regional nursery for white wheat. It allows breeders from throughout the region to share information and evaluate what's been done so far.

With breeders and researchers working together, Berzonsky says, North Dakota could be a leader in the hard white spring wheat industry.

"I think it's not unrealistic to think we could be looking at something within the next two- or three-year period that could be a nice spring wheat for growers."

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