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A Crop With A Mission Northwest Farmers Turn To Hard White Wheat To Help Recapture Lost Asian Market Share

If Pacific Northwest grain growers want to improve wheat sales to Asian markets, they better know their noodles.

It takes a hard white wheat, which isn’t grown much in the area, to make the perfect Korean noodle with just the right texture.

When it comes to light noodles, the soft white wheat varieties which constitute most of the Northwest’s wheat production just don’t cut it.

So University of Idaho Professor Ed Souza set out to engineer the perfect hard white wheat variety that would thrive in this region’s climate and meet Asian tastes. Last year 18,000 metric tons of “377S,” Souza’s variety, were grown in Idaho.

It’s a crop with a mission: to recapture the Asian market share lost to countries like Australia that grow hard white wheat. And the biggest challenge is securing customers abroad.

Pro-Mar Select Wheat is the grower-owned cooperative licensed to market the grain. Now that it has won IRS approval to work outside of Idaho, Pro-Mar is culling Washington, Oregon and Montana to find farmers who will buy stock in the cooperative and raise the wheat.

“The type of grower that’s interested in this is somebody who is looking for new opportunities,” said Vince Zortman, who manages business under contract to Pro-Mar.

Because it’s a new grain and there’s no guarantee of Asian customers, most participating Idaho farmers last year planted 377S on only about 100 acres each. “Don’t bet the farm on 377S or on Pro-Mar, but it’s certainly worth taking a look at and it’s worth trying,” Zortman said, adding that he has already signed on two Spokane-area farmers.

The grain is to be separated from other wheat and sold with its identity preserved so that buyers will know exactly what they’re getting and where it came from.

And it’s tailor-made for the Asian noodle market.

“I think two things really stand out about it,” said Souza. “It has exceptionally good color in a wet noodle, not only when the noodle is first manufactured, but over 24 hours after it’s sheeted. And the starch quality is exceptionally good.”

In other terms, it looks good and has a good bite.

Traditionally, Chinese and Korean-style noodles were made in the home. But now Asian cooks are demanding a ready-made product and the market for wheat to make the noodles keeps growing. Unfortunately, U.S. growers have missed the opportunity.

“Back in the 1970s, our core group of Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan and a few smaller countries used to buy 130 to 140 million bushels of soft white wheat out of Portland,” said Mike Krueger, the commodities expert in charge of marketing 377S for Pro-Mar. “Now it’s only 90 million bushels a year. That lost market share is predominately due to hard white and Australian wheat.”

So far, Pro-Mar hasn’t been able to secure any sales of 377S in Asia.

“We’re fighting a chicken-and-egg scenario,” Krueger said. “Larger users of flour mills overseas are saying it’s hard for them to be interested unless there’s a yearly supply available. But we have to know they’ll buy it to grow it.”

The other challenge in selling the wheat abroad is the ash content of the grain. Ash is a byproduct that comes during the milling of the grain.

The 377S variety exceeds the level of ash end users in Asia expect. “Yet, if you go ahead and make a noodle out of that same wheat, they like the results very much,” Krueger said. In time, the mills and their customers may change ash specifications and 377S will find its niche, he said.

For the past two years, the special wheat has sold to U.S. mills. While much of 1997’s harvest is still in storage, Zortman said it shouldn’t be difficult to find customers.

“We’ve heard that maybe the foreign markets are not buying as they were originally predicted to, but that domestically it’s doing pretty well,” said Frances Goodrow, of the Washington Wheat Commission.

Besides 377S, one Northwest-grown soft white wheat, Eltan, may also have the qualities that make a good noodle. Though none has been sold in Asia yet, U.S. wheat industry officials are working with mills there to promote the variety.

Scientists in Washington also are working on new hard white wheat varieties, but for now and perhaps for the next few years, 377S may be the sole hard white option for Northwest growers.

, DataTimes