Farmers across the Plains states may have to switch from the hard red winter wheat that made them the breadbasket of the world.
The change is being driven by growing worldwide demand for white wheat, particularly in Asia, and a shift toward white wheat in the university and private breeding programs that supply the American industry.
Most American city-dwellers can’t distinguish among varieties of wheat. It’s just what’s used in the bread, cookies, cake, noodles, pizza crusts and other foods they eat every day.
White wheat does not have the red bran coating that gives flour from red wheat a somewhat bitter taste. That means more flour can be extracted, so that bread and other products have a milder, sweeter flavor.
With white wheat, millers can leave in the bran, which provides fiber and nutrients.
Hard wheats, both the winter varieties grown in most of the central and southern Plains, and the spring varieties grown in the northern Plains, are used primarily for baking bread. And they’re almost entirely red wheats.
Other types of wheat produce flour better suited to other foods. The durum wheats of North Dakota, for instance, are almost entirely grown for pasta.
“There’s no place in the world that prefers a red wheat. They all prefer a white wheat if they can get it,” said Joe Martin, a wheat breeder at the Fort Hays Experiment Station run by Kansas State University. “We’ve pretty much shut ourselves out of half of the world market by not having a noodle-quality hard white wheat.”
At the recent Kansas Agribusiness Expo in Wichita, Terry Garvert of Goertzen Seed pointed out that Australia’s share of the Asian wheat market has grown from 24 percent in the mid-1980s to 33 percent today. Australia grows white wheat.
“Today, only Australian wheats are poised to capture that demand,” he said.
Rollie Sears, a wheat breeder in Manhattan, Kan., said switching to white wheat is “probably one of the easiest things we can do to significantly improve our quality.”
Hard red winter wheat has long been the staple crop in the Plains. Russian Mennonite immigrants brought the first strain, known as Turkey Red, when they moved into central Kansas 123 years ago, and it became the wheat of choice within two decades.
But, recognizing the potential for white wheat and the changing world market, breeders at Kansas State University and at private companies have been working for the past decade to develop white wheat varieties suited for the area.
Kansas State plans to release two varieties of hard white wheat in 1998, and has others under development. There’s disagreement on how quickly farmers will adopt them.
Some in the industry look for a rapid change, with white wheat overtaking red in as little as five years. Researchers are more conservative and say 10 to 20 years.
Authorities also are split over whether white wheat deserves much of a premium over red varieties. A general Mills executive said the additional flour production from white wheat appears to justify an extra 5 cents a bushel, not the 30 cents a bushel that he’s been hearing.