Rural Nebraskans may not think they have much in common with residents of Portland, Ore. Portland is over 1,200 miles away from most parts of Nebraska, and the population of the Portland metro area outnumbers the population of the entire state of Nebraska.
But Portland and the Pacific Northwest play a vital role for Nebraska wheat. About 50% of Nebraska's wheat is exported each year. On average, about half of that 50% is shipped through the Pacific Northwest, and half is shipped through the Gulf of Mexico. About 42% of the 50% of U.S. wheat that's exported is exported through the PNW.
"Nebraska is really the pivot point for wheat. Usually anything north of us and west of us, if it's exported, it goes to the PNW. Wheat in the southern Panhandle or southern Nebraska and further south would go through the Gulf," said Royce Schaneman, executive director of the Nebraska Wheat Board. "We're in a unique situation where we can ship anywhere. And we're set up to do it. Nebraska is really the state where we have the most availability to all those markets."
A recent trip to the Wheat Marketing Center and U.S. Wheat Associates' West Coast office in Portland, as part of a tour with members of the Nebraska Wheat Board's Wheat Ambassador program, painted a clear picture of the role PNW ports play for Nebraska wheat exports.
For those not familiar with the WMC, the center researches end use of wheat products, works with various markets to provide an end product that meets their needs, and provides educational programs for growers, students and international buyers. And this includes reaching high-value, high-quality markets in Southeast Asia — where most of the wheat that's exported from PNW ports is shipped to.
While Southeast Asian consumers are demanding more whole wheat and whole grain in their diets, the WMC has been working with buyers and researchers from South Asian companies to find blends of whole wheat flour that meet their needs — and in many cases, that means high-quality hard red winter wheat and hard red spring wheat from the northern Plains, in addition to soft white wheat from the PNW.
And Nebraska wheat growers have played their own role in expanding international market opportunities.
WMC was founded in 1988 by seven charters states, including Nebraska. Nebraska wheat growers also played a role in establishing U.S. Wheat Associates in 1980 from the merging of Great Plains Wheat Market Development Association in Nebraska and Western Wheat Associates in the PNW. Meanwhile, Nebraska growers also had a hand in founding several international baking schools, including in Taiwan and Japan over the last 60 years.
"It's interesting how Nebraska wheat farmers over past 60 years have been so forward-thinking and involved on the ground floor in getting a lot of programs off the ground," Schaneman says.