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After challenges in the past, hard white winter wheat acres are poised for expansion in Nebraska.

Tyler Harris, Editor

July 29, 2016

4 Min Read

In addition to the hard red winter wheat he harvested this summer, about one-third of the wheat acres Brent Robertson harvested on his farm near Elsie this summer were hard white wheat. After a drop in acres around 10 years ago, hard white wheat is starting to make a comeback in southwest Nebraska. "White wheat is a relatively new class of wheat," says Robertson. "There are a lot of export markets that want it, but it requires segregation from seeding to harvest."

Robertson markets white wheat through an identity-preserved (IP) program with Ardent Mills, with delivery points at the Frenchman Valley Farmers Cooperative in Grant and Scoular Grain in Madrid.

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Royce Schaneman, executive director of the Nebraska Wheat Board, notes there are around 60,000 acres of hard white winter wheat being grown in southwest Nebraska this year — a 25,000- to 40,000-acre increase over a few years ago. In addition, this class of wheat is also grown in western Kansas, eastern Colorado and the Pacific Northwest. In the central Plains, several varieties of hard white are grown for IP programs, including Colorado State University's Snowmass, Antero and Sunshine, as well as AgriPro's NuGrain.

The reason for the increase? Schaneman explains the demand is coming from high-value markets in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, where there's a strong demand for low-polyphenol-oxidase (PPO) white wheats — essentially, getting the nutritional value of whole wheat but with the white color. And bread aisles are following a similar trend domestically.

"What we'd like to do is make sure there's enough for a critical mass — that there's a viable amount of white wheat in the marketplace to go out and be able to purchase it," Schaneman says. "Hard white has experienced a lot of growing pains over the years. We stubbed our toe almost every chance we got along the way, which has impeded the overall progress of white wheat."

In 2005, about 40,000 to 50,000 acres of hard white wheat were being grown in Nebraska. However, after these growing pains, acreages dropped to around 20,000 to 25,000. After an unseasonably cool, cloudy period leading up to harvest, white wheat growers in southwest Nebraska faced challenges with wheat heads sprouting before harvest — a problem the primary hard white wheat variety being grown in the area at the time was susceptible to. "It kind of was the perfect storm for a bad trial," Robertson recalls. "It killed the potential for white wheat, and it was just starting to take off."

Tom Luhrs of Luhrs Certified Seed in Imperial, who grows hard white winter wheat seed, notes that since then genetics have improved, especially regarding sprouting tolerance. "We have had no sprout issues at all with the newer varieties, and we've had situations where Mother Nature has tested their sprout tolerance," Luhrs says. "Even in 2005, we had some great yields. The Achilles heel was, sprout tolerance wasn't very good on the variety we were growing. Generally speaking, the white wheat varieties are at the upper echelon of yield and will carry 1% more protein over red wheat varieties."

Schaneman notes that white wheat acres are slowly but steadily making a comeback on the central Plains, thanks to market opportunities like the Ardent Mills program. Reaching critical mass, he says, will take commitment from growers, elevators and milling companies to meet the growing demand. "I think it's going to continue to grow, but it's going to be a much slower pace," he says. "I think a way to help build that critical mass is more opportunities through additional IP programs, whether it's foreign or domestic."

The challenge, Robertson adds, is that growing white wheat in IP programs takes more management, as well as keeping records of what's planted where. Meanwhile, it also takes putting in the extra effort to grow a crop with higher quality or higher protein — a challenge a number of hard red winter wheat growers ran into this year when many wheat fields averaged 10% protein or less, resulting in a discount at the elevator. "The worst thing is to grow it, and it's not what millers want," says Robertson. "We've got to grow some partnerships to make sure in the end it's going to get used, and then we can strive to make it better."

About the Author(s)

Tyler Harris

Editor, Wallaces Farmer

Tyler Harris is the editor for Wallaces Farmer. He started at Farm Progress as a field editor, covering Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. Before joining Farm Progress, Tyler got his feet wet covering agriculture and rural issues while attending the University of Iowa, taking any chance he could to get outside the city limits and get on to the farm. This included working for Kalona News, south of Iowa City in the town of Kalona, followed by an internship at Wallaces Farmer in Des Moines after graduation.

Coming from a farm family in southwest Iowa, Tyler is largely interested in how issues impact people at the producer level. True to the reason he started reporting, he loves getting out of town and meeting with producers on the farm, which also gives him a firsthand look at how agriculture and urban interact.

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