Thursday, February 17, 2011

Oregon Durum Wheat, Update 2

Durum wheat in Oregon has been an interest for me ever since I tried to make homemade ravioli last year.  I thought local durum would be easy to find considering that Oregon is one of the top wheat producers in the country. But when I tried to find local Pacific Northwest (PNW) durum, I couldn't.   When I started doing some research, I found that durum wheat growing has a long and sorted history in Oregon involving university scientists, corporate underwriters, and even a foreign geneticist.  But in the end, no durum had been successfully grown with real commercial potential. 

And then I heard of the WSU durum project.  I contacted Dr. Mike Pumphrey and asked him if I could find out more about their program.  Dr. Pumphrey directed me to Dr. Aaron Carter who is the winter wheat breeder for WSU and had recently started working on the PNW durum project.  Neither had heard about the OSU durum trials from the 1990's, but had gone ahead with their own trials based on what grows well in California, Arizona and Italy.

Recently I wrote to Dr. Carter to see if the results were in.  At the time, the trials had been completed, but the data was not ready.  He promised to get back to me with results when they were ready. 

Good to his word, Dr. Carter sent me the trial results from the WSU PNW Durum trials.  You can download the results, but here is the summary from Dr. Carter (emphasis mine):
I will provide my disclaimer again that this is only one year’s worth of data and at that we had a very unique spring in Washington so before making any recommendations I would like to see another year of data.  Overall though, it appears that durum can be competitive with hard spring wheat and quality standards appear to be met.  Let me know if you have any questions.  As far as I know, there is no commercial production of durum in the PNW so your problem with locally sourcing this is still present.  The addition of another year of data may be enough to convince producers to grow it if there are markets identified...
I will make the upfront comment right now that this data is only from two locations in 2010 and should be regarded as such. The 2010 year was very unique in Washington as we had a very cold, wet spring with a lot of disease pressure. More disease was seen in Pullman than in the Othello location. Pullman is a rain fed location receiving around 22 inches of annual precipitation. Othello was irrigated using a center-pivot system and is located in central Washington. Weed pressure was controlled at both locations. Stripe rust was the major disease at both locations, with Pullman receiving the higher, more uniform pressure. Data is included for stripe rust reaction in Pullman. Also included are five hard spring wheat cultivars used as comparison. The Othello location had unusually low test weight and yield potential for an irrigated site. Yield appeared competitive and protein levels were acceptable.
WSU seems to have had success where others have not.  As Dr. Carter says, Durum production can be competitive.  This was news to me.  I was  under the assumption that durum was a long shot in the Northwest and growing it was difficult.  But the early indicators from the WSU trials show reality may be very different. 

Why isn't PNW Durum Happening? Three Reasons
To help answer this question, I reached out to Scot Lany of Eat Oregon First and the Basque Ranch.

When I showed Scot the test results from WSU, he was not surprised.  It just makes sense the durum should be able to grow well in central and eastern Oregon (and Washington).  The test result yields looked good and the protein variation was narrow enough to be acceptable. 

The issue to Scot was not if it would grow; the issues are everything except growing a durum crop.  In particular, Scot identified three trouble spots:

1.  Cross Pollination.  If you are going to grow durum, in a state that has 975,000 acres of wheat (source), you are going to cross pollination problems.  To avoid this, you need a half mile barrier between your durum and any other types of wheat.  That's a half mile of unused land that could be used to grow a profitable crop of soft white wheat.

2.  Storage and Transportation.  Infrastructure in general is a problem. Wheat is a commodity.  When wheat is grown, it is normally grown in huge quantities.  Quantities so big that wheat can really only be thought of as a "regional" product, as opposed to a "local" product.   Harvesting the crop takes large equipment.  Storing the crop takes gigantic facilities.  Moving the crop takes trucks and trains.  If everyone is growing one kind of wheat, then that makes it possible to share costs because the equipment and facilities needed to do the job can be shared.  Durum processing would need to be kept completely separate from the other kinds of wheat.

3.  The Politics of Co-Ops. Because commodity farming requires such huge investments in equipment and infrastructure, most wheat farmers join co-ops.  Co-ops provide all sorts of benefits to being in the club.  They can help when someone has equipment problems.  They lower costs on necessary supplies, like fuel.  They help with marketing and education programs.  It's more than a giant club that buys in bulk for its members, it also handles the marketing and selling of the wheat.  In this environment, deciding to go your own way by growing a crop that is not what the co-op grows is not supported.   The co-op only buys and sells what it buys and sells. And the big co-ops only buy what they can sell in the biggest markets for the most profit with the lowest risk.  In Oregon, that means 8 types of wheat, but mostly soft white winter wheat.  If you aren't into that, you should find a different co-op (if you can).  There is no "I" in co-op. 

Oregon Wheat Variety Study 

A Different Point of View from the Oregon Wheat Commission
To get more insight into the issues, I spoke with Tana Simpson, administrator for the Oregon Wheat Commission.  Tana was very nice and explained to me more about wheat in Oregon. 

There are two main co-ops in Oregon--the Mid-Columbia Producers and Pendleton Flour Mill.  All of these are set up to handle huge amounts of grain (primarily Soft White wheat) from the farmers of Oregon.  One thing you will notice is that only one of these co-ops has the word "mill" in its name.  That is important because Oregon exports about 92% of all the wheat grown here, mostly to Asia.   And that wheat is exported raw.  The only large scale commercial mill in all of Oregon is the Pendleton mill.

This idea that we export almost all the wheat we grow is very important because it dictates what is grown by creating an environment of very strict standards for the product.  Soft White wheat grows really well in Oregon.  Because of that, the quality and quantity can be consistent enough for the international export market.

The OSU durum wheat trials showed that durum production is not consistent enough to meet these types of strict standards.  Because of that, what is grown here can't play in the "big leagues" of the international export markets.  Thus, no one really wants to grow durum.  Why grow second-rate durum when you can grow first-rate soft white?

Consequently, if anyone is going to grow an alternative crop, they need to start out with smaller local organizations such as Bob's Red Mill or one of the others.

One More Reason Why We Don't Have PNW Durum
I spoke with Josh Dorf, CEO of Stone-Buhr, about the PNW durum situation and he brought up a great point.  PNW durum is an experiment and experiments are expensive.  Those extra costs for infrastructure and processing would have to be passed on through higher prices.  These higher prices would not be able to compete with the existing durum producers in Montana and North Dakota.  If they can't compete, they won't sell, and then the experiment would fail.   The work that WSU is doing may help to reduce the doubts that a viable crop can be grown, but it does not change the fact that there will be lots of extra costs to create the infrastructure needed to get the grain to market.

Going Home Grown
So, is it possible to roll your own?  Sure it is.  The new WSU trial results are very promising.  It won't be easy, but here are a couple examples of people who have bucked the system.

Basque Ranch. At Basque Ranch they grow Triticale wheat, a variety developed in the UK as a cross between wheat and rye that was meant to be exported to Africa to fight world hunger. Scot heard about this, thought it was pretty cool and decided to plant a couple acres.  He took it to a private mill and gave out some samples to Pasta Works and other places in town and they liked it.  The next year he planted 4 acres, and it all sold.  This kept going until this past year he planted 40 acres of Triticale.  Scot created his own market.  Now he is one of only 2 or 3 growers in the state that has a commercial crop of Triticale wheat.   Available through Eat Oregon First and Fork Revolution.

Stone-Buhr (distributors of Sheppard's Grain).  Easily the largest scale producer of the bunch, but still centered in the Northwest.  Sheppard's Grain is notable not because they are growing alternative wheat, but because they are doing it on their own terms.  Eschewing the co-op system, the farmers work together as a pool.  Costs are based on the true cost of growing the wheat and everything is Food Alliance certified.  Because of the record keeping required for Food Alliance, Stone Buhr is able to tell you exactly who grew the wheat you are buying on their Find the Farmer website.  The Sheppard's Grain / Stone Buhr system builds the regional grain industry based on sound ecological practices and pays the farmers based on true costs (not commodity board price fixing).  They provide a great example of how to keep local values even on a large scale.  Available at most major super markets.

Where does that leave PNW Durum?  
Basically no where...until someone steps up to the plate and plants a few acres of durum.  I'm sure there are plenty of local restaurants and grocery stores that would carry the product.  I'm sure there are plenty of people who would buy it.  And if the WSU results hold true through the next round of trials, then there may be no reason not to grow durum here.  But someone has to take the risk, and right now there are no takers.

1 comment:

  1. Jason,

    Interesting. A little more on cross pollination, if I may. Normally, you can figure that about 1-2% of like wheats (same number of chromosome sets) will cross pollinate, which is also referred to as out pollination. But, in a hot year, windy conditions at the right time, or unusually long "open" time (the amount of time the self-pollinating plant heads are in bloom roughly at the same time) you may see even 6-9% out crossing. This is how Triticale resolved itself and became a mother nature created cross. Most Durum is a four chromosome set plant, which means fewer sets than most white and/or red wheats. So, if I were going to plant it I would certainly isolate at least in year one until I could watch the pollen drift etc to get a feel for it. Wheat pollen is heavy, so it does not drift badly. It is also has a short viability, maybe a few hours. But, there are always those darn bees. The trouble with the out pollination of a four set plant with a plant of different number sets is that the offspring (seed) is almost always sterile, a bummer to find out when you plant your retained seed crop the next year.

    Scot Laney