What’s holding back US hard white wheat in world markets?

Photo by Ipezibear from Pixabay.

A wheat variety introduced just 34 years ago shows great promise for United States wheat producers to better compete in world markets, if some challenges can be overcome.

Hard white wheat was created as a distinct wheat class in 1990. A very close genetic cousin of hard red winter wheat, its main difference is that it lacks the red coloring in its endosperm. That red color imparts a taste to flour made with hard red winter wheat that some consider more “wheaty” or even bitter. Hard white wheat flour can have slightly less protein than hard red winter wheat, although its protein content is still much higher than traditional refined white flour.

Hard white is the flour in bread you see labeled “whole wheat white” in the supermarket bread aisle and in bakeries. It’s popular among millers because they can get more flour per unit from hard white kernels. It’s very popular with U.S. consumers, who want the nutritional benefits of whole wheat flour, but with the “sweeter” taste and appearance of traditional white-flour bread and none of the “grainy” texture and feel of whole wheat bread made with hard red winter wheat.

The golden wheat picture above is a photo by Ipezibear from Pixabay.

Asian influence

Hard white wheat was originally developed for Asian noodles and soft bread products, like the steamed buns popular in many Asian cuisines. It can be grown in Pacific Northwest states, close to West Coast export outlets to Asia. Demand for products made with hard white wheat is strong both domestically and in foreign—especially Asian—markets.

One big advantage of hard white wheat, according to Kansas wheat producer Ron Suppes, who grows hard white wheat and white food-grade sorghum, is that Russia doesn’t grow any. Russia currently manipulates world market prices for hard red winter wheat by its massive output, controlling a portion of Ukrainian wheat output and lowering its prices. Its hard red winter wheat is lower in protein than the American variety, but Russia is under-pricing American hard red winter wheat in the Middle East and African countries. 

So with all those advantages going for hard white wheat, what is keeping U.S. wheat growers from growing more of it?  The U.S. Wheat Associates’ Hard White Wheat Committee estimates U.S. hard white wheat production to be just about 463,000 metric tons, vs. 514 million bushels (13,988,767 metric tons) of hard red winter wheat in 2023.

Hard red winter wheat

Hard red winter wheat, used mostly for bread flour, accounts for about 40% of total production and is grown throughout the Great Plains (northern Texas through Montana). Hard red spring wheat accounts for about 25% of production and is grown primarily in the Northern Plains (North Dakota, Montana, Minnesota and South Dakota). Soft red winter wheat, grown in more southerly states, makes up 15% to 20% of wheat production in any given year.

U.S. wheat growers recognize the advantages of hard white wheat. According to U.S. Wheat Associates, it’s become especially popular in west central Kansas, although thousands of acres of hard white wheat had to be abandoned—like other acres — during the drought of the past two years.

According to a study last year by the Kansas Wheat Commission, Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, Kansas Grain and Feed Association and the Kansas Cooperative Council, “Hard white winter wheat varieties continue to be popular among some western Kansas farmers for their high yields, disease resistance and quality. As U.S. wheat importers understand, the biggest challenge for hard white is market liquidity and continuity of trade into the marketplace. Kansas Wheat continues to work with the grain handling industry and Federal Grain Inspection Service to revise the grain standards to facilitate hard white movement in domestic and international markets and lessen the burden on grain handlers.”

One challenge is infrastructure. For growers and handlers to fully service foreign demand, while continuing to supply robust domestic demand for hard white wheat, significant investments for separate handling and storage facilities would be required.

More needed

The next best thing to that expense is to increase the amount of hard white wheat allowed in other wheat types. Several wheat organizations asked the Agricultural Marketing Service for classification changes in 2022, either creating one blended “hard winter wheat” category that allows up to 25% of hard white wheat to be blended with hard red winter wheat or by allowing the same amount of “other wheat categories” in the hard red winter wheat classification. Others said they remained satisfied with the current classification system, though, and the AMS made no changes in 2022.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Small Grains Annual Summary, released Sept. 29, 2023, production of the 2023 U.S. hard white crop was estimated to have increased by 32% from last year’s 0.5 million metric tons, equal to the 5-year average, but still totaling only 0.6 mmt. Most of that is used domestically. Although overseas demand is strong, “We have to be specific where and how we promote it overseas because we just don’t have that much of it left over for export,” said Steve Mercer, vice president of communication for U.S. Wheat Associates.

The prospects for hard white wheat offer a window of opportunity for beleaguered dryland wheat growers, but they are threatened by the same factors impinging on all wheat growers this year.

“Although some input costs have moderated from a year ago, other things have not,” Suppes said. “Several big bear factors have come into play since last year. Perhaps the biggest is interest rates. Currently operating loans are a minimum of 10% interest. Hard red winter wheat prices have dropped about $3 per bushel, sorghum prices have dropped about $2 per bushel as well, while machinery costs have gone up. All these factors greatly affect our bottom line. But the biggest factor in front of us at present is looming drought.  Although we have been fortunate to be able to get a good stand of wheat, it will soon be running out of available moisture.”

David Murray can be reached at [email protected].