By JOHN O'CONNELL
BOISE -- Officials with the Idaho Wheat Commission believe key factors are finally aligning to make hard white winter wheat a more viable option for the state's growers.
Foreign markets want more U.S. hard white wheat because it bakes with a light color and lacks the bitter taste of hard red, but producers aren't growing enough to meet even domestic demand.
Blaine Jacobson, executive director of the commission, believes other states are starting to heighten their emphasis on hard white, but Idaho is in a good position as the leader in the class.
"You don't have to visit many mills before you hear a request for hard white. They're hearing what we're hearing, that hard white is where the action is," Jacobson said.
Idaho led the nation in hard white production in 2012, when growers planted an estimated 71,459 acres of hard white spring -- roughly 19 percent of the spring crop. Hard white winter represents less than 1 percent of the state's total wheat crop. Idaho is projected to repeat this season as the top hard white state with a 9-million-bushel crop, compared with 5 million bushels from the likely No. 2 state, California.
Cathy Wilson, the commission's research director, believes a lack of good varieties has hindered hard white winter production. The most popular hard white winter wheat variety for the region, Snowmass, developed by Colorado State University, tends to lodge, or slump over, making harvest difficult.
University of Idaho wheat breeder Jianli Chen has devoted about half of her time to hard white and has three promising hard white winter varieties that seed dealers including Limagrain Cereal Seeds have expressed interest in licensing -- the dryland variety UI Silver, IDO 1209 and IDO 1101. Chen is also poised to release three hard white spring wheats.
"Not only do they have these multiple disease resistances and good yield, but they also have the good end-use quality that has been tested by millers and bakers," Wilson said.
Wilson believes increasing domestic demand for healthy whole wheat products, growing foreign interest in U.S. products and new federal requirements for increased whole-grain foods in school lunches all bode well for the class.
To comply with federal standards, Colleen Fillmore, Idaho director of child nutrition programs, said the state mandates baked products on lunch menus contain at least 51 percent whole grains, and similar breakfast requirements are being phased in. Fillmore said school children prefer whole grain products that don't appear darker.
In Idaho, hard white prices are now based on hard red winter, which has a lower protein target that's easier for growers to meet, rather than hard red spring. A challenge is that many elevators aren't set up to segregate hard white from other classes, and limited supplies can make it tough to amass enough bulk to maintain a steady flow to customers.
Nonetheless, Wilson is confident strong demand will overcome any hurdles. She noted ConAgra, which licenses Snowmass, pays a premium for hard white through direct contracts with growers. Wilson believes such direct contacts for the class will become increasingly common.
Jim Peterson, vice president of wheat research for Limagrain in Colorado, added, "There's lots of discussions again on trying to move increased hard white production. It's not something that changes overnight, but I think there's a real opportunity to get it moving again after some disappointments."