A farmer-owned Eastern Washington flour company is testing the baking characteristics of up-and-coming wheat varieties to select the best for its growers to raise.

Shepherd’s Grain held its annual bake test Feb. 19-20 at the Spokane Hutterian Brethren near Reardan, Wash.

“I think our bake tests are the number one reason why Shepherd’s Grain flour stands out from a quality perspective,” said Jeremy Bunch, logistics manager. “There’s a lot of varieties of wheat out there that growers can choose from, and some of them may yield really great or are really good at preventing certain crop diseases. But maybe they don’t have very good end-use quality.”

The company tests new or pending wheat varieties from public and private wheat breeders. This year, they tested hard red winter wheat varieties Westbred XB4542, Westbred WB4311, LCS Evina, WSU WA8268, Syngenta Wolf and South Dakota State University’s Oahe, using Westbred Keldin and a low-gluten Syngenta variety as checks.

The company is still analyzing the results, Bunch said.

“We only approve the ones we like,” Bunch said. “On average we approve two or three a year, out of the eight or 10 we look at.”

Testers prepare a pre-fermented pan loaf of bread for each variety, rating such factors as absorption, mixing time, dough strength, dough development, crumb color, crumb structure, smell, loaf size, crust color and taste.

“This is our way of vetting out which varieties we’re going to accept from our growers,” Bunch said. “Whatever they’re contracting with Shepherd’s Grain, yes we have to have one of those varieties.”

The company has 35 farmers raising wheat on roughly 100,000 acres, Bunch said. He estimates the growers devote an average of 15 percent of their total production to Shepherd’s Grain.

The test is held each year at the Hutterian facility because it has a commercial-grade kitchen. The company invites wheat breeders to attend the final day in the dining hall, Bunch said.

The company speaks with breeders to identify possible future varieties and promising experimental lines to get samples for next year’s bake test.

Bunch said the company is looking for a solid hard red winter wheat variety with longevity. Syngenta variety Whetstone lasted in the marketplace for a long time, he said, but has faded out in recent years because its yield started to decrease due to disease pressures.

“We’re really looking for a good hard red winter like that, that will be a good, long-term, stable, good baking quality variety,” he said.

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