WSDA director: We have a plan for wheat woes

Washington State Department of Agriculture Director Derek Sandison, right, talks with Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, after speaking to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Jan. 10 in Olympia. Sandison told lawmakers WSDA has a plan to respond to the wheat industry's trouble with low falling numbers.

OLYMPIA — Washington’s agriculture Director Derek Sandison outlined for lawmakers Tuesday his plan to help the state’s export-dependent wheat farmers meet a key international benchmark for quality, though none of the measures appear to be quick or easy.

“We have a plan. We’re moving forward with it,” Sandison told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. “It’s not going to happen overnight,” he said in an interview afterward.

Washington’s wheat industry last fall encountered unprecedented trouble with a decades-old test for starch quality. Because of low falling numbers, a measurement of how quickly a device falls through a mix of flour and water, some farmers received less for their crop.

Weather contributes to alpha amylase, an enzyme that breaks down starch and thins the mixture. But suspicion also has fallen on more-controllable factors, such as whether some wheat varieties are more prone to the enzyme and whether testing protocols are consistent.

Tests from the same samples have yielded different results, said Rep. Joe Schmick, a Republican from Whitman County, the nation’s top-wheat producing county.

“The biggest thing I’ve seen, looking at it, is the inconsistency. If that can be addressed, I think that would go a long way in helping the situation,” he told Sandison.

Sandison said WSDA asked the USDA Federal Grain Inspection Service to audit every state grain-testing laboratory and machine.

“Basically, we passed with flying colors. There were not problems with our testing,” Sandison said.

In an interview with the Capital Press Tuesday, Washington Grain Commission CEO Glen Squires said he was confident WSDA has made sure fluctuating numbers aren’t caused by inconsistent testing methods.

He also praised WSDA’s efforts to keep low starch numbers from becoming a reoccurring problem.

“I think they’re doing a lot. I appreciate the director’s active involvement,” Squires said. “He recognized the significance of the issue.”

Sandison described WSDA’s response as a four-pronged approach.

• Develop consistent federal and regional testing procedures. The Hagberg-Perten test includes steps — such as grinding wheat, adding water and shaking a test tube — that can affect results. “There is some discretion where you could interpret the testing protocols,” Sandison said. “We want to get the Federal Grain Inspection Service to tighten those up, so there isn’t variability with respect to how someone interprets the testing protocol.”

• Work with research institutions, particularly Washington State University, to identify whether some wheat varieties are prone to alpha-amylase. “If that’s the case, we need to stop using certain breeds that have that susceptibility,” Sandison said.

• Improve on the Hagberg-Perten test. “We’re looking long term at a replacement test,” Sandison said. “I think the USDA agrees with us that needs to be done. It’s going to take awhile. The basic research has to be done to develop the test.”

• Develop portable-testers to use at grain elevators. “So we don’t have the problem where a good load goes in and then a load with a low falling number gets dumped on top of it,” Sandison said. “If we get a hand-held analyzer, we can do that segregation.”

Sandison and other WSDA officials appeared before the House committee to give lawmakers a broad overview of the department.

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