The harsh tones of my alarm startled me out of bed at 5 AM on the morning on June 13th. It was the first day of the Idaho Wheat Commission’s Domestic Marketing Tour, and I needed to get up to the Farm Bureau in Pocatello by 8:30 AM to catch the bus on time. As I sipped a strong cup of coffee and drove north through the sagebrush, I felt a mix of both excitement and a few nerves in anticipation of the two-day tour. For weeks I had been looking forward to the tour for the opportunity to learn more about the local industries that play integral roles in the wheat supply chain in southeastern Idaho. However, accompanying this excitement were the all-too-familiar nervous jitters I’d felt several times in the preceding months.
I had arrived in Utah less than a year earlier to take over the small grains breeding program at Utah State University. Originally from Minnesota, I’d never been to Utah until the day I disembarked the plane at the Salt Lake City airport to move there, since my job interview had been over zoom during the pandemic. I hadn’t visited Idaho either, and I knew that getting myself integrated within the wheat community in Utah and Southeast Idaho would be critical to making sure that the USU small grains breeding program is meeting the needs of the growers as well as possible. The Domestic Marketing Tour provided a prime opportunity to get to know growers, yet, as a newcomer to the region with plenty of ground to make up, I’d sometimes worried whether I’d be able to make those inroads successfully.
Upon reaching the Farm Bureau in Pocatello, Casey Chumrau, Britany Hurst Marchant, and Garrett Dudley from the Idaho Wheat Commission welcomed me aboard the bus. I’d had the pleasure of meeting each of them previously at the Tri-State Growers Convention in Spokane in December. On the bus, each of us introduced ourselves. Commissioner Cory Kress was another familiar face, as he had been involved in the interview process for my position at USU. One of the new growers I met was Doug Fuhriman, who farms closer to my neck of the woods in Pocatello Valley, Idaho. Our breeding program typically grows a dryland trial in the same area in collaboration with Utah grower Reed Stokes, so I was grateful to have the chance to get to know someone else who farms in the region. Thanks to the welcoming atmosphere and a mixture of both new and familiar faces, my nerves began to subside as the bus pulled out of the parking lot. We were off on our first day of the tour, which included visits to the Savage Railyard and the Idaho Grain Inspection Service in Pocatello, Idaho, as well as the Pepperidge Farms manufacturing facility in Richmond, Utah.
At each stop along the tour, our hosts provided an overview of their respective operations and explained the various roles they play within the wheat supply chain. For example, at the Savage Railyard we learned about a current challenge that U.S. agricultural exporters are facing. As a result of the pandemic, pent-up demand in the U.S. for goods manufactured in Asia has driven shipping carriers to reject U.S. agricultural exports, opting instead to ship empty containers back to China to shorten the turnaround time at the port. Since roughly 85% of the wheat produced in the Pacific Northwest is exported to Asia, this situation has made it difficult to deliver the product to the buyer.
Our hosts also provided various demonstrations of their operations. At the Idaho Grain Inspection Service, we were shown how shipments of wheat are graded based on various metrics concerning the quality of the grain, such as test weight and protein. Some of the equipment and protocols were similar to those that my group and I use in the USU small grains breeding program to identify promising breeding lines for release as new varieties, though I was also able to take home a few new ideas for other grain qualities we can be keeping an eye on to improve our breeding material.
At Pepperidge Farms, we were able to see how wheat is used to produce a couple of my favorite snacks: Goldfish crackers and Chessmen butter cookies. The scale and throughput of their manufacturing facility was nearly unfathomable, putting into perspective how Idaho’s wheat reaches the pantries of households throughout the U.S. and beyond. The group learned that every package of Pepperidge Farm products is stamped with a short code in small print. If it contains the letters “RU”, that product was produced in Richmond, Utah with Idaho wheat.
On the second day of the tour, the group visited the Bayer Blackfoot Bridge Mine near Soda Springs, where phosphate ore is extracted to produce fertilizers and other agrochemicals, and the Grain Craft flour mill in Blackfoot. Each of the tour stops also presented the chance for both the growers and hosts to ask questions of each other.
Overall, the tour provided an outstanding educational opportunity for growers to learn about how their wheat is transported, processed, and utilized beyond the farmgate. Equipped with this information, growers have the better chance to organize their farming operations to best meet the needs of the industry as well as a greater ability to anticipate and overcome challenges connected to the supply chain. Furthermore, the tour provided the growers and the Idaho Wheat Commission with an opportunity to strengthen their connections with the domestic wheat supply chain in the region.
For me, there was a particular aspect of the two-day tour which I viewed to be equally if not more enriching and important than the tour stops themselves. As we traveled down to Richmond, up to Soda Springs, and back to Pocatello, the growers had plenty of time to rub shoulders with one another on the bus or over lunch or dinner to compare notes on production strategies and discuss challenges, thereby building connections with each other. Listening in on these conversations was also a prime opportunity for me to learn more about wheat production in Southeast Idaho and the biggest needs of the growers in this region. Grower Adam Young of Blackfoot explained to me how his irrigation system is set up and showed me how he’s able to monitor the system through a cell phone app. Grower Ryan Searle of Idaho Falls told the group about how he's been able to add value to his farming operation by running a corn maze and sunflower patch open to the public. I also heard from growers who produce dryland soft white winter wheat near the Utah border. While the USU small grains breeding program is focused primarily on hard red winter varieties, it was through these conversations that I learned there would likely be an interest in the results of soft white variety trials if my program were to conduct them in the region. I have since been working to source seed of several public and commercial soft white winter varieties to test in our dryland trials in Box Elder and Cache counties this fall.
As I said goodbye to the group and drove south towards Utah after the end of the tour, I reflected on how I’ve often felt like attending these types of events – the Domestic Marketing Tour, the Tri-State Growers Convention, the University of Idaho Extension Field Day in Aberdeen, etc. – is perhaps one of the most important things I’ll do all year because of how much I’m able to learn about the industry and connect with growers. Although my breeding program only plants a handful of acres compared to the growers’ thousands, we plant them to several thousand varieties of wheat, so I can relate to how difficult it can be step away for a day or two. Despite this, I would strongly encourage growers to take the time out for this outstanding educational and networking opportunity. Those who are interested should contact Britany at the Idaho Wheat Commission (firstname.lastname@example.org) regarding future Domestic Marketing Tours.
Finally, I’d like to add a quick word to the Idaho Wheat Commission and the Idaho growers I met on the tour and at other events this past year. I’m so appreciative of how quickly and warmly you have welcomed me into the Southeast Idaho wheat community. After a year of what has sometimes felt like drinking from a firehose, I’m starting to get my feet under me in the USU small grains breeding program, and I’m excited about testing some of our up-and-coming advanced breeding material in the University of Idaho Extension Variety Trials this next season. Our breeding program exists to serve you, so I would like for our breeding activities and objectives to be completely driven by your needs. Don’t be afraid to give me a ring, send me an email, or stop by to see us in Logan if you have ideas for what you’d like to see out of our breeding program (e.g., testing soft white winters in our regional trials). Thanks again, and I look forward to hopefully meeting more of you in the months ahead.
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