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Selling High-quality Soft White to South American Users Requires Technical Expertise

About half of all wheat grown in Idaho is consumed in the domestic market and the other half is shipped overseas to meet global demand. One of the three pillars of the Idaho Wheat Commission’s (IWC) mission is to help develop these markets, in order to increase grower profitably. 

The international marketplace has become increasingly competitive in the last 15 years, with improved wheat quality from other origins and the Black Sea region moving from a net importer to the world’s largest exporter. While continuing to invest grower dollars in research to improve quality – another pillar of IWC’s mission – it is critical to find ways that Idaho and U.S. wheat growers can differentiate themselves from the competition. 

Through the collective financial support of 17 state wheat commissions, U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) is working to be that differentiating factor by providing pre- and post-sale support to overseas buyers. In the past few years, USW has increased its focus on technical support, providing valuable milling and baking expertise to those processing and utilizing U.S. wheat abroad.

In addition to its annual financial commitment to USW, IWC periodically contributes funds to support special projects that could directly benefit Idaho producers. One of the ongoing efforts is the promotion of soft white (SW) wheat in Latin America, a high-potential market due to increases in the middle-class population and sophistication of buyers who are focused on quality. While traditional SW markets in Asia pay a premium for low-protein wheat, Latin America can provide a home for the higher protein SW. In Latin America, SW is used for cookie and cracker production and in flour blends for bread, but its milling and baking characteristics are unique and require adjustments to milling processes and baking formulas.

That is where USW’s technical support comes into play. Starting about a decade ago, IWC, the Washington Grain Commission and the Oregon Wheat Commission started funding SW blending projects in which an expert milling consultant visits customers throughout Latin America to promote the use of SW, works to introduce a percentage of SW into existing product formulas and teaches buyers how to maximize profits using the new wheat class. SW is often more expensive than other wheat classes, so it is critical to demonstrate that with SW millers can increase flour extraction yields and bakers can take advantage of higher water absorption and volume, as compared with other soft wheat classes. These advantages result in higher profits and offset initial grain costs.

In 2018, the three Pacific Northwest commissions decided to take the effort one big step farther. They agreed to fund the operating capital for a full-time USW technical specialist in South America over a five-year period. USW has multiple technical specialists throughout the world, who are experts in milling and baking, but South America had always relied on outside consultants. This new position, based in Santiago, Chile, allows USW to respond more rapidly to technical questions and provide more flexibility for in-plant assistance for users of U.S. wheat.

While the technical specialist, Andres Saturno, splits his time promoting and maximizing the value of all classes of U.S. wheat, the number of SW projects in South America has increased significantly. Colombia has been one of the main targets because it has large cracker and cookie production and it is the largest importer of U.S. wheat in the region, on average. The milling advantages are undisputed, and SW works perfectly for cookies in Colombia. The main challenge has been getting the crackers to the right texture and color, which so far has prevented widespread adoption of SW as a true alternative to other soft wheats.

To overcome this challenge, USW has multiple strategies. First, USW partners with the Wheat Marketing Center in Portland, Oregon, to send the major cracker manufacturers to work with food scientists and SW experts on the experimental cracker line, testing multiple flour blends with varying SW percentages. USW can also donate samples of the grain directly to companies so the cracker producers, with the help of Mr. Saturno and other consultants, can experiment with their own equipment and personnel to find the right formula. Possibly the most important factor is the committed effort by USW, relying on its long-term working relationship with these companies, to convince the cracker producers to keep trying if the first activity doesn’t result in an ideal formula. 

There has been substantial progress in the understanding of SW use in Colombia and USW expects the efforts will result in a commercial purchase in the first half of 2020. If Colombian cracker producers can find a satisfactory formula using SW, that could lead to increased use in cookies, bread and other wheat-based products that benefit from the end-use qualities of SW. 

Considering the changing international wheat market and the uncertainty in the global trade environment, targeted and individualized technical assistance provided by U.S. wheat growers, through their check-off dollars, can make a big impact. Increased U.S. exports benefit all Idaho wheat producers by raising domestic wheat prices and contributing to a healthy and sustainable industry. 

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