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Harvest 2020 at Deardorff Farms in Colville.
Photo by Jayson Deardorff

Wilbur-Ellis

MARKETING

From field to flour

Identity preserving wheat is no easy task

May 2021
By Trista Crossley


Identity preservation in agriculture isn’t a new concept, but as consumers become more interested in how and where their food is grown, it could give growers a way to connect with the public and add value to their product.

Identity preservation in agriculture is generally defined as tracking a specific commodity shipment or load by segregating it to maintain something unique, such as a trait or method of production, that would be lost if commingled during storage, handling or processing. While the advantages of identity-preserved (IP) wheat might be enticing, there are some obstacles to implementing such a system, namely how to store and handle the product.

In the Pacific Northwest (PNW), Shepherd’s Grain is an example of a company that uses IP wheat to promote its farmers who employ no-till, direct-seed production methods. The company works with 35 farmers in Northern Idaho, Eastern Washington and a few in Oregon and Montana. It uses third-party certification to ensure its growers meet sustainability and land improvement criteria. On its website, shepherdsgrain.com, consumers can enter a code printed on a Shepherd’s Grain bag of flour to see information about the farmer who grew the wheat. Jeremy Bunch, COO of Shepherd’s Grain, said the concept is an opportunity to educate consumers on sustainable farming practices.

“It’s been a growing market because consumers value transparency and traceability. They know the farms the wheat is coming from. They have an opportunity to learn about agriculture directly from the farmer,” Bunch said, adding that he believes demand will continue to grow for identity preserving specific varieties of wheat that function for a particular baking application.

Most of Shepherd’s Grain’s growers have some on-farm storage; for those that don’t, they work with a commercial elevator to keep their wheat segregated. Bunch said at harvest, the company takes a five-pound sample from each farmer’s bin. That sample is sent to a lab to be milled and a flour bake test is made.

“I know what each growers’ protein is for their wheat, and I know how the dough from each farmer performs. I’m able to blend for consistency,” he explained. In many cases, Shepherd’s Grain will end up blending two to five growers’ wheat to maintain a specific protein level. When a consumer tracks a bag of flour, it leads back to one of those farms that contributed to that batch.

King Arthur Baking Company started an IP program for white whole wheat with Farmer Direct Foods back in 2011. It came out of an effort by Kansas White Wheat Producers to market their grain from a specific pool of growers. Like the Shepherd’s Grain program, King Arthur Baking’s IP flour can be traced back to a specific field, but the company has chosen to release only county-level information to consumers to preserve their Kansas growers’ privacy.

“The purpose of the IP program is to foster good and sustainable farm practices in a farm-to-table model,” explained Brad Heald, director of mill relations for King Arthur Baking. “The program has different checks and balances in it. There are grower agreements which drive growing practices and reporting for the acres in the program. The IP program is the method to administer these different attributes, so what we say on the bag is true.”

Growers who participate in King Arthur Baking’s IP program are required to test their grain immediately upon harvest for protein levels, especially if they are doing on-farm storage. Like Shepherd’s Grain, wheat from different farmers may be blended in order to maintain product consistency. The product is still considered IP as all the sources of wheat are adhering to the program’s requirements.

Heald said the first step in developing an IP program is deciding what the reason or goal for the program is. For King Arthur Baking, it’s a combination of food safety and sustainability. Then comes the practical considerations, such as where is the wheat going to go? Is there enough on-farm storage to store the wheat? Do farmers need to bring it to a more centralized point, and once they get it there, how are they going to bin it to keep it segregated?

“Getting that wheat tested and binned appropriately, whether it’s on-farm or at a centralized location for the multiple growers in the program, that’s really, really key,” he said. “Unless a grower has the resources, they are not going to be able to enter the IP market on their own. Most grain goes to a country elevator or a terminal elevator. Once it gets in there, it has lost its identity. So having either on-farm storage or delivering it to someplace that will roll it up and put it into a blending operation to meet a specific goal is pretty key.”

Another issue King Arthur Baking has had to address is keeping a consistent spec from crop year to crop year.

“On the very end of it, I have a flour spec that has to be consistent, has to be tight, and the flour has to perform for the bakers,” Heald said. “Wheat is a raw agricultural commodity that has to be put into a blending program to come out with a consistent flour on the back end. Whether it is a good crop year or a bad crop year, we are still tied to acres in the program.”

Storage is also one of the biggest issues that Shepherd’s Grain farmers have to deal with. Having on-farm storage is one way to address that, especially as the consolidation of grain warehouses in the PNW continues.

“Smaller, more independent grain warehouses had more flexibility to identity preserve wheat for farmers,” Bunch said. “But as co-ops have consolidated, they generally want to operate more efficiently and use their space more efficiently, and IP wheat can sometimes be a cog in their wheel. That’s where it really gets challenging and tricky, ensuring commercial grain warehouses have the capability to identity preserve. In our region, which exports 90 percent of its wheat, these grain warehouses want to blend, commingle everybody’s soft white wheat together. To go to a commercial warehouse and say we need 5,000 bushels of space to fill up with Shepherd’s Grain…it becomes challenging for warehouses. That, in my mind, is the biggest challenge for this region.”

Another challenge Shepherd’s Grain farmers have run into is finding an elevator to handle crops other than wheat or pulses. One of the goals that the company’s growers strive for is diversifying their crop rotations, such as planting flax or sunflowers. Bunch said many elevators in the PNW don’t have much experience handling those types of crops.

In most cases, farmers will end up paying extra in storage and handling costs to segregate IP wheat. Bunch estimated that his growers will pay anywhere between $.25 to $.50 per bushel just for the handling. The growers, however, are often paid a premium for their participation in an IP program that helps offset those extra costs.

Down in Uniontown, Wash., the Uniontown Co-Op Association handles a fair bit of IP wheat and other specialty crops. General Manager Garrett Egland said the reason they’ve been able to offer that service is because the facility has four older crib houses that provide storage for smaller lots. The facility has expanded over the years to include much larger storage tanks, but along the way, they’ve maintained the older bits well enough to continue using them. They also have multiple dump pits. He said that during harvest, they are able to dedicate the two fastest dump pits to wheat that doesn’t have to be segregated and have the crops that need to be segregated use the slower dump pits.

“We are able to use the slowest, older pits for that and not have those trucks and loads jam up our wheat lines,” he said. “But since we have (that extra storage) and our members want us to do it and we can, we find a way. Our goal is to get as much money into our members’ pockets as possible.”

Uniontown Co-Op tries to clear out product before the next year’s harvest so they can bring in more of the current crop. This gives them a chance to inspect the bins to make sure there is no leakage between them. The co-op also charges a higher handling rate to growers who want to segregate their product.

Egland called maximizing the segregated storage they have a high stakes game of Tetris.

“It’s about efficiency. If I have a 6,000 bushel bin and only put 4,000 bushels in, I have 2,000 bushels of dead air, and nobody is benefiting from that,” he explained. “I tell growers that I have a 4,000 bushel bin that I can hold for them. They can fill it up, but the rest (of the grain) will be commingled. If the bin is full, I’m using that storage to capacity. We don’t want to have half empty bins and wasting potential storage space that could benefit other members.”

According to both Bunch and Heald, an IP program has to provide a benefit for all parties involved, including the consumer, in order for it to be successful.

“The IP program needs to serve some goal or some criteria, otherwise, it’s not worth having,” Heald said. Heald believes farming is becoming less about the volume harvested and more about how the farming practices are impacting the land and other natural resources. “I think that is where food companies like King Arthur Baking can step up and say, ‘we want to support this, and we want growers to be profitable.’ Hopefully, we can continue to align with growers.”