thumbnail

By Michael Anderson, USW Assistant Director, West Coast Office

Professional millers and bakers know that the appearance and taste of every product depends on the specific characteristics imparted by its flour ingredient. And those characteristics are deeply rooted in the ancient craft of plant breeding.

[Plant breeding is an ancient craft.] As far back as 10,000 years, farmers looked for traits that helped them grow more and better food. Egypt became the breadbasket of ancient Rome as its farmers adopted a type of wheat from the “fertile crescent” in modern Iraq to plant along the Nile River. Over time, the Egyptians found ways to grow a grain that was sturdy enough to transport long distances and stand up against pests. The Egyptian wheat traded with the Romans may not be what we are used to today, but the process for how it was grown to meet the needs of the consumer is by no means ancient history.

Today, the Wheat Genetics Resource Center at the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center houses more than 30,000 wheat varieties from around the world that are descendants of ancient varieties. Kansas Wheat Vice President of Research and Operations Aaron Harries likened the collection to a “treasure hunt,” offering the opportunity to find the next innovation derived in part from each specimen. Researchers and breeders here, and at other programs across the United States, play an important role in the relationship U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) builds with its customers. By listening to both farmer and customer feedback, they work on developing high-yielding, disease resistant wheat seed with excellent milling, baking and processing qualities.

Wheat Genetics Resource Center at the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center in Manhattan, Kan. Photo courtesy of the Kansas Wheat Commission.

Dr. Senay Simsek is a cereal chemist and professor at North Dakota State University and says that the personal connections that she has made on fifteen trips with USW to four different continents is crucial to her work. As an expert on hard red spring (HRS) wheat, Simsek says that when she prepares to meet overseas customers, she familiarizes herself with the types of wheat flour products they make, what the other ingredients are and what countries they buy wheat from. Being familiar with a market is important to understanding the unique needs of the customer. “Sophisticated” was the word she uses to describe customer needs and knowledge, emphasizing how important the technical process of using the right wheat for a specific product can be.

Dr. Senay Simsek joins USW staff to meet with U.S. wheat customers in Indonesia in 2019.

Dr. Senay Simsek joins USW staff to meet with U.S. wheat customers in Malaysia in 2019.

Each year, USW hosts several trade delegations that are traveling to the United States to learn firsthand about the U.S. wheat supply chain system. The delegations visit research institutes like the USDA Western Wheat Quality Lab at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash. Its mission in part is to “conduct cooperative investigations with breeders to evaluate the milling and baking quality characteristics of wheat selections,” and to “conduct basic research into the biochemical and genetic basis of wheat quality in order to better understand the fundamental nature of end-use functionality.” The director of the lab, Dr. Craig Morris, welcomes many of the USW delegations to his lab each year and emphasizes the unique partnership that the lab, as part of the USDA Agricultural Research Service, has within the industry, among other researchers and with state wheat commissions.

A USW Japanese trade delegation visits the USDA Western Wheat Quality Lab.

In September 2019, I had the opportunity to visit Washington State University with a trade delegation from Southeast Asia. We met with Dr. Michael Pumphrey, a spring wheat breeder, who walked us through the steps of the wheat breeding process. We watched as he cross-pollinated single wheat plants, a process that requires careful, precise techniques.

In his 27 years with USW, Steve Wirsching, Vice President and West Coast Office Director, based in Portland, Ore., has hosted many trade delegations and has also led many Wheat Quality Improvement Teams of wheat breeders to visit customers overseas. When asked why USW continues to put an emphasis on facilitating the relationships between customers and wheat researchers and breeders, he said, “It is important to listen to our customers and seek feedback on the quality characteristics they need. It is part of the U.S. Wheat Associates mission, to enhance wheat’s value for our customers.”

2017 Wheat Quality Improvement team in Thailand. Read more about this activity.

2018 Wheat Quality Improvement Team in Latin America. Read more about this activity.

According to www.innovature.com, the innovation and evolving breeding methods in agriculture and food, and a deep understanding of DNA, today helps scientists like Dr. Simsek and Dr. Pumphrey make even more precise genetic changes to wheat and other plants. Their work is needed more than ever to meet some of society’s most urgent and pressing challenges including climate change, sustainability, hunger and improved health and wellness.


Read other blog posts in this series:
Farmers and State Wheat Commissions
Grain Handlers
Exporters, Inspectors and USW Overseas Offices

thumbnail

By Michael Anderson, USW Assistant Director, West Coast Office

From Nov. 1 to 10, 2019, a team of eight U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) representatives crisscrossed the South Pacific covering almost 20,000 miles in ten days to report on the quality of the 2019 U.S. wheat crop. Touching down in three countries, the team met with more than 300 wheat buyers, flour millers and wheat food executives representing a major portion of wheat importers in their markets.

I had the good fortune to participate in my first series of Crop Quality Seminars with USW colleagues, wheat farmers and U.S. wheat industry experts in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. Working as Assistant Director in USW’s West Coast Office in Portland, Ore., I get to meet with many overseas trade delegations in the United States and it was interesting to see so many familiar faces in their own countries. My colleagues agreed that it was also valuable to see and taste some of the beautiful pastries, breads, noodles and more end products these customers produce with flour milled from U.S. wheat.

To have this first experience in Southeast Asia was exciting because the region is of tremendous importance to our farmers, accounting for 30 percent of global wheat trade. The Philippines and Thailand are among the top 10 customers for U.S. wheat, with the Philippines ranking second among U.S. wheat importers year-to-date. The entire South Asia region makes up the second largest destination for wheat imports from the United States, totaling 3.28 million metric tons (MMT) so far in marketing year 2019/20.

Reporting on crop quality is USW’s largest trade service activity each year. It starts as soon as harvest starts in the United States. USW partner organizations collect and analyze hundreds of samples from country elevators and USW compiles the data in an annual Crop Quality Report. Seminars like the ones in which I participated are held in dozens of countries where growers, traders, consultants and customers have the unique opportunity to learn about and discuss the functional qualities that year of all six U.S. wheat classes.

Michael Anderson during one of his USW Crop Quality seminar presentations.

For example, participants heard from and were able to ask questions directly of experts like Art Bettge who has participated in several USW seminars since 2014. He is a respected cereal chemistry expert who worked at the USDA Agricultural Research Service Western Wheat Quality Lab in Pullman, Wash., for many years. At the South Asian seminars, Bettge reviewed the value of solvent retention capacity (SRC) analysis to determine end use and baking quality and interpreted SRC data about the 2019 U.S. crop and how growing conditions affected soft white (SW) quality factors.

It was a privilege to be part of the entire team who also covered global and U.S. wheat supply and demand during the seminars. My presentation was focused on helping customers make the most profitable use possible from the weekly USW Price Report, Harvest Reports in season, the weekly Commercial Sales Reports as well as the complete Crop Quality Report and individual quality reports by class that USW and its partners publish.

I also learned quite a bit from my participation. Our industry’s commitment to transparency is demonstrated in the data and seminars on U.S. wheat quality, an activity that has been shared with customers for more than 40 years. I also saw how the opportunity to interact directly with members of the wheat trade, technical specialists, USW staff and growers adds unique value to and separates U.S. wheat from competing supplies.

Now I am looking forward to the next opportunity to share this information with our customers around the world!

thumbnail

By Michael Anderson, Assistant Director, USW West Coast Office

This river in general is very handsome, except at the rapid, where it is risking both life and property to pass.” – From the Journal of Sgt. Patrick Gass, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

It is 3:00 on a brisk and overcast Tuesday afternoon, the sun is already low in the sky. I am sitting in the galley of a tugboat — state of the art I am told. With five staterooms, a kitchen, washer/dryer and even a weight room, the tug has all the amenities any crew would need. There is some tension on board, with a hurry-up-and-wait attitude, when the phone finally rings. The deck mechanic answers, the barge we are waiting on is finally loaded with 1,500 metric tons (MT) of soft white wheat. The motor hums to life and we start moving, slowly, toward the grain elevator. It is growing dark as two grain barges are tethered together and we start down river from Lewiston, Idaho, headed to Portland, Ore. It will be a two-and-a-half-day journey first down the Snake River, connecting to the Columbia River and finally to the Willamette River, to reach our Portland export elevator destinations, about 360 miles in all.

Michael Anderson (front left) with the crew of the tugboat crew.

We are following the same route that Lewis and Clark took as the “Corps of Discovery” traveled west. The rivers were different in 1805, untamed by today’s intricate system of dams and locks. The eight dams that we will pass through have made it possible to harness the rivers into a major artery carrying U.S. wheat bound for export from farm to port.

The boat rocks side to side on my first night. It is comfortable but the unfamiliar feeling makes it hard to settle in. Suddenly the boat lurches and the light outside gets brighter. From the deck the first lock, Lower Granite, comes into view. Two spot lights illuminate our way as we creep up to the lock. Slowly we approach the brightly lit lock and are guided in along a long concrete wall. The force of the shallow water beneath us is the only thing that keeps the tug and barges moving forward. With inches to spare on either side we have entered the lock. Behind the boat a gate rises from underneath the water; it is three feet or so above the surface when suddenly the gate stops rising and our boat starts sinking below the surface. It is a rapid movement, but it goes on for a long time. The water mark gets higher above us as we literally sink below the surface, protected by thick concrete walls. Finally, we stop moving. We are now 100 feet below the level at which we entered the lock. I walk to the front of the boat just in time to see the gates in front, towering above us, start to open revealing the river ahead, and slowly we make our way out of the lock and down the river.

Being a crew member aboard a tug, your day is not a simple “9-to-5” or even 24 hours for that matter. With one crew on and one crew off, the day is broken into shifts of six hours each, from 12 to 6 and 6 to 12. The environment shared by the crew is family like, cooking meals together and watching TV. Only the person driving the boat, the captain or the pilot, is constantly on watch. The deck mechanics jump into action when the boat enters a lock or when we pick up another barge, and this journey is a four-barge tow, meaning four barges being pushed by one tugboat.

From the bridge the captain has a sweeping view on all sides and plenty of sophisticated equipment helps him navigate even when we are surrounded by fog, which in the Pacific Northwest is common. Another lock is just ahead. The boat only moves about nine miles per hour. With precision we fit into the lock, again with just a foot on each side to separate us from the massive concrete walls. Unlike the lock last night, this lock is too short to fit the whole tow in at once but that is nothing out of the ordinary for this crew. Once the barges are tethered in place, the captain skillfully maneuvers the tugboat like a game of Tetris into a tiny space giving the back of the boat just enough room for the lock keeper to close us in. Again, a large iron gate rises from the water behind us and like an elevator we start moving down inch by inch. In front is what looks like a massive garage door. The lock opens revealing the next stretch of the river ahead.

The mechanics of the lock are simple: we are moving down river with the flow of the water so when we enter a lock it is full of water. The lock is sealed behind us and a valve is released to allow the water around us to rush out of the lock. The tow itself is being moved to the same level as the river we are moving down. Once the tow is at the same level as the water outside the lock, the valve is closed and we wait for the massive concrete door ahead of us to open so the tow can move out. For ships going up river, against the flow, it is a similar procedure but instead of the valve releasing water, the valve fills the lock. It takes about 30 minutes to pass through each lock.

The Columbia Snake River System is a super highway of sorts for moving wheat and other agricultural products from farm to market. The rivers move 53% of all U.S. wheat bound for export. The ability to move such a large volume of grain efficiently makes the river system a very cost-effective and “green” logistical option. The lock system is maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers; its history goes back to the 1930’s when President Franklin Roosevelt personally inaugurated Bonneville, the first of the eight dams and locks east of Portland.

After about 60 hours on board the tugboat, we arrive in Vancouver, Wash., on the north bank of the Columbia River. We drop two of the barges at an export elevator and proceed west again, up the north-flowing Willamette River that bisects Portland. It is my third river in a week and we are taking the final barge to an export elevator just across the river from the U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) West Coast Office. There is a vessel at berth waiting for the wheat we have been carrying. The crew drops the barge, and me, at the elevator. I walk up a set of metal stairs connected to a hoist and hop off, touching land for the first time since Tuesday. I walk across the river on Portland’s Steel Bridge, under which the wheat from our tow will pass on its way overseas, to my office.

Michael Anderson grew up in Texas and earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Baylor University and a master’s degree in International Agriculture from Oklahoma State University. In the Peace Corps, he served in Armenia and with the Carter Center served as a technical advisor for the Guinea Worm Eradication Program with the South Sudan Ministry of Health. Anderson served as a trade intern with the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) in Washington D.C. Before joining USW in July 2018, he was International Marketing Program Coordinator for Food Export Association of the Northeast, which like USW is a member of the public-private partnership with USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) export market development programs.

thumbnail

By Michael Anderson, USW Assistant Director, West Coast Office

Early in 2019, I attended a presentation given by the Executive Director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA), Kristin Meira. In the audience were farmers eager to hear how U.S. legislators shared their interests regarding the ongoing navigability of the Columbia and Snake River systems. Open waterways are a crucial and efficient source for U.S. farmers to export their product to international markets. In the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia and Snake River systems are a leading gateway for wheat exports with 53% of U.S. wheat destined for export coming down the Columbia River alone. The rivers can move more volume at once, with greater fuel efficiency, making them more effective for moving grain to market then by rail or truck. One barge can carry the same amount as 35 rail cars or 134 18-wheelers, and a barge tow can carry more than one 100-unit train or 538 trucks. One barge can move a ton of wheat 647 miles per gallon while a truck can only move a ton of wheat 145 miles per gallon

The commercial benefits are apparent and the PNWA is an active voice in promoting the benefits of keeping the river systems open for navigation. In their own words, the PNWA is a collaboration of ports, businesses, public agencies and individuals who combine their economic and political strength in support of navigation, energy, trade and economic development throughout the Pacific Northwest. The organization’s history dates back to the projects of the New Deal in 1934 when the group, known as the Inland Empire Waterways Association (IEWA) at the time, petitioned President Roosevelt to fund a navigation lock along the Columbia River just east of Portland, Ore. Since then, the PNWA has been a leader in securing Congressional authorization for the necessary funds to build another seven locks and dams along both the Snake and Columbia River. The PNWA also works hard to maintain and improve navigability by advocating for deepening the draft and improving the jetties that allow safe passage into the Columbia River.

U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) recently had the opportunity to attend a tour of United Grain Corporation’s terminal on the Columbia River with the PNWA executive director and Doug Walker, a State Department senior advisor assisting in negotiations for the Columbia River Treaty with Canada. Taking in the view from atop the highest grain elevator in the Western Hemisphere, you could see the convergence of commerce made possible by the Columbia River that forms the border between Oregon and Washington.

While the importance of the river system is not lost on the farming community, balancing the interests of environmentalists is difficult. Save Our Wild Salmon, an organization with the goal of increasing wild salmon and steelhead populations to the Pacific Northwest, advocates for the removal of dams on the Snake River and expanded spill ways on remaining dams. They would also like to modernize the Columbia River Treaty with Canada to include the river’s health as an equal portion of the treaty, which currently only governs energy production and flood management.

Many environmental groups do not place value on the beneficial role that the dams play in efficient grain transportation and clean renewable energy. The four dams on the Snake River power up to 800,000 homes while producing zero carbon emissions. Environmental groups are instead focusing their argument on enhancing the railroad as a replacement for barge grain transportation, which would take billions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades to be productive and would not be as efficient nor as environmentally friendly

The value of the river system as a transport hub from farm to market is link necessary to connecting the United States to its trading partners. The river system keeps U.S. wheat competitive by moving higher volumes at more efficient prices. The wheat associations that make up the tri-state region of Idaho, Oregon and Washington all support, through their PNWA membership and resolutions,  the ongoing navigability of the rivers system. There will continue to be controversy surrounding the river system and the rich ecosystem that they sustain. The shared interest between farmers, sportsmen, environmentalists, scientists and commerce are diverse which is why having an organization like PNWA, that has spent more than 80 years advocating for an open river system, is the key to keeping it open for decades to come.