Defining U.S. Wheat’s Comparative (Competitive) Advantage: Hard White
By Mark Fowler, USW Vice President of Global Technical Services
In the increasingly competitive global wheat market, it is important to review the advantages that U.S. wheat delivers to millers and bakers. In a series of six articles, we will review the advantages that each unique class of U.S. wheat brings to the market.
Hard white (HW) wheat is the smallest class of wheat grown in the United States with an annual average production over the last five years of less than 1 million metric tons (MMT), about 30 million bushels. U.S. HW is the newest class of wheat and has developed a strong niche in the U.S. domestic market for whole wheat flour products. In addition, HW varieties are bred to yield flour for both bread and Asian noodles.
The strong demand for a specific use and the relatively small production has created a market where the majority of HW is grown under contract with domestic milling companies to assure quality standards and to provide a premium price incentive to farmers. It is also important to mention, HW wheat includes winter and spring varieties, increasing the protein range and functionality within the class.
U.S. HW wheat performs in the mill much like hard red winter (HRW) wheat. The most obvious HW benefit is higher extraction levels of whiter flour due to its lighter bran color. Higher extraction rates generally improve the water absorption of the flour benefiting the baker as well. HW is a true hard wheat creating an advantageous granulation in the primary breaks for the production of course semolina increasing the production of low ash flour.
Baking and Processing Advantages
The greatest advantage of hard white wheat in the market is the quality of baked products made from hard white wheat flour. As mentioned, one of the primary uses of hard white flour in the U.S. baking industry is for whole wheat products. By using ultra fine white whole wheat flour, whole wheat bread can be produced with the color and texture of traditional bread. This has created a large demand for white whole wheat flour in school lunch programs and other products promoting the health benefits of whole wheat flour and the acceptable taste to children.
Another advantage of HW wheat flour is a low polyphenol oxidase (PPO) content. PPO is an enzyme that can cause browning of dough. Lower PPO content improves the color of wet noodles and Asian steamed bread products. The starch-pasting characteristics of some HW varieties as measured by amylograph values are also an important trait for noodle production. High peak viscosity is associated with desirable texture characteristics in noodles.
With all the advantages of HW to the milling and baking industry, the market has challenges in determining the value of the HW. A majority of the HW is grown under production contracts by U.S. milling companies. It is also grown predominantly in the Great Plains adding to the challenge of marketing HW to Asian customers sourcing wheat off the West Coast. The small size of the HW planted acres creates challenges for a volume-based grain handling system. The need to segregate HW from HRW or HRS adds cost to the elevators due to the time required to clean equipment and bins. It can also be difficult to accumulate enough quantity to fill a ship hold or complete unit train. These challenges require creativity and flexibility by both the buyer and seller working together to pull HW wheat through the market encouraging the wheat producer to increase HW wheat planted acres.
U.S. Wheat Advantages
As we highlight each specific class in this series, let us not forget the advantages that all U.S. wheat classes bring to the market. First, and perhaps the most important, is consistency in quality and consistency of supply. Although each new crop year brings different challenges and opportunities, U.S. wheat is always available to the global market. Second, U.S. wheat delivers variety. Wheat is a raw material manufactured into a bakery ingredient, flour. The flour made from each unique class of U.S. wheat brings value to market in the unique quality characteristics to make a variety of baked goods and noodles. It is also important to understand the value of blending flour from one or more types of wheat to optimize the flour performance at the minimal cost. Each region, country and culture have wheat-based food products that are uniquely their own. With six unique classes of wheat, the United States has the right wheat class to deliver the optimal quality and value for every variety of product on the market.
Read more about other U.S. wheat classes in this series.