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Where to next for soft white wheat?

Brewers and bran markets are still buying, but the heady days of the 1990s are gone

Two years ago, word spread early in the summer of an unexpected premium for soft white winter wheat, once a powerhouse in cereal production in Ontario. It wasn’t that pastry chefs or bakers had awakened to the benefits of home-grown soft white wheat, it was just that a new Kellogg’s plant in Mexico had miscalculated on its initial logistics and required substantial amounts of white wheat bran from as many sources as it could find.

Premiums added some excitement to soft white wheat markets and Kellogg’s took the short-term hit on shipping costs, but then the market quietly returned to its normal focus on soft red wheat.

That’s how it’s been for the past 20 years. Soft white winter wheat has been driven out by several factors, but mainly because the traits that made white wheats marketable are now available in soft reds. And then there’s soft white’s propensity to sprout, plus regional issues and higher shipping costs to different points around the continent.

What’s left is a patchwork quilt of small-market demand for white bran from various millers and processors, including a small Kellogg’s plant near Belleville. There is also a fledgling interest from brewers, who are always looking for something different in terms of flavours and brewing properties.

Changed reality

“We used to mill (soft white) bran for Kellogg’s and ship it to their plant in London, and that business was worth about 12,000 tonnes per year, but it’s evaporated since,” says Andy Wilder, wheat merchant for Parrish & Heimbecker Grain. “They built that plant in Mexico and we were shipping bran all the way down there until they figured out how to get a cheaper bran out of the Pacific Northwest (PNW).”

There are also millers in Michigan — i.e. Knappen Milling and Star of the West Milling — that are milling some soft white wheat for Kellogg’s in the U.S., and that’s for the bran, as well.

Most of the traits that made soft white winter wheat marketable are available in soft reds now.
photo: Supplied

Yet it’s the brewing industry that is contributing to the growth of some 45,000 acres of soft white winter wheat reported to Agricorp in 2017. Again, the wrinkle there is framed against the shipping costs as well as an adaptability component. According to Wilder, the larger maltsters are based in Western Canada — Canada Malting in Calgary (and also Thunder Bay and Montreal), Rahr Malting near Red Deer, Alta., and Prairie Malt in Biggar, Sask. Although they prefer white wheat for its lower protein content (higher protein makes a beer cloudy), shipping soft white winter wheat from Ontario is cost-prohibitive. More importantly, most of the maltsters have found Western-grown soft white spring wheat just as suitable in the brewing process.

“There are two small maltsters in Ontario, one in Guelph and another near Belleville, but they’re specialty maltsters servicing the craft brewing industry,” says Wilder, who’s also an owner of Side Launch Brewery. “We talk about the craft brewing industry, but it’s between 10 and 15 per cent of the beer consumption that’s made by the craft brewers, and wheat beer as a category is not a large one in the brewing industry.”

For Wilder, the only real opportunity to increase acres of soft white wheat in Ontario is to somehow convince the maltsters in Western Canada that our winter varieties are the best for their needs. It comes down to malting capacity, and unfortunately that’s not in Ontario, nor is it likely to be in the future, he adds. It’s in Biggar or Calgary or Red Deer.

“If you could get those guys convinced to pay the additional dollars to use Ontario soft white winter as opposed to soft white spring, then you could potentially have a meaningful impact on demand for Ontario soft white winter wheat,” says Wilder. “But the cost of getting that out to Western Canada versus using soft white spring is horrendous.”

In addition to filling the demand for maltsters, soft white spring is grown in the West as the primary feedstock for the ethanol industry. As with the brewing sector, it’s a high-yielding, low-protein wheat that is favoured for distilling ethanol.

What it all comes down to is the wheat flour: there is nothing inherently superior about a soft white wheat from Ontario versus a soft red, whether it’s from Ontario or anywhere else. The only advantage for soft white is the bran, which can be used in certain applications that are whole-grain based, where the processors or bakers want to avoid the bitter taste of tannins from soft red wheat. Where the soft reds really took over 20 years ago was in their emerging strength in disease resistance and their resistance to sprouting. Wilder says that also helps makes soft red wheat more consistent to price and easier to hedge.

Going local

Two years ago, Quentin Martin of Wintermar Grains, just north of Waterloo, Ont., helped spread the word that soft white winter wheat was a premium market. At one point, it was thought the premium might rise to nearly twice the historic levels, and there were farmers who were willing to engage in the added management and had a processor or miller lined up to receive the crop.

Conditions have changed since then, although Martin insists there is a local demand for soft white winter wheat in Ontario.

“We like using soft white winter wheat because it’s local and on hand, and we pay a premium for it, as well as grow some ourselves, and we contract some,” says Martin. “But it’s only a couple of thousand tonnes per year so, selfishly, yes, we want soft white winter wheat to survive.”

Like Wilder, he notes higher acres and increased demand are possible, but not without convincing millers or processors in the U.S. to take Ontario wheat, or an increased demand from the brewing industry, including the maltsters. And he does have competition when it comes to sourcing soft white winter wheat, regardless of the end-user. Yet he echoes the comments from Wilder and others that everything millers want from soft white winter is now available in soft red wheats. The only exception, says Martin, is in avoiding any pigmentation found in the reds.

“And those opportunities only exist if the price differentiation isn’t too great,” he adds.

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