LINCOLN, Neb. -- This may be the year for hard white winter wheat producers in Nebraska's Panhandle.



If all goes as planned, a group of farmers near Hemingford will have produced nearly 400,000 bushels -- enough hard white wheat to fill a 110-car train. This amount of grain makes it cost-effective for the Farmers Co-op Elevator in Hemingford to handle and store the hard white wheat. It also puts Hemingford on the map in terms of hard white wheat production in the state.



Bill Foley, a wheat grower near Hemingford, said hard white wheat is the future of the industry. Foley planted 100 dryland acres of hard white wheat this year in addition to the hard red wheats most Nebraska growers typically plant.



"Hard white wheat is recognized as high quality wheat around the world," Foley said.



Across the state, there are about 30,000 acres of hard white wheat, said Royce Schaneman, executive director of the Nebraska Wheat Board. With an average yield of 41 bushels per acre, that makes almost 1.25 million bushels of hard white wheat.



Last year, Nebraska produced more than 61 million bushels of all wheat, making it sixth in the nation for wheat production. About half of Nebraska's wheat is exported.
Other growers trying hard white wheat should call their local elevator to see if it accepts the crop, Schaneman said.



To compete with foreign markets, Nebraska needs to give its customers what they want or it will lose out on its share of the market, said Chris Cullan of Cullan Farms of Hemingford.



The market for white wheat is sizeable, said Drew Lyon, dryland crops specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Panhandle Research and Extension Center at Scottsbluff. In 2006, it was estimated that 124 million bushels were needed in 14 countries, Schaneman said.



Currently the three big potential markets for hard white wheat are through gulf ports to Latin America for bread and tortillas, through the Pacific Northwest to Asia for noodles and steamed breads and through both sets of ports for flatbread used in the Middle East and India.



Domestic markets for hard white wheat also are on the rise for cereals and breads, such as Wonder Bread, which produces a white, whole grain bread, Lyon said. "This goes back to the American household desiring more whole grains and healthy eating habits," Cullan said.



White wheat also lacks the bitter flavor that comes from tannins, which give red wheat its color. Therefore, products from white wheat taste sweeter and yield more flower because the grain can be milled closer to the hull.



Currently, Australia dominates the hard white wheat market internationally, and Kansas ranks No. 1 in hard white wheat production nationally. Nebraska ranks eighth in white wheat production, behind Kansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Washington and Texas.



Nebraska wheat growers would like to change that.



"People recognize western Nebraska in the wheat growing community," Foley said. "If we want to keep up our reputation as producing high-quality wheat, we need to make the switch. The world market is begging for it and if we don't deliver, someone else will."



Hemingford also is in a good spot because it has easy access to railroad lines by which the wheat can be shipped to Portland, Ore., or Mexico.



Hard white wheat also is an ideal crop for Nebraska's semi-arid regions in the southwest and Panhandle.
The eastern part of the state is too humid and current varieties sprout in the head, which reduces the crop's value, Lyon said.



Lyon said the growers near Hemingford are important leaders in this transition.



"Seed producers were afraid to produce it, growers were afraid to grow it and elevators didn't want to make a commitment unless they could be assured of adequate volume, but some growers and seed producers, along with Farmers Co-op Elevator in Hemingford, all took a risk at the same time and were good enough to make a go of it," the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources specialist said.



Cullan is a seed producer who decided to take that risk.



"We were first reluctant to handle hard white wheat," he said.



Early varieties had some yield drag, and there were concerns about availability of a local, secure and convenient market for producers, he said.



New varieties developed by the UNL Wheat Breeding Program are competitive with hard red wheats, yield-wise, Lyon said.



"Prior to this, there weren't varieties available that could compete," Lyon added. "Until you get a certain quantity, people aren't going to switch their production practices."



In addition, hard white wheat must be kept separate from hard red winter wheats and other grains. Wheat is reduced a full grade for every 1 percent contamination with a contrasting class of grain.



"Basically, handling hard white wheat can be a segregation nightmare," said Bart Moseman, grain manager of the Farmers Co-op Elevator in Hemingford. "You have to be careful to have everything cleaned out before any hard white wheat can be brought in."



It would be a huge and costly mistake if an operator were to dump in a load of hard red wheat, for example.



"There are a lot of guys trying hard white wheat out, so we will see how it works," he said.



Hemingford will handle white wheat at a separate location.



"Prior to these concerns being addressed, we felt it would be a disservice to our customers to provide a product that they could not turn into dollars and had substandard performance," Cullan said.



Hard white wheat has been around for nearly 20 years, Cullan said. However, as these concerns are being addressed, progressive producers are understanding why they need to produce more hard white wheat.



Craig Wyman, a wheat grower from Alliance, also is growing white wheat for the first time this year.



He said from a production standpoint there isn't any good reason not to consider growing hard white wheat, although premiums elevators offer for hard white wheat are minimal.



"I believe looking at the world markets that this has great prospects throughout the world," he said. "I think it's just a matter of time before growers make the switch."



SOURCE: University of Nebraska news release.