The 2009 hard winter wheat harvest in Kansas is complete. What a difference a year makes. Everyone in the purchasing departments of bakeries will forever have the "highest wheat prices in history" embedded in their memory for the 2008 crop.
So first the good news: Purchasing agents will sleep better at night, and the 2009 crop will be deemed excellent in terms of yield. Early estimates were 350 million bushels, and the 2009 crop will likely come in 30 million to 50 million bushels higher, nearing the 400 million bushel mark. In reading recent harvest reports, one farmer in St. Francis, KS, had yields of an unheard of 100 bushels per acre on irrigated land. So, when we are talking flour costs for 2009-2010, the prices will be dramatically lower than 2008.
Now for the bad news: High yields typically mean lower protein. One miller I spoke with stated it was the lowest crop protein since the early 1960s. With wheat protein coming in around 11.2 to 11.4%, the resulting hard winter wheat flour is likely to have 10 to 10.2% protein. That is quite a change from the 2008 hard winter wheat spec, which ranged from 10.8 to 11.5% protein.
Unfortunately, there are not many pockets of higher protein winter wheat to blend in to produce higher protein flour. And you want to make consistent high-quality baked foods out of this wheat crop? Don’t panic. The early bake tests are reporting acceptable to good baking quality with bake absorption in the 56 to 58% range, down 1 to 2%, with crumb grain and texture similar to last year’s crop. The doughs typically are not sticky or bucky, and clean-up time is reasonable. The sponges are lively and show good fermentation
tolerance at 3.5 hours.
However, as bakers, none of us are comfortable skating on the edge of single-digit protein percentages when it comes to our flour. Many of you recall the 1993 flour crop; you have been in this situation before and survived. So remember, we have seen low-protein crops before and were still able to make a good quality loaf of bread. But it takes work.
First. Sit down with your purchasing department and determine what your flour spec will look like this year vs. last year. How much will it cost to pay for more protein? Do you really need more protein? Does the protein give you greater tolerance in the bakery and pay for itself in the long term? If you are going to demand a 12% protein flour spec in a 10.2% protein year, you better do your homework.
Very few bakers use flour to make only white bread and buns anymore. There are many other products to think about — hearth breads, wide pan breads and Kaiser rolls. And your brand integrity depends on delivering consumers consistent quality product. If you typically use a winter/spring blend, you were probably 60/40 or 70/30 last year. Don’t be surprised if you move to a 50/50 or 40/60 winter/spring blend
to achieve the quality you desire.
Get in the new crop flour samples and begin testing. If hard winter wheat flour is your preferred flour source, you will want to get in samples of 100% new crop flour as soon as possible and begin your own testing. Not that you can’t trust the millers, but you need to have the facts based on your own testing and formulations.
Second. It is time to test the flour in different products and compare them to those made with your current flour supply. How does the quality rate? Volume, grain, texture, shelf life and mixing tolerance should all be evaluated. If you believe more protein is needed, ask for a sample of spring wheat and begin to blend winter and spring flours to determine the best ratio.
However, purchasing may report that the cost of that additional protein is prohibitive. Then it is time to go back to your ingredient solution arsenal. Are enzyme solutions, gluten, DATEM or other gluten replacers going to help solve your problem at a lower cost? How about your oxidation system? Is it optimized for the new flour crop? All of these things will help you get more bang for your buck and assist you in making the best quality product at the lowest bowl cost.
Third. Get purchasing, R&D, marketing and operations all in the same room to review the product quality, bowl cost and the ultimate plan of attack. Consensus is needed within your corporate team on your plan to handle the new crop flour. This does not mean you cannot change your
approach if things change over time. It means that the team is pulling together to win the battle on flour quality and costs.
Finally, I’ll end with a quote from a miller: "Smart and frugal is how to operate this year." When asked to explain, he said, "Baker’s with patience will win the war this year. Be patient to get your mix and absorption correct before you begin adding more ingredients for strength."
That being said, remember that quantity and quality of protein do not always track together. Maximize the protein you have in your flour. Happy baking!