KANSAS CITY — In an era of unprecedented advances in agricultural technology, the best opportunity to improve flour quality might lie in formal pre-planting accords that allow growers to become ingredient suppliers who innovate to produce the wheat that millers, bakers and consumers want.
This idea was a frequent topic of discussion among the “My Role in Wheat Quality” panelists at this year’s annual meeting of the Wheat Quality Council in late February in Kansas City.
Len Heflich, former president of the board of The Center for Food Integrity, outlined changes he’s seen in flour during his 40 years in baking, most recently as vice-president of food safety, quality and crisis management, Grupo Bimbo, Mexico City. Mr. Heflich displayed from his personal collection a 1966 farinograph of 100% hard red winter wheat milled in Chicago for flour used to bake Thomas’ English muffins.
“You need a strong wheat that can take a lot of mixing and a lot of water, and that one did the trick,” Mr. Heflich said. “What’s unique about that curve, it never breaks. Mixed this about 25 minutes, and it never broke.”
The flour strength necessary for that product would be difficult to produce today from a straight hard winter wheat and likely would require blending with flour milled from spring wheat. The mixing stability and tolerance needed in dough for English muffins and other products today is found through the addition of gluten.
“When I started 40 years ago, you didn’t use gluten in white bread,” Mr. Heflich said. “Today almost all white bread contains 1% to 1.5% gluten. Variety breads might have 3%, 4%, 5%, even 6% gluten.”
The levels of gluten added to some doughs have increased in recent years as expensive enzymes have been taken out, sometimes in response to consumer desire for cleaner labels. But alongside gluten’s functionality are inherent downsides that force bakers to compromise to avoid a tough, rubbery dough that is difficult to divide, round and mold.
“In essence, we have to overmix the native proteins and undermix the gluten, so we don’t get the full benefit of the gluten,” Mr. Heflich said.
Changes in bakery operations have added their own challenges. To compete, bakeries increased capacity and speed while decreasing labor costs through mechanical actions such as extruders and pumps, all on longer, faster lines. The additional stress on flour often is addressed through use of more water, with the benefit of increased shelf stability and better flavors and textures.
There are controls that can be manipulated by the wheat plant breeder — such as gene sourcing, selection process, genetically modified versus non-G.M.O. and technology — to increase yield, protein quantity, protein quality and disease resistance.
Growers have many controls as well: land and seed quality, irrigation, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides. Plus, few farmers have taken advantage of a plethora of recent developments in agricultural technology, such as satellites that examine wheat color with an infrared spectrum and soil maps that can be overlaid with yield and fertility maps.
But wheat producers mostly are concerned with yield with some attention paid to protein. That’s out of economic necessity, said Andrew Hoelscher, a third-generation Ellsworth, Kas., farmer and founder of Farm Strategy Consultants, which advises production agriculture operations across the hard red winter wheat belt.
“Most places I drop off that grain don’t ever measure the protein, and they don’t even let me know what it is,” Mr. Hoelscher said. Under that scenario, “if the farmer is going to sell grain … and not be incentivized for protein, the best economic decision is to try to figure how to produce 7%-protein wheat and run with it.”
Traditionally, most of the decisions on seed, fertility and other considerations are made in the three months following a June harvest and are based on wheat futures prices. A majority of the hard red winter wheat crop is sold into commercial ownership before the fall crop harvest, outside the quality window, Mr. Hoelscher said.
“We’re actually punishing guys for something they did 20 months ago, and the sad part is there’s a fair number of growers who don’t realize they’re being punished for next year, they’re actually taking it as a signal for this year; ‘If we have a high-protein crop, we’re going to get taken advantage of,'” he said.
Mr. Hoelscher recommends to growers his trinity-of-wheat theory: “Know what you produce, know who needs it, and know how to do it again.”
From the millers’ perspective, customers want ideal protein for ideal strength to make the product they need at the cheapest cost possible to remain competitive, said Vance Lamb, technical service manager at ADM Milling.
“So, what that means is, from year to year, the protein level they use might change,” Mr. Lamb said. “From year to year, they’re going to look at the minimum strength they need and the most cost-effective flour they need to produce their food.”
Mr. Hoelscher said such protein demands should be relayed to the producer, creating a predictive, rather than responsive, market.
“The more you can take what you need and what you know and clearly communicate it to a farmer, the more he can actually take steps to affect his crop,” he said.
Growers are eager to test this concept, said Mr. Hoelscher.
“There is a culture of growers sitting here saying, ‘I want to be an ingredient supplier. I want to know what somebody wants, and then I want to go solve their problems,’” Mr. Hoelscher said.
There is precedent for contracted wheat, Mr. Heflich said.
“Europe has seen challenges forever: weather, soil, other conditions,” he noted. “To get what they need, they (millers) have contracted with farmers to grow varieties that will work for them, and apply the inputs that cost money, so they get the output that they want.”
Historically, in the case of Sara Lee’s desire to sell a whole white wheat bread, the company had to contract with farmers to create a reliable source.
“We identified varieties we wanted, and they happened to be good varieties with good mixing stability, 15 minutes plus,” Mr. Heflich said. “Good yielding. Identify the inputs, identify the price. Sign a contract, and at the end of the year we buy it. Farmer’s happy; baker’s happy.”
The costs for technology and traditional inputs will have to be paid, but as Mr. Heflich reminded those at the annual meeting, there is money on the table.
“Bakers are paying for it today in the cost of gluten and waste, so it’s not like we can’t afford to buy better flour; we can,” he said. “As long as we can compensate for that better flour by less gluten usage and less waste.”
And improving the quality of U.S. wheat could help the baking industry avoid the return of a detrimental gluten shortage seen in the mid-1990s.“You couldn’t buy gluten for love or money, and we had to scramble as bakers, and back then, we used about a fourth of what we use today,” Mr. Heflich said. “And my fear is that crisis is going to happen again. And when it does, we’re going to be in a really tough spot.”