While Asian nations are still the primary landing place for Washington wheat, new markets are slowly starting to emerge in Central and South America.
And a board member of the Spokane-based Washington Grain Commission, Dana Herron, credits Glen Squires, the grain commission’s CEO, for pursuing new locations for the state’s wheat to be placed.
“We’re selling more soft white wheat than ever before to Latin America,” says Herron, who represents wheat growers in Benton, Franklin, Kittitas, Klickitat, and Yakima counties. More than three-quarters of Washington wheat grown is soft white wheat.
Less than 13 percent of all wheat grown in the U.S. is white, and the majority of that is grown in the Pacific Northwest. Hard white wheat is grown primarily in the central part of this country. Both hard and soft white wheat can be used to make confectionary items such as cookies, and pastries. It is also popular in Asian nations because it can produce spongy noodles.
On its own, soft white wheat lacks the ability to make high-quality bread like hard red wheat, which is grown mostly in the central and eastern U.S. However, it can be mixed with red wheats to enhance the texture and taste of baked products.
Herron says Squires saw the value of mixing reds and whites and has been proactive in trying to open new markets for Washington growers. He called Squires one of the hardest-working people he has ever been around.
“There have been times I’ve called Glen to leave a voicemail message at the office at 11 p.m. and he’s still there,” Herron says. “Glen works so hard that we’re actually looking at ways to help distribute his workload because he’s so valuable we don’t want to burn him out. Technically, there is no one more proficient at what he does.”
Squires was raised on a small, family fruit farm in Mona, Utah. After moving to Washington, he managed a trucking company for several years before he decided to complete his master’s degree in ag economics at Washington State University.
Former grain commission CEO Tom Mick hired Squires 22 years ago, and he has been with the commission ever since.
“I wanted to get back into agriculture and try to do my part to help the industry,” says Squires, who eventually succeeded Mick who held the position for 25 years before retiring in June 2012.
The amount of white wheat headed south of the border is still minimal compared with Asian markets. Chile and Guatemala are the only countries south of the U.S. that rank in the top 10 among U.S. wheat importers in the white wheat category. Seven of the top 10 are in Asia, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Squires says he refuses to take full credit for recognizing the importance of the Latin American market. He says his passion is for his job and the wheat growers he and the commission represent. The grain commission’s offices are located at 2702 W. Sunset Blvd. in Spokane.
“I like the job. I like it a lot,” Squires says of being CEO. “I feel like it’s an honor and a privilege to work for farmers.”
“Washington, the Pacific Northwest for that matter, has very astute farmers. It’s an industry that has lots of irons in the fire,” Squires says. “There are environmental and dietary concerns the public has. The issues farms face are ever increasing. I think Washington and the PNW has a beautiful product in soft white wheat, and I want to do my part to help promote it around the world.”
From 2011 to 2013, the sales value of the state’s wheat production topped $1 billion, says a report published by the Washington state Department of Agriculture at the start of this year.
Since 2005, wheat production value has approached $1 billion only twice. In 2007, wheat sales generated $949 million for the state, and in 2010, they generated $922 million, says the WSDA report. Much of that has been driven by the higher price for wheat in recent years. The current price of wheat is hovering at $6 per bushel, Squires says.
The most recent state agriculture department figures show wheat is the third-largest agricultural commodity behind apples and milk.
Historically, 85 percent to 90 percent of Washington’s wheat has been exported, due largely to the state being located along the West Coast where it is relatively easy to ship to Asian nations.
The top importers of U.S.-grown white wheat currently are Japan, Philippines, South Korea, Yemen, Thailand, Indonesia, Chile, Taiwan, Guatemala, and Sri Lanka.
Eastern Washington’s climate allows for five of the six classes of wheat to be grown here: soft white, hard red winter, hard red spring, hard white, and durum. The only class of wheat not grown in the state is soft red, which is grown mostly east of the Mississippi River.
Washington wheat growers typically harvest crops in mid to late August. However, higher-than-normal temperatures this summer made it necessary for some to start cutting the wheat as early as July to keep the kernels from shriveling in the heat.
Squires says only 108 million bushels of Washington wheat were harvested last year, the lowest production since 1991. Farmers have had to contend with drought-like conditions for at least a couple of summers, he says.
“The UDSA projects 122 million bushels for Washington state this year, but I think that projection is going to be high,” Squires says. “I’m hearing longtime farmers say this year is like 1977, which was a very bad drought year.” Washington’s five-year average is 133 million bushels, says the USDA.
Squires says reports from growers around the state make this year’s crop hard to generalize.
“There’s been sporadic rainfall, there was sporadic frost in the winter, and all the fields experienced high heat,” he says.
But despite the recent challenges in the field, Squires says he’s excited about making marketing inroads south of the border.
Shortly after becoming CEO, Squires leaned on Art Bettge, who was elected to the city council in Moscow, Idaho, in November 2013. Before venturing into politics, Bettge retired from the USDA’s Western Wheat Quality Lab in Pullman as a cereal chemist.
Bettge’s research revealed that soft white wheat has molecular components that blend well with red wheats, the most prolific of all wheat varieties grown in the world.
“It causes volume to increase and alters texture in a favorable way,” Squires says.
Upon that revelation, Squires did his part to rally the wheat commissions of the Pacific Northwest. Idaho and Oregon farmers also primarily grow white wheat. The Pacific Northwest wheat commissions reached out to U.S. Wheat Associates, the nation’s wheat marketing arm abroad, which began putting Squires and his fellow Pacific Northwest wheat administrators in contact with the appropriate mills in Central and South America.
“The fact that red and white blended so well was a way to get into the Latin American markets,” Squires says.
At the Latin American Wheat Buyers Conference, Squires met Andrea Saturno, a native of Venezuela. Saturno now is placing Washington wheat in the hands of millers in Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, and Guatemala, to name a few. Through Saturno, these millers test the wheat to determine if it is favorable for confectionary products.
Squires says Bettge will be meeting with Saturno at the end of September.
While Latin America has responded favorably thus far, Squires says he next wants to see if Washington wheat can make headway into certain Middle East countries.
Squires says with incomes rising in nations such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, soft white wheat could find an ideal place at the dessert tables in those countries.
“The growth market is in the confectionary items,” Squires says.
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