By Dana Herron

How many of you are familiar with cereal chemistry?  Does the phrase conjure up visions of mad scientists frantically whipping up a new cereal?  Actually, you’re not that far off!  The only misnomer is the mad part.  Let me explain.Dana Herron

Recently three wheat commissioners and Mary Sullivan, vice president of the Washington Grain Commission, spent two days at the Pacific Northwest Wheat Quality Council (PNWWQC) meeting in San Diego. These meeting, for reasons of practicality and location, are  held in conjunction with the American Association of Cereal Chemists (AACC)  Western chapter.

The purpose of the joint meeting is to analyze the functional characteristics of new wheat varieties poised for commercialization by their developers. It takes scientists to do that, hence the cereal chemists!

During my tenure at the commission, I have attended many of PNWWQC meetings, learning about such things as arabinoxylans, glutenin and gliadins.  What?  You didn’t know your wheat had those?

Arabinoxylan is a hemicellulose found in both the primary and secondary cell walls of plants including wheat. Glutenin is the major protein in wheat making up to 47 percent of the total protein.  There are high molecular weight glutenin and low molecular weight glutenin and wheat varieties perform differently depending on which one they have. Gliadins are another class of proteins, but these are a component of gluten, which are responsible for giving bread its extensibility, which allows it to rise during baking.

Are you beginning to get the picture?  The interaction of these proteins is fundamental to the way new wheat varieties perform in the bakery.  There is another whole page on starch interaction, but I will spare you that agony.  The important part to remember is that the wheat crop growing in your field is at the center of a series of chemical interactions on its way to becoming flour and making the host of wheat based products we eat.

The milling and baking companies that attend the PNWWQC meeting are an excellent cross section of the domestic and export industry.  Some companies specialize in pancakes, others in cookies and crackers, still others are interested in bread and leavened products or frozen doughs.

New wheat varieties not only have to be agronomically sound, they must perform well in the milling and baking tests.  Obviously, some are better at making bread and others are better at cookies.  My point here is it takes a lot of very smart people to engineer the testing and functional analytics necessary to come up with the quality products we all take for granted. Wheat breeders jumpstart the process when they decide which lines to cross, but molecular geneticists, bio-informatics experts, cereal chemists and yes farmers are among the essential players!

Another piece of the quality puzzle is underway behind the scenes.  Just after harvest, personnel at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Western Wheat Quality Lab (WWQL), located on Washington State University’s Pullman campus, tests all of the new wheat varieties from all three PNW states, evaluating each of them for   desirable functional properties.

This process is very similar to the testing conducted prior to the PNWWQC meeting, only this time the samples are pulled from the Uniform Cereal Variety Testing Program, the plots WSU establishes and farmers and others see at field days each June as part of evaluating varieties for agronomic adaptability.  The WWQL conducts analysis on varieties grown at the same site, under the same conditions and uses a weighted formula to rank the entries for quality.

The statistical summary of this analysis results in what we know as the PNW Preferred Variety Brochure (PVB), for varieties grown in Washington, Oregon and Northern Idaho.  The 2018 PVB, (which has 22 new varieties listed!) is in the process of being tabulated and is scheduled to be released in April.

We perform these rankings to help you understand the relative quality inherent in a variety. When you have identified the next revolutionary genetic giant to grow, remember to compare the quality of the potential bin buster with the other varieties in the brochure. All things being equal, the grain commission would prefer you select the one that enhances the overall quality of the market class.

But you don’t get paid for quality you say?  Oh, contraire!  You may think you don’t get paid for quality, but as a commissioner on the WGC since 2009, I guarantee you are.

Here’s one method to find the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  Get on your computer or smart phone and call up the coast wheat pricing in Galveston, Houston, Duluth and Long Beach. You will quickly find that PNW wheat prices average $35 to $45 per metric ton higher than the other ports on a Freight on Board basis.  Why?  Because Pacific Rim customers purchase soft white wheat based on its quality and the consistency of performance in their mills and bakeries.  Our Western White class (which is a blend of 20 percent club and 80 percent soft white) helps make over 120 different products because of the mellowing effect of the club component in the blend.  It truly is magic in the mill.

It would be nice if we had a monopoly and didn’t have to worry about competition, but even with a speciality wheat like soft white, our customers do have alternative sources.  After all, would you run a multi-billion-dollar company that relies on only one supplier?  Many of our traditional customers can use Australian soft wheat, but it takes additives to help its performance and that adds to the expense. Canada also has a limited amount of soft white, which could grow if the PNW falters in its pursuit of quality.

What’s the take away? The Pacific Northwest system of evaluating varieties for quality works for you because of you.  Your funding makes it possible to connect all the dots, from the breeder to the grower, to the miller, to the baker, to the customer thousands of miles away.

Remember you are not raising wheat, you are raising arabinoxylans, gliadins, glutenin and starch granules, all engineered to critical specs and designed to perform in one of the most miraculous plants Mother Nature has provided the planet.