New wheat could give Northwest growers a big lift


CORVALLIS, Ore. - The nation's first winter durum wheat, developed by Oregon State University wheat breeder Warren Kronstad, could give a big boost to sagging wheat prices.

Hard durum wheats are prized for making pasta and macaroni. They bring a $1 to $2 per bushel premium over soft winter wheats commonly grown in Oregon and other Northwest states.

The premium would be a big help to growers who have seen wheat prices drop below $3 a bushel this year. Even when soft winter wheat prices are in the $4 to $5 per bushel range, durum growers still get the extra premium.

The new wheat variety, "Connie," is being tested on 12 commercial fields this year, and limited seed will be available for planting next fall. Pendleton Flour Mills, which provided the research funds, is licensed to sell the variety.

Kronstad said Connie's yields are similar to those of soft white winter wheats. But even if Connie's yields were a little less, the difference would be much more than offset by the premium price.

Flour millers like durums for their hard, high-protein, translucent kernels that give pasta and macaroni its desirable appearance. But the only sources in North America are spring durum wheats grown in Canada, North Dakota, Arizona, the Imperial Valley of California and the Yaqui Valley in Mexico, about 400 miles south of Tucson.

"We can grow spring durum wheats in the Northwest, but they won't yield as well as the winter wheats that have a longer growing season," Kronstad said.

Connie is especially adapted to growing conditions in the Pendleton and Umatilla areas, which means Pendleton Flour Mills will be able to buy the wheat from local growers.

Oregon growers would also have an edge on the disease front. Durums grown in North Dakota and South Dakota are often hit by head scab, a disease in which the fungus produces toxins harmful to humans and livestock. Durums grown in Arizona, California and Mexico can be hit by karnal bunt disease in which spores can replace kernels and ruin the quality of the wheat. Oregon has neither head scab nor karnal bunt disease.

The domestic and foreign market for Connie and other durum wheats is excellent, Kronstad said, because of the booming demand for pastas. "The Italians are building a huge pasta plant (Barilla) in Iowa, and the Japanese are building a plant on the West Coast," he said.

An added durum wheat market would help Northwest producers who have a glut of soft white wheat, driving prices down.

"In some cases, banks aren't lending to growers," Kronstad said. "Wheat producers still have about 25 percent of last year's crop upriver and a good crop this year. We'll probably see wheat dumped on the ground."