First as usual, a drought update is in order. Again, nothing after 8 a.m. this past Tuesday is included. Not much has changed with the western half of Kansas mostly out of drought conditions, this area in moderate drought, and the eastern half of the state, especially in the central Flint Hills in extreme and exceptional drought. Today’s topic isn’t about red or white wine but red or white wheat. You may have heard of white wheat but what is it and why should we plant it?
First, there are different types of wheat with a variety of uses – hard red winter, hard white winter, hard red winter, soft white, and durum. Hard, soft, and durum each have specific uses. Very briefly, hard wheats are more for breads with some difference between winter and spring types. Soft wheats are more for confectionary purposes. Hard and soft types are mixed together for all-purpose flours. Durum wheat is primarily a pasta wheat. With the exception of extreme Eastern Kansas where some soft wheat is grown, Kansas produces hard winter wheats with the majority being hard red winter wheat (HRWW). Some hard white winter wheat (HWWW) is grown, primarily in the western, drier, part of the state. The Kansas Wheat Alliance has just announced the release of a new HWWW from K-State’s Hays Research Center Wheat Breeding Program named Venada. This wheat is being released for increase this year and should be available to producers the following year. This HWWW was developed to be grown in Western Kansas but is also suited for the wheat core from Wichita south and over towards Pratt. The idea is to expand the area of HWWW production. Past varieties weren’t well adapted to this region and riskier to grow. This begs two questions. Why do we need to increase HWWW acres? And how is HWWW different from HRWW?
White wheat is very similar to red wheat in its milling and baking properties. The obvious difference is naturally in the color of the kernel but the real difference is in what causes the red color. The red is caused by tannins, the same tannins giving red wine an astringency not present in white wines. Tannins are bitter. Tannins from oak were used to tan animal hides. In addition, HRWW contain phenolic acids. When these compounds are removed from HRWW to create a HWWW variety, they create a problem in certain growing areas. These compounds help prevent wheat kernels from sprouting while still in the head. So in areas with more rainfall and higher humidity, HWWW is more prone to what is termed head sprouting which ruins the value of the crop. This is why HWWW is primarily grown in the drier, lower humidity areas of Kansas, the western part of the state, particularly the northwest. This new variety should expand the region of adaption. But why does this matter?
Most of us in the U.S. do not consume whole wheat flour but refined flour. This removes the tannins and phenolic acid and thus a sweeter flour. Most of the world, where we want to export our wheat, whether Mexico or Asia uses whole wheat flour and they don’t like the bitter taste. That is why areas like the Palouse of the Pacific Northwest and much of Australia produce HWWW. Their climate fits and they can easily export their wheat. Our wheat is less valued and tends to be exported when the price is right or as a last resort. It’s not that simple but that is the gist of the problem. So if Kansas can produce more HWWW, producers have a better export market for what they produce.