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Quality products aid connection to buyers

The United States has some of the strictest environmental and governmental regulations placed on agriculture in the world, often making U.S. commodities more expensive than competitors’. Still, Oklahoma-based Plains Grains Inc. works hard to market U.S. wheat for producers, ensuring a high-quality product for buyers willing to pay more for a U.S. product.

The organization was developed as a concept in 1997, reaching nonprofit status in 2004. It was created at the request of customers — wheat buyers in markets as diverse as Latin America, and more recently, Egypt and Japan.

“The customer came to us and said, ‘This is what we want,’ and we’re merely responding to what the customer wants,” says Mark Hodges, director of the organization and former director of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission.

What the customer wanted was a quality product in U.S. wheat, as well as price and customer service.

The organization is responsible for the testing and market development of U.S. hard red winter wheat, and they accomplish this by extensive testing of the wheat across the Great Plains region.

The Plains is divided into a collection of grain sheds (large grain producing areas of similar climate and growing conditions), which follows the flow of grain from area elevators to large transportation centers, which are terminals typically handling 50 to 100 railcars.

Samples are pulled from the elevators and sent to labs for testing, where everything from identification grades to protein levels are determined. The elevators receive a protein grading based on content, with three potential levels: 11.5% and under, 11.5% to 12.5%, and 12% and above. The grains sheds also receive a grading.

“Each of these grains sheds could have a three-level split,” Hodges says. “At the same time, a grain shed might have one protein level.”

Samples tested

Becky Miller is the director of the Wheat Quality Testing Lab at Kansas State University, and her team tests the samples from across the prairie.

“The samples [about 400 per year] are sent here,” she says. “It takes all summer to complete them, but the goal is to have it done within a month after harvest.”

She adds the testing is usually finished by Oct. 1.

The lab sends samples to the Kansas Grain Inspection Service to determine grade, moisture and protein content and test weight, and the rest of the testing is performed by the KSU lab, in conjunction with the USDA hard winter wheat quality lab.

The KSU lab tests are based on various parameters, including ash content, falling number, hardness and kernel size distribution, relative to a 1,000 weight. The USDA lab tests for seed indentation.

“We have 400 individual samples, 144 composites, a lot of shuffling and organizing,” Miller says.

The testing provides a multitude of information about the samples and 36 regions, and the information is placed in spreadsheets and made available on the organization’s Web site.

“What we end up with is a description of a grain shed by protein, by all these different parameters,” Hodges says. “It’s an extensive evaluation of each grain shed. We have no idea where that consistency is or what the qualities are unless we do the testing.”

The information is a great benefit to wheat buyers who are looking for consistency throughout the product, and allows them to be able to choose where the grain comes from.

“In the short run, it may not be a direct benefit [to the producer], but in the long run, it gets the buyer what he wants and determines a market for hard red winter wheat,” says Rob Borchardt, Southern Plains manager for AgriPro and Texas industry representative for the Plains Grains board.

Prior to the organization, buyers received their wheat on ships, receiving a product that wasn’t consistent throughout the load. With Plains Grains, they can determine what quality they are looking for, locate it in a specific elevator and have it transported by rail.

“The customer could pick wheat from any particular location they wished to,” Bochardt says.

In the long run, it does provide a better market for U.S. hard red winter wheat, allowing buyers the option to choose their own product and ensuring producers that there is still a strong demand for U.S. wheat.

“What we are doing is also a precursor to what will be a level of traceability back to the grain shed, which is becoming more of an issue every year,” Hodges says.

“For the producer, it means a higher net profit, and that’s done by maintaining or increasing exports, and also by identifying customers willing to pay for value.”

Brazil writes from Clermont, Fla.

For more information

• Plains Grains Inc.

2009 wheat survey information

Kansas Grain Inspection Service

USDA Hard Winter Wheat Quality Lab

Kansas State University Grain Science and Industry

Proof of top quality found in sales

For an organization like Plains Grain Inc., customer satisfaction through the sale of a quality product has led to good customer relations. But the organization takes it a step further to satisfy customers by visiting with them and working to meet all of their needs. That includes making trips to their countries to meet with them.

“The bottom line of the trips and any contact we have with our customers would be: How can we increase demand for hard red winter wheat in the five states Plains Grains represents?” says Rob Borchardt, a Texas industry representative on the organization’s board. “The first thing we do is talk to them about what exactly they’re looking for and what they’re not getting currently, and access to markets, logistics.”

Borchardt made a trip to Mexico City last year to meet with a customer, a representative of a family-owned milling company that provides flour to artisan bakers throughout the city. He also met with the president of the Mexico Millers Association, and a representative of U.S. Wheat Associates, who provided translation.

“The very first question from the miller was, ‘How do we buy closer to the producer?’ ” Borchardt says.

The need of wheat buyers to have more control of their product was one of the things that led to the creation of the organization and the extensive testing of the wheat. Quality throughout the shipments is a big concern for the customer, and the ability to buy exactly what they need keeps customers coming back.

When asked about what being a customer of the organization meant, the representative of the millers association says he is looking at ways to disseminate the information to about 20 millers around Mexico City. They need wheat, and need it in a quality, consistent product, Borchardt says.

“It was a very good meeting. They were very interested in what we do,” he says. “I asked the miller what exactly he gets in our wheat, and he said the information he gets from Plains Grains is extraordinary.”

This article published in the May, 2010 edition of THE FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.