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COLUMN: The changing face of local wheat markets

COLUMN: The changing face of local wheat markets

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Wheat markets are about to change in Virginia and Culpeper’s Ardent Mills is leading the way. Their new investments in flour milling, for human consumption, has farmers talking about how to meet this new demand for local wheat.

Under construction today are new steel storage tanks and concrete silos rising into the skyline just east of town off Route 3. They plan to have enough storage to warrant a 100-car unit train, carrying some 400,000 bushels and said to take up rail siding all the way to Mitchells. What this means for Virginia wheat growers is this: A new market is emerging here and demand for Virginia wheat will increase, if growers can meet milling standards. Expect to hear from Ardent on this topic.

Virginia grows soft red winter wheat traditionally and hard red wheat is being added. In 2016, we grew about 200,000 acres and harvested over 9 million bushels. A good acre will yield 50 bushels, a high yield is 100 and top farmers have yields reaching 122 bushels per acre in the 2017 yield contest.

Ardent plans to add about 10 percent of our eastern wheat to their flour used primarily in pasta, cookies and biscuits. In the past, they only used hard red winter wheat grown in the west. We know now we can grow both wheat types in Virginia, but can we grow enough?

Milling quality wheat has historically been elusive. Millers require special traits in flour destined for human consumption. Qualifying for milling quality is worthwhile when seeing higher prices. Our climate challenges growers to “catch quality” before Mother Nature takes it away. Rainfall when wheat is mature damages quality, eroding test weight as one quality measure. Early harvest limits this weather exposure but increases grower cost. The trick will be for growers to “catch quality” to qualify for milling.

A positive outlook is for Ardent to increase wheat prices here in Culpeper. When compared to other wheat buying locations in Virginia, Culpeper should see higher price for wheat because of demand by Ardent. We can expect to see a higher price here when compared to our historic prices and when compared to prices in other locations because of their investments and activity.

The ripple effect of agriculture is significant and now we have more manufacturing to add to that. Ardent can take credit for several stimuli. Direct employment will be important to those who have jobs now or gain new jobs. The need for trucks and drivers to move more product away from the mill will go up. The increase in tax base alone could be the single largest benefit to our economy.

In sum, farmers can expect to be able to sell wheat they grow for higher prices if it meets milling quality. Wheat straw will become more abundant and this supports animal bedding needs and construction. Seed, fertilizer and chemical sales will follow along with farm equipment sales.

Carl Stafford is a senior extension agent with the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

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