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Northwest Wheat's 'Low Falling Number' Means Low Prices For Farmers

Many Washington and Idaho wheat farmers are struggling this year because of a weird crop problem. Researchers at the USDA’s Western Wheat Quality Lab at Washington State University in Pullman are looking into it.

By baking cakes, cookies, bread, pancakes, noodles and pasta.

All of this good-smelling baking is purely for science -- it’s composted after.

This year, they’ll make 4,500 batches of stuff testing Northwest wheat quality. Mostly, a lot of Japanese sponge cakes and noodles. It makes sense, since the Philippines, Japan and other Asian countries are our best wheat customers.

But this year, the scientists are doing hundreds of extra tests.

‘Highly unacceptable’ sponge cake

This big problem is called “low falling number.” Basically it means there is an enzyme formed in a kernel of wheat that’s eaten away at the starch. Experts say low falling number hit Washington and northern Idaho the worst, although Oregon did see some too.

Low falling number happens for two reasons. One, there was rain late near harvest time and the wheat kernel thought it was time to sprout. Or, two there were really wide swings in temperature during key times of growth in the plant. Both problems happened this year.

And that’s bad news for Asian sponge cake. The delicacy is supposed to be eggy, warm and fluffy. But much of this year’s wheat is making a product that according to federal research biologist Alecia Kiszonas, is “dense.”

“They’re small. And they start to turn more from a light and airy sponge cake, into something that more resembles a pound cake that’s dense and thick,” Kiszonas said.

And that won’t cut it in Japan. In fact, Kiszonas said it would be “highly unacceptable.”

Falling numbers, falling prices

“Unfortunately, one kernel with low, low-falling number … can bring down a much larger batch of wheat,” Kiszonas said. “Which is why this is such a problem.”

Low falling number happens when there’s rain late in the season, or wild temperature swings in the summer. And it hasn’t happened this bad since the early 1980s.

One of the big problems with this low falling number wheat is testing it quickly. The grain samples are sent to a lab -- but the results take days to get back. By then, an entirely new issue arises.

“We didn’t know who had problems and who didn’t have problems,” said Sammie White, who manages grain coming in and going out for shipping and export at a grain cooperative in Genesee, Idaho. “So, they were all going into these big silos.”

Now White has millions of bushels of grain all mixed up. And it will all fetch a lower price -- some may end as cattle food.

White said in a small town, it’s just uncomfortable.

“Realistically there probably will be a couple of guys that will be put out of business because of it, he said. “And that’s tough.”

Bin-busting yields worldwide

In early November, Northwest wheat marketers fan out across Asia with glossy number catalogues and information to talk up this year’s crop. It could be a tough sell. More than 40 percent of the biggest class of wheat -- soft white -- tested so far has low falling number problems.

That’s a lot of wheat. Washington, Oregon and Idaho harvested about 300 million bushels of all classes of wheat this year. That’s one of the region's larger hauls. Some areas are calling it a bin-buster.

And this is a buyer’s market. This year the wheat price is already pretty low because the world market is awash with wheat: Russia, Canada and Australia all have high yields. Plus, the U.S. dollar is strong, pinching exports.

Northwest wheat marketers are trying to offload some of the surplus on food aid programs. So far, they’ve sold 85,000 tons for use in Bangladesh. Northwest wheat experts say once the better grain has been sold -- much of the low falling number wheat might end up as cattle food in feedlots. That’s not ideal, as Northwest grain is usually reserved for the highest-paying human customers across the globe.

Long-term effects for farmers?

As for farmers, they’re worried this bad year will affect them for the next 10 years. Their federal crop insurance will count this low falling number problem against them for a decade in their grower yield averages. Washington and U.S. legislators have been pressing the USDA to change this policy.

Scientists at Washington State University and with the USDA are trying to help figure out a better, more accurate testing for low falling number. And wheat breeders are trying to isolate new varieties of grain that have better resistance to low falling number -- and still have high yields.

But it’s slow going -- new varieties of wheat can take more than 10 years to develop into a commercial seed.

Meanwhile, farmer Larry Brown has been plowing up his fields in the windblown Palouse hills near Oaksdale, Washington.

“I’ve had problems, we’ve all had problems with falling numbers in the past,” he said. “But nothing this severe and this widespread”

By his count, he’s $85,000 short of breaking even this year.

So he said it’s time to turn the wet earth over -- and put this year behind his plow.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.