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Wheat growers learn about export opportunities in Portland

By Jennifer M. Latzke

PANAMAX LOADING—A Panamax vessel is being loaded at the Cargill facility on the Willamette River, across the way from the Wheat Marketing Center in Portland, Ore. The Pacific Northwest is a main artery for U.S. wheat exports to Asia and elsewhere.

For many farmers, the sight of the last truckload of wheat leaving their field is the signal of the end of a year's worth of effort.

But the folks of the Wheat Marketing Center, Inc., in Portland, Ore., know that harvest isn't the end of the road but the beginning of a long journey that encompasses many sectors. They were happy to share that journey with members of the Nebraska Wheat Board, growers and wheat researchers on a Wheat Export and Marketing Tour Jan. 9 to 12.

"I wanted to learn more about the export side of it," said Brian Jelineck, a young wheat producer from Alliance, Neb., who signed up for the trip. "I definitely did not understand this end of what happens to our wheat after it goes to our local elevator."

The center

Dave Shelton, the executive director of the WMC, explained that the WMC was created to conduct wheat quality and utilization research projects on all classes, as well as sharing that research with U.S. wheat buyers around the world. By helping consumers of U.S. wheat improve their own markets for finished products, the WMC is one way to improve export markets for American wheat.

The WMC is supported by U.S. Wheat Associates, as well as with funding from several state wheat commissions, such as the Nebraska Wheat Board. Located in a converted mill along the Willamette River, the WMC is across the river from several wheat export facilities, and in the same building as the Federal Grain Inspection Service Lab. It is the pulse point for the wheat trade out of the Pacific Northwest.

On the first full day of the tour, participants started at the WMC's laboratories, learning how scientists test wheat flour quality. Kathleen Gehring, laboratory technologist, showed the group how to conduct a falling number test, wet gluten test, and dough and gluten strength tests. Each one helps end users decide which wheat flours meet their specific needs, she explained. Next door, Gary Hou, technical director and Asian foods specialist, showed the team a few projects that are targeted to Asian and Arab markets, including flat breads, tandoor oven flat breads and crackers.

The group also had a demonstration on the use of wheat in Asian noodles and steamed breads with Bon Lee, laboratory supervisor. WMC is the leader in this research, with the only pilot scale Asian sheeted noodle line in the country, Lee explained. WMC isn't just a research facility but is also a teaching facility. Nearly every staff member speaks multiple languages, and manufacturers, millers and bakers from around the world sign up for courses in new techniques every year.

Moving wheat

The next day the group focused on the export of wheat out of the Pacific Northwest, touring Terminal 6 of the Port of Portland, as well as Kalama Export Co., LLC.

Terminal 6 is the main facility for container shipping at the Port. From a bird's eye view in the main boardroom, they learned about the complexities of shipping. Terminal 6 is the only container terminal on the lower Columbia River. As a smaller terminal it only moves about 200,000 TEUs (20-foot-equivalent units) per year, compared to more than 1 million TEUs that go through the Port of Los Angeles, for example. Containers can either be 20 or 40 feet. With nine cranes at Terminal 6, it has the ability to unload both Panamax and Post-Panamax vessels.

Despite its size, the Port of Portland plays a role in the competitiveness of the region. Many of the ships that are loaded from the port head to Asia or South America, which are prime regions for U.S. wheat exports. Containers are growing in popularity for shipping grains, especially to countries that use them to ship finished goods to the United States and are looking to fill empty containers for the return trip.

From there the tour drove to Kalama Export Co., across the border in Kalama, Wash., to see how wheat from Nebraska and other northern states is unloaded from rail cars, inspected by FGIS, and loaded into Panamax vessels bound for export markets.

Kalama Export is a joint venture of Gavilon, ADM and Mitsubishi to handle bulk grain exports from the Pacific Northwest. The Kalama elevator is the only PNW export facility to handle a full range of commodities, from hard red winter wheat, to dark northern spring wheat and soft white wheat, as well as soybeans, corn, sorghum and barley. It has a storage capacity of 2 million bushels, with a fairly new wheat cleaning facility of 1.5 million bushels that can clean 28,000 bushels per hour. It has direct service from the BNSF and UP railroads ad can unload 100,000 bushels per hour from rail. It also has a barge unload capacity of 40,000 bushels per hour.

As the highest volume grain export terminal on the West Coast, Kalama's facility averages more than 150 vessels per year, and can load a ship at 100,000 bushels per hour.

Later that night, back in Portland at the Mandarin House Restaurant, the tour group was treated to a hand-stretched noodle demonstration, seeing another example of the versatility of Nebraska-grown wheat.

Inspections and exports

The final day of the tour showed the participants how Federal Grain Inspection Service specialists grade wheat that's bound for export markets. Kim Harper, FGIS quality assurance specialist, took the tour group step-by-step through the sampling and grading process. They also had a hands-on experience, grading their own samples of wheat.

Finally, Steve Wirsching, the director of U.S. Wheat Associates West Coast Office, sat the team down for a look into the role U.S. Wheat plays in promoting export sales of wheat. Like the WMC, U.S. Wheat also gets a portion of its funding from 19 member states. Combined with U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Ag Service funds, USW is able to leverage producer contributions. Wirsching reiterated that because of USW's consumer education, technical assistance and market activities, USW provides a net return of $23 for ever $1 of producer investment.

Larry Flohr, NWB chairman, encouraged the team to share what they've learned on the tour with their neighbors back home. "When you're sitting out on that tractor, we want you to recognize where that grain is going," he said. "We appreciate younger people looking to get involved and recognize that it's important and want to be involved in decision-making where USW spends money, where NAWG affects policy."

"I think the biggest thing I'm going to change from this is to get my neighbors active in organizations, even myself," Jelineck said. "I think what they do benefits us, and I can tell with the research here in noodles and trying to open new markets for us. I think that's important for our future trying to sustain our markets and show that we grow the best crops in the world."

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807, or .


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