By Larry Dreiling
For many producers, the notion of a wheat checkoff conjures only thoughts of wheat sales to foreign countries.
The problem is, what if people in those foreign countries have never tried food made from wheat?
U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) for years has been challenging the puzzle of selling wheat overseas by using a total marketing approach to sales.
To get people whose diet is primarily rice-based to try wheat-based foods, you need to find a good cook who can prepare recipes agreeable to new palates.
A recent producer communications tour conducted by USW allowed members of the U.S. ag press to witness how USW grows wheat demand by developing skills in baking and noodle making.
The first stop the team made to see these efforts was in Portland, OR, and the Wheat Marketing Center. The center is funded by the wheat market development organizations of Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon and Washington.
The Wheat Marketing Center is a sister institution to the International Grains Program, at Manhattan, KS, and the Northern Crops Institute, at Fargo, ND. They, too, are funded through various state wheat marketing organizations.
The Portland center is a link between Pacific Rim wheat buyers and U.S wheat breeders and producers. Incorporated in the center is a laboratory to assist Asian buyers in developing their protocols for the testing of various wheat varieties.
Within the lab is an experimental flour mill, a complete set of analysis tools--including a single kernel hardness test stand--along with bakery and noodle pilot plants. The center organizes classes with overseas food processors to help them understand all the ways wheat-based foods can be used.
Over the years, the center has hosted students from all across Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Europe in milling, baking and noodle making technologies. That is because the U.S. is capable of providing, as a USW phrase in importing nations says, "A Quality Wheat for Every Purpose."
According to materials provided by the center, no other export system can provide such a complete range of raw material, but that material needs to be understood, in order to make it work effectively in a market.
"The flour tortilla of Mexico, maraqueta of Chile, chapattis of India, balady of Egypt, hokkien noodles in Malaysia, udon in Japan, steam bau in China and instant noodles in Korea all demand unique milling wheats and processing technology," a center brochure reads.
The center's list of recent visitors reads like a travelogue, with millers and bakers coming from Pakistan, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, the Philippines, Korea, China, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Japan to learn about the qualities of U.S. wheat.
"You folks are heading to Asia. It is a long way to Asia for some people," said Dr. Dave Shelton, the center's executive director. "Well, it is a long way to Portland, too." He said those who come to the center are serious about knowing what U.S. wheat farmers produce.
Shelton, a former cereal chemist, at the University of Nebraska, said Australian wheats set the standard for Asian consumption, but the U.S. has wheats that match those standards.
"The Aussies have a clear delivery advantage to Southern Asia," Shelton told the team. "The worldwide instant noodle craze has helped boost their sales, and we need to adjust our wheat growing decisions so we can increase our share of sales to those local markets."
Shelton particularly told the media, from the High Plains area, to push farmers into growing hard white winter wheat varieties. HWWW is a versatile class of wheat which can be used in noodle and bread products.
Shelton gives credit to Dr. Joe Martin, wheat breeder, at the Kansas State University Agricultural Research Center-Hays, for developing HWWW varieties with excellent potential in Asian markets.
"There are some good hard white varieties out there, depending on what region of the country you are in," Shelton said. There is NuPlains, Betty, Trego and Lakin. Koreans really want Lakin for noodles."
Shelton said he realizes some HWW varieties have had a history of sprout susceptibility, but that is changing as new varieties will be introduced.
"Martin is growing special plots just for us," Shelton said. "There is a lot of potential in that greenhouse of his."
Shelton is realistic about the expansion of HWWW acreage, in the next few years. He says there will be questions for some time about producers earning a premium for growing those varieties.
"Like just about everything, the market will have to decide on price levels," Shelton said. "I don't see a total change, where everyone stops growing hard reds, but I see farmers responding in leaps and bounds to the demand for these varieties."
What if millers and bakers can't make it to the U.S.? Why, bring the school to them.
The team toured several training facilities on their four-nation tour, including USW-funded baking and noodle schools in Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan.
The tour's first overseas stop, in Singapore, included a visit to Singapore Polytechnic, an institute similar to a U.S. secondary-level vocational school. SP, with an enrollment of 16,000, is home to the Asian Noodle Technology Development Centre, which is funded by U.S. Wheat Associates.
The centre is a bridge between research and industry, conducting research and development in wheat-based noodle products, according to Dr. Tay Hong Soon, senior lecturer, in SP's School of Chemical and Life Sciences, and director of the centre.
"The centre opened May 31, 1999," Soon said. "We have courses underwritten by U.S. Wheat Associates. Our equipment costs run us $50,000 and tuition costs for our students is $60,000 annually. We take 20 students at a time for a week-long course on noodle technology."
USW pays the tuition of $1,000 each to the people they select to take the course. Those selected pay their transportation, lodging and meals.
The courses are held three times a year, with regular SP students and private companies also using the centre, so it is active all through the year. The USW courses take in flour millers, ingredient suppliers, noodle makers and even sales staffs from manufacturers from all over Asia.
"Some companies want their sales people to really know what they are trying to sell, so they send them here to learn the trade first hand," Mark Samson, USW's Singapore-based South Asia Region vice president, said.
"Two new Indonesian mills even have sent a lot of their customers to these courses. Their sales staff is now also their technical staff, as well. They sell about 80% of the product direct to their customers, rather than through brokers. When that customer has a problem, the sales staff can give better customer service.
"By the way, those two mills use almost 100% U.S. wheat."
To most people, noodles can seem quite ordinary. To Soon and his staff, they are almost as individual as people. By most people's count, there are over 100 different kinds of noodle varieties in the world--from wontons to strings to instant to egg to hokkien.
Add to that variety are recipes which have their qualities based on many different things, including dialects of language and individual regions of nations.
"There have been lots of books written on how to mill wheat for flour to make bread and pasta," Soon said. "Noodle making, it seems, have had those skills passed down from generation to generation."
Samson added, "A good noodle technician now can take those skills and repeat them for others to use."
Asked if the centre has "written the book" on the subject of Asian noodles, Soon said: "We may have."
Singapore is looking to be a major regional center for industrial education. USW worked with the country's economic development board.
"We felt that by training people in this area, and showing how U.S. wheat works, they may go on to more joint ventures," Samson said.
In Bangkok, Thailand, the team visited the 21st United Flour Mill (UFM) International Baking Science and Technology Course. This course has been a semi-annual occurrence since 1991, when USW and UFM's parent companies entered into an agreement to teach baking science, first to persons looking to open small bakeries in southern Asia, then to commercial bakers and, finally, to home bakers.
This order of service delivery was determined because there had been little wheat food business until UFM opened its mill, in 1961. Almost 3,000 persons have taken course work since the beginning of the series .
The manager of the baking school is Jiraporn Boonyapachote. He, along with Loo Kai Soon, USW's South Asia noodle and baking consultant, were the primary teachers in a class of 32 persons from large commercial bakery operations.
Members of the group hailed not only from Thailand, but from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and India. The student body ranged from apprentice bakers to corporate executives who wanted a better understanding of their business.
The media team had a chance to visit with the students during a break, while the first batch of bread dough the class prepared was in its first rising. One of the industry executives from the class the group met was Wendell Utengsu, vice president of General Milling Corp., Manila, Philippines.
Utengsu's father founded the flour mill before Wendell was born, and now he plans to follow in his father's footsteps. Utengsu went to the school to better learn how flour turns into food.
He also was excited to meet the U.S. media team, and told the group how much his customers like flour from U.S. wheat. While giving that encouraging word, Utengu reiterated words the group heard from millers and bakers throughout the trip.
"I have just two things to tell your readers," the Filipino miller said. "First, please, no GMOs. Second, when do we get hard white wheat?"
In Taiwan, the story was different. USW is at home in the island republic, since 85% of the country's wheat imports come from the U.S.
Much of the credit for Taiwan's great growth in wheat foods use is given to Yu-Shiu Miao, a Taiwanese industrialist who owned a flour mill. Miao founded what is now known as the China Grain Products Research and Development Institute. There, courses ranging from four days to 15 weeks in length are taught in a university campus-style environment.
The campus was opened in 1982, with assistance from USW and several state wheat marketing organizations, including the Kansas and Oklahoma Wheat Commissions and Nebraska Wheat Board.
Students can take short courses in Chinese snacks or Hong Kong style dim-sum. They can take a two-week long course in cake decoration, an eight-week baking technology course or a 15-week vocational course.
The institute has taught over 160,000 persons in training classes for traditional Chinese food preparation and in professional baking.
While the media team was at the institute, they found students in classrooms in one part of a building and in a bakery preparation area making cream puffs. Students spend half-days in each part of the facility to make maximum use of space.
Cereal testing and food analysis also is part of the institute's mission. With the full support of USW, the institute has some of the most advanced grain testing, grading and analysis equipment in the world.
"We want to acknowledge the help of Ron Maas and members of the Nebraska Wheat Board in giving us special funding for new equipment," said William Y. Tsai, the institute's deputy chief of its testing and analysis section. Maas, the NWB's executive director, was a USW staffer based in Asia before returning home to Nebraska and his current position.
All that education has to be put to work somewhere. For many graduates of the institute, that place is the Uni-President Enterprises' bakery, at Chungli.
This highly automated bakery is the largest in the republic, with over 750 employees creating nearly 250 different types of bakery products, starting with bread made just for making a perfect slice of toast.
The product expands to include sandwich bread, buns, Danish pastries, flavored and filled breads, Swiss rolls, cup cakes, sponge cakes, birthday cakes, puff pastry, plus all kinds of frozen doughs for in-store bakeries, along with biscuits for KFC restaurants, and pastries for Starbucks Coffee outlets.
The success of these schools, as is often the case in education, is in the quality of the graduates and how that education has come to work for them.
Samson related the story of how one Indonesian student summed up his USW-supported studies in Singapore.
"He wrote, "I came from three generations of noodle makers. Making noodles is my life, but before I came to the course, a noodle was just a noodle to me. I thought at first the class would be a waste of time. From the first day in class, I realized there were so many things I didn't know about noodles. I have to say I learned a lot.' That is a real success story."
"These courses have a reputation about them, and so they all are very popular," Samson said.