Durum wheat project could spearhead regional specialty grains.

By Nicola Shepheard

Fri, 07 May 2021

Bread made with durum wheat

A project that arose from Wairarapa’s pea weevil infestation could open up for growers a new high-earning, nutritious crop.

It could also create a new commercial model for regional specialty grains that could borrow from the provenance-steeped marketing of wine and craft beer and ride the post-Covid buy-local wave.

Pea weevils were detected in the lower North Island region in 2016, triggering a ban that was only lifted last year when the pest was confirmed eradicated. The pea is one of the higher-value crops grown in Wairarapa, and the Foundation of Arable Research (FAR) spent three years looking into alternative crops.

Durum wheat, used in pasta and specialty pizza bases and breads, emerged as a crop that flourished in the region’s warm, dry summers. FAR is now figuring out how to commercialise the crop, and project lead Ivan Lawrie said it will be taking its lead from consumers.

“We know we can grow the crops and get the quality we need, and we’ve been working with a dozen or so pasta manufacturers and bakers and pizza makers through New Zealand who are really excited about the product and the local provenance story,” Lawrie said.

  Ivan Lawrie in a Wairarapa field of durum wheat

“We know our product stacks up well versus the imports from Australia and Italy; we now need to work on how the consumer visualises this product for the future.”

A 2020 Nielsen survey showed that fresh pasta consumption grew by 15% between 2019 and 2020 and consumption of some premium brands rose more than 20%.

One aim of the project is to gauge the price premium consumers may be willing to pay for artisan products containing locally grown durum wheat. Another is to set up a value chain that shifts away from the prevailing farmgate contract-based commodity model for wheat in order to maximise returns to growers and other players, such as breeders and grain traders.

“We want farmers to be integrated with the product. Just like wine regions in New Zealand or the specialist craft brewery movement, we want to try to give a regional flavour to the high-end pasta market,” Lawrie said.

Other regions and crops stand to benefit too, he said. “We want the durum wheat story in the Wairarapa to be a good case study for what could be rolled out in other regions for other niche products.”

Connection

Growers Mick and Karen Williams took part in the durum pilot and plan to continue growing the grain and sell it direct to pasta manufacturers and restaurants.

The family owns Ahiaruhe Farm in Gladstone, near Carterton. Before the pea weevil infestation, peas made up about one-fifth of the farm’s cropped area and was the most profitable crop, as well as being an important part of crop rotation to keep the soil healthy.

   Wairarapa wheat grower family, from left: Ollie, India, Karen, Mick and Tom Williams on Ahiaruhe Farm

“Durum wheat ticked some boxes for us personally because it provided a link between the grower and consumer,” Mick Williams said.

“We’re pretty passionate about continuing to grow it and being part of the value chain and having that connection with the consumer, being able to tell a story about the provenance of the food.”

The family has been growing wheat for six years. They produce 120 tonnes of wheat sold for animal feed and 150 tonnes of wheat sold for milling into flour for human consumption annually.

Getting more Kiwis eating NZ wheat

Growers often get a better price for stock feed wheat than for milling wheat, which discourages them from signing long-term contracts with mills. Contracts for milling wheat range from $420 per tonne to $450/t.

Of the 400,000 tonnes of wheat produced in New Zealand every year, only 100,000 tonnes or less gets milled.

Milling wheat, grown mainly in the South Island, is good quality and higher yielding than its trans-Tasman equivalent, but high transport costs to North Island mills make it more expensive than importing Australian wheat, which benefits from a well-established logistics chain including storage at main ports.

There is also consolidation in the buyers of wheat in New Zealand. Major palm oil plantation company, Singapore-based Wilmar International, owns Australasian food group Goodman Fielder, which has seven ‘Kiwi’ bread brands including Vogels, Molenberg and Natue’s Fresh. Wilmar International also buys the wheat for the country’s other main bread maker, Associated British Foods subsidiary George Weston Foods (Tip Top, Burgen, Ploughman’s) and for its mill.

The upshot is that three-quarters of the bread sold in New Zealand is made from grain grown overseas, primarily Australian, a situation that Mick Williams calls “absolutely ludicrous”.

“It’ll take consumer demand to fix it,” he said.

Christchurch traditional pasta-maker Feed the Soul tried out Wairarapa-grown durum wheat

“Most consumers don’t know where the wheat comes from in the bread they’re eating. The value to the farmer per loaf of bread is about 10c, so even doubling the cost of flour would only be another 10c per loaf.”

Lawrie said an extra 20,000 hectares of milling wheat would need to be grown to satisfy the local market. Currently, about 50,000 ha of wheat was grown, of which 10,000-12,000ha is milling wheat.

FAR was pushing hard to get more New Zealand-grown wheat into the market.

A survey by the foundation of 1000 consumers found no understanding of the origins of bread wheat, but 46% of respondents said they would be willing to pay 50c more per loaf if they knew it was entirely New Zealand-made, and a further 10% would pay an extra 20c.

Lawrie said: “We [the wheat industry] could go and build storage, we could buy a ship to take the wheat from the South to North Island, but unless we’ve got the consumer on board, really demanding New Zealand product, we’d be wasting our money. We need consumers to ask: where does this come from?”

The $151,000 commercialisation project received $100,000 from the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) through its Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund. MPI also funded the alternative crop project.

By Nicola Shepheard

Senior Journalist

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