USA - Early rains a setback to wheat harvest

24.06.2022 207 views

The monsoon has arrived, and for wheat farmers like Dennis Palmer, it’s a little too early.

“It’s really screwed things up,” he said Wednesday.

In November, Palmer sowed 700 acres of Desert Duram wheat, a little more than usual.

But before his contracted harvesters could finish combining, the Father’s Day storm rolled in.

While the 185 or so acres of standing wheat was just beginning to dry, Tuesday’s drencher set harvest back once more.

“We’ve never seen the monsoon this early,” Palmer said. “I’m 68 years old, and I’ve seen a lot of monsoons.”

He pointed out the irony of the longest day of sunlight of the year becoming the first day of rain.

Besides turning fields to mud and prolonging the sale of a crop, the rain can also affect the grain’s color.

A kernel of wheat usually has a light brown color, Palmer explained.

When it gets rained on, it turns white, or “bleachy,” he said. And that means the folks buying the grain won’t pay as much.

The reason kernel color is so important is because most of Arizona’s wheat ends up in pasta.

And discriminating customers expect constancy.

Kernels of wisdom

Although the 2022 wheat harvest is going a little differently than other years, Arizona farmers have grown wheat for more than a century.

The superior quality of Arizona’s durum wheat is recognized globally. About half of Arizona’s patented Desert Durum crop is exported.

But before it makes it that far, it has to get plucked from the field. And weather can, as Palmer said earlier, really screw things up for wheat farmers.

On Monday, Randy Norton, the local extension office’s interim regional director for Cochise and Graham counties, sat in his pickup as rain poured down, talking on his cell.

“Rain is always a two-edged sword,” he said. “It’s much needed and much wanted by the local growers,” he said, but he admitted that storms can wreak havoc for wheat farmers.

“[The] crop gets wet, and they can’t harvest it,” Norton said.

If harvest gets too prolonged, wheat can “shatter,” or drop its valuable kernels, he added.

Then there’s the wind issue, which can “lodge” fields, laying the stalks over and flattening them. Combines may have to run against the natural direction of the crop to salvage the harvest, causing crop loss.

Excess moisture can also cause pathogen growth on the wheat heads, where the kernels lie.

“Most of the wheat I’ve seen there in the [Gila] Valley is pretty short,” Norton said, to minimize the impact of wind.

The right hue

Eric Wilkey has worked for Arizona Grain in Casa Grande for 33 years. He’s seen a lot of bushels of wheat come and go through the private company, which acts as a wholesaler for local wheat producers. Most of the wheat they process is exported for premium pasta flour, and Wilkey knows what buyers want.

It isn’t bleached-out kernels, either.

“We’re concerned at this point that we don’t have repeated rains on this crop,” he said Wednesday.

He estimated about 20 percent of the area’s wheat crop was still in the field; he thinks the monsoon is a week to 10 days earlier than normal.

A sprinkle of rain here and there won’t affect a harvest, but sustained rains will cause the wheat to lighten, Wilkey said, which produces a pasta that is a pale instead of a golden yellow.

Imagine the way that pasta changes in boiling water, he suggested. It gets lighter the more water it absorbs.

Overall, Wilkey said there hasn’t been a large impact to wheat quality from the rain; however, Palmer said he would have to separate his two harvests into different bins, as one would be a higher grade than the other due to the drenching.

Once wheat is transferred to bulk storehouses like Arizona Grain, it’s inspected by USDA workers who grade the quality, weigh the grain, measure moisture and protein content, and examine the ratio of foreign or included materials. Farmers are paid according to the color, weight, protein content and cleanliness of the wheat.

“Protein [content] is typically an indicator of either quality or quantity or both,” Wilkes said.

Imagine your kid’s macaroni and cheese, he continued. Lower quality pasta is made with lower-quality wheat, which leaves specs called “checks” in the finished product. These look like light-colored dots in the pasta, and they indicate a low gluten strength which makes the pasta come apart in boiling water.

Wilkey acknowledged the ticket to the perfect pasta really starts with the grower: He’s worked with multi-generational farms during his three decades at Arizona Grain.

“The Arizona farmer is really somebody pretty special,” Wilkes said.

“A grower, he’s gotta be a scientist, and a gambler to some degree,” he explained.

“Mother Nature does factor in.”

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