|By ANN HINCH
FRANKENMUTH, Mich. — For more than 130 years, Star of the West Milling has remained a family business, even through local ownership changes and going public as a company, according to President Art Loeffler.
And it’s not the only one – processing wheat is an important tradition for the families owning the few mills still dotting the Michigan landscape.
“That’s basically their life,” Loeffler said of the trade, adding it may be just one reason the wheat crop is doing so well statewide.
In all of Farm World’s coverage area, Michigan is unique in that its winter wheat planting and harvesting has remained steady during the past 10 years, rather than decreasing overall. It was right around a decade ago, in fact, when Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB) and Michigan State University (MSU) researchers decided to address wheat management statewide.
“Typically, farmers viewed wheat as a fill-in crop that made sense from a labor standpoint” during the winter months, MFB Commodity and Marketing Manager Bob Boehm explained. Wheat was grown less for its own sake and more to provide cash to plant more profitable spring crops.
That was before Wheat 2000, an MSU-led initiative that sought out some farmers’ best practices to share with the entire wheat-growing population. L. Patrick Hart, professor emeritus of plant pathology and field crops, was one of the educators with the initiative from its beginnings in the early 1990s.
“Until Wheat 2000, a lot of growers had the idea you didn’t have to maintain it very well,” he said, echoing Boehm. “You just planted it; and it came up, and you harvested it the next year.”
Except maybe not all of it came up, and not enough of it was harvested well. To improve management, MSU extension researchers began sending questionnaires to between 500 and 1,000 growers each year, throughout the winter growing season.
They asked basic questions: How do you prepare the ground? When do you plant? What seed varieties do you plant? What fertilizer do you use? When do you add nitrogen in the spring and how much? When do you harvest? What yield are you getting?
“The idea was to find out what farmers were doing in wheat management,” Hart pointed out, adding researchers sought help from university statisticians to write pointed, specific questions designed to glean the best information.
Researchers compiled the data. At a series of winter meetings the next several years, Boehm said, extension showed farmers what worked well and what didn’t. Hart said it took about three years for truly useful trends to emerge from the piles of information.
Eventually, Boehm said, opinions of wheat shifted from it simply being there to “if I’m going to grow it, I’m going to grow it to make money.”
For example, Wheat 2000 established ideal planting dates, which previously had not been planned so much as being a matter of convenience. Because wheat followed soybeans and growers sometimes liked to keep beans in the ground longer to improve yields, wheat seed was not being planted by its needs, but according to farmers’ desires. Boehm said much work also went into determining ideal nitrogen application to best control spring tillering (when the wheat plant puts out shoots).
The additional benefit of Wheat 2000 is when head scab moved into the eastern United States in the mid-1990s, Michigan was ready to work around it. Hart said MSU also has a strong wheat breeding program in place, thanks in part to Associate Professor Richard Ward of Crop and Soil Sciences, who was willing to import seed from other states to mix and match with MSU-developed varieties.
Of course, for any crop to benefit the farmer, there needs to be a market for the end product. At the turn of the 20th century, Michigan boasted 500 mills, one for just about every small burg. There are now far fewer – Star of the West owns two of only six statewide – but the flour industry itself is still strong.
Local mills prefer local wheat, because there’s little shipping cost and buying locally encourages both a steady stream of supply in their backyards and a healthy economy. Mills such as Star of the West cooperated with the Wheat 2000 effort in various ways, such as discounting drying charges to encourage timely harvest after wet spring seasons, rather than leaving the plant in the field to possibly sprout in the head.
“People threw (wheat seed) in the ground and forgot about it,” Loeffler said of much pre-Wheat 2000 growing.
Boehm said some mills also paid premiums for soft white varieties. Most winter wheat states grow soft red wheat, with little exception. But Loeffler said roughly 40 percent of Michigan’s harvest is soft white, which is actually down from about 25 years ago.
“Statistically, I think the red wheat’s on top, but not much higher,” he said.
Of Star of the West’s six elevators, five handle red and one white. Loeffler explained from his standpoint, the only real difference between them is the cereal industry desires white over red for its less bitter taste.
Because Michigan farmers grow such a high percentage of white wheat, mostly in the upper “thumb” of the state, they benefit. The drawback is the trickiness of growing white, which has a tendency to sprout in the head if not managed and harvested just so.
Michigan is unique because the Great Lakes provide temperance against the cold of winter on land. The state also receives heavy snow cover, which insulates wheat crop from the elements. Still, there is no statewide wheat growers’ association, despite a late-1990s effort to establish a “checkoff” program.
How that might affect Michigan’s wheat future is unknown, but Hart did point out in contrast to just 10 years ago, many growers now say winter wheat is their most profitable crop.
The year 2000 has come and long gone, but not the usefulness of Wheat 2000, since re-dubbed “Wheat 2020.” Boehm said surveys still go out to farmers, but less often. Hart is not as involved as he used to be, but hopes MSU and Farm Bureau keep up the initiative to remind wheat farmers of those hard-won best management practices.
“I do believe you need to come back with these programs now and again,” he explained.
(This is the fourth in a series of articles about winter wheat production.)
This Michigan farm news was published in the December 7, 2005 issue of Farm World.