Soft white wheat acres are starting to creep up in Alberta, thanks to the burgeoning craft beer movement.
“There’s been a growing market for malting soft white wheat,” said Geoff Backman, markets manager with Alberta Wheat and Barley.
“It’s been driven by demand from the craft brewing industry, and that’s a nice value-added market on top of the milling industry.”
In the past, soft white wheat acres in the province were largely linked to ethanol production, and as demand for ethanol grew, so too did acres. But four years ago, acres in Alberta started to drop, falling from around 275,000 seeded acres in 2015 to about 128,000 last year.
But this year saw a rebound, with seeding hitting the 202,000-acre mark.
“The thing that seems to have changed is the growing market for malt,” said Backman. “It really came to our attention two years ago when we had some brewers asking us where they could source some soft white wheat for malting.
“It’s an area that I’m hoping continues to grow, as it’s another avenue for this product.”
But it’s not the only one, he added. In addition to the malt and ethanol markets, soft white wheat has typically been grown for milling and for feed, and those markets haven’t gone away.
“When you combine all that together, it starts being a little more of a versatile product,” he said.
“A farmer can grow it for the malting or the milling market, but if they can’t get it in there, they can run it to the feed market. And if they still have trouble, there’s the ethanol market as sort of a backstop.
“There are more options now for soft white wheat than there may have been in the recent past.”
As a result, soft white is starting to gain traction in parts of the province it hasn’t typically been grown before, said Secan marketing rep Trent Whiting.
“It’s just progressively walked its way north,” he said.
Typically it’s been grown in southern Alberta, with pockets around Lloydminster and Red Deer for the ethanol and feed markets.
But as the craft beer industry has boomed over the past four years, the pocket of soft white around Red Deer has gotten bigger to serve the malting industry.
“There’s a group there that’s been in a sell-out position every year for as long as I can remember that they’ve been growing it,” said Whiting. “We’re definitely seeing more interest in soft white. And any time we see interest in a crop like this, it usually means there’s demand to go with it, and that’s good for farmers.”
First in, late to come off
Growing demand is what drew the Olson family to plant soft white on their farm near Red Deer three years ago.
“We were looking at different ways to start mitigating some risk by expanding into new markets,” said Nikki Olson, who farms with husband Tyler and his family.
And their grain buyer had an opportunity that fit the bill — trying soft white wheat for the malting industry.
“It was a new-to-the-area variety (AC Sadash). It hadn’t been grown here that much,” said Olson, who is also an agronomist with Exactly Ag.
“So we decided to take on a quarter the first year that they asked, and we were quite thrilled with the way it produced for us.
“We’ve done it now for three years because we were so happy with it.”
But growing soft white isn’t quite the same as a hard red (another staple on the Olson farm). The first learning curve is the longer growing season.
“It’s basically got to be the first crop in the ground, and typically, it’s one of the last ones that we’ll end up combining as well,” said Olson. “If we ever have a late seeding and an early frost, it may not be fully mature, and we may lose some quality.”
Soft white is often three or four days later than the latest hard red varieties and two weeks later than barley, so taking it off before the first frost comes can be tricky — “especially for the malt market, where you need the germination,” Whiting added.
“Put it in early,” he said. “The earlier you can get it in, the earlier you can get it off.”
That’s Olson’s plan.
“Now that we know enough about it, we know we have to get it in as the very first crop of the year, and we just know that it won’t be one of the first ones we combine,” she said.
“As long as you understand those characteristics of the varieties, you should be fine. But if you ever seed it late, chances are you’re not going to get in for malt.”
Contracts are key
And that’s ultimately the market Olson is targeting. While soft white has been a fixture of the feed market, the Olsons view it as a specialty crop — one that can earn them a premium while trimming their costs.
“We’re out-yielding our hard red, and the nutritional needs are a little less, so it’s definitely giving us a benefit there — reduced inputs and a higher yield,” said Olson.
“I would definitely look at it as a viable crop in our area. It will find a nice fit on the farms up here.”
But like other specialty crops, it’s a good idea to find a home for it before it goes in the ground.
“With our soft white, we basically ensure we have a contract before we grow it because it’s so limited in the marketplace right now,” said Olson.
“I wouldn’t just go out and plant a ton of seed before you know if you’re going to get a contract. Having your contracts worked out ahead of time like other specialty crops is a good idea. You don’t want to go into it blind without knowing where your market is going to be.”
“I wouldn’t do piles and piles of acres in central Alberta. The market is definitely much smaller, so having an end-use market in place is a good way to grow something new in an area.”
So far, demand for Olson’s soft white has remained steady, but she hopes the market continues to grow as new specialty breweries come online. Once that happens, more acres will be going into soft white wheat on her farm.
“Our grain buyer hasn’t really needed us to expand at this point, so we’ve just been growing roughly the same amount of acres year over year,” she said.
“If there’s an opportunity to expand, though, we definitely would — we’re that happy with it.”