Eastern Oregon wheat growers explore new marketing strategy

August 15, 2007

CONDON, Ore. – Customer satisfaction is taking on a whole new meaning for wheat growers in Oregon’s Gilliam County as they shift toward producing and marketing grain directly to customers.

A group of 23 producers in the region have banded together in a cooperative called Columbia Plateau Growers, Inc. with the mission of producing wheat that fits specific requirements for production of food products such as cookies, breads and noodles.

The Oregon State University Extension Service has partnered with growers on the project over the past several years.

“The move is an innovative new direction in wheat production and marketing for our growers because their goal will be to grow identity-preserved grain varieties that will be stored in segregated lots, and they will collect data to document what they’ve done,” said Jordan Maley, agriculture field faculty in the Gilliam County office of the OSU Extension Service.

“This will give producers new marketing strengths,” Maley added, “allowing them to guarantee the uniformity and quality of the grain product they deliver to their customers, the food production companies.”

Maley assisted growers with developing a wheat quality assurance program, including the design and coordination of a computer-based climate and soils information management system and training in the use of geographic information systems technology.

“The information system relies heavily on GIS to help growers get very accurate information about growing conditions in their fields, which in turn helps them produce a higher quality crop,” said Maley.

Wheat is Gilliam County’s top agricultural commodity, generating more than $14 million in farm gate sales last year. On a statewide basis, wheat is Oregon’s fifth-ranked agricultural commodity, earning $185 million in sales in 2006.

Traditionally, wheat producers have delivered their harvested grain to bulk commodity handlers, like grain elevators. These companies then market and distribute the grain to domestic and international buyers.

“Operators of bulk collection facilities usually blend wheat from many different fields within a region into huge lots of grain,” said Maley. “The new segregated storage approach is a key part of the growers’ direct marketing strategy.”

Maley has helped Gilliam County growers build support for the new program by offering outreach education to inform others about the project and how they can be a part of it.

“Making this work means growers will conduct an ongoing program of record-keeping to carefully document crop production management practices,” Maley said. “The records will also include lab data on wheat grain characteristics such as variety, protein level, moisture content, flour yield rate and several other factors that milling and baking companies require for the various products they make.

“Gilliam County growers and the cooperative have made great progress toward their new marketing goals over the past five years,” Maley added.

To date Gilliam County has built a facility for blending cereal ingredients into bread mixes and grain quality testing. The cooperative has developed a computer database for gathering information on wheat growing conditions for wheat fields in the county. The database will also contain individual reports of grain quality characteristics for all wheat crops on a field by field basis.

“The testing lab allows growers to conduct a consistent and reliable quality testing program for all wheat crops, which is crucial to guaranteeing quality to the customer,” said Maley.

The database serves growers in two ways, he pointed out. It provides grain quality data that can be used for wheat quality forecasting and grain inventory tracking; and it will provide accurate climate and soils information for all Gilliam County wheat fields. This will help growers identify the best varieties for local growing conditions, which will maximize grain quality and yields.

Another important component of the program will be identification of new wheat varieties that offer strong marketing potential. Maley is helping to coordinate on-farm planting trials and new variety research throughout the county by recommending new trial cultivars and making grower contacts to establish new trial sites.

Author: Bob Rost
Source: Jordan Maley