A young boy in Mexico sits down to eat a tasty flour tortilla wrapped around seasoned cuts of pork. A mother in Brazil measures cups of flour she will need to bake her loaves of bread. Neither gives a second thought to how these products arrive, or consider the long journey the kernels of wheat made from the wide-open fields of Nebraska to the ports of their home countries.
According to Nebraska Wheat Board Executive Director Royce Schaneman, Nebraska’s farmers produce around 70 million bushels of wheat on an annual basis.
“Nearly half of those bushels are exported to other countries,” he says.
The long journey for that wheat begins at harvest time around the fourth of July.
Chris Cullan, a fourth-generation farmer from Hemingford, a small town in the northern panhandle, is fully aware of the trek his wheat will take after leaving his fields. About three years ago, Cullan traveled to Asia and visited several of the companies responsible for importing wheat from Nebraska and the United States. He also hosted a trade team from South Korea on his farm.
These opportunities helped him better understand the importance farming plays in feeding the world.
“They desire a safe, consistent and reliable food source, and I can see no better reward than my family providing food for someone else’s family,” he says.
But Cullan’s farm is just the first step in the trek the wheat must take. After carefully growing and harvesting the wheat, Cullan hauls it by semi-truck to a local grain elevator. The elevator manager tests the wheat in each trailer as it arrives.
“Due to weather and growing conditions, the quality of wheat varies from one field to another,” Cullan says. “Testing allows the elevator to separate and store wheat based on that quality. Some wheat will make better breads, while others are more suited for noodles or tortillas.”
Testing at the local elevator is the first part of ensuring customers get the wheat they order.
The trip for that Nebraska wheat continues, this time traveling from the local elevator loaded on train cars. The 75- to 110-car trains typically take the wheat to either a port in the Gulf of Mexico or to the Pacific Northwest. Once the railroad cars arrive at their destination port, the wheat in each railroad car will again be tested and stored based on quality characteristics. The standards are based on an official grading system maintained by the Federal Grain Inspection Service.
When customers import wheat, they submit a detailed order request outlining their quality requirements. Certified inspectors test the wheat as it’s loaded from the port storage facility onto the shipping vessel. Once the loading of the wheat is completed, an official certificate is provided for each export shipment. The certificate states that the cargo has been inspected and meets the order request’s requirements.
“What helps sell U.S. wheat is our system of trained inspectors who play by the rules every time,” Schaneman says. “Our customers know they will get exactly what they ordered from us in each shipment.”
Once loaded, the vessels will begin a journey across the ocean. Trip duration varies depending upon each vessel’s final destination. In 2014, Nigeria, Brazil, Mexico and Japan were the largest buyers of U.S. hard red winter wheat, the class most commonly grown in Nebraska. But markets are constantly changing as farmers in Nebraska must compete with wheat that’s often sold cheaper by Canada, Russia and Australia.
However, Rick Larson, chairman of the Nebraska Wheat Board and long-time wheat farmer, believes Nebraska’s farmers maintain an advantage.
“Farmers here take pride in using technology and farming techniques to grow a high-quality wheat that’s sustainable,” he says. “We’ll probably never be the cheapest, but we’ll always be the best.”
When the vessel arrives at its foreign destination, the wheat is offloaded directly into a milling facility or separated into trucks and containers for delivery to milling facilities farther inland. After milling, the flour is sold to consumers in local markets or as wholesale to restaurants and food manufacturers. Some companies will market foods made from wheat they imported directly and milled in-house, rather than purchasing from area mills.
In the end however, the exported wheat’s final destination is the same: food on a table waiting to feed a family. And while that food may be noodles in Asia, tortillas in South America, flatbreads in the Middle East or pizza in the U.S., it all started as wheat on a farm in rural Nebraska.