Kansas is known as the nation’s breadbasket thanks to its hard red winter wheat production.
Yet, when Ray Brengman looks out across the southwest Kansas landscape, he sees potential for something else – pasta.
On the family farm near Lakin, which goes back at least four generations, Brengman has been working to breed a winter durum – a research project that spans countless crosses a year and about 17 years.
But the detailed and repetitious work came to fruition in June when his first commercial fields of durum were harvested in southwest Kansas.
That might seem like a long time coming – but Brengman sees a bright future in an area of the state where water is becoming scarce. “I can see it has a great deal of potential,” the 66-year-old said, adding that while some might see breeding crops as extremely tedious and boring, he works for an end goal.
“The exciting part of breeding crops is when you have an objective that is hard to reach,” said Brengman. “That is how it is with breeding winter durums. There is no commercial winter durum that has high quality and high enough winter hardiness. I’m striving for an objective that has not been reached before. That is what pushes you.”
There are six classes of wheat, with Kansas growing mostly hard red winter varieties. Durum, however, is the smallest in terms of U.S. production. A spring-planted crop, the largest acreage is in North Dakota, followed by Montana.
But there is demand for durum from pasta companies. The rich, amber-colored wheat has high protein and gluten content, which makes durum ideal for pasta and some Mediterranean breads.
Brengman’s work, however, didn’t start in wheat production. For 20 years, Brengman was a sorghum breeder for Queensland, Australia, where he developed commercial sorghum hybrids with resistance to sorghum midge.
“When I left, it was the only place in the world with midge resistance,” he said.
Brengman returned to Kansas in the mid-1990s, beginning a company doing contract genetic improvement work. In late 1995 he started working for Kansas State University’s sorghum breeding program. In 1998, while still serving as the interim head of the program, Rollie Sears, K-State’s former wheat breeder, brought up an idea with Brengman about developing winter durum.
According to K-State, most varieties of spring durum are quite susceptible to Fusarium head blight, or scab. Meanwhile, desert durum production, found in Arizona, depends on irrigation, and there are increasing demands from other users for water supplies in those areas.
With those things in mind, Sears saw a need for more U.S. production. Moreover, a premium quality grain that could be grown in the southern Great Plains states like Kansas could improve profit margins for irrigation farmers while at the same time reducing water usage.
“He wanted to know what I thought about it,” Brengman said. “There is a little bit of work on winter durum being researched in Romania and the Ukraine, although we didn’t know that at that time. “But I couldn’t see any reason why we couldn’t develop winter durum,” he said.
Brengman took up the challenge, doing work independently through his company, Kan-Do Breeding Services, while living in Manhattan.
“It was on weekends and vacation I was doing durum work,” he said. “And in my backyard in Manhattan.”
A few years ago, he moved back to his more than 100-year-old family farm in Kearny County, where he has continued the durum research.
Developing durum, however, is no small feat. Achieving acceptable quality is critical. For instance, he said, durum needs to be at least 13 percent protein. It also must have the yellow endosperm color required for pasta.
Five years ago, he whittled down about 150 advanced lines during seven years of testing to two varieties – Kandur 001 and 002. He has been running trials on irrigated and dryland fields in Wichita, Grant and Kearny counties.
Brengman said the research has attracted attention from organic producers, who can use durum as a rotation to control weeds. Organic durum also can bring as much as $24 a bushel at the mills.
Conventional Kansas farmers are also interested in durum because, even under irrigation, it uses less water than corn and pays better than traditional wheat varieties, thus resulting in an increased profit margin. “With the Ogallala decline, this is a higher profit alternative,” said Brengman. “With limited water, it could be the way to go to keep farmers viable in the future.”
SW Kansas production
Southwest Kansas farmer Ben McClure said he sees durum’s potential. The farm manager said they planted five pounds of seed in strip plots this year.
It yielded in the middle for irrigated wheat, he said – about 85 bushels an acre.
He said he would continue to set aside some acreage for durum and to help support Brengman’s efforts.
It uses the same amount of water and fertilizer as traditional wheat varieties. The difference is the price, which Brengman has touted as being anywhere from $1 to $3 a bushel more than winter and spring wheats.
“I think that the kicker is – if you can IP (identity preserve) it and have the ability to track where it needs to go – the opportunity is there to get a better price,” he said.
Meanwhile, public breeders like K-State’s Allan Fritz are working on winter durum, Brengman said. Fritz has had durum plots at the K-State Agricultural Research Center in Hays, along with other areas of Kansas.
As for Brengman, he plans to continue to grow his private efforts – looking at production areas in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles next season.
And maybe, in 20 years, durum might become a million-ton crop, he said.