Chinese buyers make rare visit to check out Montana wheat

2013-08-09T00:00:00Z 2013-08-09T17:01:06Z Chinese buyers make rare visit to check out Montana wheatBy TOM LUTEY tlutey@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Hungry for U.S. wheat, Chinese millers are making a rare stop in Montana this week to see the Treasure State crop.

China has purchased 131 million bushels of U.S. wheat in the past two months, nine times the amount of U.S. wheat China would purchase in an entire year.

Rain thwarted a successful harvest of Chinese wheat, some of which sprouted and isn’t good for bread or pasta. That wheat will become animal feed.

“A lot of theirs is going into the feed market,” said Kim Falcon, Montana Wheat and Barley Committee executive vice president. “They’re looking for milling-quality wheat.”

The Wheat and Barley Committee will meet with the Chinese millers Friday. Afterward, the visitors will go on a farm tour.

It’s been a long time since buyers from China have visited Montana. Time limits on stays in the United States, coupled with poor flight connections to Montana have made trade visits difficult.

Weather isn’t the only reason for China’s wheat shopping trip. Demand for wheat products has increased as the nation’s middle class has grown and more foods made with wheat appear on Chinese dinner plates. Restaurant chains like KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and Starbucks have rapidly expanded in China, putting wheat products on menus.

“For every KFC and Pizza Hut and Starbucks that goes up, that’s just an increase in the demand for higher-quality wheat,” said Steve Mercer of U.S. Wheat Associates, the largest promoter of American wheat trade.

Montana, the fourth-largest wheat producer in the United States, expects an average-sized wheat crop this year from its roughly 5.48 million acres, though the protein for which Montana grain is known likely will be down because of wet weather in northern counties.

High protein levels typically mean premium prices for Montana wheat farmers. Their grain is typically blended with lower-protein wheat from other areas to produce quality milling flour. However, this year, protein levels are unusually high in other parts of the United States, Falcon said.

Montana wheat could end up on the other end of the blend, added to bring protein levels down. It’s possible the demand for lower-protein grain will work in Montana’s favor.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates that Montana will harvest roughly 205.6 million bushels of wheat this year, which, at current market prices, would put the value of the crop at more than $1 billion for the fifth time in six years.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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