A Wairarapa crop being trialled as an alternative to peas.
In 2016 pea weevils were found in pea seed crops in the Wairarapa. Immediately all crops were destroyed and growing of peas was banned throughout the region in a bid to eradicate this potentially devastating pest. This was a blow to arable farmers because pea seeds were the most profitable crop.
In the years immediately after the outbreak MPI through SFF funded FAR to run trials of alternative crops that might take the place of peas. Durum wheat (also known as pasta or macaroni wheat) was subsequently identified as the most promising crop. Small areas have been sown for the past two seasons, and the resulting wheat milled and tested by bakers and pasta makers. The reaction from users has been very positive, and larger areas are being grown this season. Also, a trial of a dozen other varieties of durum wheat is being carried out on the farm. Prospects for a new domestic industry are looking good.
In late 2019 Rural Delivery interviewed arable farmer Mick Williams and his wife Karen (who was then the grower representative on the Biosecurity NZ governance group) about the ban on growing pea seed crops in the wake of the 2016 pea weevil infestation. Being their most profitable crop meant some financial loss but there was support from government sources. A couple of months later the Wairarapa was declared weevil free and pea growing could resume in spring 2020. Mick recalls that when he had to stop growing peas, the MPI promised some funding for looking at alternatives.
“FAR ran some early trials looking at a number of different crops, and we grew chickpeas, milling wheats, pumpkins for seed and a bunch of other things, and we came to the conclusion that we can pretty much grow anything,” he says.
“But we need to be able to sell whatever we grow, and that's why durum wheat was chosen for more trials because we realised that there is none being grown in New Zealand at the moment but there is a lot more pasta being eaten.”
“We found that durum wheat grew well because the Wairarapa climate is dry and hot in late summer, and that is favourable for colour. For a couple of years, we grew fairly small areas and then got the grain tested for milling quality and to see whether it met the quality criteria for making pasta. Last year we harvested about 35 tonnes of wheat.”
“Ideally, we would sow in early October, although this year it was late October because of the cold spring. Crop care is similar to normal wheat with fungicides and strategic applications of nitrogen. We irrigate when necessary, on this property, but not all durum crops are irrigated.”
“Harvest is at the end of February or early March using a conventional combine harvester. The wheat then goes to Champion Mills in Christchurch, and from there it has been going out to boutique pasta makers and restaurants to see if it suits their requirements, but it is also getting used in sourdough bread baking. Feedback from users has been very positive, the pasta makers like the soft bite.”
“This year we don't have a commercial crop on our property, just the trial area with about 16 different varieties, and we are looking for a variant with a more golden colour.”
“Durum wheat seems to like the Wairarapa soils and climate. It is particularly prone to sprouting so you don't want too much moisture at harvest and so our dry summer is ideal and a hot summer and improves grain quality and colour. In terms of yield, it doesn't compete with milling wheat with which we can achieve 9+ tonnes/ha, whereas with durum wheat we are getting 6.5 to 7 t/ha, so the price needs to be higher to make it economic. So, it will probably end up being small-scale industry aiming at the top end of the market.”
“We are passionate about the project because it potentially gives us a link to the consumer – generally with arable farming you don't have that. So, it is nice to be able to talk directly to the end user and tell them the story behind it and hear about the enjoyment they get from using and eating it. The aim is to create a profitable industry that owns the product through to the end user.”
Ivan Lawrie is an agronomist with the Foundation for Arable Research (FAR) and general manager of its business operations. He became involved after the 2016 pea weevil biosecurity incursion that resulted in a ban on growing peas in the Wairarapa.
He says at that time growing pea seeds was the most lucrative crop and there were no known viable alternatives.
“There was a risk that the land would go back into less productive types of land use so FAR started a three-year project, funded by MPI’s Sustainable Farming Fund, called ‘Alternative crops for the Wairarapa’. We trialed a range of crops from legumes to cereals to oilseed crops.”
“We found that growers in the region can turn their hand to growing almost any crop, but the biggest challenge was finding crops that could be transformed into finished consumer products, and under farmer control so that they can benefit directly from the added value rather than being commodity price takers at the farm gate. To my great surprise, durum wheat grew quite well in the Wairarapa, and we could get good quality results.”
Ivan was very familiar with durum wheat having spent two decades growing it in Argentina before coming to New Zealand. He was also aware that it was grown in Canterbury until the late 1990s, and that what was then Crop & Food Research had bred cultivars known as “Farina”, specifically for NZ conditions.
“In the Wairarapa summers are warmer and drier than in Canterbury prior to harvest
and this gives the grain its characteristic translucent, amber colour that in turn gives golden colour to the semolina, which is transformed in pasta. It is important to have good color and good protein content, and that is dependent on good pre-harvest conditions,” he says.
“The Wairarapa crops have produced durum wheat as good as anything imported, and this has led to exploring how growers could get more involved In the whole value chain. MPI said they would be very interested in our developing a regional product, and we are now in phase 2 – a one-year project supported by MPI’s Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures fund – doing consumer studies, understanding the value chain, getting samples of product out in the market, and receiving feedback.”
“That project is about to be completed and recommendations made. Growers could be looking at taking ownership of the locally branded, high quality specialty product right through to end users rather than rather than trying to compete with cheap imports in supermarkets.”
Prospects for that development are very good because pasta consumption in NZ is growing at 16% per year and currently all durum wheat products are imported. Also, the Wairarapa is close to the large Wellington market. Although Crop & Food’s durum breeding programme got parked in the early 2000s because the only pasta factory in Canterbury closed, the germplasm lines were retained. Ivan says they are what is being trialed now and shows the long-term value of research.
“We are currently looking at those lines for good colour, and we are hoping to create a great regional story around the terroir, the flavour of the Wairarapa, because the chefs are telling us that it has a tremendously good taste profile,” he says.
“Although I’m sure in due course we could find other regions suited to growing it we want to focus for now on the Wairarapa and ensure there is no drop in quality.”
“This project is part of a wider initiative to grow more milling wheat in NZ. Currently 70% of the wheat milled here comes from Australia. Canterbury is a very good province for growing wheat but transport costs to the main consumption centres in the North Island are prohibitive. At the moment, international stocks of durum wheat are very low, freight has doubled in price and there is less availability of shipping, so all of those things are coming together to make locally grown products much more viable.”
Mike and Rose Kloeg set up their award-winning bakery on the outskirts of Carterton in 2013. They produce artisan baked products, including bread. Mike has been working with the flour produced from the locally grown Durum wheat. He says the loaf is novel, feels soft, silken and pillowy to touch, with a creamy golden crust. He is stoked with the result and has had great feedback from customers.
Roberto Giorgioni runs Bongusto, an artisanal pasta shop and café in Miramar, Wellington, making and selling fresh pasta, ravioli and pizza. He likes that he can source New Zealand-grown durum wheat, and the response from his customers has been great.