How wheat it is

At the Hard Winter Wheat Quality Lab, a mixograph calculates the point at which dough reaches its optimum strength. (Photo by Eric Durban/Harvest Public Media)

I sandwiched in a side trip this week: A tour of the Grain Quality and Structure Research Unit in Manhattan, Kan.

More than 3,000 wheat and sorghum samples a year travel the myriad tan-colored hallways here. The goal — developing grain varieties — typically takes 10 to 12 years, and millions of dollars.

About 25 researchers work throughout several rooms that encompass the grain unit. Many of the rooms hold extremely pricey instruments that not only provide results, but manage to look cool at the same time.

A key component within the unit is the Hard Winter Wheat Quality Lab, where even with all the scientific research…

“It still comes down to making a loaf of bread,” grain quality researcher Tom Herald said.

That makes sense in the middle of Kansas. Hard red winter wheat, the class of wheat now being grown throughout the state, is primarily used for bread.

The “bake lab” itself looks oddly familiar. Kitchen pans, dough mixers and several ovens create a slightly industrial version of your mother’s kitchen.

Here, they test the strength of the dough and bake loaves of bread to inspect the physical characteristics. It’s the “litmus test” according to Herald. Your peanut butter and jelly doesn’t leak through air pockets in the bread because of this work. A wheat variety could have great nutritional value and high yields, but if it can’t produce a physically sound loaf of bread, there might be problems.

Quietly, a mixograph is hard at work in one corner. This instrument has been used for more than 100 years to calculate the peak strength of dough. At 120 rotations per minute, the dough is continually pulled apart and reformed. Bakers need to know the optimal time to bake before the dough gets too sticky and unusable.

The research here isn’t just for large, industrial bread making purposes, though. Individual bread makers may use the wheat just like everyone else.

The wheat lab is part of the U. S. Department of Agriculture Center for Grain and Animal Health Research, which is on 12 acres near Kansas State University.  Everything from wind erosion and insect control to grain quality and animal diseases is being studied here.

It’s fascinating work, and I’m looking forward to sharing the stories through Harvest Public Media.

On a final note, thankfully the government reached a budget compromise and avoided a shutdown, or else I wouldn’t be bringing you this blog post. The research center would have been one of many government entities across the country forced to close during the shutdown. A skeleton crew would have been allowed to work though. If left unattended for too long, the researchers told me, years’ worth of research could be ruined.