Pilot project looks at potential of locally grown durum wheat market in New Zealand

It's hoped the project will lead to more locally grown wheat being used in artisan pasta, pizza and bread.
It's hoped the project will lead to more locally grown wheat being used in artisan pasta, pizza and bread. Photo credit: Supplied / MPI

Wheat growers are hoping a pilot programme currently underway in Wairarapa will lead to more Kiwis using locally grown flour.

The project is testing the waters to see if there is a market for high-quality durum wheat in New Zealand, with hopes the product will be used in artisan pasta, pizza and breads.

Farmer Michael Williams, who is taking part in the project, says so far the scheme is showing promise but the ultimate test will be to see if there is a market for the wheat.

He said the quality of the flour being produced is high, however yield so far has been "only alright" compared to other crops, meaning it had yet to be shown whether it would be financially viable to grow the wheat on a larger scale.

"The people who are currently using it are very happy and if we can convince the customers that it's worth paying a premium for locally grown stuff then yes, there probably is a future for it," he told Newshub on Monday.

The project is being led by the Foundation of Arable Research (FAR), with the Ministry for Primary Industries contributing $100,000 of funding towards the total costs of $151,000 through its Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund.

Ivan Lawrie.
Ivan Lawrie. Photo credit: Supplied / MPI

Ivan Lawrie, general manager of business operations at FAR, said the initiative builds on a previous project looking at alternative crop options for Wairarapa after a pea weevil incursion in the area.

That project showed the region's warm, dry summers, as well as some of its soils, provide ideal growing conditions for durum wheat.

As part of the latest project, consumer research and product testing with chefs, bakers and pasta manufacturers will be carried out to evaluate the commercial viability of growing the wheat.

"We sent samples of milled flour to bakers and pasta makers throughout the country and everybody is really keen to use local ingredients rather than importing from Australia or Italy," Lawrie said.

"However, the price point for this kind of product is not yet fully understood."

Only a third of the various flours used in New Zealand breads is produced locally, with the rest imported from overseas.

A previous attempt to grow durum wheat in South Canterbury two decades ago failed due to the wetter Canterbury summers.

Lawrie said the project was an opportunity to create a grower-owned value chain to supply the growing demand for high-end durum wheat in the country.

"COVID-19 has made people more aware of where their food comes from and there's a push for more New Zealand-grown produce. We’re aiming for a premium product that is fully traceable back to the growers, which of course will cost a bit more than the cheap packets of pasta you buy from the supermarket."

Williams, said currently less than 1 percent of his crop is durum wheat, but that could change depending on how successful the project turns out to be.

In the meantime, he hopes more Kiwis think about where their food is made.

"I'm just keen for the New Zealand consumer to be aware of where their flour comes from. At the moment it's just about all imported so we're really keen to raise consumer awareness about where they're getting their flour from and for them hopefully to demand New Zealand-grown stuff."