Italy has been making some of the world's best dried pasta for centuries; perhaps that's why so many pasta shapes bear Italian names (fusilli, lasagne, spaghetti, ravioli, etc.).
But perhaps the pasta world should throw a few Sonoran Desert-style names in, since some of the most well-known pasta-makers in Italy use durum wheat grown right here in Arizona.
Though the traditional vision of Arizona is not golden, waving fields of wheat, it is one of the top two or three crops grown in the state, acreage-wise, says Tim Knudsen, marketing and sales manager at Arizona Grain, one of three major companies that supply wheat from growers in Arizona. At the forefront of Arizona wheat is a group of varieties known and trademarked as Desert Durum.
Desert Durum is pretty new, according to Al Simons, executive director of the Arizona Grain Research and Promotion Council. The first variety was produced in the early 1980s, and was the sole variety under the Desert Durum name until the late '80s, when a new wave of similar-quality varieties came onto the market. Only particular varieties of durum wheat produced in the low deserts of Arizona and California can be classified as Desert Durum.
"Desert Durum is not necessarily a better-quality (wheat) than northern U.S. or Canadian durum," Simons says, "It's not intrinsically better, you see, but we here in the low desert can produce year after year, field after field, a consistent quality product. It's not that easy in North Dakota, per se, where they have to deal with this thing called 'weather.'"
Wheat, especially Desert Durum, has quite an impact on the Arizona economy, although most people aren't aware of it. Arizona Grain alone bought more than $50 million in agricultural products, and a large portion of that was wheat, Knudsen says.
"If we have, say, 100,000 acres of Desert Durum, which produces about three tons an acre, that's 300,000 tons," he says. "At $200 a ton, you're now talking about $60 million in wheat produced here."
Desert Durum is more expensive than other types of wheat that can be grown here, and also more expensive than other durum wheats grown in colder, more northern climates, because it has a few prized qualities. Since Desert Durum is grown in the dry desert, when properly managed, the wheat has a moisture content of only 8 to 10 percent; durum grown in Canada or the Dakotas typically reaches a moisture content of around 14 percent, says Knudsen.
"The low moisture content is desirable, because when you're buying large quantities and shipping them across the ocean ... why pay for the extra weight of the higher moisture content?" he says.
Desert Durum is also highly regarded because of its large seed size and its tendency to have high semolina-extraction rates once milled, Simons says. Another advantage is that it comes to market nearly three months ahead of northern-grown durum.
"There's still some variation in quality, depending upon how each grower grows (Desert Durum)," he says. "It's not automatic; it requires some minimal inputs and management—for instance, water and nitrogen."
The Italians are particularly fond of a few select varieties of Desert Durum, says Simons, though he would not say which varieties they most frequently purchase.
"They blend variable quantities of it into their own domestic durum wheat to produce a consistent, high-quality pasta," he says.
Barilla, a large Italian pasta company that long ago expanded into the American market, uses Desert Durum for many of its pastas, but especially seeks it out for its "B"-shaped pasta, because Desert Durum has a particularly high gluten content, allowing the unusually shaped pasta to stay together more easily, says Knudsen.
Although Italy is the top importer of Desert Durum, says Simons, the wheat is also exported to countries including Spain, Morocco and Nigeria. Some of the wheat does stay semi-local, though, going to the American Italian Pasta Company's plant in Tolleson, Ariz., which distributes pasta to grocery stores around the country under more than 10 different brand names.
Nigeria is quickly becoming one of the larger customers, says Simons. In the last two to three years, the country has purchased more than 100,000 metric tons of Desert Durum from Arizona and California, though unlike the Italians, they're not as picky about which varieties they purchase. According to the 2008 Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) export report (the most recently published report available), Arizona alone produced 397,401 metric tons of Desert Durum.
One reason why so few people in Arizona are aware of the booming wheat business right here in our backyard is that most of these farmers don't consider themselves to be "wheat farmers," says Simons. The wheat is mostly grown as a rotation crop with Arizona's tried-and-true cash crop, cotton.
He estimates that the Arizona wheat production this year will be only about half of what it was last year, due to the declining economic environment, as well as the "double-whammy" of a drop in wheat prices and a simultaneous rise in cotton prices, though he adds that no one will know for sure what the yield will be until it actually comes in.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency's price addendum, the average price of cotton rose 10 cents per pound in 2008, after a six-year lull, and is expected to stay near the 2008-2009 rate this year, while durum wheat is expected to continue its downward trend. After peaking at almost $10 per bushel in 2008, it is only expected to fetch around $6.20 per bushel this year, making it the lowest-earning year for durum since 2006 and 2007, which are the earliest years that the RMA has separate data for durum wheat.
Although the news is not all bad; Knudsen says that Desert Durum brings in approximately $20 more per ton than durum grown in the Dakotas.