Baguette Hopes Fade for Some French Farmers on Wheat Quality

Sylvain Bardin, steering his red harvester across a ripe grain field in central France, says the wheat he’s gathered won’t make it into baguettes.

The wheat’s protein content isn’t high enough, meaning the grain Bardin spent four days harvesting may be unsuitable for bread-making or exports, and relegated to animal feed.

Bardin’s quality troubles echo analyst concerns at the start of France’s wheat harvest, the European Union’s biggest. Low protein, the result of a long winter and a cold, wet spring, may hurt export prospects with key buyers such as Algeria.

“The first cuts are worrisome,” Clement Gautier, an analyst at Horizon Soft Commodities in Noisy-le-Grand, France, said by phone. For wheat harvested in the south, “the problem will not be quantity but quality,” he said.

France exports almost half of its soft wheat, with shipments of 3.5 billion euros ($4.6 billion) last year, trade data show. Its biggest client, Algeria, demands protein content of 11 percent, according to Dijon Cereales, a French grain cooperative.

Bardin, who farms 140 hectares (346 acres) of grains and oilseeds outside the village of Donzy in Burgundy’s Nievre department, said the wheat he harvested last week had average protein content of 9.5 percent to 10 percent, less than the normal 11.5 percent.

Arlequin Variety

“All this wheat is downgraded,” Bardin said, maneuvering his Massey Ferguson combine to cut the next lane of grain in 33-degree Celsius (91.4 degrees Fahrenheit) heat. He was harvesting a field planted with Arlequin, a variety classified as superior bread wheat. “Yields are OK, but protein will be a problem this year.”

Crop office FranceAgriMer reported 30 percent of the country’s soft wheat was gathered as of the start of this week. Based on the progress, it’s too early to draw conclusions about the entire harvest, Gautier said.

For wheat farmers, the grain-quality worries come as the French eat less bread. Per-capita consumption fell to about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) a year from 80 kilograms in 1970, according to statistics institute Insee. In 1880, the average French citizen ate 220 kilograms of the staple, Health Ministry data show. Baguettes account for 75 percent of France’s bread consumption, according to the association of millers ANMF.

Futures Slump

Milling wheat futures traded on NYSE Liffe in Paris dropped 25 percent this year amid an outlook for increased global production. The contract’s specifications don’t include a requirement on protein levels.

Wheat proteins including gliadins and glutadins partly determine the baking quality of flour milled from the grain and can affect the fluffiness of bread. Last year’s soft wheat crop had an average protein level of 11.4 percent, according to FranceAgriMer.

Protein in wheat in France’s southwest may be around 10.5 percent this year, Bernard Valluis, vice-president of ANMF, said by phone on July 30. That could still be enough to make bread flour for the domestic market, he said.

“It won’t be the harvest of the century, but no disaster,” Valluis said. “We’re still at levels that allow for good milling quality. For exports, where there are protein specifications, there may be a little more difficulty.”

Egypt, the world’s biggest wheat importer, seeks at least 11.5 percent protein, while Iraq and Algeria demand 11 percent, Dijon Cereales says.

Pays de la Loire

“It depends on the country, but below 11 percent it becomes very, very difficult to export,” said Laurent Druot, a spokesman for Dijon Cereales. “It shouldn’t drop below that.”

The protein level also appears lower than usual in Pays de la Loire and Brittany in the west, according to Sebastien Poncelet, a consultant at Paris-based farm adviser Agritel.

A long winter followed by a cold and wet spring explains the low protein content, with wheat either unable to absorb nitrogen or getting too little of the nutrient, said Philippe Gate, scientific director at Paris-based crop researcher Arvalis-Institut du Vegetal.

Cold weather at the start of grain filling also prompted plants to create starch rather than protein, he said.

The weather has been similar to 2001, Gate said. Average protein content for soft wheat was 10.9 percent that season, the lowest in the past 13 years, FranceAgriMer data show.

‘Heavy’ Market

“It suggests more feed on a feed market that is already heavy, and less milling wheat for export to third countries,” said Poncelet at Agritel.

The world corn harvest may jump 9.7 percent to 942.4 million metric tons this season on a record U.S. crop, while wheat may rise 5.1 percent to 686.9 million tons as output rebounds in Russia and Ukraine, the International Grains Council forecast yesterday.

France’s soft wheat harvest is forecast to climb to 35.9 million tons this year from 35.6 million tons in 2012, according to FranceAgriMer.

Export potential for this year’s crop will also depend on quality in rival producers including Russia, Ukraine and Romania, according to Poncelet. “If they have problems as well, we may get away with it,” he said.

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